The choice is ours and we can make it as easy or hard as we like. But the harder you make it, the more you’ll get from it.
Never settle for the easy option and always choose adventure over convention. You won’t regret it, says the intrepid Ben Fogle.
I am a child of The Good Life. Tom and Barbara with their hand-knit jumpers, wellies and home allotment from the Seventies TV show were as much a part of my urban childhood as neon socks and Adam Ant.
Growing up in a house above my father’s veterinary clinic in Westminster, our W1 postcode meant we had no garden, but I was lucky that my parents had a small house in West Sussex where we could escape each weekend. Those early years were a catalyst for me and they ignited a passion that has since taken me to the farthest corners of the globe in search of a simpler, wilder life.
My wild escapades began when I was 19. Free from the manacle of secondary education, I bought a one-way ticket to Brazil and pretty much disappeared for the best part of three years. My time in Latin America was life changing. It opened a whole new world of adventure and fun. I decided then that my life would not be a conventional one.
I often describe life like a great ocean voyage. We can sail with the prevailing wind and current or we can go against the elements. We can rig up a sailboat and cross the ocean or we can launch a raft and float with hopeful abandon. We can use fossil fuels or the natural wind. The choice is ours, and we can make it as easy or hard as we like.
“I’ve gone to the furthest corners of the globe in search of a simpler, wilder life”
The key here is that the harder you make it, the more you’ll get from it. My first big challenge came in 1999 when, bored with my 9-5 office job in central London, I volunteered to be marooned on a treeless, windswept, cold, uninhibited island called Taransay in the Outer Hebrides. It was part of a social experiment by the BBC to celebrate the millennium to see if people from predominantly urban areas could create a self-sufficient community from scratch. We would build our own accommodation, pipe our water from the lochs, harness our own electricity, grow our own crops and slaughter animals. We had a year to do it. It was a Utopian dream. An anti-capitalist insight into the new millennium. I loved every minute of it. Leaving that island paradise was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I returned to the Big Smoke, the city of my childhood. A city I love and hate in equal measure.
I love its energy and creativity. It is beautiful and gritty and wild, and yet... I wanted, I want more. Escapism took the form of expeditions. I ran across the Sahara desert, rowed the Atlantic Ocean, trekked to the South Pole and walked the Empty Quarter of the Middle East. Each journey or voyage changed me as a person. It gave me a chance to step back from the city and reflect on what I wanted in life.
It may seem an extreme way of escaping the rat race but then I’ve never been one to take the easy option. My aspirations to live in the wilderness only became apparent to my wife, Marina, when I suggested we honeymoon on the Falkland Islands, the main attraction being a new house on the market that I wanted to explore. Marina put her Laboutin-booted foot down and we settled for beginning married life in the Outer Hebrides instead.
“Leaving that island paradise was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do”
Becoming a father to two young children has once again changed the dynamic and reset the bar. I had always assumed I would one day return to the island of Taransay. Indeed, shortly before the birth of my daughter, Iona, it came on the market.
In a moment of hopeful abandon I raised the capital and put in a bid. I never got the island, which is perhaps why I then embarked on arguably the biggest house hunt in the world. I have spent the last three years travelling to the furthest, wildest corners of the globe. My series, New Lives in the Wild, has taken me as far as the Indian Himalayas, Alaska and Namibia as I visit people who have given up the city for a simpler life. Often described as “off-griders”, many of those I have visited over the last few years have cut themselves off altogether, not just from the water and electric grid, but from the monetary system too.
I spent time with a Sydney businessman who gave up millions to live as a real life Robinson Crusoe in the coral sea; an Englishman who sold his entire life on eBay and bought a tiny island off Panama. There was the Miami taxi driver who moved to the Philippine jungle and the Indian high society former fighter pilot who moved to a farm high in the Himalaya mountains. I have visited Laos, the Arctic Circle, New Zealand, Utah, to meet individuals who have followed their rural dream. Admittedly, it might be a little more extreme than a trawl of Country Life’s property pages, but the reality is similar.
“I have visited the furthest corners of the globe to meet individuals who have followed their rural dream”
A wilder,greener life. I am lucky. I get to live vicariously. Indeed I live a reverse life whereby I have weekends in London, while my weekdays are spent in the Amazon or the Atacama Desert. That old saying “the grass is always greener” still persists, but as I have discovered during my prolific journeys around the world, it may be greener but you still need to cut it.
So, I implore you to explore beyond our city limits. I am desperate for my children, Ludo and Iona, to have a connection with the countryside. Indeed I recently opened my first School of Wild in a Gloucestershire forest, where children and their families can learn the skills that have been lost during the great tsunami of urbanisation. Pole lathing, wood chopping, fire making and den building are just some of the courses aimed at reconnecting children with the wilderness.
“You don’t have to cross oceans to find your wild idyll. Britain is a treasure-trove”
I have been fortunate enough to visit extraordinary people in some of the wildest locations in the world, but you don’t have to cross oceans to find your wild idyll. Britain is a treasure-trove. It just depends what kind of person you are. Do you like to go with the flow or beat against the wind?
Most of us are happy with the former – but I would recommend the latter a thousand times over.
Ben Fogle is a broadcaster, writer and traveller. He is an ambassador for WWF, Medecins Sans Frontier, Tusk, Centrepoint and the Princes Trust, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
This article comes from the latest edition of Barometer. View the digital version.
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