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Steve Backshall: 'Adventuring is a numbers game and if we carry on, eventually someone is going to get hurt, badly'

Steve Backshall wanted to be a safari park ranger as a child
Steve Backshall wanted to be a safari park ranger as a child Credit: Mike Lawn

We asked the presenter and naturalist, 46, what his younger self would make of him today...

My parents are mad keen on the outdoors and animals. When I was four years old, they had the opportunity to take on a run-down, ramshackle smallholding, close to the terrace house I’d been born in. 

They took it on with no knowledge of what that would entail, and I had a chaotic childhood of investigation of the woodlands around my house, bringing home rescue animals, and learning how to live with the domestic animals that we had. It was bliss. They took a chance, it completely hobbled them financially, but it was the most perfect childhood I can ever imagine. 

I would trace my love of nature back to then, and my ease of being around animals is from then too. My folks had this attitude of trying to do everything to the best of their ability, even if they made a mess of it. That has become my maxim for life. 

Their day jobs were working for British Airways; Dad did 45 years. It meant we got free travel all over the world to places that we would definitely not have been able to afford otherwise. My sister and I went to India, Africa and South America as children. We didn’t have any money so we lived like backpackers. That ease with travelling was instrumental to where I ended up going. 

My defining characteristic is over-enthusiasm. When I was at university, the mickey-take was Steve “Best Ever” Backshall. Anything I ever did or saw was the “best ever”. That was me from three years old and I still do it now. I still get up and say: “That was the best sunset I’ve ever seen.” And the guys will say: “You said that last night!” It’s not put on. I honestly feel at that moment in time that something is so amazing that it sets off this chain of explosions inside me and I end up bouncing around like a puppy.

A boyhood Steve Backshall with a snake

It makes it possible for me to do what I do. There are a lot of low times on expeditions, when you’re exhausted, when you haven’t eaten or slept for days, and it turns into a real slog. Then suddenly you’re round a corner and you’ll see a bird you’ve never seen before, or a view that no one has ever seen before, and that little whack of enthusiastic adrenaline carries me through the rest of the day.

My 15-year-old self wanted to be a guide working in an African safari park. That was my dream and I never thought I’d achieve that. But I feel I’ve gone way past that into a realm my teenage self wouldn’t even understand. I was obsessed with snakes, and I’ve found dozens over the past year. We’ve gone into cave systems where nobody has been before. 

For the majority of my career it’s been the job at the expense of everything else. Meeting Helen [Glover, the Olympic rowing champion] changed things. She is my absolute life partner in a way that fulfils everything, in ways I’ve always been looking for. I had never met anyone like her before – and never will again. She is the most gifted individual I’ve ever met. She can turn her hand to anything and excel at it. 

Steve Backshall grew up in an adventurous family

I am an absolute workaholic. That has come into sharp focus over the past year, as I’ve become a dad. Now I have to think about others, not just myself. 

After this year of expeditions, there have been far too many close calls and times when it could have all gone bad. One particular time, in Bhutan on a whitewater rapid, I almost died. Now it’s time to sit down with Helen and my team and figure out what happens next. It’s a numbers game and if we carry on, eventually someone is going to get hurt, badly. But I’ve assembled this world-class team now. So do we jack it all in? Or do we evolve and do something not quite so dangerous?

I’ve done things recently that would have exceeded everything my 40-year-old self thought of doing, let alone my 30-year-old self or 20-year-old self. My teenage self would probably think it was a joke. At the end of the last expedition, in Borneo, we’d just discovered a cave filled with hand prints that are at least 40,000 years old – out dating Lascaux by 15,000 years. I was wandering around with the world expert, who was in tears. We sat at the mouth of the cave with the sun going down in the distance, and there was no way to better it. 

Fifty is rampaging towards me. I’m not as fit as I was at 20, but I couldn’t care less. I’ve never been as content as I feel today. 

Expedition with Steve Backshall is on Dave, Sundays at 8pm. A tie-in book (BBC Books, £20) is available for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk