Ben Fogle on Scotland, his TV programmes, and one special black labrador

I’ll always have a slight inferiority complex,” says Ben Fogle with a sigh. It’s something he mentions frequently during the course of our interview, and it’s something that is revealed, not in his manner, but in his impressive list of achievements, which reads a little like a biography of a person constantly trying to prove himself.

Where to start with the bold Ben? He’s a television presenter, first and foremost, but in his 38 years he’s managed to pack a lot into a CV that could be a template for the ultimate gap year: he’s competed in the Marathon des Sables, a 160-mile race through the Sahara desert, ice-skated across Sweden, rowed the Atlantic, cycled a rickshaw from Edinburgh to London and raced to the South Pole, the last three events with Olympic rower James Cracknell in tow.

His next deed of derring do? He’s aiming to become the first person to swim the Atlantic. Oh, and he’s written six books in his down time. His latest, The Accidental Naturalist: My Wild Years tells his life story via his relationship with animals, from the various beasts that traipsed in and out of his childhood home in London, which doubled as his father’s veterinary practice to Inca, his pet labrador who changed the course of his life.

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Given the subject matter, we choose to meet at Edinburgh Zoo, and soon he’s snapping away enthusiastically at the pandas on his iPhone, explaining that he can’t wait to show the pictures to his two-year-old son Ludo.

We trip around the zoo together on a bright, blustery day, pausing to take photographs of critters he thinks Ludo will like. He lingers at the jaguars. “I remember camping just here in Guyana,” he says, pointing at a map beside the enclosure. “Two jaguars came into our camp at night and went under our hammocks. We could feel them slinking under us. They sat in the camp all night chewing on their prey. I could hear the 
bones crunching.”

This is standard Fogle fare. So wide-ranging and impressive are his experiences that his life so far has been one big bucket list, and he’s got a seemingly-endless selection of anecdotes to choose from: “A tarantula hitch-hiked back in my rucksack after a trip to Peru and escaped into the garden. Two keepers from London Zoo came to try and find it. They never did.”

He wanted to be a vet, like his father, he tells me, but he didn’t have the grades. After completing a degree in Latin American Studies at Portsmouth University and taking an obligatory gap year in South America, he found himself working as a picture editor on Tatler when he applied for Castaway in 2000, the BBC reality series which saw a group of people becoming self-sufficient on a small island – Taransay – in the Outer Hebrides over the course of a year.

The producers allowed each castaway one ‘luxury’ item, and he chose Inca, a black labrador puppy. Together the pair became a bit of a double act and got plenty of air time. When he stepped off the island after a year in the wilderness, the BBC offered him a job presenting Animal Park, and in the past decade TV credits have included Crufts, Countryfile and Wild in Africa. Most recently has been BBC2’s Swimming With Crocodiles.

Something of an overgrown member of the Famous Five, he looks like a television presenter; handsome, wholesome, enthusiastic and wearing a wacky waistcoat. It’s tartan, “in honour of my trip to Scotland” and clashes admirably with his bright green deck shoes. He’s here on a book tour, but he often finds himself north of the Border; his grandfather was from Glasgow and his Scottish nanny took him and his sister Emily on holidays to Eigg when they were children.

“Scotland has always been an important part of my life. I spent a lot of my childhood up here and there’s no doubt that Taransay changed my whole life. Of all the places I’ve been the Outer Hebrides is the most beautiful, without question. It’s still my favourite place in the world. My heart skips a beat when I go back there.”

The Accidental Naturalist is the follow-up to The Accidental Adventurer, which covers his various trips and expeditions. “In The Accidental Adventurer I tried to describe how challenging myself has made me the person that I am and how I’ve been affected by physical challenges and landscapes. The Accidental Naturalist is about how individual animals and my encounters with them have done the same, even perhaps helping to create my personality.”

The word “accidental” in both titles is an apology of sorts; he essentially fell into his various lines of work, has no particular qualifications, was a shy, homesick and relatively unsporty child and has “a complex that people just see me as a posh Englishman”.

Which he is, of course, but he insists that there’s more to him than that, and he certainly goes out of his way to prove it, asserting that he’s “always liked testing people’s perceptions” of him.

“I’ve always had a complex in the adventuring world that I’m not sporty, I never have been sporty and I’m not particularly good at sport and the same goes for the world of natural history,” he adds. “I have a complex that I don’t have academic qualifications and I feel slightly fraudulent.” Ten “very intensive” years working with animals in their natural and artificial habitats, however, have made him a respected wildlife presenter, and he’s slowly beginning to acknowledge he has earned his reputation.

Twelve years on from Castaway, he has surely proven his worth as a presenter, adventurer and author (his multiple best-sellers including The Crossing in 2006 and Race to the Pole in 2009) in the eyes of the public, even if he’s not quite convinced himself. He still feels inferior around other writers, he says, even with six books to his name.

