British adventurer Ben Fogle has undertaken more tests of physical endurance than most people dream of in a lifetime. After all this is a man who has rowed 49 days across the Atlantic Ocean, run 150 miles in the Sahara desert and crossed Antarctica in a foot race to the North Pole.
Yet the 39-year-old television presenter and author still looks up to climbing ever higher peaks. “I think it is human nature that you want to keep on achieving,” he tells Weekend Review. “If you reach the summit of your metamorphic mountain, the kind of mountain that is your life, what is there beyond that? There is nowhere to go. If you are at the summit, this is the ladder, and a big tree to climb, there is nothing there. So I think life is a continual journey. You are always climbing, and you are always trying to achieve.”
I am sitting with Fogle outside a café in the corner of a street in Mayfair, London. It is a pleasant summer day. As the occasional passerby walks past, Fogle is telling me about his recent escapade. “I have just spent the last few months with camels, eating dates and drinking Arabian coffee.”
Fogle has been in Oman in the Empty Quarter, near Saudi Arabia, to do a big expedition for the BBC. During his time there he had got to know camels on a more intimate level.
“If you haven’t spent lots of your time with camels, and you don’t learn their personalities and the little nuances, they are quite difficult animals,” he confesses. “In fact technically I still own a couple of camels. We had to buy them. We have left them with an Omani who is looking after them and maybe one day I will bring them back to England.”
Fogle has presented numerous TV programmes, such as the BBC’s “Animal Park”, “Wild in Africa” and “The Secrets of Scott’s Hill”. In his recent series, “New Lives in the Wild”, Fogle travelled to different destinations around the world to meet people who left the modern life to embrace the wilderness.
“I lived on an island for a whole year, many years ago, where I had to become entirely self sufficient,” he says. The programme, “Castaway”, which aired back in 2000 was the BBC’s first attempt at reality TV. It was also what first brought Fogle in the media limelight. In it he was one of a small group of people who were marooned for one year to live on a remote Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides.
More than just a reality show, Castaway was a kind of social experiment where the participants learnt to be self-sufficient. They grew their own vegetables, reared cattle and collected water from island lochs.
“I love that lifestyle,” says Fogle. “I live in central London now. I don’t know if I could live that lifestyle with my young family now, but I like the idea, I like to think I could. And the great thing with ‘New Lives in the Wild’ is I don’t have to do it. I can visit other people who are doing it.”
His series was filmed in different locations in Texas, Alaska, New Zealand and Australia. Where did they find these characters? “I have a team of people who obviously search online,” he says. “I mean the internet is an incredible bank of information. You can find people all over the world. What is fascinating is that all these individuals as remote as they were, and as cut off from the rest of the world as they are, they are all still hooked up to the internet. So they all have a blog, a Facebook page, some sort of connection to the outside world. I think that is quite a telling tale of modern times, even these modern day hermits in many ways, are still connected to the internet. It’s reaching every single corner of the world now. And I think that is a good thing.”
What makes Fogle’s story remarkable is that his career prospects were not always so promising. Growing up he was an underachiever in both academics and sports. “It is probably left over from failure as a child,” he says, becoming somewhat philosophical. “It definitely affected me, failure. No one likes failure.”
He performed poorly in his A-Levels, earning a D in Economics and an N in Geography. At one stage he was making a living scooping ice cream at Haagen Dazs before things started to turn around.
The support of his parents, actress Julia Foster and noted veterinary surgeon Bruce Fogle, brought an added pressure on Fogle. “I was very lucky that my parents sent me to a good school, I had a good education, they’d worked hard to pay for that,” he says.
“That meant it was almost like a double failure, because I was given that opportunity there. And maybe I have tried to redress the balance. Maybe I have tried to turn that on its head in later years. And I firmly believe that if I can row an ocean, race across a desert or trek across a polar ice cap and go on to write seven books, someone who is dyslexic, anyone can.”
Although today Fogle is a prolific writer with a column in The Sunday Telegraph, the first book he wrote wasn’t an easy chore. “I was terrified at it because I kept imagining my English teacher looking at it, correcting the error, wagging their finger telling me that it’s no good,” he says. “And as you build up your confidence, my writing confidence has built, and the great thing with modern technology, computers is that you can do spell check and grammar check and it kind of corrects a lot of those errors. And I kind of write as I talk.”
