EXCLUSIVE – BENEDICT ALLEN reveals how to stay alive in the rainforest

EXCLUSIVE – I killed my dog and ate it to survive when I was lost in the Amazon: Following the amazing story of rescued children in Colombia, British explorer BENEDICT ALLEN reveals how to stay alive in the rainforest

  • Children spent more than five weeks in the jungle after the May 1 plane crash
  • Allen was fascinated by the tale, having studied indigenous communities

In the early hours of May 1 a plane crash-landed nose first in the Amazon in Colombia pitting four indigenous children, aged one to 13, against the forces of the jungle after they had abandoned their dying mother in a bid to stay alive.

The psychological struggle that the siblings endured in the 40 days leading up to their rescue is one that only a select few people on the planet will ever have to face, and it is one that British explorer Benedict Allen experienced back in 1983.

Allen is a world-renowned adventurer whose expeditions have included the first recorded crossing of the Amazon basin at its widest and the first known traverse of the entire Namib in Southern Africa on foot.

Aged 22, he flew to South America to cross between the Orinoco and Amazon river mouths.

He was attacked by gold miners carrying knives at night and spent weeks trying to navigate his way out of the jungle, famously being forced to eat his adopted dog to keep himself alive after killing it with a blow to the back of the skull using the butt of his machete.

Allen, who rose to fame through his books and TV series, has explored jungles on every corner of the planet, with much of that time spent in isolation and coming up against life-threatening situations.

He is known for expeditions achieved without a phone or GPS and has studied indigenous communities throughout his four decades as an explorer.

Here are his tips on how to survive if you get lost in the rainforest.

Benedict Allen alone in the Amazon in 2022. Allen is a world-renowned adventurer whose expeditions have spanned around four decades

On June 9, Colombian military soldiers attend to child survivors from a Cessna 206 plane that crashed in a jungle in Caqueta

Stay put

Generally, stick where you are. If you do move, you mark where you are before you move off because then you have some frame of reference. 

I usually have a survival kit. The trouble with rainforests is… they are very, very difficult to navigate. 

You can’t really see where the sun is usually. So you’ve got to mark your trail. It’s a basic sort of thing – just walk forward, just keep on. 

[You can] snap twigs all the way along – just keep marking what you’ve got, so that you can retrieve. It’s always about being able to retrieve if necessary.

[In the event of a plane crash] There should be a transponder on it. Of course, these children wouldn’t have known that. 

I’d say definitely stick with that wreckage [in most plane crash scenarios]. I would definitely stick with the plane because even if the transponder doesn’t work, the wreckage will probably be strewn around so any search party [can find it]. 

There will be a search party – someone will come looking. They will probably see the wreckage, which might be strewn [across the area that you are in]. You might not see much of it but it’s probably there to be seen. 

But furthermore, there will be a flight path. The flights have to say where they are heading and there will be a flight path that searchers head along looking for it.

Basically, I would stick with the wreckage. I myself, because I’m more experienced, I would investigate the area. 

But always marking my route back very, very clearly. I would look around for resources.

I’ve been around doing my expeditions for something like 40 years. 

Last year, I went back for the first time ever to that place where I had to eat the dog. So I was alone again for probably about 10 days in the rainforest. 

I was out there for about a month in the northeast of the Amazon in Brazil. So I’m still regularly going off and keeping myself informed and interested.

Benedict Allen exploring the South American rainforests in 1983. Allen’s expeditions include the first recorded crossing of the Amazon basin at its widest and the first known traverse of the entire Namib in Southern Africa on foot

Build a safe camp

[For shelter overnight you can use] palm leaves. You can do it even without a machete, even without a bush knife. 

You just find some poles and dead wood if necessary if you can’t snap live wood. And just prop it against the tree. 

Lay on palm leaves, like sort of tiles, to keep off the rain and keep in your warmth.

But always, always, you’ve got to build up a bed. Again, palm leaves are good. They keep you away from the ants. 

In the soil, there will be snakes, possibly scorpions, spiders, ants. So you’ve got to look for a campsite, where [there are] none of these. 

Generally, what you’ve got to do is kick through the leaf litter to make sure nothing’s going to bite you in the night and you build up a layer of palm leaves as a sort of bed – sort of put fronds of palms over you.

If you’re by the riverside, there will be more snakes generally. 

To be absolutely honest, a greater danger is a flash flood. And crossing rivers and sleeping on a riverbank – these are dangerous things. 

Crossing the river you can get carried away, but sleeping on the riverbank in the rainforest, because it’s heavy rain, sometimes the water will rise incredibly quickly.

Sleeping near a river is interesting but also rivers attract wild animals. 

Probably of all the animals you have to worry about is snakes. Sleeping somewhere where there are roots can be quite dangerous. 

