Interview: Robin Hanbury-Tenison

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“That’s Chico,” he says airily, gesturing at what looks like a dead parrot on top of the wardrobe. “Picked him up in the Amazon. Spent 15 years in my deep-freeze. Rather tatty really.”
I’m standing, slightly bemused, in the rural Cornwall home of Robin Hanbury-Tenison, the remarkable man celebrated as our greatest living explorer. In a nearby cabinet, there’s an elegantly carved ostrich egg (“my only water-carrier when crossing the Kalahari with bushmen”), and hovering mysteriously over the mantlepiece there’s a gaudy headdress from Borneo that apparently has something sinister to do with head-hunting. The living room seethes with the slightly improbable.
On leaving Oxford in 1957, he promptly undertook the first overland crossing to Sri Lanka (interrupted, admittedly, by a brief desert abduction by Afghan horsemen). Within a few short years, he had become the first to travel the full length of South America by river, ride the Great Wall of China, cross South America at its greatest width, and – faintly surprisingly – hovercraft his way over the Orinoco. He was the first to climb the forbidding Mount Roraima single-handedly, and that was something of an impromptu accident. And he has the most evocative ringbinders I’ve ever seen, if that’s a thing – “Siberut 1972”, “Africa 1969”, “Sulawesi 1974”, and on through the world. 
As he carefully pours the tea and gestures warmly towards a fruit cake, it is – for a fleeting moment – hard to imagine this affable man rafting alone through the wilds of Brazil or sleeping rough under a Saharan night-sky. At one point, he impersonates a tropical spider with a chocolate brownie. But as he recounts each extraordinary episode (smuggling himself over borders under moonlight, becoming a godfather to a Penan child in Sarawak, debating with island chieftains dozens of miles off Sumatra), it becomes clear that it’s the human encounters that really grip him. He has an extremely acute social conscience. This is a man who, when meeting the legendary activist Claudio Villas Boas deep in the Brazilian interior, was hailed as the “first sign” of a visionary new enlightenment. Villas Boas may well have been right: Hanbury-Tenison co-founded the world’s first charity for indigenous groups, Survival International, the self-described “movement for tribal peoples”, 43 years ago. And he hasn’t paused for breath since.
“Explorers,” he remarks dryly, with his hands clasped as through reciting a confessional, “are very selfish people.” This seems like unnecessary self-flagellation, but he continues: “It’s riven with clichés, but we’re all into finding the last blue mountain and all that. We want a bit of supremacy. And why? Because we’re inadequate in some way. It’s no coincidence that many explorers had powerful fathers and domineering mothers.”  
It was during his childhood, spent in rural Ireland, that the first hints of this remarkable character began to show. I ask rather bluntly how he can bear the loneliness of exploring. The reply is quick and succinctly logical. “I’ve always been good at coping,” he says. “From the age of seven, I’d happily sleep alone in a treehouse on the island in the middle of the lake. Not many children get to do that.” I put it to him that not many children want to do that. “Yeah,” He ponders momentarily. “Then I don’t know what it was. Maybe having a sibling in the war?” There’s a pause. “I was able to endure solitude,” he declares eventually.
As a child, did he dream of travel? “Yes, always. It’s just born in you, I suppose. I was – and am – eclectic.” When I ask which historical explorer he feels most affinity to, he answers instantly: Humboldt, the great Prussian scientist. “He was brilliant – the last of the great Renaissance men exploring.” He smiles modestly. “But really I’m not at all a Humboldt. I’m just lucky enough to have been there. I just get things done and change things.”
Hanbury-Tenison loves science – or, at least, scientists, insisting, “I’ve learnt the art of provoking scientists into speaking like human beings.” Sounding guiltily romantic, he muses, “There’s a genus of butterfly called Idea. It looks a bit like a lace handkerchief. I used to enjoy watching lepidopterists pursue an Idea through the forest.” He grins warmly. “That really sums it up for me.” 
But his memories are as poignant as they are poetic. He recalls accompanying a military expedition through Panama in 1972, on the way seeking out the defiant Cuna Indians on the mysterious Darien Gap. There, under the astonished eyes of a tribal congress, he endured the grotesque experience of having to explain that their ancestral lands were shortly to be inundated by a vast government dam. “There are huge forces opposed to people and terrible things happening all over the world,” he proclaims, with a defiance that catches me off-guard. “If you’re looking for a cause to support, there’s none greater than tribal peoples.”
Three years earlier, he had been dispatched to survey and encourage the ailing indigenous populations in Brazil, after a British journalist published a gruesome exposé of the abduction, intimidation, and ethnic cleansing of thousands of tribespeople. He has dark memories of an almost cinematic encounter with a high-level apparatchik in this shadowy realm of the Brazilian government. “I mean he wasn’t Germanic, but the man sounded like Hitler,” he grimaces. “He basically tethered me to a spy. Mr Romalio, Jr. A dreadful man.” He whispers in a mock-conspiratorial tone. “Our mission was to get round behind him and charm people.”
His work has of course not won everyone round, but that is perhaps unavoidable. There’s a perilously slim line between protection and paternalism. Critics call for an organised programme to integrate marginal groups into the modern, global village. By this stage in our conversation I was a convert, but I muster a sceptical tone so Cherwell’s worldly readers don’t think me totally besotted. Mightn’t he be denying opportunities for tribal peoples by promoting their isolation? What if a hundred Newtons or Einsteins have been confined to some neglected tropical forest? The veteran explorer frowns severely. “No, no, no,” he stutters in staccato. “Now you’re being ethnocentric. Deeply racist. Victorian.” 
The problem with integration, he explains, is the inevitable loss of dignity on the part of indigenous peoples. “It is important to have a strong culture. Everyone needs a culture against which to fight.” He views societies and their traditions as distinct and accountable only on their own terms. Tragically, his best friend was killed in a surprise attack by tribespeople in the Brazilian rainforest, but he thinks blaming the attackers is unthinkable, even nonsensical. You can’t cross-pollinate values and principles without degrading something: “Teaching property rights is not a good plan. Anyway, there’s something wrong with us,” he ventures, rather boldly. “We don’t have culture.”
How does he feel about being labelled “the greatest explorer of the past 20 years”? He laughs, disarmingly. “I don’t actually believe my own propaganda, but somebody had to put it forward. So I say, I know it’s tough, but I’ll take the glory.”
He takes it discreetly; he is astonishingly modest. I look back at stuffed Chico, who is still (unsurprisingly) surveying the living room aloofly. The great explorer is, by now, settling down on the sofa with the TV schedule, but I can’t resist asking “where next?” Is he tempted to track down the remaining uncontacted groups scattered across the Amazon? He closes his eyes serenely. “One longs to go down and say hi. But, of course, they’d kill you.” A wry smile flashes across his face, and he grins suddenly. “To which I say: very properly.”

