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Meet the adventurer: veteran explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison on surviving Covid-19 and taking on new challenges

The octogenarian co-founder of human rights organisation Survival International discusses how he narrowly beat Covid-19 — a recovery that culminated in summiting Cornwall’s highest mountain and raising £100,000 for the hospital that saved his life.

Published 15 May 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 17 May 2021, 17:46 BST
Robin Hanbury-Tenison is the subject of the BBC documentary Survival: To the Brink and Back, which ...

Robin Hanbury-Tenison is the subject of the BBC documentary Survival: To the Brink and Back, which follows his journey from battling Covid-19 to summiting Cornwall’s highest mountain, Brown Willy.

Photograph by Jay Williams

Tell us about your first expedition.

My first real expedition was when I left Oxford as an undergraduate. Three of us decided we wanted to be explorers (as one does!) and we realised there was only one continent left that hadn’t yet been crossed at its widest point: South America. So, madly, we decided to do it.

In 1958, we managed to persuade the Brazilian government to lend us a Willys Jeep and we drove 6,000 miles. Four-thousand miles of the ‘road’ had never had a vehicle on it. We drove through the Amazon rainforest and made rafts to cross the rivers. Astonishingly, we got through in six months, against all the odds. Of course, much of that rainforest has now gone: half the rainforest that was there in 1958 has since been cut down. We met many tribes on the way — the Karajá and the Xavante, among others — with whom we had pretty risky ‘first contact’. But they liked us in the end. It was these interactions that led to the beginnings of Survival International [the charity Hanbury-Tenison co-founded in 1969 — of which he is president — which campaigns for the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples].

What made you choose Brown Willy in Cornwall for your fund-raising climb?

I’ve lived here for 60 years. Cornwall is very special to me. I wouldn’t usually have considered climbing Cornwall’s highest mountain to be a great challenge, but at the time, when I set myself the goal, I was barely able to walk — I was using a Zimmer Frame when I came out of intensive care after my Covid-19 experience in March 2020. When everybody asked about my next challenge, I’d say to walk 10 yards unassisted! 

They say it takes a month to recover for every week that you’re in intensive care. I’d been in a coma for five weeks. I decided that, five months on from the day I came out of hospital, I’d climb Brown Willy, and I managed to get to the top. To date, I’ve raised £100,000 for the hospital that saved my life.

You’ve been all over the world. But is there something that entices you about travel in the UK, particularly nowadays?

Before the pandemic, I was already beginning to agonise about the indefensible impact of long-haul flights. I’ve been so lucky to have lived my life when I have, when it was acceptable to travel long distances to rainforests and deserts. I was beginning to realise that that era had come to an end, unfair as it is on the next generation who’d all love to do the same sort of things. But I found I wasn’t quite ready to give up travelling long distances because I still have great friends in Borneo, and so on. But, because of the pandemic, I’m now making plans to explore these wonderful British Isles that we live on. And indeed, Europe, which you can explore by train. It’s not so fun to travel without a clear conscience.

Read more: 52 of the best flight-free weekend escapes

Robin Hanbury-Tenison is the author of over 25 books. His latest book, Taming the Four Horsemen, discusses the major threats facing the world today.

Photograph by Robin Hanbury-Tenison

What life lessons have you learned from your expeditions, and how did they help your recovery from Covid-19?

My life is largely devoted to working with tribal people. I recognise their wisdom, their different attitudes to health and nature. That has helped enormously, particularly when I started to have hallucinations when I was in the coma. I recognised them as similar to what I’d seen shamans do in the rainforest — entering spirit worlds. I didn’t take drugs with the tribes — it’s very irresponsible to do so, unless you’re trained over a lifetime, as the shamans are. But I’d seen plenty of people entering spirit worlds, or becoming spirit animals, so it was familiar to me and I found it immensely interesting. Luckily, I remember very little of the unpleasantness of being in intensive care. The pain and the indignity of it all. But I do remember those moments of clear hallucination. When I had animals crawling all over my bed — large snakes, big cats and bats. 

Another thing that helped was the explorer’s attitude towards survival. All my great heroes, many of whom I’ve written books about, had a determination to live and to succeed that overrode what was happening to them. I feel that by not acknowledging that I was going to die, it brought about the desired result.

How would you characterise your relationship with nature?

There’s a new wave of awareness about the natural world, triggered by a concern about climate change and also aided by the pandemic. A silver lining of Covid-19 has been that we’ve been shown how nice the world is with fewer fumes and trails in the sky, and less noise from traffic and so on. I’ve been lucky in my life to spend an inordinate amount of time in wonderful rainforests and spiritually uplifting deserts, I’m very aware of that. But now we’re all realising, together, just how rich and diverse nature is. In fact, my son has taken over my farm to help me regenerate land up here on the wilds of Bodmin Moor, and it’ll become a retreat to help people with mental health issues — through coaching, yoga and forest bathing. The area is wonderfully rich in biodiversity: we have ancient oak woods here, which go back to the days of the Domesday Book. It’s enormously exciting for me to see it happening.

What are you most proud of from your expeditions?

That my interactions with tribes under threat led to the founding of Survival International. It’s quite impressive, completing major physical feats just to prove what the body’s capable of, but that’s not really what exploration is about. Exploration is about changing the world as a result of what you see, and learning in wild and difficult places, preferably having a bit of discomfort on the way. If you’re lucky enough, like I’ve been, you’ll be able to actually convert your exploratory urges into campaigning for causes, like for the tribal people, in the case of Survival International. 

What’s the best bit of advice you’ve ever been given?

It was my mother who allowed me to do very irresponsible things from a very early age, like camping out in Ireland miles from anywhere by myself. I learned solitude. She used to say, ‘Choose to do dangerous things sensibly’, and I’ve always lived by that.

What’s the biggest change we need to make on the planet right now?

The past two years have seen an extraordinary revolution in people’s attitudes towards the environment, sparked by the young, like Greta Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion. At every level of society, most intelligent people — with a few blistering exceptions I needn’t mention — now realise that we do have to do something about the effect we’re having on the planet. That has been a real sea change. It’s suddenly dawned on everybody just how fragile the system in which we’re living at the moment is, and how close we are to tipping point. That’s really what my new book, Taming the Four Horsemen, is all about — I discuss the various threats facing the planet and my rather radical solutions to them. 

What does adventure mean to you?

Showing off with purpose. 

Robin Hanbury-Tenison, co-founder and president of Survival International, is the subject of the BBC documentary Survival: To the Brink and Back, which follows his journey from battling Covid-19 to summiting Cornwall’s highest mountain, Brown Willy. His book, Taming the Four Horsemen is published by Unbound, RRP £9.99.

Read more interviews from our Meet the Adventurer series

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