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Ben Kozel

NEWSFLASH: Ben has just had his second book released, 'Five Months in a Leaky Boat' detailing the Yenisey river expedition from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean. Find out more at his new website: www.benkozel.com or to view the front cover of Ben's new book and download a press release/summary click here.

Tim travelled with Ben on the Yenisey River Journey, which involved three or four months at close quarters in their leaky wooden row boat. Ben Kozel was born in 1973 and grew up in Adelaide’s northeastern suburbs. He attended Windsor Gardens High School, before starting a science degree at Adelaide University in 1991, where his focus was Zoology and Botany. With six months of this degree remaining he ignored the protests of both his parents and friends and made the decision to put his studies on ice for a while. Tired of life as a poor student, and nurturing dreams of travelling around Australia, he worked three jobs simultaneously, which included a year of getting up at three o’clock every morning to deliver bread for a bakery. Then, having repaired his ailing Datsun 200B, it was time to hit the road. He got as far as Queensland, where he spent several months working as a conservation volunteer. His interest in restoring the damage done to the Australian environment took him all over that state planting trees, attacking noxious weeds and building educational walking trails. First as a volunteer and then as a project team leader, Ben had the great fortune of working with people from all over the world. Inspired by the many stories they told him about their homelands and with a lot of places to stay, he left Australia to backpack around Europe. He returned to Australia more than a year later, and got a job as a Project Supervisor for a Federal government training program called Green Corps. While working to replant rainforest near Mackay in central Queensland, an old travelling companion named Colin Angus wrote to him with the idea of going to South America to raft down the Amazon River. Less than a year later, in February 2000, he was standing at the Atlantic Ocean, a member of only the third team ever to successfully trace the world’s biggest river from source to sea. In 2001, he and Colin recruited Tim and another Canadian for a journey along the fifth longest river in the world – the Yenisey. This river begins in Mongolia and travels 5,500 kilometres north through Siberia until it reaches the Arctic ocean. Using kayaks, a rubber raft and then a wooden boat, they became the first people to go down the full length of the Yenisey. In the period since coming back from Siberia, Ben has written a book about the Amazon journey and at last finished off his science degree.

Ben is currently in the process of writing an account of his experiences in Mongolia and Siberia. Contact Ben and find out more

Interview With Ben

1. Where did you grow up and what did you get up to as a kid?

Well and truly in the ‘burbs’ of Adelaide, South Australia. You could not find a more run-of-the-mill working class suburb in the country I don’t think. I had a love affair with sport. Cricket in the summer, soccer and Aussie Rules in the winter. At home I took an almost unnatural interest in geography, spending many hours poring over maps and world atlases.

2. How did you find your senior years of School? Did you know what you wanted to do?

By year 11, I’d fully let go of plans to join the navy and was looking forward to a career as a botanist or zoologist. As much as possible I avoided the humanities based subjects like English and economics in preference for science. I really knuckled down in year 11 and year 12 and was part of a group of students who encouraged each other toward achieving academic excellence in a school where the most common choice of career was ‘motor mechanic’.

3. What was something important that sparked your decision to launch into dreams of adventure and exploration?

There wasn’t really a single spark, at least not one that I am aware of. As long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by what exists beyond where I live. This interest encompassed the natural world as well as the history of human civilisation and the contemporary mosaic of different cultures. The more I learnt, the greater became the force compelling me to experience these peoples and places firsthand.

4. What is it that makes you come alive the most?

Any new experience, especially one where I do not at first feel comfortable.

5. Any advice for young people who are wondering how they can aim for their own dreams?

Make things happen. Don’t sit back and wait for things to fall into your lap. The process might involve you looking silly or feeling out of your depth. But guaranteed everyone you admire for having successfully pursued their own dreams has gone through exactly these things at some point in getting to where they are. Struggle often comes with the territory. But resilience is inevitably rewarded. Grasp the opportunities when they arise and throttle them.

