The iconic Indiana Jones might be firmly rooted
in filmlore, but his wry sense of humor, sexy rough-and-tumble
appeal, and deep knowledge of ancient civilizations lives on in
rogue British reporter, journalist and explorer, Oliver "Olly"
Thirty-something Steeds has traveled to more than 70 countries,
oftentimes makes it out only by the skin of his teeth (barely), and
keeps company with reknown scientists and explorers like Neil
Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as one of the youngest of only 50
explorers in the world featured in
Faces of Exploration: Encounters With 50
He is also a fellow and founder of countless organizations,
including the Explorers Club, Royal Geographic Society, and Digital Explorer, a social
enterprise that engages youth in global and environmental issues
The Emmy award nominee is one of my most favorite famous people,
particularly since his Discovery Channel
documentaries allow me to live vicariously through his
wanderlust. That being said, you can imagine how thrilled I was to
interview this fascinating man.
I caught him on the eve of his premiere,
Solving History with Olly Steeds, as he took a night
train from New York to D.C., which seemed fitting for an explorer
who rarely can be found in one place for very long.
The press has been calling you the modern day
Indiana Jones. Do you think that
defines you as an adventurer?
Well, when I look at Indy he's defined by these two things, one
being incompetence, because he's always involved in all sorts of
ridiculous scrapes and situations and somehow he gets out of it.
Luckily, I kind of lead a different life than he does. I mean, if
you think about it, he goes around stealing stuff off people
really. And I, in that aspect, no. I am not like Indiana Jones. As
a kid, I watched him and always dreamed of these amazing super
I think being an adventurer you need to be largely incompetent,
which fortunately, I am. The more that can go wrong, the more
adventure there's going to be. It's a double-edged sword.
Unfortunately, whenever I leave home something goes wrong. During
the holiday just before Christmas I had a few days away in Wales,
but after an hour there they had to call out the Coast Guard
because I got stuck in a canoe. It's the incompetence really, which
defines the adventure. And the curiosity. You've got to be curious,
you have to want to know what's behind the closed door, you have to
want to explore the unknown, you have to celebrate the most
ridiculous things. The more ridiculous it is, the better it is.
And, unlike Indiana Jones, you don't have the trademark
hat. I've noticed you're more of an umbrella person since you
always carry one with you.
Absolutely. It's really an homage to the old British adventurer
John Steed in
The Avengers. My father always gives me an umbrella
for Christmas and I carry it around in his honor.
How many languages do you speak? Are you currently
I speak English, obviously, and a few others rather badly. I
speak Mandarin. I studied Mandarin at college and in Beijing, and I
speak a bit of French, again, rather badly, and I speak a few
tribal dialects. A
bit of Kombai, a bit of Mek, a bit of Machiguenga. But really
only 100 words of each. Enough to get by. I'm learning Spanish at
the moment. That's my job for this year.
Tell me about your fascination with history. When did it
I was very lucky to have a great professor when I was at school
when I was 13. It started as more of a general curiosity with the
world, which started when I was quite young actually. My earliest
memory with the curiosity thing is when I first learned about
something called gravity and didn't really understand it, so I
thought I'd test the theory by jumping out of a tree with a brick.
Unfortunately, all I remember then is crawling toward home with a
huge hole in my head and blood gushing out, and that was the
result of my testing theories. Curiosity was born from an early age
How did you choose the historical mysteries that appear
We wanted to take on the big mysteries to start. The ones we
thought people would be interested in. Some of them are iconic
mysteries like Atlantis, Ark of the Covenant, El Dorado. As a
journalist, I wanted something I could get my teeth into as well,
and to explore the modern context of them. We have to find stories
that aren't complete nonsense to make for a compelling story.
Of the mysteries you're exploring for the series, which
do you find most intriguing?
They're all very different, which has been sort of wonderful.
Fortunately, I have a very bad short-term memory, which is one of
the key skills I think you need to be an explorer. You don't have
to remember how horrible it was the day before. You wouldn't want
to get up and go into the jungle every day if you could remember
what it had been like the day before.
What do you miss the most when you've been the away in
the jungle for such a long time?
We have this weird thing over in England called a Scotch egg.
You combine a pig and a chicken and you get an egg wrapped up in
pork meat. It's really disgusting but I love them. Otherwise, I
miss a nice pint of warm lager and going down to the pub with my
If you could do any expedition over again, which would
it be and why?
Probably the first one I did across the Gobi desert, where
everything did go wrong that could have ever possibly gone wrong.
It was the worst expedition ever. It was a great adventure but we
were very lucky to survive it.
Tell me about your organization, Digital Explorer. Why
is it so important to you to bring the world into the classroom? Do
you think your new series will inspire young
For many reasons. I think it's fundamentally important to raise
kids' understanding and interest as to what's going on the world.
This is why I go on these things and put my life in danger, to
hopefully get people to understand things a little bit better. It's
a combination of things. My focus is what motivates me. It
positively impacts peoples lives and I'm proud of it without a
shadow of a doubt.
I have a feeling they'll like the adventure and I don't take
myself seriously, which I'm sure you've very aware of by now, and I
think kids can appreciate that. If you take yourself too seriously
there's no fun in it. Hopefully it will inspire wanderlust.
Who or what inspires you?
My father's wanderlust. As a kid, he used to read me stories
about these wonderful places and tell me stories of his adventures.
And on the other side, my mother has a great social conscious and
she's a social worker and she thinks if you're going to do things
it should be for the benefit of someone otherwise it's selfish and
a waste of everyone's time. It's grounding from both of them.
Tell me one thing most people don't know about
Good question. I used to be a dancer in a nightclub. It was only
for a night. I got fired because I wasn't very good. It happened to
me in China. I needed the money.
What is your most favorite place in the
Home, to be honest. Emerson has a whole philosophy and he said
that you could travel in search of the beautiful but unless you
carry it with you, you'll never find it. And I think that's a
motivation of mine. The love and beauty you have is something that
you carry with you. My epicenter is where my loved ones
Catch the series every Wednesday at 9 p.m. CST on
here for the full Episode Guide.
Convonista says: I chatted with Olly in early 2010 and this
interview was originally released a few days later.
Maria Pilar Clark is a mom times two and Windy City-based writer.
See more of Pilar's stories here.
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