The success of his parents contributed to his own desire to succeed. “Some people are surrounded by achievement and they shrink back and they are overshadowed by all the towering plants around them. But no, I think I always wanted to achieve. And actually failure is probably quite a good thing. I am terrified of failure and I don’t like it. But I think the fact that there was some early failure, has probably been a good thing in retrospect.”
Fogle believes many people are in a way “handcuffed” to the monetary system through pressures such as mortgages, utilities bills and getting the latest gizmos such as an iPad or iPhone. “I was fascinated to see people who had genuinely decided to give all that up in the pursuit of happiness,” he says. “This comes back to achievement, for many people the best indicator of achievement is happiness.”
The word “achievement” repeats frequently in the course of our conversation. At times Fogle strikes me as one of those motivational guru types who use personal anecdotes to inspire others.
“I have always believed that anything is achievable if you put your mind to it,” he says. “It is funny, achievement means different things to different people. So when it comes to schooling, academics, university, achievement is graded. And it is graded by ABC or 95 per cent.”
According to Fogle life isn’t like that. “Maybe some people decide that you are successful because you accumulated a vast amount of money,” he says. “But I think achievement is far bigger than that, and far deeper than that. So achievement can be physical achievement, achievement is happiness, its pushing yourself, its changing other people’s perceptions of you.”
But sometimes pushing yourself too far can have its pitfalls. While rowing the Atlantic Ocean with Olympian James Cracknell their boat capsized. For an instant it looked like it was all over.
“It was definitely kind of one of those life or death experiences,” he recalls. “I thought perhaps that was the end.” He got back on the boat and they were able to carry on. Since then he has had other near death experiences, but that was the first.
It made him re-evaluate life and why he was here. “For anyone who hasn’t had that experience I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he says. “It is pretty awful. And to be in the middle of the ocean you feel so helpless cause no one could reach us, no helicopter could reach us, no aeroplane could reach us. The only way we could be rescued was if a big shipping tanker or a cargo ship was diverted and we were hundreds of miles from the nearest shipping route. So it was a very scary experience. But you learn from it. And I think what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Another time was on his race to the South Pole in Antarctica, when he hit an area of ice with huge great cracks. They couldn’t tell where exactly where it was. “We could hear the ice cracking underneath us,” he says. “And that was probably another moment when I really thought that was it, we could have dropped down, but we were okay.”
Yet another not necessarily life or death experience happened while filming for the BBC documentary series “Swimming with Crocodiles”. “I went scuba diving with wild Nile crocodiles,” he says, “one of the most deadly predators on Earth. With no protection, no cage, no chain mail. As close as we are. So only a few inches away. And actually one of them attacked our cameraman while we were there.”
Although he had been assured they would not attack, getting back in the water after he had been attacked was pretty terrifying. “The crocodiles didn’t understand why we were under water and left us alone,” he says. “But obviously that single attack on the cameraman where he was able to use the camera as a self-defence. He stuck it in the crocodiles mouth, changed the whole dynamic. In getting back in the water after that I would say was probably the scariest thing I have ever had to do.”
Besides adventures and flirting with death, Fogle also has another claim to fame — he sometimes gets mistaken for Prince Williams while on trips abroad. “I think as I get a little bit older not so much,” he says. “When I was younger there were a lot of photographs of the two of us and we do look quite similar then. It is usually when I go overseas, sometimes people confuse me for him, and allegedly the other way around.”
On a trip to Chile a few years back he was treated to a royal reception. “I don’t know why, I don’t know what happened, but paparazzi turned up, screaming schoolgirls arrived, and part of me didn’t have the heart to tell everyone I wasn’t him,” he recalls. “It took a while before people realised, perhaps I wasn’t his royal highness. I think they were very confused, and some people didn’t believe it. I think people thought I was pretending to not be him.”
He figured it was partly because William had spent time in Chile, so it wasn’t completely unexpected he might be there.
“All the girls wanted their photographs taken with me,” he says. “So there is probably a group of schoolgirls in Chile who will have photographs up on their walls who they say in Prince William but in fact is me, an imposter.”
Interestingly he is also friends with William. Fogle was among the lucky ones to be invited to the royal wedding in 2011 which he attended with his wife. “It was amazing,” he recalls. “Such a huge event worldwide, but especially for a Brit a pretty unique moment and I think to have been there and part of that, we felt incredibly lucky.”
