Naked and half asleep, James Cracknell follows his Yawalapiti guide down a path in the Amazonian jungle, straight into a lake.
It’s 4am. Immersed to his knees, the former Olympian is made to splash then whistle, splash then whistle. He looks a fool, and as this allegedly important ritual plays out, I find myself thinking he’s been stitched up by an indigenous tribe with a flair for satire.
But some people are gluttons for punishment. That’s one explanation for the four programmes Cracknell has made for the Discovery Channel, recreating some of the world’s toughest expeditions. His trip to the Amazon tracks Percy Fawcett’s ill-fated 1925 visit, to find the lost city of Z. Cracknell repeats Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s 1841 journey into the heart of the Zambezi, tracks the 1849 Gold Rush pioneers across some of the United States’ least hospitable landscapes, and visits New Zealand on the trail of Daniel McLauchlin and Charles Eyre, stranded in the middle of the ocean with no means of escape.
It’s all a far cry from the High Road House in salubrious Chiswick, where I find Cracknell, holed up with a bag of props for the photo session, an assortment of 21st-century electronic devices, and his publicist. He’s drinking a pungent energy shake, though he confesses afterwards that one of the side-effects of his 2010 accident – more of which later – is no sense of smell and only rudimentary tastes: salty, sweet, hot, cold. While that might be advantageous for an explorer, I can see how it diminishes life’s pleasures. He’ll never inhale the soft scent of his three children, fresh from their baths, or his wife Beverley’s perfume.
But to put it into perspective, Cracknell shouldn’t be here at all, much less looking so delicious, with his buff biceps encased in a grey marl T-shirt, sun-kissed highlights in his hair, and, well, just look at the photographs. In July 2010, during a self-propelled trip across the US, he was knocked off his bicycle when a truck’s wing mirror smashed into the back of his head. The tanker was doing 70mph, and the impact fractured Cracknell’s skull in two places causing him, in medical slang, to “ring his own bell”; his brain was thrown forward against his skull.
If not for his helmet, Cracknell would have died. He was left with frontal lobe damage affecting his vocabulary, short-term memory, empathy and concentration. He tires easily, and has trouble planning and making decisions. He and Beverley have spoken often about the accident in public. They’ve revealed that Cracknell’s not the same man he was. He can’t be left alone with his children because of his forgetfulness, and candidly admitted that the sudden bursts of anger he now experiences led Beverley to criticise him for being too harsh with the children.
If I’d been unaware of all this, I might have jumped to conclusions, since his slow speech is somewhat slurred. He also veers off topic. You get that a lot, as an interviewer, but for once these don’t feel like deliberate evasions. He’s affable, and I sense he wants to answer whatever is put to him, but that somewhere between intention and delivery, his mind takes a detour.
So let’s start with the basics: why these four adventures? He chose them with his producers, and tried to be pragmatic about what was possible. “I wanted both exploration and survival. I wanted to get across a little bit about how things have changed in 100 years.”
Local fixers lay the ground work but you still have to get stuck in, he says. “Percy Fawcett would lay down his bag and gun and walk in [to a tribal village] unarmed, to show that he was coming in peace. But he may have done that one too many times.”
Fawcett was a British spy, artillery officer and archaeologist before taking up exploring. He vanished in 1925 in the middle of an area so huge and hostile that vast swathes of the jungle remain unexplored.
“If a tribe didn’t get Fawcett, the jungle might have, and there’d be no trace. It was his eighth expedition and he died with his son. One hundred people have died looking for him. Machu Pichu had been discovered in 1911, so in his mind, there were other lost cities out there. He’d seen the horrific realities of the First World War, he’d commanded artillery in the Somme, so he knew he could have gone for a quieter life.”
Ahem. Pot, kettle, black? “Well, I wouldn’t go back to the jungle any time soon,” Cracknell says. “Put all the nasty things in the world in one place and you kind of end up with the jungle. But because Fawcett did go back, people thought he must have found something, and that’s why they went after him.”
Cracknell loaded his backpack with only those things Fawcett would have carried. “I had a poncho and a hammock. You have two sets of clothing. One you keep dry and the other gets wet. You have dry stuff to put on at night, if you can, and then back into the wet stuff during the day, which is not nice. I had a sparking flint and a bit of rubber, because that lights even when it’s wet. There’s always dry vegetation in the jungle, because the canopy is so thick. I had a couple of tins of food, then after that I had to catch my own. And I had a machete – you wouldn’t be able to move without one. But no watch, no GPS, none of that comfort.
“There’s a lot to be said for living with the environment. Can you genuinely survive there? Did Fawcett go native? Did he find what he was looking for? Did he just run out of luck?”
An acquaintance who makes similar adventure programmes said he’s braver and more reckless with a camera trained on him. Can Cracknell relate? “[The show] gave me a reason and a chance to go places and experience them in a way that I wouldn’t have before, and wouldn’t now. In Africa you get to walk in places where, normally, if you set foot out of your vehicle in the nature reserve, they ban you for life. The last thing they want is a tourist getting mauled.”
