robin hanbury-tenison

Humour is the most important common thread of humanity.

The life of this explorer is alive with the fantastical and almost impossible, from head-hunting and cannibals in Borneo, to crossing the Kalahari with the indomitable Bushmen, it is not without good reason that he is considered the greatest living explorer, the “doyen” of British exploration. Indiana Jones has nothing on this man. Not only do his stories, and impressive collections of personal gifts from the various tribes with whom he has spent time, by far out strip our fedora-wearing, whip-wielding archaeologist, but his social conscience is staggering. He has fought tirelessly and ceaselessly for the rights of the tribal people, for their protection and for their land, founding not just a charity, but a movement: help the tribal people protect themselves.  It was in no small part his myriad adventures and experiences that nudged me into anthropology (and kept me going during all-nighters in the college library!), so I am thrilled and privileged to introduce a few thoughts of the incomparable explorer extrodinaire, Robin Hanbury-Tenison…


From Robin’s very early days in exploration, the importance of the preservation of cultures vulnerable to the pressures of the 21st century, and it is a thread that has woven it’s way through his life, culminating with the foundation of Survival International.  But I was interested.  Does he still think it is realistic for “lost” tribes to stay hidden? And whether, with globalisation, migration, integration,  definitions of “culture”, and therefore the idea of the preservation of indigenous peoples, changing?

Given it is a the forefront of advocating for tribal people’s rights (to land, mostly), it is perhaps unsurprising that Robin guided me to the Survival International website for reasons that it is still so important to believe in the rights of all people, and perhaps especially those who choose to remove themselves from the rest of the world.

[The literature] really puts it better than I can.  The Peruvians have a good expression for uncontacted people; “those living in voluntary isolation”.  I like that.  They have every reason not to want to be contacted.  Some have had dreadful experiences many decades, or even centuries, ago.  Some have seen enough to know they are better off staying as they are.  All they need is for their land to be protected.

The world is, perhaps, a much more fragile place now than in bygone times. The idea of culture, too, is becoming more tenuous.  Where previously girls were married at puberty, or youngsters were a necessity in maintaining herds, the Western powers (UN agencies, governments, charities, and NGOs, amongst others) have decided that all children must receive an “education” (again, an “education” as understood by those very bodies who deem it a basic human right).  It is a difficult paradox.  Is respecting traditional ways more important than upholding what are considered by the West to be essential? And if not, if instead integrating both ways of life is how to overcome the dichotomy, is this not a watering down of traditions, and therefore a deliberate disintegration of culture? It is something that I had been puzzling myself, so I put it to Robin.

There is nothing wrong with education, as long as it is appropriate.  Sadly, it often isn’t.  For a start, it should always be in a peoples’ own language.  Then it should begin by being about their own culture and only move to a useful understanding of the surrounding culture when people are in a position to start choosing which elements of each to choose.  With mutual respect almost anything is possible and even desirable, from a University degree, which gives the power to represent your peoples’ interests, to a fulfilling life doing what your ancestors have always done, but with enough knowledge of the outside world to be able to withstand its blandishments.

His answer echoed that of Titus, my Masaai friend, who had explained to me the decision of some of his tribesmen to send their children away to Mombassa, even Nairobi, for school education and subsequetly for few, university.  They had forsaken many of the coming-of-age rites and rituals that would, traditionally, have made them men and women.  But, as Titus said, “there are different types of warriors”.

Away from the cultural and human rights side of Robin’s extensive experience, I couldn’t help be caught up by his life as the “doyen of British exploration”.  Robin makes clear that now, rather than the decades between the 15th and 17th centuries, is the “golden age” of exploration.  I was interested,  since those times gone by, when expeditions were planned and executed to gather information, often scientific, for the crown and king, whether Robin thought that exploration these days has changed much? Or whether he would consider the fundamental guiding principles the same – to learn as much as we can about the world around us?

 Exploration should still have the same principles, I believe, but tempered with much more respect and understanding both for the environment and for other cultures.  It is vitally important that we learn everything we can about how our planet works in order to equip us to combat all the destructive things we are doing to it.  We are just beginning to realise just how little we do know, which is why I call this the age of exploration.

The anthropologist in me is never hiding too far, so my questions quickly returned to his experiences with so many different people. Belief and thought systems always fascinated me, and given that Robin has, over the long stretch of his prolific career, spent time with over 100 tribes throughout his life, this must have had some sort of impact on what he believed to be possible.  I wandered, had he ever experienced anything that made him question his own beliefs?

 Of course.  Constantly.  But I come from my particular background, for better or worse, and it contains a pretty good set of moral rules, just as do all cultures.  I have often been teased by tribal people who have seen through the hypocrisy of my telling them that their way is better and then laughed a lot when I try to explain why I’m not about to come and live with them when they suggest it.  I believe that humour is the most important common thread of humanity.

When Robin rode the  Camargue horses, Thibert and Tiki, back from the wetlands of southern France, that was with Louella. Given a deal of his previous expeditions were with scientific parties – from the Royal Geographic Society in the case of Mulu, How different is it for you to be undertaking journeys like that with someone you know and love, rather than by yourself or with relative strangers?  Is one preferable for you?

There is something very special about pure solitude, which few people are lucky enough to experience, at least as much as I have.  I don’t like travelling with a big group, although being the leader of a major expedition in the field for 15 months was a fantastic experience, mainly because I had a brilliant team behind me.  But travelling a deux with the one you love is best, but only if that person really is your soulmate.


His answers to my last question (always my most fun!), I was also looking forward to.  “So, Robin”, I asked, “if you could invite five people, from any point in history, to join you for dinner, who would they be and why?”

Wow!  A tricky one.  Many possible answers, but no time, so here goes:
1. Paddy Leigh Fermor.  Simply the most entertaining travel writer.  I knew him, but could never have enough.
2. Laurence van der Post.  The best story teller and the only man I have known who could move seamlessly from reality to myth.
3. Bruce Chatwyn.  Wickedly funny raconteur, gossip and dreamer. A tortured soul, but huge fun.
4. David Attenborough.  The consummate professional on all things natural, and a wise and thoughtful man.
5. Wilfred Thesiger.  A grumpy old reprobate in some ways, but also wise and deeply committed, in surprising ways well ahead of his time.

You will notice that I have chosen people I know or knew well or slightly.  This is because I feel that people plucked from history probably wouldn’t fit in together at a dinner party and I want this one to swing!  Also, I’m afraid there are no women.  This is because none sprang instantly to mind, and also because some of those I have chosen might be better company in an all male group!   Make of that what you will.


Surely, everyone needs a book by Robin Hanbury-Tenison, and if you’ve not already got yours, go here.

Survival International is a very important, very timely cause to support. If you feel able to do so, or just wish to know more, then go here.



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