Gallery: TV action man Steve Backshall to take on endurance kayak challenge for Suffolk charity
15:30 21 February 2015
Fresh from the Strictly ballroom, TV naturalist, real-life action man and mums’ favourite Steve Backshall is preparing to take part in an endurance race in aid of a Suffolk-based charity. He told Sheena Grant why.
Steve Backshall on a rope climbing up a jungle mountain
Ola Jordan and Steve Backshall during dress rehearsals for the Strictly Come Dancing live show
Ola Jordan and Steve Backshall
Golden Poison Frog, a rainforest resident
Live 'n' Deadly presenter Steve Backshall with a Harris Hawk.
Steve Backshall and George Barnicoat, who will be competing in the 125-mile Devizes to Westminster canoe race to raise money for the Halesworth-based World Land Trust's purchase of a section of threatened Colombian rainforest
Naturalist Steve Backshall is best known for a children’s TV show in which he tracks down the world’s most dangerous animals. He’s swum with sharks, been bitten by a caiman and come face to face with some of the most venomous snakes on the planet.
So you might think a 125-mile kayak race between Devizes and Westminster, even if it is non-stop and through the night, would be a piece of cake for him.
“No way,” he says. “I’ve done this race once before and it was one of the hardest and most unpleasant things I have ever taken part in. At 3am, having been paddling for 16 or 17 hours, it doesn’t matter who you are and what you’ve done; it’s tough. It’s cold, you’re wet and miserable, tired and hungry. But you’ve just got to keep going.”
Steve, 41, and race partner George Barnicoat will be taking part in the challenge, said to be one of the toughest in the UK endurance calendar, in April. They are raising funds for the Halesworth-based World Land Trust to buy and protect a section of Colombian rainforest, saving it from logging, poaching or any other form of exploitation.
The Deadly 60 presenter, beloved by a generation of children (and, it would seem, from pages of sometimes racy posts on the online forum Mumsnet, their mothers), is speaking to me on the phone from his home. He apparently spends as much as 10 months a year travelling. One of his most recent trips was to climb an Arctic mountain − for fun. He’s also written several books, has taken part in the latest series of Strictly Come Dancing and is, of course, training for that race. Despite his tough-guy image he comes across as thoughtful and passionate about conservation.
“I spend a lot of time in rainforest environments because they are so biodiverse,” he says. “I get to see how fast they are disappearing. As recently as the 1990s you could fly over Borneo and all you would see was rainforest. If you repeated that now you would see plantation after plantation of palm oil, which are devoid of wildlife. Completely silent. It is frightening. I wanted to do something tangible and was actually looking at buying a chunk of forest in Brazil (as a private individual). But the problem is, how do you protect it and make sure no-one is going to come in and cut it down? The World Land Trust has expertise to make sure the land they buy is protected and that’s why I got involved with them.”
Steve hopes to complete the race in 20 hours and raise enough to buy a piece of rainforest the size of London’s Richmond Park, which measures 3.69 square miles.
“That’s my goal,” he says. “Buying up rainforest is one of the ways forward. Another is making sure that the wood we buy comes from a reputable source and is sustainable. One of the problems is that our timber comes from a very few species of trees, which are dwindling massively in numbers, and could come from illegal sources, whether we know it or not. What you need is certification to become more readily taken up by centres in this country.”
He’s very fit already but Steve is training hard for the race. “When I thought about raising money for the WLT I knew that if I was going to ask people to put their hands in their pockets I needed to do something that was going to be tough,” he says. “I didn’t want to do something I would personally enjoy.”
He’s glad to be back in his comfort zone after his stint on Strictly, where, it was widely reported, he and dance partner Ola Jordan did not hit it off. Steve seems keen to play the whole thing down and says it was “no big deal”. He adds: “I learned a lot about how the media works through Strictly. If you are on the series and so much as cough, it gets reported.”
It may not have compared with some of the experiences he’s had in his natural outdoor habitat − such as finding species new to science or going somewhere few people, if any, have been before − but he has no regrets about taking part. The show also tested him physically. In 2008 he fell 33ft while climbing in the Forest of Dean. The impact sent his heel bone through the bottom of his foot, dislocated his ankle and fractured two vertebrae. “I’ve been through a lot of different operations,” he says. “I’ve had years on crutches and in rehab. My ankle has limited motion, which makes a big difference, although I try not to complain. I’m lucky to be alive and still walking. I count my blessings every day. During Strictly I tried not to talk about the physical difficulties. I didn’t want to be whining all the time about injuries holding me back.”
But the accident has affected his lifestyle. “It’s changed my attitude to risk,” he says. “I do see everything as being before or after the accident. Before, I felt like there was nothing I couldn’t do. Now, I’m more realistic about it.”
Travelling to inhospitable places is something he’s done since childhood. He grew up on a smallholding and his parents, who worked for British Airways, regularly took the family off to far-flung destinations. “My childhood has been hugely influential in how I’ve lived my life, having confidence to travel independently, knowing that I can go anywhere and I will somehow make it work,” he says.
After university he started out writing Rough Guides before heading to Colombia, armed with an idea for a TV series. National Geographic Channel International took him on as “Adventurer in Residence”. A move to the BBC followed in 2003, and a host of programmes including Lost Land of the Jaguar, where he made the first ascent of Mount Upuigma in Venezuela and found new animal species. He is, however, best known for Deadly 60, the CBBC show where he travels the world in search of fearsome animals.
“The idea was that there were certain animals − often predators − that transcended normal boundaries and appealed to people whether they thought they liked wildlife or not,” he says. “The programmes have been watched by almost every kid in the country. Sometimes they will tune in just because they think I might get eaten by a shark.”
Whatever the allure, Steve is adamant what he wants most is to interest children in wildlife.
“If you can coax people in with adventures and by exploiting the danger and get them interested in wildlife, that’s success,” he says. “Engaging children is everything to me nowadays. You’re talking to the adults of tomorrow who haven’t made up their minds how they feel about the wild yet. That’s hugely important.”
To donate visit Steve’s Just Giving page