Q&A: Steve Backshall: Finding your way regardless of the obstacles

Last week we were delighted to be joined by naturalist, explorer, writer, and presenter Steve Backshall at our ‘We Find a Way’ Supper Club.

Steve is well known by families who love his Deadly 60 animal discovery series and Blue Planet Live, among many other shows looking to inspire young people to enjoy wildlife and the natural world. Adults may be more familiar with his Expedition series, in which he and a team of territory and local experts explore some of the most remote places on the planet. Steve is no stranger to adversity and danger, having run the Marathon des Sables, free dived with Great White Sharks - and nearly drowned in white water in remote Bhutan, among many other incredible feats. We sat down and asked how he has found his way through some of his toughest challenges.

Q: The fear of the unknown is for most people, something that stops them doing things. But for you, you tend to run towards adversity. How would you encourage someone who hasn't necessarily faced their fears as a child, but as an adult wants to embrace challenges?

Start small and start safe. This applies whether it’s a physical, outdoor challenge, or almost anything else. Nobody ever went out and made Everest their first mountain. Everyone starts somewhere. At Cubs and Scouts camps, we would learn how to light a fire, learn how to paddle, and I built my way up towards much bigger goals over a very, very long period of time.

You have to give lots of things a try because there are now so many different avenues for exploration, adventure, and leisure time. Even if your goals aren’t physical, any one of the things you try that interest you could turn out to be your thing, so just take a short course or join a club and it could be that the rest of your life is going to be devoted to that one thing. Once you find your thing, you’ll be surprised how easy it is to push through challenges and adversity and keep doing it.

Q: In your Expedition television series, you speak a lot about the mental impact of the work that you do, emphasising that great challenges can only be overcome with good mental health; wellness and mental strength. Have you ever faced a situation that tested this to the absolute limit and how did you continue despite the challenges?

The key to a successful expedition is the team. On every expedition, I've been working with small teams of people who are as close to me as family, so trust is hugely important. When you are sat on boat in the middle of the jungle for hours on end, and at night, all you have to entertain yourselves is talking about very simple things and also very different complex things.

Embracing old-fashioned human contact is vital. It helps keep you feeling strong - and if you're frightened about things, you talk about it. Perhaps there are parallels with the business world and the importance of face-to-face contact.

In close environments like this if you are having a dark time, people around you usually notice and although on expeditions there is this inbuilt support mechanism in those small teams and people can rally round you, the same should apply in other workplaces when things get tough.

You’d be surprised how capable people who have been through the same sorts of things themselves are and have a willingness to embrace those darker sides of our personality, so find those people that can help. I’ve had difficult times, but I’ve never given up for this reason.

It does make me sad that my kids may never have that opportunity so it’s important to me that we preserve and treasure face to face contact. We are such social beings; we get so much out of social interactions and we lose so much if we don't have them. The internet and accessible technology have many vital uses, but younger people in particular need to learn the value of verbal communication.

Q: In your mid 30s you suffered a serious fall suffering many serious injuries to your legs and back and you were out of action for several years. How did you overcome that huge set back and did you ever think you may not be able to continue with your career and passion?

There's no getting around it, the experience was savage. I'm very lucky that I'm still walking and doing the things that I do now. The main thing that enabled me to get through it was that every single new operation that I had – and there were eleven of them – I thought was going to be the one that fixed it. I needed that hope and belief that recovery was imminent, even though in reality it went on and on.

It became clear further down the line that this wasn't going to get fixed quickly, but throughout the recovery period I had managed to keep myself super fit in other ways so finally, when I got a fusion of my ankle, I could at least be up and mobile.

I was ready to hit the ground running and I remember going back out my first expedition after that and thought, ‘Yes, this is it! I’m back!’ I would have deeply struggled with the concept of not being able to carry on with what I love. The elation of achieving that first amount of mobility was galvanising and because it was incremental, it gave me motivation to keep going.

Q: Finally, you've written kids’ books and presented countless television shows, won two Baftas and an MBE – you have climbed mountains and even have a species of toad named after you. Of all these special moments and awards you’ve achieved in your life, if everything was stripped away and you could only retain one thing, what would it be?

That's a really good question because I’ve been so lucky to have so much to choose from. It goes without saying that my family is the most precious thing, but aside from them, it’s hard to think what I would keep.

It’s actually a memory, a moment. There is a Desert pool at the bottom of a dry waterfall in the desert of Oman in the midst of a Canyon that our team was the first to explore, and it was a hugely challenging trip. I was the first person to drop down the rope and put my feet on the floor of this extraordinary, exquisite place.

Dragonflies buzzed over this small Canyon pool, in the middle of the desert 40 degrees heat. I sat there for about 10 minutes before I radioed to the teams to get anyone else come down. I just savoured that beauty, knowing that I was the first person ever to see it. Mine were the first eyes ever to take in that particular view of the desert and it had taken so much joint effort and courage to get there.

Published on 11.06.2024