6. What do your parents think about your adventures?

They have finally accepted that this is what I do, although I don’t think they will ever understand what motivates me and why I have veered away from so much of what they consider a common sense approach to life. Horses for courses I say. Everyone is different, and, as long as you are able to feed yourself and wipe your own arse, no one has the right to tell you either what you should be doing or how to go about doing it.

7. What would you say are the low points and high points of your adventure travel lifestyle?

Highs: Introduction to new people, places, animals, plants, panoramas that I never knew existed. Having my expectations exceeded. The knowledge that there are very few places on earth beyond my reach. Coming through a tough situation where I’ve experienced feelings of self-doubt. Lows: The everlasting dance with debt.

8. In really hard times what is it that gives you the motivation to go on?

That what I do is the envy of a lot of people.

9. What is the worst situation you have encountered and how did you get out of it?

Without a doubt it was an occasion on the Amazon River in Peru when two colleagues and I encountered armed guerrillas. As I rowed our inflatable raft past a remote riverside dwelling, 4 men appeared on the bank and made demands for us to stop. When it became clear to them that we had no intention of obeying, shotguns were levelled at us and fired. The first two volleys missed. And at that point, I realised, through my terror, that I had three options: to dive into the bottom of the boat with my two colleagues, to jump overboard and hide behind the boat, or to keep rowing. Options 1 and 2 very likely would have seen the boat drift in to shore and thus given the rebels and easy opportunity to capture us. So I decided rowing was the best way of getting out us out of the poo, despite the fact it left me completely exposed to more gunfire. Only by gritting my teeth, closing my eyes, pulling on the oars as hard as I could, and resisting that powerful instinctive urge to duck for cover, did I maximise our chances of escape. The fast current pulled us around a bend and out of range, and the dense forest prevented the rebels from following us along the bank.

10. What are the good and bad points of travelling with Tim? Any dirt you want to share?

Good: Tim is not afraid to test the limits of his experience. He's hard-headed, but in a positive sense, and keeps his cool under pressure. He doesn’t grumble and moan when the going gets tough; instead finding the root causes of his misery a fascinating distraction. Bad: He has particularly noxious flatulence.

11. Ultimately, what do you love about adventure travel?

Getting away from the well-beaten tourist path is important for me because it often means a higher likelihood of encountering an environment or a culture that remains little influenced by western society. The intensity associated with adventure travel allows me the opportunity to more readily distil the essence of what is around me, to see beyond the surface and find a deeper meaning.

12. What was one of the funniest moments you have shared during a journey?

It happened on the Amazon, not long after we’d entered the delta. We were drifting lazily after breakfast and Colin was in the murky brown river having a wash and a swim. Simultaneously, Scott (the South African member of the team) and I felt the need to empty our bowels. Owing to diet and the overall nature of our intestinal movements at that stage of the journey, we had a matter of seconds between feeling the initial push and that point where the poo comes out regardless of how much you try to hold on. The riverbank, as usual, was too far away for a more civilised toilet stop, so Scott and I hung our arses over opposite ends of the boat and let nature take its course. Colin sensibly put more distance between himself and the raft and stayed there for several minutes until he was sure the turds had left the vicinity. Experience told us that our turds either sank, floated ahead of the boat, or floated behind the boat. Seeing no sign of them, Scott and I gave the all clear for Colin to come back toward the raft. What happened next harked back to a scene from the movie Jaws. Just as Colin was about to haul himself back into the boat, a turd came back to surface half a metre behind his head and began floating towards him. “Look out” cried Scott. Colin glanced over his shoulder, yelped and then quickly ducked beneath the water.

13. If you had to pick one highlight to date what would it be?

The falling meteor that glowed bright green across the sky for no less than 10 seconds as we neared the confluence of the Yenisey River and the Stony Tunguska River. More than being by far the most spectacular one I’d ever seen, the timing of the meteor left me completely awestruck. As a child I’d been fascinated the reports of a meteor explosion that had occurred in Siberia in 1908. The site of this explosion was just a couple hundred kilometres from where we were at the time of our sighting.

Thanks Ben, and good luck! Contact Ben and find out more