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Explorer Benedict Allen: The day I became a ‘crocodile man’

My dreams of exploration led me from the frozen wastes of the Arctic to the unmapped Amazon. But it was a six-week initiation ceremony in the malarial swamplands of Papua New Guinea that really left its mark

As children, we all dream of what we might do when grown up, and my dream was that I’d be an explorer like Sir Walter Raleigh, Dr Livingstone or Scott of the Antarctic – one of those sturdy characters who went off to discover things about faraway worlds. But as years went by – this was the 1960s – I realised the world was by now largely explored. Besides, it turned out that expeditions cost quite a lot of money. 

Perhaps that childhood dream would have come to nothing but for my dad. He was a test pilot, and watching him fly his prototype Vulcan through the grey skies of Cheshire I realised it was possible even in this day and age to be someone who pushed the boundaries of human knowledge – or at least headed beyond Macclesfield. 

Through my university years, I clung on to my dream, wondering about the last unmapped corners of the globe, and earned enough money for a ticket to South America. It was out there, among the simmering forests between the Orinoco and Amazon, that Raleigh had searched for a lost kingdom of gold, the fabled land of El Dorado. To this day, it seemed, no one had crossed right through the region – 400 miles of tropical vegetation. 

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Perhaps not surprisingly, that first, hopelessly ambitious journey went badly wrong, despite the efforts of various indigenous communities to help me on my way. One night, still 60 or more miles from the outside world, I found myself set upon by two gold miners with knives. I ran off through the darkness, down to my canoe, then pushed off – ahead of me nothing but the whistling rainforest, and the ominous sound of fast water. 

Soon enough, my canoe capsized, and now I had to swim my way through the rapids to the riverbank. When I did finally make it to the shore I sat there in a daze. My clothes were dripping, hands bleeding from where I’d clawed at rocks. I was just 23 and now alone in the tropical forest having lost all my possessions – clothes, food, medical kit. No one in the world knew where I was.    

I began walking. For days I stumbled through the undergrowth, fashioning tents of leaves, sleeping on the damp ground with the ants. I succumbed to one strain of malaria, then another. Onward I went, knowing only that I must try my best for my mum and dad, and summon the energy to keep going. It was perhaps three weeks before I broke out into the daylight. 

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Somehow, I had survived. It was time now to retreat home and recover. Gradually, though, as months passed, I wanted to learn more about the rainforest that had so nearly killed me. And it struck me that there was no one better to learn from than the various native inhabitants. What we saw as a ‘jungle’ indigenous people saw as a home; it gave them food, shelter, medicine.    

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And so, five months into my next expedition, to Papua New Guinea, I found myself ensconced in a Sepik River village and about to undergo a traditional ceremony designed to prepare boys for all eventualities  – to make them into “men as strong as a crocodile”, the elders liked to put it. My head was shaved alongside a dozen others of my age; I was given a grass skirt and the women began sobbing at the thought of what we might now have to undergo – for though the rite was secret, all those who emerged from it bore extensive ‘crocodile’ scars up their chests and backs – and it was unlikely they acquired these scars painlessly. We were led into the waark dumba, or crocodile nest – the screened-off spirit house. One by one we were laid on canoes and cut repeatedly with bamboo blades. Finally, an hour or two later, having each lost a couple of pints of blood, it was done; we had been marked as true ‘crocodile men’ who could cope even with the malarial swamplands. It was explained that it only remained for us to earn those marks – which sadly meant being beaten with sticks, five times a day. This went on for six weeks. 

Benedict Allen’s Explorer: The Quest for Adventure and the Great Unknown is out now (Canongate, £18.99)

When we did at last regain our freedom, however, we knew each other and ourselves – our strengths and our weaknesses – and how we each might persevere regardless of lurking dangers. For me personally, the exacting ceremony was also a perfect preparation for future adventures around the globe, as I set about what now became my work as an explorer – the documentation of fast-vanishing cultures and habitats.

There were indeed adventures. And misadventures, too. In the Arctic ice pack I was separated from my dog team in a blizzard. In Colombia, I was chased by two hitmen belonging to Pablo Escobar and in the Brazilian Amazon was robbed by loggers and left to die. But again and again, thanks in large part to that crocodile ceremony, I lived to tell my tale – and achieve my unlikely childhood dream.

Benedict Allen is an author and explorer

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