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Steve Backshall On Expeditions, Strictly And Missing Marlow

As he heads out on yet another expedition, Steve Backshall discusses conservation issues, local nature and how COVID ruined three momentous occasions in 2020

There’s no escaping the embarrassment, but I have to be honest with Steve Backshall because he is a thoroughly nice chap: the first time I really got to know the him was when I noticed how ripped he was on Strictly Come Dancing, which is an ever so slightly worrying thing to admit when I am speaking to someone who has appeared in countless TV shows and written many acclaimed books. “Ha ha,” is his response. “The people who recognise me have different perceptions about who I am and what I do. Some see me as a kids’ TV presenter, others as a biologist or an explorer, and some as that cringey bloke who dad danced the cha cha…”

Steve Backshall was named an MBE in 2020
Steve Backshall was named an MBE in 2020

Maybe I would have been a tad uneasy raising this point if we were speaking in person, but in fact I am catching up with the Marlow local as he is travelling to the destination of his next series of Expedition. “I am heading to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in search of snow leopards,” he explains, “potentially the most important expedition I have ever done. Together with the Snow Leopard Trust, we’re aiming to find the first evidence of these critically endangered cats in an area of largely unexplored high mountains on the border with China. They are super vulnerable to cross-border poaching, and the local government need a reason to turn these mountains into a protected national park. Any evidence of a new population of snow leopard could be critical.”

It’s the latest in a long line of important conservation work Backshall has been involved in, both off and on screen. In 2011, he won two BAFTAs for Best Children’s Television Presenter and Best Factual Series, and his resume includes everything from The Really Wild Show and Springwatch Trackers, to Backshall’s Deadly Adventures and the acclaimed first series of Expedition. “I could choose three just from this latest series of Expedition,” Backshall helps me out when I suggest going over his entire career for highlights would take an exceptionally long time. “Making the first descent of a raging white water torrent in the volcanic wonderland of Kamchatka, where there was literally a brown bear round every corner. Another is paddling an unknown jungle river in the magnificently named Moukalaba Doudou range in Gabon. Then exploring and mapping a gargantuan lava tunnel in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, and finding a few surprises deep inside…”

Talking of stand out experiences, last year – despite the obvious downer of a global pandemic – certainly was one to remember for Backshall. “I got three of the biggest achievements last year,” he says. “There was [being awarded] an MBE, being named Explorer of the Year [by the Scientific Exploration Society], and I graduated in my MSc, which I’d been working on for five years (sequencing the venoms and salamanders). I didn’t get to receive any of them due to COVID restrictions, which is disappointing. The MBE would have been special for my mum as well – she’s very sad not to have had an invite to meet Liz at the palace! Plus, it was my first chance to equal Helen at something. Denied!”

Steve Backshall With His Wife Helen Glover
Steve Backshall with his wife Helen Glover

Helen, nee Glover, is his wife of five years, a professional rower and a two-time Olympic champion, triple world champion, quintuple World Cup champion and quadruple European champion no less. The two have been involved in some amazing experiences during their careers, but it’s not all been plain sailing. In 2018, the couple announced that they were expecting twins, but one died in stillbirth before they welcomed Logan into the world in July of that year. Then, at the start 2020, they announced the birth of twins, Kit Newlyn and Willow Bo.

Has his growing family meant lockdowns actually proved to be a blessing? “Though it’s been an incredible opportunity to stay home and be dad to the three Backshall babes, it’s also been the busiest and most nerve-wracking year of my life,” he says. “Work didn’t disappear, I just ended up having to do my programmes as a one-man band; camera, editor, director, researcher, tech support and sound recordist all rolled up in one overstretched package. All that plus being there for Hels as she launched a late Olympic bid… I’ve aged a decade in a year!”

Being home has also meant being closer to some of the many charities he is involved with, which includes being President of the Berks, Bucks and Oxfordshire branch of The Wildlife Trusts. “Conservation has to begin at home,” Backshall states emphatically. “Young people need to learn that there are ways we can help our wildlife, and make our own patch a better place to live. I’ve been lucky enough to have been President of BBOWT for a decade now, and the team there are wonderful people, good scientists, ecologists and conservationists who believe in the cause. I guarantee we have a reserve somewhere near you that you didn’t even know existed.”

Wild Training In High Wycombe Got Steve Backshall Back In Shape
Wild Training in High Wycombe got Steve Backshall back in shape

Also local is Wild Training in High Wycombe, which has played a key role in not only the shape Backshall is in, but on a higher level too. “James, who set up Wild Training, got me back fighting fit again after a near fatal rock-climbing accident [in 2008, when he fell 33ft on to rocks: the impact sent his heel bone through the bottom of his foot, dislocated his ankle and fractured two vertebrae in his back]. That was back in 2010, training in his garage in Wycombe. Even then he always stayed ahead of the fitness trends and had big ideas. More than anyone else in the fitness industry, he studies the field, old and new, current and classic, and most of the big modern fitness zeitgeists of today – from MMA to Calisthenics – he was doing a decade ago. He also smashed lockdown, running outdoor and online training when most other gyms ground to a halt.”

It was such an approach that was key to shaping those pecs that caught the eye on Strictly Come Dancing back in 2014. Considering everything he has been through, was that show the most terrifying experience of his life? “No,” he bats the question away. “It’s certainly nerve-wracking, and it feels like the whole world’s watching at the time, but at the end of the day it’s just dancing. No-one’s going to die if you mess up your Foxtrot!”

Follow Steve Backshall’s latest adventures at stevebackshall.com and on Twitter @SteveBackshall

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