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Ben Fogle

Ben Fogle has always challenged himself – first as a TV Castaway, and latterly as an adventurer; now he’s challenging us to rethink our waste. Rebecca Gooch caught up with him between travels to talk rubbish – and Royal look-alikes…

Not long ago Prince William was spotted in a Norfolk newsagents, buying some papers. “I recognise you,” said the shopkeeper. “Yes,” chipped in the prince’s detective. “It’s Ben Fogle!”

And it’s true, there is a definite lookeylikeyness between the two, what with the public school plumminess, good manners, white teeth and familiarity with Barbour jackets and Labradors. Ben himself admits he’s similarly been mistaken for HRH.

But he’d never trade places – he would rather have thrills than be Wills…

“He’s a charming, grounded young man who will make a great King one day. But he has way too many responsibilities for my liking,” says the chap who’s willingly tackled a few right royal-sized missions of his own, like rowing the Atlantic, skiing to the South Pole, running the Sahara, racing on horseback across Mongolia, pulling a rickshaw from London to Edinburgh and, pencilled in for 2013, a 4000-mile trek up and down Australia.

When it comes to pushing himself to the limits and risking life and limb, 36-yearold Fearless Fogle seems addicted. He’s been bitten by a rabid dog and excruciatingly painful bullet ants, capsized thousands of miles from land in the Atlantic, got frostbite and developed the flesh-eating disease Leishmaniasis which called for two bouts of chemotherapy so powerful that some patients can’t walk for two years.

So why continually risk death?

“It’s always a calculated risk, and I’ve always lived by the adage ‘add life to your days, not days to your life’,” he says, when I caught up with him as he arrived back from Ethiopia, where he’d been making a documentary on children disfigured by a flesh-eating disease similar to the one he contracted in Peru in 2008, and before he set off the next day with his expedition buddy, Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell, to cycle 3000 miles from Canada to Mexico on mountain bikes.

“I love a challenge. I think it’s human nature to take the easy option and become complacent with life. Challenges give you the opportunity to shake up your life every so often.”

And Ben’s first personal ‘shake-up’ turned out to have a seismic impact on his life. He was working on the picture desk of a glossy magazine, with a degree in Latin American studies under his belt, when in 1999 he answered an ad looking for people who wanted to create from scratch a selfsufficient community on the Hebridean island of Taransay, with no contact with the outside world for a year.

The resulting TV documentary, Castaway, turned Ben, the son of a vet and an actress, into a household name. One of the few people to have forged a prolific and respected career after appearing in a reality show – although he prefers to call it actuality – Ben went on to front the kind of programmes (Animal Park, Country File, Wild in Africa, One Man and His Dog, Extreme Dreams) which now make him first choice for any TV exec looking for an affable environment, animal and adrenalin-loving James Herriot-come- Ranulph Fiennes type.

But alongside his adventures and TV escapades, a green thread has endured. Passionate about the natural world and ecology from an early age, he has been involved with causes as diverse as turtle conservation on the Mosquito Coast and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, Medecins sans Frontiers and the ‘Clean up the Coastline’ campaign.

“Whilst rowing across the Atlantic I remember seeing a huge amount of plastic bags and bottles floating in the sea,” he says, and while on Taransay he counted 400 flip-flops, sandals and wellies washed up on the shore.

“Since having my son Ludo, it’s really made me realise how important it is to think about our future generations and try to help make a difference, encouraging people to think about the environment.”

And it’s his passionate feelings about global waste – unnecessary packaging and everything we unthinkingly chuck out, that could be re-invented and re-used – that is behind his backing of a new initiative to get us all ‘upcycling’.

He’s recently been head judge for the Young Eco Designer competition run by Britain’s leading ethically sourced coffee brand, Kenco, encouraging children and their families to ‘upcycle: re-using waste in an imaginative way’. As part of its ongoing commitment to sustainability the company has launched a revolutionary new Eco Refill package that weighs 95% less than traditional jars.

Ben attributes his experiences on Taransay as his inspiration to put his weight behind the Young Eco Designer contest. On the island he re-created whatever he could find into Christmas presents for his fellow castaways.

“That year, being marooned, was the catalyst for my upcycling,” he says. “I have lamp shades made from old newspapers, wash bags made from truck tarpaulin, African bowls made from old tins and a mirror from an old oil drum. The possibilities are vast when it comes to upcycling – it’s a great way of converting waste products into new materials. So you can create wallets out of car tyres or lanterns from old coffee jars…

“What I enjoy about upcycling are the endless possibilities to create something new at the same time as being ecofriendly.” “I’m not particularly good at making things, but I did create a lamp stand out of last year’s Christmas tree which was great fun. People often comment on it!”

And though the message is serious – “waste is a massive problem for the planet, during my travels I see first hand the terrible impact of irresponsible behaviour on the planet” – being green shouldn’t be gloomy, he insists.

“People are bored with finger wagging. I believe there’s a middle ground where you can be green but also have fun. There’s many of us around – we’re passionate but we also realise you can’t change your whole lifestyle in one night or even one year. I’m a true believer that everyone can lead a relatively green life on a daily basis “I also think we’re entering a green revolution and that we’ll look back at our lifestyle and waste culture with a degree of horror.”

So remember the message from the prince of upcycling: Don’t bin it, Ben it….


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