Fatherhood won’t stop adventurer Ed’s madcap missions
“I’m an unconventional parent,” says Ed Stafford as he describes his latest escapade – a show in which he, his wife and 20-month-old baby Ranolph took on the survival experience together.
Ed is best known as the first person to walk the entire length of the Amazon river, but his recent trials have included spending 60 days on the streets of Britain to raise awareness about homelessness.
His wife is fellow explorer Laura Bingham, who sailed the Atlantic in 2014 aged just 21. The pioneering power couple now balance their crusading ambitions with family life, according to Ed.
“If she’s away, I will be at home with Ran. We practice co-parenting.”
Speaking at an event organised by Speakers Corner, an events bureau and speaker booking service, Ed reveals the secret to keeping life exciting even after you settle down. There is no need to think parenthood should be boring, according to the Amazon record-setter. “Go out and do the stuff you love.”
“The fear is that you get married and have kids and then it becomes really boring – and I don’t think that’s healthy for the kids, at all.”
“I think for kids to have parents who want to do other things, that’s great,” says Ed.
Ed told the audience about a powerful analogy he once heard from the widow of a journalist who suffered heat exhaustion and died while covering an expedition in the desert.
“His wife wasn’t bitter at all,” Ed continues. “I had a lovely conversation with her and she said she knew what he was doing was dangerous and he knew the risks, so the last thing she wanted to be was bitter.”
“She described marriage as like a harbour. The harbour is where you are safest, it’s where you belong, but a ship isn’t built to stay in the harbour. You should never feel guilty about going out and doing the things that you’re meant to do, go out and do them and don’t feel guilty about coming back.”
“This is how it works – they’re both good.”
The pair had their first taste of life as crusading co-parents when Bingham departed for Guayana’s Essequibo River to attempt a world-first kayak expedition just eight months after their son’s birth.
Ed admits his expeditions have changed over the years but maintains that becoming a parent is not the reason.
His Amazon expedition was a life-changing two-year trek in which he battled against four miles of rainforest each day. “Fast forward two years and I kind of had to reinvent myself a little bit,“ says Ed.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s always been a restlessness underlying the sort of stuff I've done. I decided I wanted to do something completely off my own back, so I pitched an idea to the Discovery Channel. I said put me on a desert island for two months on my own with no food or water or survival kit of any description – no knife, no lighter, not even any clothes.”
Ed revealed that his biggest struggle wasn’t the lack of survival gear, however – it was the pressure of solitude. He described the experience of spending so much time alone as “extraordinarily scary”.
“My mind was completely scrambled, I felt like I was going to be sick.
“The toughest thing wasn’t finding food, it wasn’t finding water – it was the enormity of realising I was going to have to spend sixty days surviving on my own and in my own company specifically.”
Ed sought advice from aboriginal friends before filming Naked and Marooned– a revealing window into the limits of human endurance played out on the Pacific island of Olorua. They said sixty days of solitude was enough to drive anyone to the brink of sanity.
“And, it was,” admits Ed.
But, they gave advice he still uses on survival missions and in everyday life. “Aboriginal Australians believe that you’ve got three brains,” Ed explains to a crowd of corporate guests, who are hanging off every gruffly-spoken word.
The first is the gut or intuition – and that’s where you should make decisions, recalls Ed. The second is your heart or emotional centre and the third is the analytical brain, which is the smallest of the three.
Interestingly, aboriginals use the same word for a tangled fishing net as they do for the logical brain. They say the emotional and logical minds are like filters for the instincts – but the analytical brain is not who we are.
These teachings proved vital for a Westerner plunging himself into such an alien environment – something Ed’s aboriginal friends foresaw.
“If you go on the island constantly analysing, being fearful of what will happen, then you will just self destruct,” they told Ed.
The explorer then explained a psychological concept called the reflective sense of self. This explains how people develop a sense of their qualities through other people: telling a joke causes others to laugh, so you develop a sense that you are funny. Without other people, there is very little scope for building any kind of identity, which is something Ed discovered the hard way.
“I almost imploded because I didn’t have a real concept of who I was,” he says.
“I had to start from scratch and ask ‘what do I stand for?’, to give myself self-esteem rather than relying on other people.”
Despite his independent awakening, Stafford still has great respect for the power of camaraderie. Speaking of the expedition that made him famous, a gruelling 4,490-mile walk through the harsh rainforest from Peru to Brazil, he says his friend and companion Cho spurred him on him towards the finish line.
This inspirational tale of brotherhood saw Cho, a local man who ‘knew the dangerous places and the safe places, so agreed to walk for five days with me’ staying by Ed’s side for two entire years. The two became inseparable and, after Cho caught his first-ever glimpse of the ocean, he even moved to the Stafford family home in Leicestershire and joined the local rugby club.
This unique bond helped Ed to overcome the most testing situations, he says. “I was held at gunpoint three times by drug traffickers and held at arrow point a couple of times by indigenous people, who were never terribly happy with my presence.”
“I was even arrested for murder at one stage, which I promise I didn’t do,” says Ed, describing a tribal chief’s reaction to a disappearance in his village.
“I was kind of scared but also… it was a bit like Monty Python, really. The thing he was most upset about was that the Queen hadn’t personally signed my passport,” Ed says, assuring the audience that his incredible tales are true.
Plus, in his recent show about UK homelessness, Ed noticed that most problems begin in the family. “With every single person I met on the street, something had happened in the family, whether it was a death, an addiction… it all started at the family level.”
Striking the right balance between independence and companionship is the secret to survival in all kinds of situations, it would seem – including parenting, the most ordinary yet incredible mission of them all.
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