Germany's 'Sir Vival' pushes limits of extreme travel
German survival expert and veteran adventurer Ruediger Nehberg paddles in a canoe in Rausdorf near Hamburg, northern Germany on June 26, 2014 - by Frank Zeller
At age 79, the globetrotter looks back at a life spent in some of the world's most inhospitable corners and keeps plotting new journeys, refusing to let his hearing aid or replacement knee slow him down.
Germany's grand-daddy of extreme travel -- who has traversed Ethiopian deserts and Australia's outback on foot and crossed the Atlantic on self-made vessels -- now focuses his energies on defending the rights of Muslim girls.
Reflecting on a life he never really expected to last this long, he has some advice for couch potatoes -- that going to the very limits "for me has been a life philosophy, it has enriched my life immeasurably".
Nehberg, who imagines his guardian angel as bruised with tattered wings, jokes that he embarked on his first adventure at age four when he wandered off to visit his grandmother but spent the night sleeping in a park instead.
"My mother later blamed me for at least one of her stomach ulcers," he tells AFP with a chuckle, sitting at a campfire which he started with a flintstone on his forested lake property in Rausdorf outside the northern port city of Hamburg.
As a baker's apprentice in the 1950s, gripped by wanderlust, he cycled to Morocco to learn the art of snake charming -- leading to many more long-distance bike trips and a lifelong passion for snakes.
Soon he eyed a more serious adventure: the first expedition to take a boat down Ethiopia's Blue Nile, a dangerous white-water torrent that churns through steep canyons and bandit-infested desert lands.
A first attempt in 1970 failed with the boat snared under a tree, but the second time they made it. On a third journey, to film the river's giant crocodiles, a gunman's bullet took the life of Nehberg's friend Michael Teichmann.
- Arrow in the stomach -
For Nehberg, the personal tragedy was a wake-up call on the need to take the scout motto "be prepared" to a whole new level.
He embarked on gruelling fitness workouts and practised bushcraft, navigation and medicine but also more esoteric skills such as prison escape techniques and magic tricks.
Nehberg wrote down his collected wisdom in the 1979 book "The Art of Survival" that spawned countless TV specials and youth programmes, and is still used by the German armed forces.
In the 1980s Nehberg set off in search of Brazil's reputedly fearsome Yanomami Indians, heading into the Amazon with little more than a pair of shorts and a harmonica to signal that he did not represent a threat.
"Suddenly, three of them stood in front of me, their arrows lowered -- a good sign," he remembers. "That was the moment I had feared for months, when I had asked myself whether the first contact would be an arrow in the stomach."
Nehberg was invited to the village and would keep coming back, making 15 trips to the Amazon and becoming a passionate activist against the gold prospectors who encroached on Yanomami lands, poisoned their rivers and brought diseases.
- Passion for rights -
"Suddenly, the journeys were no longer an end in themselves, but about helping people who are threatened," he wrote later.
Nehberg produced books and TV programmes, lobbied the World Bank and the Vatican, and staged ever more spectacular adventures to highlight the cause.
In 1987 Nehberg, who claims to be "water-shy", crossed the Atlantic in a modified pedal boat. To prepare, he trained with German navy divers who tied him up and threw him into a pool until he passed out.
Two more trans-Atlantic trips followed, on a modified tree trunk and a bamboo raft. In 2000 Brazil granted the Yanomami what Nehberg terms "an acceptable peace", an outcome for which he claims some credit.
Since then, the adventurer and his human rights organisation TARGET-Ruediger Nehberg have returned to many of his former adventure playgrounds, building clinics in the Amazon and Africa.
The group's declared goal now is to end the practice of female genital mutilation, which Nehberg describes as the "worst civil war of all times -- society against its women -- with 6,000 victims a day and many deaths, for the last 5,000 years".
Together with his wife Annette, he lobbied leading Islamic scholars at Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque who forbade the practice by a fatwa.
Nehberg then carried the message through North African deserts on "caravans of hope".
He said he plans "one or two more big things" for the cause, but prefers to keep his ideas under wraps. "You'll hear about it, it'll be a real blast," he says, the passion in his eyes leaving little doubt that he's serious.