Down the Mighty River with Steve Backshall: the 'action man' with a conscience on his latest adventure
The TV adventurer talks about his expedition to Papua, Indonesia, and being compared to Steve Irwin
Fame. It’s a fickle thing. Mobbed in Morocco, largely anonymous in America. But breezy TV action man Steve Backshall takes it all in his intrepid stride. “The warmth you get from being recognised is nice, but it’s good to be invisible as well,” he laughs.
Backshall has just returned from a sell-out three-month speaking tour of Australia, Singapore and India with his new wife, gold medal-winning Olympic rower Helen Glover. His huge popularity is due in no small measure to the BBC children’s series Deadly 60. It’s been sold to 157 countries worldwide including Australia, where he seems to have filled a vacuum created by the death of Steve Irwin in 2006.
“Steve is still a massive hero in Australia, and every single show that I do out there I get compared with him.” Is he flattered? Irwin was, after all, a fairly controversial figure among wildlife experts because of the boisterous way he engaged with animals. “I’m fairly pragmatic. There’s no doubt that the programmes Steve made had more of an impact on how people perceive reptiles, crocodilians and snakes than any other work that had gone before.”
Backshall is also big in Papua, Indonesia, the setting for his latest TV adventure, in which he attempts to navigate a treacherous, previously unexplored river. He speaks the language pretty fluently, having visited before, so wasn’t too perplexed when invited to spend the night sleeping with the 200-year-old mummified corpse of a celebrated warrior chief.
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“He would originally have been smoked over a fire for six months with his knees clenched into his chest and it’s a pretty eerie sight. He has all of his skin, like black leather, drawn back across his bones. I wouldn’t say I slept, but I spent the entire night pretty much alongside him. It was a very strange experience.”
The much-travelled Backshall is no stranger to bizarre tribal rituals, many of them troubling to our western sensitivities. The Dani tribe, for instance, mourn the loss of family by chopping off the ends of their fingers. At least, that’s what the women have to do.
“Yes, the attitude towards women is appalling. They do absolutely all the work while the men sit around on their backsides, smoking cigarettes, and there are these awful practices where bereaved women have to remove their own digits or parts of their ears, and men don’t have to do any of that. But you can’t go into these villages with a full-on, forceful, modern sensibility, because you will learn nothing, you will offend everyone, and actually there is so much to be gained from their cultures that I think we’re losing from our own, such as the respect they have for their elders, who are the most respected members of the tribe.”
Backshall left the Dani to continue his white-water river odyssey not just with their blessing but also encouragement to take many wives. “I haven’t mentioned that bit to Helen,” he laughs. “I’m not sure she would approve. And anyway, I have more than enough with my one wife!”
The 43-year-old admits that he and 30-year-old Glover are already at a bit of a crossroads early on in their marriage – whether to pursue their all-consuming careers or take their foot off the pedal and settle down and have children.
“Helen hasn’t quite decided yet whether she wants to continue with the rowing. She’s absolutely at the pinnacle of her sport and it’s going to be very hard for her to be away from that. So I think we’ll have a few more months, possibly up to a year, and then we’ll decide.”
In the meantime, this Easter they’re going to kayak 125 miles from Devizes to Westminster in under 24 hours to raise money to help buy and save a bit of the Borneo rainforest – that’s the real value of fame.
Down the Mighty River with Steve Backshall is on Sunday 12 March at 9pm on BBC2