He grabs his iPad to flash the screen saver, an African snap of Cracknell paddling a dugout canoe under the watchful, and extremely close gaze of an elephant. But they weren’t his greatest danger. Hippos, he says, are more dangerous, despite being herbivores. “It sounds weird, but for 20 or 30 seconds hippos can porpoise without touching the bottom. If you get between a hippo and water they’ll charge, because they’re more comfortable in the water. The same with crocodiles. They can run 30km an hour but only in a straight line. The guide said, ‘If they come after you, just zig-zag.’ I’m thinking, these guys have been around for millions of years and are fit for purpose. If I’m zig-zagging,” he wiggles his hand, “there’ll be one croc who’ll work out that if he goes straight,” Cracknell’s hands collide, “he’ll catch me.”
Seriously, with a film crew in tow, did he really think he might die? Being out in the wild is scariest at night, he says. “Because it’s so noisy. There’s always something moving: baboons screeching and fighting at night is the most horrendous sound. You are looked after, but a week of the trip was self-supported, filming myself [while] they filmed from a distance. There was a survival guy looking after them and, if need be, me, but if something happened really quick – if you’d asked me for a list of the most dangerous things beforehand, I’d have said the big cat, maybe a croc. But the most dangerous thing is buffalo.”
Other animals may “fake charge” but abandon the effort if you back off, because no-one likes wasting precious energy in this tough environment. “Whereas buffalo are a ton of muscle and too stupid – they come at you. They’re strong, and aggressive. The other great danger is the black mamba. It can get its head seven feet off the ground and bite you in the face. These are things Livingstone would have had to learn on the go. He didn’t have the benefit of David Attenborough.”
He admires Livingstone enormously, because unlike a lot of Victorian explorers, he wasn’t just a bored rich guy. “He was tough as nails. He got mauled by a lion. It busted his humerus and he repaired it himself. We have that, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’ perception of him, imagining that hundreds of locals carried everything, but they didn’t. He did it on his own, learning as he went. He never moaned.”
As the first European to encounter, and name the Victoria Falls, Livingstone experienced an adventure Cracknell can only dream of. “Livingstone went via Rio by ship. It took him 18 months to get to Cape Town, then four years to get to Victoria Falls. Now you can be there in less than 24 hours. To get there having walked through a bit of bush, and seen the animals was a real privilege.”
With a wife and three children – Croyde, eight, Kiki three, and Trixie, one – why is he still chasing this risky business? His marriage nearly ended when he undertook to row across the Atlantic with Ben Fogle without fully discussing the implications of the challenge with his wife, but that didn’t jolt him into giving up his adventures. Nor, it seems, did the accident, though no one would blame him if he stowed his backpack and returned to using his Atlas to teach Geography, which he did briefly after university.
“People are always imposing limits, and there are a lot of dream-takers-away in this world. Whether your dream is in sport, in business or in relationships, if you constantly listened to people like that you would never have the chance to get where you wanted to go. You may never have got there anyway, but you shouldn’t let people put ceilings on you.”
The next thing I know he’s talking about how hard The Beatles worked before becoming the biggest band of the 1960s. It turns out George Harrison lived in Henley, and his son coxed for Cracknell’s rowing club, so there’s an internal logic there. And the comparison is apt. The Beatles were a defining part of Harrison’s life, as the Olympics were for Cracknell.
“I knew if I carried on for another four years, I was only ever going to be That Rower Bloke. I’ve been lucky enough not to spend every day being in the office in the same job. I wanted to be able to do other things. Luckily the Olympics gave me opportunities, but just because I was good in the boat didn’t mean I would be good at other things. As my father-in-law said, ‘When Beverley brought James home, he seemed very nice, and he goes very fast in a boat backwards ... which, I suppose, is useful’.”
Laughing at the memory, he says: “I’ve had amazing opportunities and I’m very thankful for the support I think sportsmen get in this country. You have to really muck up to lose public support. Your dreams are in other people’s hands and their dreams are in yours, and if you disrespect those dreams, you’ve got no chance.”
However, he admits the support of his wife has been sorely tested in recent years.
“It is difficult for any relationship when you start off as one thing and it changes dramatically. It’s also been different since the accident. As the doctor said, 80 per cent of people who have a brain injury get divorced. Beverley is not afraid to ask challenging questions. If I want to do something now, we discuss it as a family. Beverley isn’t going to take it lying down. Rowing across the Atlantic, I didn’t handle well; she didn’t like that, and I learned a huge amount from that. But after that, we’ve always taken things as a family.”
What might they take on as a family in the future? He says there are parts of eastern Russia and Mongolia crying out to be explored. Cancel the pipe and slippers, then. His competitive streak remains as strong as ever. But what is it he’s competing against? “It’s about satisfaction and the confidence gained from achieving [a goal] you’ve set yourself. You have a better chance of being happy if you set goals and think about how to do them, rather than using a short cut.”
Is he happy? “It varies, since the accident. There’s frustration that things are not the same, and things are harder. But I could have been in a far worse situation. It has made me appreciate how lucky I am. I’ve had a chance to look at [life] from a different perspective. At the same time, there’s not a moment when I wish it hadn’t happened. But I’m a problem solver. If you’re not happy, do something about it.”
The four part series World’s Toughest Expeditions with James Cracknell begins on the Discovery Channel tomorrow, at 9pm.
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