Hailed as “truly extraordinary” by Sir Ranulph Fiennes and “Britain’s most intrepid hero since Scott of the Antarctic” , adventurer Ed Stafford hit the record books after becoming the first man to walk the Amazon. The deadly journey took two and half years and, now a Discovery Channel documentary, ignited a career in solo adventure. Ed continues to travel and film all over the world, surviving in some of the most hostile environments on earth, for TV shows Naked and Marooned and Left For Dead to his upcoming series First Man Out.
I’m going to start with some brutal honesty. I wasn’t a very good British Army captain.
I never got great reports, I never felt like I was leading with any sort of style or charisma, and I don’t think I commanded a huge amount of respect with my soldiers.
I think a lot can be put down to caring (worrying) too much about what people thought of me. Which was, I suppose, due to a distinct lack of self-confidence and trust in myself and my abilities.
If you care about what people think of you – your boss, for example – then when he’s around you become conscious that you want to be seen in a certain way, that he sees a “good side” of you. So, immediately, you’re not just focused on what you’re doing – you’re also giving considerable attention to how you’re coming across.
Doing stuff to please others is folly.
I know that now, but back then all I ever did was try and look good for various people that I thought mattered. It meant that I’d end up doing the things that I thought they would want me to – not the things that I wanted to. In fact, I devoted so much time and energy (worry) to this that I don’t think I ever really knew what I wanted, it seemed irrelevant, frivolous even.
It may or may not surprise you that this crazy position I found myself in in the military is very common amongst men.
But to have no connection to your own real desires, to live your life for feedback and compliments is the most emotionally unstable way of living I can imagine.
Clearly you’re not in control of what others think of you – so you end up delegating your own self-worth to someone else and you are desperately trying to impress that person in order to feel good about yourself.
So, for anyone wondering how to build self-confidence, this column is for you.
A lesson in self-reliance
Fast forward eight years and I never planned to walk the length of the Amazon solo. I began with a friend, Luke Collyer, and that shared responsibility for the risks we were about to undertake was, I believe, the only reason I got to the start line. In that regard, I owe Luke a lot.
But I also firmly believe that life gives you the lessons you need in grow. Through circumstances that I won’t go over again [as they’ve been documented to death] I found myself, after three months of the expedition, alone.
There is a hiding place in a buddy-buddy expedition that can keep you in a bubble together and somehow shield you from the dangers and fears. You get that same hiding place in the Army – banter and endless jokes wrap you in a blanket of solidarity. You feel safe.
That bubble had definitely now burst and that blanket ripped off, walking alone I felt vulnerable in a way I’d never experienced before.
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Ten years ago today I was walking alone. Luke had gone back home and I’d not yet met Cho, the man who said he’d walk with me for 5 days and ended up not going home and walking with me for exactly two whole years. #legend #friendsforlife #walkingtheamazon @discovery_uk @discoverychannel
Suddenly everything became more intense, more visceral and more scary. But I also felt free. Whatever happened now was up to me and me alone – a huge lesson in self-reliance was about to be dealt to me.
An excited spark had been ignited in my soul.
Initially I simply reacted to everything around me. I had a mission to walk 4,000 miles through the Amazon jungle to the Atlantic Ocean and so I just tried to make as much distance as I could each day. If someone was rude, aggressive or dismissing of me I would feel low. Equally if someone was kind to me I would be grateful to the point of tears.
Over the days, weeks and months I faced many dangers:
I was held up at arrow point and gunpoint several times. I was even arrested for murder and detained for a while. I was almost like an animal: I enjoyed eating and washing in the river at the end of the day – everything else was either exhaustion, fear or stress.
By Christmas 2008 I would self-diagnose that I was severely depressed.
Adapt and evolve
At one point, I was walking with a chubby 50-year-old Peruvian called Jorge when, over supper, we had a conversation about the Army. I ventured for the first time that I, like him, had been in the military.
He looked very surprised and asked what rank I’d been. When I said, “Captain,” he almost spat out his rice and beans. It made me realise that I had become a shadow even of my former, not that impressive, self.
