British explorer Olly Steeds solves history and brings wanderlust to the classroom

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” Steeds.

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 Extraordinary Pioneers.

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 through technology.

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 adventures.

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 learning any?

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 first start?

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 I think.

How did you choose the historical mysteries that appear on Solving History?

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 mates.

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 explorers?

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 you.

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 world?

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 are.

Catch the series every Wednesday at 9 p.m. CST on Discovery. Click 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.

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