“That?” he says airily, gesturing at what looks like a dead parrot on top of the wardrobe. “That’s Chico. Picked him up in the Amazon. Spent fifteen years in my deep-freeze. Rather tatty really.”

I’m standing, slightly bemused, in the rural, Cornish home of Robin Hanbury-Tenison – the remarkable man celebrated as our greatest living explorer. In a nearby cabinet, there’s an elegantly carved ostrich egg (“my only water-carrier when crossing the Kalahari with bushmen”), and hovering mysteriously over the mantlepiece there’s a gaudy headdress from Borneo that apparently has something sinister to do with head-hunting. The living room seethes with the slightly improbable.

The world is made of two sorts of people: couch potatoes and Robin Hanbury-Tenison. Keeping up with his myriad exploits is like interviewing Indiana Jones squared. “I could leave a good party at five o’clock and be on a camel by nightfall,” he laughs, without a hint of irony.

On leaving Oxford in 1957, he promptly undertook the first overland crossing to Sri Lanka (interrupted, admittedly, by a brief desert abduction by Afghan horsemen). Within a few short years, he had become the first to travel the full length of South America by river, ride the Great Wall of China, cross South America at its greatest width, and – faintly surprisingly – hovercraft his way over the Orinoco. He was the first to climb the forbidding Mount Roraima single-handedly, and that was even something of an impromptu accident. And (bear with me) he has the most evocative ringbinders I’ve ever seen, if that’s a thing – “Siberut 1972”, “Africa 1969”, “Sulawesi 1974”, and on through the world. He’s now in his seventies, and the globetrotting folders are still spreading from wall to wall.

As he carefully pours the tea and gestures warmly towards a fruitcake, it is – for a fleeting moment – hard to imagine this affable man rafting alone through the wilds of Brazil or sleeping rough under a Saharan night-sky. At one point, he impersonates a tropical spider with a chocolate brownie. But as he recounts each extraordinary episode (smuggling himself over borders under moonlight, becoming a godfather to a Penan child in Sarawak, debating with island chieftains dozens of miles off Sumatra), it becomes clear that it’s the human encounters that really grip him. He has an extremely acute social conscience. This is a man who, when meeting the legendary activist Claudio Villas Boas deep in the Brazilian interior, was hailed as the “first sign” of a visionary new enlightenment. Villas Boas may well have been right: Hanbury-Tenison co-founded the world’s first charity for indigenous groups, Survival International, the self-described “movement for tribal peoples”, forty-three years ago, and hasn’t paused for breath since.

But what are explorers, today? “Explorers,” he remarks dryly, with his hands clasped as through reciting a confessional, “are very selfish people”. This seems like unnecessary self-flagellation, but he continues. “It’s riven with clichés, but we’re all into finding the last blue mountain and all that. We want a bit of supremacy. And why? Because we’re inadequate in some way. It’s no coincidence that many explorers had powerful fathers and domineering mothers.”  