But soon after something strange happened:
One day I noticed that I no longer had any mosquito bites on my body. Not one. After months of itching and weeping sores this was remarkable and very welcome. My body had clearly decided that there was no point in reacting in the way it had been doing as I was clearly not going to stop getting bitten for a very long time.
It was like a mini physical evolution from bumbling tourist to jungle-adapted man. It felt good.
Coincidently at this point, I started to notice certain things that I was getting better at. I could cross a river using a slippery fallen tree without falling off unceremoniously; I could sharpen my machete to quite a high standard; and I could select a good hammock spot in the trees quickly and instinctively.
From a near-broken place, my self-belief began to grow. My self-confidence was on the rise. But this was not a confidence based on compliments or feedback from others anymore – but a new, calmer, inner voice, that had a tangible handle on my own true abilities.
A new beginning for the self
Over the weeks that passed I felt this self-confidence grow and noticed something else. My mood was becoming more constant too. Because I was now pretty good at walking through the jungle and I was able to draw pleasure from a knowledge that I was coping and, dare I say it, even getting quite adept at what I was doing.
I also seemed to be able to hold onto myself when faced with negative situations. Because I was beginning to develop a sense of self, I knew when I heard something that I didn’t like or agree with and I was able to dismiss it without letting it derail me.
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Ten years ago I was heading north through Peru 🇵🇪 and negotiating mosquitoes, snakes, flooded forest, drugs traffickers and isolated indigenous tribes. My plan with the latter two was to just be honest and open and hope that I could convince them that I wasn’t really a threat. It might seem naive but I still firmly believe that it’s possible to diffuse most situations by being open. Kind eyes, open, non-threatening stance, confident but respectful. Except where alcohol or drugs are involved – then I would try and get out of there fast! #adventuretravel #travel #walkingtheamazon
A tribe might shove concrete in my mouth and throw me out of their village – a situation that the old Ed would have dwelt on for days and anguished over endlessly – but I would feel a stable inner-energy that knew I was going to be okay and that I wasn’t harming anyone in doing what I was doing.
This was my first ever taste of emotional stability – and it had taken almost breaking myself before it could start to build from absolute ground zero.
Over the two years so many stories could serve to showcase the personal evolution that occurred over my 860 days of walking. I will choose a lesser told one…
There is a huge bauxite mine just outside of a Brazilian jungle town called Trombetas. Cho, my new Peruvian walking partner, and I decided to use the associated roads that had been cut through the rainforest to make quick miles. We knew the area was restricted but we snuck in and we camped covertly each evening away from the road and kept our fire very small.
Just as we were leaving we were caught by two huge Hi Luxes full of menacing looking men.
Read more: How to face fear, by Ed Stafford
The head of security was angry at us and demanded we get in his 4×4 so he could take us to the police. I was illegal in Brazil at the time and knew that if I had to present my passport they would see that I was 4 months over my visa and I’d get thrown out of the country. I had to think on my feet.
I explained my expedition. Pleading to the hardened miners that if we got in the vehicle nearly two years of walking would have been for nothing (a slight embellishment but we did need a continuous route, unbroken by vehicle journeys). I argued that he had to let us walk back along the road and I apologised profusely.
He eventually agreed and, like school boys who have just got away with a crime, we began back on the road the way we had come.
As soon as we were out of sight I instructed to Cho to follow me.
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We broke east off the road and headed straight into the jungle ignoring the miners’ orders. I knew we would be untraceable within minutes and Cho and I were now more comfortable in the trees than anywhere else.
Buzzing with the thrill of victory, and having avoided a massive two-week back track along a road, we ploughed further into the forest.
Earning my self-confidence
But as we walked the jungle floor became saturated.
The deeper into the forest the higher the water came – knees, then waist, then chest deep. At that point, Cho and I could tell it only got deeper ahead. With the two-week detour clanging alarm bells at the back of my head I started to doubt the wisdom of sneaking through this patch of varzea (flooded forest). If it continued like this, the route we were on would take weeks, even months, rather than days.
Cho and I climbed up onto a patch of high ground the size of a Ford Mondeo and had a crisis meeting. As we did so, it began to chuck it down. We were always wet – so the rain was just refreshing.
