Ed Stafford made his name becoming the first person to walk the length of the Amazon, vlogging as he went. The man who emerged from the jungle wasn’t the same person who went into it, and since then this lonely adventurer has filmed multiple series of Discovery Channel hit Naked And Marooned – but he knows we don’t really believe TV is real, so he’s on a mission to prove how extreme his challenges really are, with newly announced series Left For Dead. As he exclusively reveals to RISING, this time he was massively outside his comfort zone, no rescue was coming, the life clock was ticking, and it wasn’t just his survival skills he needed to make it out alive…
RISING Tell us about your new show Left For Dead; how is it different from anything you’ve done before?
ED STAFFORD ‘Essentially, it's turbocharging what we've done to date with Discovery Channel. I came into TV with Naked and Marooned wanting to re-write the standards on authenticity and survival and Left for Dead takes things to a new level again. Even the support teams are now laid bare and you can see how the program is made, so that the most cynical of viewer is dragged along kicking and screaming.’
RISING Can you say which environment was the most challenging to escape from?
ES Without wanting to spoil the end of the show, the Altai Mountains on the Chinese-Mongolian border at the end of winter was one of the toughest environments to escape from. There is nothing to help you survive and there was a thin layer of snow to make life even harder.
‘To escape the mountains in Laos I had to make a flaming torch to enter a huge cave system’
RISING You had to learn new survival skills in order to film this show – which of those has proved the most useful?
ES ‘I think it's more of a shift in how I do things rather than learning a completely new skill. For example, as I'm now on the move I can't spend the time I used to spend constructing shelters as I'll only be in them one night before I'm forced to move on. Everything is more rough and ready, and I have to be brutally efficient with how I use my time.’
RISING How has your approach to survival changed since you set off to walk the Amazon?
ES ‘I initially drew heavily on my experience as a Platoon Commander in the military and you are thinking on your feet and decision-making – that comes in massively handy under pressure. But the more time I have spent with indigenous tribes, the less military I have become. The military would go into the jungle and use machetes to chop everything out of the way but you watch indigenous people pad through in their bare feet, and they are literally gliding through the jungle – it’s so much more in tune with everything and they’re expending less energy.’
RISING You’ve said that we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of isolation on the mind – do you think we lead lives that are too remote from each other, even when we are not isolated, as such?
ES ‘I think that a lot of people do feel lonely and have a deeply felt disconnect, yes. However, I think that this is solved by chucking a load of love into the equation. Start loving yourself and those around you and within minutes the world changes. People open up and smile and a connection is formed that gives meaning and comfort to life. Isolation is good for personal development but long term I think we all need people around us to be happy.’
‘Without others I had no idea who I really was – I had to start again from scratch’
RISING What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from being truly isolated?
ES ‘I think I learnt that I was very dependent on others for my sense of self. I watched people's reactions and kind of derived my sense of self from that. For example, if people laughed at my jokes, I felt funny and witty; if people admired me for walking the Amazon, I felt tough and strong. When you are alone this is all taken away and I realised that without others I had no idea who I really was. Essentially, I had to start again from scratch.’
RISING Have you developed any tactics to cope with mental stress through these testing challenges?
ES ‘I've been very open about the fact that I meditate daily now. To be mindful is the best way of avoiding panic, stress and anxiety. So much of these emotions are self-created in the mind and meditating helps me step back from these negative thoughts and let go of them.’
RISING What is the most terrifying thing you've experienced or seen during Left For Dead?
ES ‘To escape from the mountains in Laos I had to make a flaming torch to enter a huge cave system. Relying on such crude technology to do something pretty dangerous was unnerving and everyone is a bit scared of the dark, especially when it's an unknown route. I won't spoil what happened but my heart was pounding for hours afterwards.’
RISING What about the most personally amazing thing you've experienced or seen during Left For Dead?
ES ‘I think knowing that in most of these places there are local people that live in these environments year in, year out. They are not making a two-week TV program and it's not a remote hostile region to them, it's home. I have the utmost respect for people living on the fringes of where it is just possible for humans to live; to carve out an arduous but happy life where most would die.
RISING How are you planning to recover from the experience of filming the show?
ES ‘My wife Laura is two weeks away from having our first son. I've still got one more episode to film before she gives birth but I've got a few months off after to spend time at home building our new family. I think no matter how cool your job is or how exciting the adventure, if you come home to an empty house it's all meaningless. Family is the core of what gives me drive in life now and I need to pause and nurture and feed that fire for a while to ensure it has a strong heart and burns brightly.’
WHAT NEXT? Stafford’s Walking the Amazon anticipated a self-shooting revolution – next time you go on an adventure, document it with his Self-Shooting Pro Tips:
1. ‘Treat the camera like your best friend – who’s a bit stupid and needs things explaining in detail! I think the key to self-filming is intimacy with the audience – there is no point pretending to be tough.’
2. ‘Film everything! Guaranteed if you leave your camera somewhere then something cool will happen and you'll have missed it.’
3. ‘Use full auto. Cameras are so sophisticated these days that they can do the math with regards to settings. If you're focused on content you just don't have the mental space or time to be thinking about camera settings. I’ve filmed seven series so far and I still have no idea what white balance is!’