TNT hangs out with wildlife presenter and writer Steve Backshall in one of the greatest cities in the world….London obviously
I was just watching a couple of episodes from the BBC extreme mountain challenge. It looks like pretty hairy stuff, dangerous infact. For lack of a better word, why?
I think I’ve always been fascinated by adventure and going to places that people haven’t been to before and doing things that they haven’t done before. Apart from anything else that part of the world, the Tepui in Venezuela is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. There’s nothing that compares to moments when you shine a torch into the darkness and know that no one has ever been into that particular cave system before, or placed your hands on a rock face and know that no one has touched before or hold an animal in your hand and know that it is a species completely new to science. It’s a very powerful idea as we seem to think that every inch of the planet has already been explored.
There’s so many things that you’ve done, has there ever been a moment when you’ve thought I might not get out of this situation?
The Tepui in particular was a situation that was really hard on all of us. We were in a team with some of the best climbers in the world and the best climbing cameraman in the world, yet all of us felt like we’d pushed it too close to the edge. There were moments when it was really sketchy and we were very glad to get down to the end of that without anyone being hurt.
The crew, are they from the BBC or do you work with people you know?
They’re far from ordinary guys. The cameraman is a guy called Keith Partridge, he’s the best climbing cameraman in the world. He has taken cameras all the way to the summit of Everest, he’s climbed the north face of the eiger, he also filmed touching the void. He is hardcore, he’s the real deal. When you see someone like Keith really losing it, then you know things are tough.
You’ve obviously grown up surrounded by the outdoors and nature and animals feature in all of your stories. Was this something that you actively pursued or did it just kind of happen?
I always knew that I’d have something to do with wildlife and adventure. I didn’t know it would be TV, and that wasn’t something I was aiming for when I was a kid. But it’s been very good to me and I hope that it lasts for as long as possible.
You’ve just had your birthday. Wasn’t it your 43rd?
Yes that’s right.
Do you have any signs of slowing down?
No not just yet, but I’m sure I will. I’m constantly being pushed by my fiancée who is a gold medalist. She’s training for Rio and she’s so motivated, so driven, ambitious and fit. I don’t think i can really afford to slow down.
Is there any rivalry in the household?
There is without a doubt. The house is full of healthy competition. I think once we get passed Rio then we’ll find out how much competition there really is.
Helen Glover was amazing in London 2012 I have to say. Big support I’m sure for Helen. With everything that you’ve been doing, I mean the rock climbing, the martial arts, mountaineering and the deadly animals, is there something that scares you?
I would say among animals it’s got to be hippos, they’re the animal that scares me the most because they’re unpredictable. All the other animals that I work with such as crocodiles, snakes and even sharks to a certain extent, with experience and time you get a good idea of how they are going to react in almost every single situation. With hippos you can’t, you can work with them for years and they’ll still take you by surprise. They’re much faster than you can imagine and they’re really aggressive. To me they are the most frightening of animals.
Snakes for example, are driven by some really simple desires; the desire to keep warm, the desire to feed and the desire to protect themselves and there’s not a lot more than that going on with them. I’ve been working with them for 18 years now and tend to get an idea of where the limits are.
Your fiction writing features animals. Has it always been a passion to bring them to an audience?
I have to walk the line between giving out educational information and the desire to entertain. It’s hugely important not too lose sight of either and find the correct balance between them. If I focus on education readers may feel alienated. These are the people that I most want to speak to, the people who don’t necessarily realise that they like wildlife. I want to get them on side. People who spend time birdwatching and pond dipping are a much easier audience to sell to, but they’re also people that are out there protecting wildlife. The people that I need to reach are those who don’t realise the wonders that wildlife has to offer.
With technology developing at such a rapid rate, can you see it overtaking and people forgetting the natural wonders available?
That is definitely happening, there’s no doubt about it, but there’s also a great renaissance for the outdoors and simplicity and I know that there are people out there enjoying things like building treehouses, learning to track animals and taking part in foraging for example. Foraging (searching for wild food sources) is making a massive comeback and I think the more that technology takes over in our lives the more people are going to realise what it is that we are connected to and what it is that we need for our physiological and mental well being.
I’m right behind you with that one, being an obsessed traveller like our TNT readers. Travel has got to be part of life. Can you give me an example of when you’ve been successful whether it be illegal loggers or tiger poaching in a town or area that you’ve visited?
One of our very first expedition programmes was to an incredible pristine forest in Borneo. When we went out there it as completely unprotected, but the week that the programme was aired, the forest was given a grade one protection status, the highest level of protection that any reserve in Borneo could enjoy. Although we don’t have egos big enough to put that entirely down to ourselves we certainly had a part to play in it and we all felt very proud about that.
The Big Blue Live has just won a BAFTA.
Yes, we weren’t there. I was in Germany supporting Helen in the European Championships and I didn’t manage to get back in time. So I missed it, gutted.
Terrible, do you think that you’ll have to pick and choose carefully between Helen and yourself?
I don’t know really, but I think that the two of us are going to find a happy medium somewhere along the way. We’re happy indulging each others passions.
Without going too far into the future. Can you see your own children following in your path?
They’re allowed to make their own choices, but with Helen and I as mum and dad I’d imagine that they’ll be interested in something outdoors and adventurous, but we’ll see. It’s really important not to push kids too far, we should provide them with great opportunities and the chance to make good choices for themselves.
Out of the places that you’ve visited are you able to choose a favourite?
Yes, I have lots of favourites. I really enjoy Indonesia for its diversity and the Amazon for wildlife. Maybe Guyana is my favourite rainforest country and the Himalayas, I adore Nepal and Bhutan for the scenery.
How old were you when you first headed off with a backpack?
I was very young, but my parents were into travel and took us backpacking as kids all the time. I ventured off alone for the first time at 18 before university and loved it. My first job was as a travel writer, writing guidebooks for backpackers and that’s kind of how it all began.
Steve Backshall embarks on his nationwide ‘Wild World’ theatre tour from 19th October to 20th November. His new children’s novel ‘Shark Seas’ will be published in October. To book tickets please visit www.stevebackshall.com/tour
Words by Dylan Gower