As we sat down and shared an exasperated dark joke, I distinctly remember feeling the responsibility for what I was doing and where I was. I had got us both into this mess – I had to get us out.
I mulled-over the flooded forest in front or the two-week road back track behind, and remembered an image that could possibly help me here.
Pre-deployment, I’d written to NASA enquiring about an old project they undertook in the mid-90s to map the flooded forest extents at various times of the year. They had used satellites to somehow penetrate the jungle canopy and see the extents of the floods and, as soon as it came to me, I knew I stood a chance of being able to solve this riddle using this one bit of data.
As the rains thickened and got heavier I asked Cho to help me put up a basha (tarpaulin) over our tiny patch of terra firma. Once I had a dry zone below, I got out my MacBook and found the imagery, but it didn’t have latitudes or longitudes on it.
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Thanks hugely to @inmarsatglobal for coming on board and providing #satellite #communications to @laurabingham93 ‘s #expedition. Back in 2008 I used an #inmarsat #BGAN (satellite internet unit) and was able to blog, tweet and upload edited videos from the #Amazon. I even used it to stream 10 days of live #Skype interviews to Fionnuala Sweeney (@fionnbop) on @cnni & @cnn to 240 international territories from the side of a logging track! Awesome bits of kit. #adventure #
So I used a print off from Google Earth to match up the shape of the main channel of the river on the image, and with my GPS reading was able to see where I was. Flooded forest was bright white on the NASA imagery and, as soon as I located us, I started to smile.
I could see a bright white thin line heading north to south. It looked like it was only about 100 metres wide.
“Cho if I’m right, this varzea is only very thin and if we just push on 40-metres or so it should start getting shallower again!”
I was positively gushing with excitement and knew deep down it would be the case. Sure enough we packed-up, and waded on – up to our chins. Then we were swimming for about ten metres, then our feet touched the ground again, then the water only came up to our chests again and we both started to grin and whoop at the top of our voices.
I had used a GPS, a black and white print out from Google Earth, an old image from NASA taken in 1996, a Macbook and a tarpaulin to piece together a puzzle that, in the end, saved us perhaps two weeks of walking. All in the pouring rain and when, in the past, I may have been fretting about the miners behind us or feeling sorry for myself about the weight of my heavy pack.
Its a story about navigation so if you’ve made it this far then fair play to you – you must be genuinely interested.
But its a story about far more, of course.
It was the point at which I felt like I’d earned my spurs in terms of self-reliance. I’d come through such desperate months and kept walking. I’d reached such lows that many of my hand-written diary entries are streamed with tears.
But I felt like that was a former version of myself now. Against the odds I’d now navigated uninviting miners, the prospect of being thrown out of the country, and we were making good progress in one of the wettest Amazonian flood seasons in years.
The best version of me
There seemed to be a tipping point where I started to believe in myself and all of the knowledge and experience that I’d already got became hugely more accessible.
I felt like I could deal with whatever was now thrown at me.
And the best thing was that because it was self-confidence that I’d earned, the hard way, it seemed to be unshakable.
I walked the Amazon to test myself. I wanted to prove to myself and others that I was capable – and the depth of my past insecurity is reflected in the size of the expedition that I felt like I needed to undertake.
But even though the motive may have been driven by ego, the outcome could not have been more wholesome.
Read more: Ed Stafford: 10 powerful things my solo adventures have taught me
The Amazon journey was a decade ago now but when I look back on the trip it really did feel like a coming of age. A coming into myself anyway – a series of challenges that acted as catalysts for my own self-development. My own lesson in how to gain confidence.
Would I do it again? Never – what would be the point?
But do I regret putting myself through such an ordeal? Certainly not – it was, undoubtedly, the making of me.
I’m now an ambassador for the Scouts and the Youth Adventure Trust and, if there is one thing I feel has positively shaped me and allowed me to grow into the very best version of myself, it’s taking risks and having real adventure in my life.
Its my firm belief that you don’t need to be remotely exceptional to become an explorer. But ensuring that you have adventures in your life will transform you into the very best version of who you are.