Perhaps that’s why he sets himself challenges that are so far outwith his comfort zone. The proposed Atlantic swim is a case in point: “A lot of people ask if I’m a good swimmer, if I love swimming, and the answer to both of those questions is ‘no’. I still need to learn to love to swim and, to be honest I still need to learn to swim. I can, but not very well. It’s a long term goal, and there probably is a selfishness to it. I need to do it for myself, I want to do it for myself.”

Why? “I still do lack confidence and I think my way of building up that confidence is perhaps by doing something that sets me apart. I haven’t done that for a few years which is probably where this swim has come from. I need something to focus on as well.”

The proposed swim will take him around three months, a tricky prospect since he tries to set a ten-day limit when it comes to being away from his wife Marina and their two children, Ludo, two, and Iona, one. Ludo, in particular was very fond of Inca the dog, who died in July this year, after The Accidental Naturalist had been completed. A tear-stained conclusion to the book describes her swift decline and the painful moment Fogle’s father put her to sleep.

“I owe everything to you,” Fogle tells her, sobbing, in the hours before she dies. As unlikely as it sounds, it’s true, and is one of the reasons he dedicated the book to her. Without his on-screen partnership with her, he doubts he would have been asked to present Animal Park, the job that kick-started his career. More importantly, perhaps, he met Marina when he was walking Inca in Hyde Park and she was taking her dog Maggi for a run.

He will scatter half of Inca’s ashes in Hyde Park, he says, and the other half on Taransay, which is now privately-owned (he raised £2.5 million to try to buy it and “do something extraordinary for the island and with the local community” but was unsuccessful). He’s been overwhelmed by the number of people who’ve approached him since Inca’s death to tell him about their experiences of losing their pets.

His own loss is still raw, and he can’t yet contemplate the idea of getting another dog. “One of the most heartbreaking things about losing her was that Ludo absolutely adored her. My phone is still full of photos of him just sitting on top of her which was his favourite thing. And he still says every day ‘where has Inca gone?’ And we say ‘she’s up in the sky’ and he looks and waves and says ‘hello Inca!’ It made me cry for the first few weeks or so.”

We’ve arrived at the penguins and he’s chuckling at a cheeky rockhopper. “I can never really look at penguins quite enough,” he says, apparently captivated by them. He may have seen these birds in the wild often enough but his passion for animals is such that encountering them in any environment never seems to get old.

The Accidental Naturalist opens with an anecdote about an early presenting job, searching for Nile crocodiles in Namibia. He catches a two-footer under the cover of darkness and, pumped full of adrenaline, turns to the camera and exclaims “Look at this turtle! I have caught this turtle with my bare hands!”

It was a line he feared might put an end to his presenting career when it had barely begun. By the final chapter of the book however, he is swimming confidently with huge saltwater crocs in Australia. In the decade between the two experiences he has worked with everything from camels to sharks, hippos to cheetahs. Then of course there are the parrots and rabbits, cats and dogs that were daily visitors to his 
childhood home.

Is there anything left to for him to see? He starts reeling off a list: “Pandas in the wild, And I’d love to go to China. Gorillas in the wild too.”

“Even though I’ve travelled so much, the more I travel the more I want to see and do,” he adds. “I’ll never sate the itch in my feet. I’ll always want to travel. I’ll always push and test myself and I suspect that given that I’ve tested myself in an adventurous way and I’ve pushed myself physically and mentally beyond what I thought were my limits it would be nice to pursue other things, whether that’s business, politics, charity...”

It sounds like a bit of a scatter gun approach, but then it’s worked for him so far. His experiences and achievements are as varied as they are impressive. He’s conquered the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara desert and the South Pole against the odds so why not the business world or the charity sector?

“Whatever I do I’d love to keep pushing the boundaries. I’d like to leave some sort of lasting legacy whatever that is and if that’s [being] the first person to have swum the Atlantic or someone who’s discovered a new species or raised the most money for charity or eradicated some terrible disease that would be fine. But I think I would like to leave my mark and I haven’t done it yet.”

He is certainly nothing if not ambitious. Indeed those who might throw the ‘Jack of all trades...’ accusation at him would do well to consider the fact that it turns out that he has actually mastered quite a few, whether he has the formal qualifications to do so or not.

In his battle to overcome that “slight inferiority complex” he has developed an unshakeable will to succeed, to stand out, to prove himself. His life and career to this point, may have been meandering, accidental even, but when he’s figured out what he wants to do, he’s gone after it time and again, and he’s never failed. “It’s an accident how everything has happened,” he says with a smile, “not that it’s happened.”

The Accidental Naturalist: My Wild Years is published by Transworld Books, £18.99