Snakes often sleep in holes around the roots of the tree. You look around for anything that looks like a big hole, and it might just be a mouse hole, but you never know if a snake is in the mouse hole. 

Any holes you just sort of avoid. Although it’s tempting just to camp against a tree, that can be a bit of a danger for snakes. 

So generally you make a camp just slightly away from a tree. You clear the leaf litter, as I said earlier, with a stick. 

You don’t use your hands ever to clear leaf litter because you just get stung or bitten or something, and bearing in mind you only need one scorpion bite, one spider bite.

Although it may just make your hand swell up, that can be enough to kill you because you’re meant to be looking for food, so you cannot afford even to get a spider bite.

[For snake bites] Don’t get into that situation. There’s no reason why you need to be bitten by a snake generally. 

What you don’t do is look around with your hands in the leaf litter. 

Use a stick to clear the leaf litter, scrape it all away. Away from any roots. 

And then you lay on some bedding. So that’s how you avoid being bitten by a snake.

I’ve spent perhaps longer than anyone alone in rainforests. 

Even indigenous people don’t walk alone very much in the rainforest because it’s not necessarily very sensible. And I’ve never been bitten by a snake. 

I don’t think you’d get attacked by a caiman. In Australia, New Guinea you might get attacked by a saltwater crocodile. 

They really are a problem. Stay away from water [in those places].

Benedict Allen alone in the Amazon in 2023. Allen, who achieved fame through his books and TV series, has explored jungles on every corner of the planet

If you can’t stay put, float down a river to escape

You look for a river and follow it downriver. Eventually you will find people along a river so you follow it down. 

The problem with that – the Amazon is very, very flat. A big flat floodplain. 

Nearly all of it is flat. So what happens is the river meanders hugely. 

So you’re going to spend a lot of time following downriver. 

If it wasn’t for children, what I would do, especially if I had a rucksack [is use a bag to float downriver]. Certainly on a plane [in the event of a crash] you should be able to find some sort of bag. 

Put air in it, swing it around so it’s got air in it, tie it with a bit of cord – there will probably be some sort of cord on that plane – and you make a sort of water pillow, as it were, and then you can float down the river on it. 

It’s probably your best chance in any situation. Find a river and try and float down it. You’re likely to get rapids in somewhere like the Amazon. 

If you haven’t got a rucksack, you just have to look around for whatever you’ve got. 

If it’s a plane crash, you might obviously have life vests. 

And there may be something you can use out of a seat cushion as a flotation device. 

But otherwise there are woods that are very light in the Amazon – balsa-type woods that you’d use to float. 

In terms of rapids, if they are severe, you hear them up ahead. 

The Amazon is fairly flat. It’s not a rapid-strewn place. 

You try and keep to the sides. You don’t get into the centre of the river, so hopefully you can move yourself to the side. 

There’s not much you can do. If they’re huge rapids, they’re huge rapids. Generally it’s not such a common thing. 

You can try to stabilise yourself by floating down the river with poles, for example, even if they don’t help you float. They can give you more balance. 

The rivers can bring their own problems because you have stingrays, for example [so you can pick up injuries]. But it’s a good way of not spending too much energy and it will eventually get you to pass human habitation and that’s the key thing. 

An aerial view of the Ecuadorian Amazon river basin. Allen said floating down a river is probably your best chance if you get lost in the jungle

Stay motivated

In the end survival is really 80 per cent about the mind – your attitude. If you’ve got a fighting attitude you can believe that you can survive. Then you’re sort of two thirds of the way.

Obviously the first thing you do is look around for what you’ve got in that personal situation. You have to calm down and look what you have in your mind on your side.

Again, so much of it is psychological and the big thing is for the children [who survived the plane crash] to have had motivation. They had their mother – I think she spoke to them – so she would have motivated them saying: ‘Look, you’ve got to find a way out of here. You can do this.’

And that 13-year-old would have known her big thing was that somehow she had to keep that one-year-old alive. 

As a huge motivator for me when I disappeared in the Amazon when I was 22, I just thought: ‘I can’t let my mum and dad down.’ I just thought: ‘Somehow I’ve got to keep walking for their sake.’

What happened was, I was attacked by gold miners and they chased me in the night.

I still don’t know why they attacked me, but they were drunk and they probably thought I’d stolen something or they were worried about me reporting they were there. 

They came for me in the night with knives and I jumped into my canoe and escaped but my canoe capsized and I lost everything and I had to walk out of the forest. 

And famously, I ended up having to eat my dog to survive. The Daily Mail did a huge story on it. This was way back in 1983. 

It was terrible, terrible thing and I wouldn’t really wish it on anyone. But the fact is I had two sorts of malaria and I had to somehow get out of the forest. And I knew that the dog was dying and I was dying so my one chance was to kill the dog and get a bit of flesh and get a bit of food and that’s how I survived. 

But I was only 23 [having started the trip aged 22]. So in a way I was like one of these indigenous children. I didn’t have a clue. 

Well, they probably knew a lot more than me, in fact I’m sure they did. But I was like a child and I just thought: ‘I’ve just got to get out to my mum and dad.’

Benedict Allen on a Papua New Guinea expedition in 2017. He was found ‘alive and well’ near an airstrip 20 miles northwest of Porgera, Enga Province, four days after he was reported missing 

[My mental state during that incident] changed a lot. At the beginning, total despair and shock. 

I was on the riverbank and this must have been like this for these children. 

They had just lost their mum, or the mum was dying, and that must have been just a shock. You’re secure one moment and then suddenly you find yourself bewildered.

That is a critical moment. You sort of almost have to decide you’re going to survive. You just think: ‘Can this be real?’ 

And then you sort of have that anger and feeling of despair and you sort of have to make up your mind – I’m gonna get out of here. 

I couldn’t believe I could walk probably about 100 miles, a bit less, out of the forest. I really couldn’t believe that. But I remember thinking I can believe in walking the next 100 paces. 

You can almost see 100 paces through the rainforest, although it can be quite thick.

Generally, the rainforest, if it’s primary rainforest – you can see 100 paces. 

And so I walked 100 paces and notched up 100 paces on a stick. 

And every 100 paces I made another notch on the stick, following a bearing southeast with my compass, just counting every pace. 

And that’s the way I did it. Slowly, slowly, slowly, every day. Walking, walking, counting every pace. 

Because what happens is the whole thing’s overwhelming. That’s what it feels like at first. You just think: ‘I can’t do it, I can’t do it.’ 

But you can do the next pace and you can do the next 100 paces, so gradually you work away at that target and eventually I got out. 

It was about tricking myself into believing that I had a future. Because at first rainforests – the big, big thing about them is that you feel like the odd one out. 

You feel really oppressed by those trees. It feels like a prison. Because anything there is adapted. 

A human doesn’t hardly belong, even indigenous people, they make a clearing in the forest. They don’t just live within the forest. 

Every species there – every ant and every wasp – is all adapted and you’re not. And you really feel it because there is no horizon. 

If you’re in the desert or the Arctic you can see your way forward. In the Amazon it’s tree after tree after tree, a bit like prison bars. 

You’ve got to get through that with a mental game, with a trick. You’ve got to believe somehow there’s a horizon out there, which there isn’t. 

I mean you can’t see the horizon because of the trees, so you’ve somehow got to think of your family, think of your loved ones, think of the world that’s waiting out there for you. And head towards it.

It’s very hard to think of clear strategies because you just get those feelings of being overwhelmed. 

It’s sort of somehow about keeping that faith in yourself. 

There are certain strategies. I usually have a bit of paper in my survival kit reminding me of basic rules of survival and resilience. 

They are things like: have a clear vision of where you’re going. Adapt to changing circumstances as you go along. Look to the resources around you. Look to the resources within you. 

And there are about nine of these. I have them clearly in my head. 

And it just reminds me of basic rules. Otherwise you lose a sense that you have any sort of say in your destiny. 

You’ve got to keep reminding yourself of these basic rules.

In 1983, Allen flew to South America to traverse the 600 miles of the Orinoco river to the mouth of the Amazon

Think of the forest as a resource 

In this case it was very fascinating because these people [the children from the plane crash] were indigenous people so they understood the basic premise, which is that if you start using words like ‘survival’ in a way you’ve lost because you’ve got to think of the forest as a resource.

They would have been brought up in that way to think of the forest as not your enemy – you can’t fight something as massive as the rainforest. So they would have had the right mindset – there are things there on your side. 

You have to calm down and list in your mind what you have on your side. And then they had the manioc (cassava) flour. 

So they could have for example used petrol from [the plane]. There’s probably petrol there. Obviously if you can create a spark [after extracting it] you’ve got an instant ready-made fire. 

You can find a container and use that petrol and fire suddenly helps you hugely.

A lot of berries, especially palm berries, are nearly all edible. 

[On trying to guess which plants are poisonous] That’s a dangerous game. 

I remember climbing a mountain in the Amazon and I was so desperate and I saw the berries and they looked absolutely wonderful. It’s a dangerous thing. 

They look just like bilberries, but they weren’t, they were a type of hallucinogenic purple berry – very, very dangerous. 

You can get survival experts that say what you do is squeeze a little bit of juice on the end of your tongue to see if there’s any reaction on your tongue. You see if there’s any acid, bitter taste. 

It’s true, if you’ve got a day or two to spare you can do that sort of thing, you just put that little bit of berry on your tongue. It’s a dangerous thing though. 