It was during his childhood, wiled away in rural Ireland, that the first hints of this incredible character began to show. How do you bear the loneliness, I demand rather bluntly. The reply is quick and succinctly logical. “I’ve always been good at coping. From the age of seven, I’d happily sleep alone in a treehouse on the island in the middle of the lake. Not many children get to do that.” I put it to him that not many children want to do that. “Yeah.” He ponders momentarily. “Then I don’t know what it was. Maybe having a sibling at the war?” There’s a pause. “I was able to endure solitude,” he declares, finally.

As a child, did he dream of travel? “Yes, always. It’s just born in you, I suppose. I was – and am – eclectic.” When I ask which historical explorer he feels most affinity to, he answers instantly: Humboldt, the great Prussian scientist. “He was brilliant, the last of the great Renaissance men exploring.” He smiles modestly. “But really I’m not at all a Humboldt. I’m just lucky enough to have been there. I just get things done and change things.”

Hanbury-Tenison loves science – or, at least, scientists. “I’ve learnt the art of provoking scientists into speaking like human beings,” he laughs, then looks sheepish. “There’s a genus of butterfly called Idea,” he muses, sounding guiltily romantic. “It looks a bit like a lace handkerchief. I used to enjoy watching lepidopterists pursue an Idea through the forest.” He grins warmly. “That really sums it up for me.”

But his memories are as much poignant as they are poetic. He recalls accompanying a military expedition through Panama in 1972, on the way seeking out the defiant Cuna Indians on the mysterious Darien Gap. There, under the astonished eyes of a tribal congress, he endured the grotesque experience of having to explain that their ancestral lands were shortly to be inundated by a vast government dam. “There are huge forces opposed to people and terrible things happening all over the world,” he proclaims, with a defiance that catches me off-guard. “If you’re looking for a cause to support, it doesn’t come greater than with tribal peoples.”

Three years earlier, he had been dispatched to survey and encourage the ailing indigenous populations in Brazil, after a British journalist published a gruesome exposé of the abduction, intimidation, and ethnic cleansing of thousands of tribes-people. It’s a chapter of world history still disturbingly below the cultural radar. He has dark memories of an almost cinematic encounter with a high-level apparatchik in this shadowy realm of the Brazilian government. “I mean he wasn’t Germanic, but the man sounded like Hitler,” he grimaces. “He basically tethered me to a spy. Mr Romalio, Jr. A dreadful man.” He whispers in a mock-conspiratorial tone. “Our mission was to get round behind him and charm people.”

His work has, of course, not charmed everyone, but that’s perhaps unavoidable. There’s a perilously slim line between protection and paternalism. Critics have repeatedly called for an organised programme to integrate marginal groups into the modern, global village. By this stage in our conversation, I might as well have been Survival’s biggest convert, but I muster a sceptical voice so Cherwell’s worldly readers won’t think I was totally besotted. Mightn’t you be denying opportunities for tribal peoples by promoting their isolation? What if a hundred Darwins and Newtons have been confined to some neglected tropical forest? The veteran explorer frowns severely. “No, no, no,” he stutters, in near-outraged staccato. “Now you’re being ethnocentric. Deeply racist. Victorian.”

The biggest problem with integration, he explains, is the inevitable loss of dignity on the part of indigenous peoples. “It is important to have a strong culture. Everyone needs a culture against which to fight.” He views societies and their traditions as distinct, definable, accountable only on their own terms. Tragically, his best friend was killed in a surprise attack by tribes-people in the Brazilian rainforest, but, he claims, blaming the attackers has always been unthinkable, even nonsensical. You can’t cross-pollinate values and principles without degrading something. “Teaching property rights”, for instance, “is not a good plan. And anyway, there’s something wrong with us,” he ventures, rather boldly. “We don’t have culture.”

The world, he says, is on a relentless path towards ecological tragedy. “We are reaching tipping points.” Is he optimistic? “We could go back to being hunter-gatherers – which of course I’d love – but it isn’t very practical. My main book I’m working on is an answer to all this, but” – he smiles – “I’m not going to reveal it to Cherwell just yet. Watch this space.” I watch. He looks like he’s weighing up whether to mention something. “Alright,” he concedes. “It’s basically about geoengineering. The time has come to grasp the nettle. It’s what we’ve been trying to do since the first shaman tried to make it rain. The only difference is now we can do it.”

How does he feel about being labelled “the greatest explorer of the past twenty years”? He laughs, disarmingly. “I don’t actually believe my own propaganda, but somebody had to put it forward. So I say, I know it’s tough, but I’ll take the glory.”

If he does take the glory, I think privately, he does it rather discreetly; he is astonishingly modest. I look back at taxidermic Chico, who is still (unsurprisingly) surveying the living room aloofly. The great explorer is, by now, settling down on the sofa with the TV schedule, but I can’t resist asking “where next?” Is he tempted to track down the remaining uncontacted groups scattered across the Amazon? He closes his eyes serenely. “One longs to go down and say hi. But, of course, they’d kill you.” A wry smile flashes across his face, and he grins suddenly. “To which I say: very properly.”

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