Some friends of the future heir to the British throne allegedly call him “Ben”, in a nod to the resemblance. He has worked with both Prince William and Harry on charity work. “They are very down to Earth, charming, individuals,” he says. “They have got their feet firmly on the ground.”
In his book, “The Accidental Adventurer”, Fogle talks not just about his various achievements, but also is candid about some of his failures. There was the time he completed a 48 mile ice-skating race in Sweden only to be told everyone else had finished.
Or the occasion when he participated in the World Tin Bath Championships in the Isle of Man and ended up sinking in the water, with the crowds laughing at him. Eventually he was taken in an ambulance with hypothermia.
“If I turn up for a marathon now, everyone assumes I am going to do very well and I am going to win,” he says, “But I don’t. And I am very happy to put my hand up and admit that. Because I think there are so many pressures in this world to succeed and do things well where actually it is just the taking part that often counts. And I think we sometimes forget that that is just as important as anything else.” In the hare and the tortoise story, Fogle definitely sees himself as the tortoise — he is very good at things that take a long amount of time.
Fogle spent only 2 months training for the Marathon Des Sables, which is considered the toughest foot race on Earth. Incredibly, before signing up, he wasn’t even a runner, unlike most other participants, many of whom spend ages training for the competition.
“That is kind of one of the reasons why I like to share the stories through interviews, through writing books,” he says. “Because it is nice for young people in particular to be able to use me as an example — to think if he was able to do it, maybe I can as well. I have always enjoyed hopefully having that ability to inspire people.”
Perhaps it is this desire to inspire others which has put the idea in Fogle’s to embark on his most daring quest to date — swimming across the Atlantic Ocean. It is a feat accomplished by only one person before in history.
“But that is a big long-term objective,” he says, when I bring up the topic of his greatest challenge. Next year? “Maybe even later than that,” he says. “It is something I had always dreamt of doing. I announced it last year and originally planned to do it now, but now I want that to be my ultimate goal in life.”
Having rowed already to the United States, Fogle always wanted to do the return journey. But sailing seemed too easy now. “I had always wondered about whether it was possible to swim an ocean like that,” he says.
For Fogle it would be the summit that he aspires towards, his ultimate achievement. “Some people aspire to earn millions,” he says. “My aspiration in life will be one day to swim the Atlantic. Everyone says it is stupid, everyone says it is impossible, and I don’t believe either of those sentiments. I think it is possible. And I think actually it could be quite an inspiring thing to do. But you know what, it might be 10 years away, it might be 20 years away.”
Although he doesn’t know when, being an inspiration to others is an idea which appeals to him. “When I do I hope that young kids in schools across the world will be able to follow me in real time and kind of be there with me,” he says.
What does he want to prove from it? “I kind of want to prove that if you put your mind to it, anyone can achieve things,” he says. “I don’t like swimming. I am not very good at swimming.”
Have friends and family put Fogle off? “I must admit, family commitments and work commitments have affected that. But actually it is more that it is such a huge project that I need to be in the right place and the right time. And I will carry on working towards that.
While his ambition to swim the Atlantic remains on the back burner, Fogle has a new show out called “Harbour Lives”, based in the English region of Dorset, in an area with some of the most expensive property in the UK called Sandbanks.
“Beautiful kind of ocean front properties,” says Fogle. “But what is fascinating about Poole where we did this series is the mix of people there. So you have got very wealthy millionaires who live in properties and buy Sunseekers from the local factory, but you have also got hard working fishermen who have lived there for generations and generations.”
Interestingly he spends a lot of time out in Dubai, which he frequents about three times a year. “My sister and her husband and two boys live out there,” he says. “So I do spend a lot of time in the UAE. I know the Gulf News very well.”
Fogle describes Dubai as the “complete opposite” of most places he visits. “But I like that. Because I think it is fascinating to go to places that are so different to everywhere else you know.” Besides his sister, Fogle also has another interesting link to the UAE: “I went to school with Princess Haya, who is married to Shaikh Mohammad,” he says. “So it is fascinating to see her life there as well.” Is he still in touch? “Yeah, every time she comes to London we meet up.”
Well why not do a show in Dubai? “If any of your readers have an idea, or would like me to come and do something, then suggest. There was talk at one stage of me doing a series about extreme jobs. And I was going to become a window cleaner of the Burj Al Arab. But hasn’t happened yet. Maybe one day.” I was going to suggest climbing the building like Spiderman. “I will leave that to the experts. I am terrified of heights.”