You are sort of playing the odds and you haven’t got time for that to mess around. And what happens is, in a survival situation, you don’t think clearly, especially with children. 

They would have known it’s not a time to play around. It’s not a time to experiment, really. 

So you go for what you really do know, which is look for wet bits of forest which will have these palms in. 

There is a basic rule there that all palm fruit is edible. Snails, generally very safe. Worms, generally safe. 

A lot of bark beetles, especially if you can cook them, the larvae are good. A huge amount of protein and energy.

Benedict Allen in the Amazon learning from the Matsés people. There are around 2,200 Matsés living on the Peru-Brazil frontier in the Amazon rainforest

In the lowlands of New Guinea you’ve got these amazing sago grubs. 

They’re like big maggots and they’re such a sort of treat if you’re trying to survive.

You wouldn’t really want to eat them raw but they are very amazing, to keep living off these things. 

You pull off a bark of sago palm and there are hundreds of these maggots. 

What happens in a survival situation is all the things you worry about… you wouldn’t really want to eat them normally, but if you’re desperate then you will. 

I had a little survival kit [on the infamous 1983 trip]. If there’s one thing, just as a sort of central tip, it’s take a survival kit. Just a little bag around your waste. 

Not too big because the temptation is to shove everything in like Mars Bars in there.

But it’s really meant for survival and you don’t want to be tempted just to leave it aside, so it’s got to be really small. 

Fishing hooks, fishing line, small blades you can use for cutting things or for putting on a spear [are good things to have in it]. 

A torch, a little notepad and pencil. That’s to leave messages to say you’ve left that place on a certain day and you’re heading northwest or whatever. 

A compass. Distress flare if it’s the right habitat. If you’re in the Amazon it doesn’t help having a distress flare. No-one’s going to see it. 

They might on a river but you’d be better off waving, frankly. 

That is about it. Keep it very, very simple. 

But also waterproof matches and tinder. A bit of cotton wool. 

And funnily enough, the weird things you could put in, which does sound a bit strange, are women’s Tampax. 

Very, very brilliant for getting a fire going because they are compacted cotton wool.

And actually a condom, weirdly, because with a condom you can carry a huge amount of water. 

Anyway, yeah, I had one of these and I had my survival kit and that’s what saved me. 

I walked something like three weeks alone to get out of the forest and I survived because I was eating piranhas with my fish hook. 

Benedict Allen: ‘In Borneo and New Guinea, for example – in the lowlands of New Guinea you’ve got these amazing sago grubs. Big maggots and they’re such a sort of treat if you’re trying to survive’ (Stock image)

Take in as many calories as you can while spending as few as you can 

A lot of the tricks that survival experts film on TV are sort of fun but a bit irrelevant.

Basically if you spend time trying to rig up traps that catch food, all this sort of stuff, it uses up a huge amount of energy. 

What you’ve got to try and do is take in as many calories as you can without using a lot of calories. I’ve lived so long with indigenous people – it’s amazing how they don’t spend any unnecessary energy. 

So for example, I remember this little girl, who’s probably the age of one of those children. She’s probably about five. 

I remember her mother asking her to go and fetch water from the river. 

She didn’t have a container but what she did was run off to the river, sucked in a huge mouthful of water and brought it back, so that water was actually to use for washing her mother’s hands. She was cutting some fish. 

This sort of economy of effort is absolutely amazing.

Things that I have done. I have used my socks to fish with, to scoop up. 

You look for a small pool of water and use your socks like a sort of net to catch fish.

I found myself with virtually nothing in the Amazon and I had a water bottle, a bit of manioc flour, a bit of oil and just a couple of batteries. 

And out of that I made a trap for fish, just a way of quickly catching small fish. 

You just make a hole in that water bottle and put manioc flour, a bit of oil in there, and the fish will come into that water bottle and you can trap them. 

So for very little energy you’ve converted that manioc flour into more energy because of the fish. 

You can eat pretty much all fish raw, just about. 

[Your chances of survival are] increased by not going off to hunt anything, but simply gathering. 

You sort of gather what berries you can. A lot of palms you can actually eat the inner core of. You get the palm, you slice it open, you can eat that raw, the core of the palm.

You’ll pretty well always find life on the Amazon. 

Most of the dangers that I’ve been talking about, the snakes and the jaguars, these things avoid humans. 

Jaguars avoid humans. Snakes – you’re really unlikely to be bitten. So it’s not a big worry. 

But you can get seriously weakened by sleeping on the ground. Indigenous people would note, you build a sort of nest on the ground. 

Doesn’t so much matter about covering yourself but build a nest so that you’re off the damp because that wastes your energy. If you’re in a cool environment you’re wasting calories. 

So you insulate yourself from the ground.

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