Mikael Strandberg – Expeditions – Interview

You would be hard pushed to find many people who have explored such a number of diverse and uninhabited parts of our planet as Expedition Guide and Documentary Producer Mikael Strandberg. These include Eastern Africa, Patagonia, Siberia, Arabia and more. He has travelled on foot, bicycle, horseback, ski, reindeer sled, with camels and even with a pram.

Mikael Strandberg in the desert in Yemen
Mikael Strandberg has been to nearly 100 countries over his 29 year career

It was back in 2008 when we first interviewed Mikael Strandberg. At that time he was planning his second expedition to Siberia as well as an expedition through the Empty Quarter in Arabia, although he didn’t mention any plans to explore England on foot at that time.

Mikael has now completed his Siberia Frozen Frontier Expedition, made two journeys across the desert in Yemen and walked from Moss Side in Manchester to Buckingham Palace, England. With such a varied range of journeys we had lots of questions to ask Mikael, who has provided us with a great insight about his expeditions and the people he met along the way.

On January 20, 2013, Mikael Strandberg, left his home and set out for the coldest inhabited place on earth, Oymyakon in northeast Siberia where the average winter temperature is -50°C. He, along with the 3 other members of his team, will meet up with a group of Eveny reindeer herders and set out on a historic journey. Traveling over 600km by reindeer pulling sledges, they will explore the most remote parts of Siberia, all the way from the little known mountains of Kolyma to the Okhotsk Sea.

CheapTents: What was the most physically demanding part of your Siberia Frozen Frontier expedition?

Mikael Strandberg: As usual before setting off, I put on a lot of extra kilos to better handle the cold. This time around 20 kg. I had no real idea how much physical work would be involved in the upcoming Expedition and once it was under way, I realized a major part of this Siberia Frozen Frontier journey would be sitting on a sledge most of the time during daylight hours. But that we would have to work real hard in the evenings setting up camp from scratch. Clearing away deep snow, cut down and finding the right tree trunks to fit the tents on, prepare them and once the tent was up, prepare the floor with a couple of inches of insulating branches and then fitting in and preparing the wood stove. Firewood for the stoves had to be cut up and prepared. Next morning we dismantled the camp and prepared our sledges and reindeer.

Mikael Strandberg in Siberia
Mikael Strandberg on his Frozen Frontiers expedition in Siberia

I was way to fat in the beginning, really out of shape, so I had to rely on the hard work of the others. Of all this,I still think the physically most challenging before I lost almost all my overweight -just before the end- was running at full speed over open ices in all the heavy clothes, trying to avoid going through.

It should be noted that I had no diseases, I handled the extreme cold well and was in good shape at the end, so the fat worked again, but it was 10 kgs too much this time. But I had great help from everyone in the team, 7 of them plus 35 reindeer.

CheapTents: What is the most inspiring thing you have discovered on your Siberian Frozen Frontier expedition?

Mikael Strandberg: The people along the route and the 4 great Even reindeer herders that me and my friends joined for this journey. Which for them was something they did 2-4 times a year. There´s very few people living out there today like nomads. Sure, every year they spent a month in the village of Arkah, otherwise they lived and survived out there. It was extra ordinary to be able to be part of this unique life style for a short while. It is very hard, demanding and many times quite tragic, but the people are really the best of the best.

However, it kind of felt like a great privilege to be able to see a life which is fast disappearing, but which was the base of most people´s life not too long ago. Fishing, hunting, gathering, travelling with animals in the great outdoors. However, it is fast changing and I suspect in not too many years, it will not exist any more. Unfortunately.

CheapTents: Did your expedition to Siberia bring any benefits to the people you met?

Mikael Strandberg: Except work and new friendships, I don´t think so. I think, even though we got along extremely well and I miss them all every day of my life, we possibly confused them more with our ways. It created at times a longing for another life than the harsh one they have. But I always believe in meetings between people. It takes away ignorance, fear and builds bridges between cultures. Hopefully the film we did will be able to create attention to their unique lifestyle and make the Russian government understands the need to preserve, not destroy.

Michael Strandberg with Eveny People in Siberia
Mikael Strandberg travelled with the Eveny people of Siberia

It is a very difficult question, but in the world we live today, so focused on commercialism, I would say they would be best left alone as much as they wish themselves. They´re very welcoming, hospitable and warm people, so they do like to socialize with outsiders. I have had quite a few calls from commercial media groups who want to go there, but obviously I say no. However, if the right person turns up with good ideas and a non-commercial heart and wants to do something with these amazing people, I would assist this person to get in contact with them.

I learnt a lot from their life style and I admire them beyond the limits of the sky that they can survive on what they are doing and some pressure has to be put on the Russian government not to steal their land, resources, hunting grounds and to give them possibilities to continue this life (note: the Russian government isn´t the only one forgetting there native people. Most countries forget them). Right now they´re loosing this battle. Not only the Even, but most other indigenous Siberian groups.

The second Expedition [in Yemen], for which I carried Flag 179 [awarded by the Explorers’ Club], was a crossing of one of the hottest deserts on earth, the Sands of Al Mahra, made famous by the British explorers Wilfried Thesiger and Betram Thomas back in the years of 1946-47. It was deemed impossible and extremely dangerous and I got little help getting it onboard in Yemen.

Everyone thought that we, that is Tanya Holm, a Swedish writer and Arabic speaker and me and four different Bedu guides, would get either kidnapped or killed by Al Qaeda. Just a week after arriving to Sanaa, I was far to close to the suicide bomber which killed almost a 100 people and injured far more. People were terrified. However, we managed to get the needed permits and set off to Al Mahra, presently the most stable of Yemen’s states.

Once in Al Mahra on a permit which only allowed us to fly, we did a summer crossing of this amazing desert, which basically meant 50 degrees Celsius heat during the hottest hours between 11-15.00 hours every day. But it should be noted that even the nights where extremely hot at ground level. Maybe the temperature was 30 degrees Celsius standing up, but lying down, the hot sand added it up to 35 degrees Celsius at midnight. It made it difficult to sleep. But, the heat problem taken into account, by crossing this desert we came across a Bedu culture which was relatively unknown today, but fascinating!

CheapTents: What made you decide to travel across the desert in Yemen?

Mikael Strandberg: I have always wanted to do a film about people living in the desert, like the Bedu. And I wanted to put the issue of Yemen, Al Qaeda in a proper context. The Western media is most of the time doing an extremely poor job as regards to this reality. The Yemenis are among the friendliest, warmest and nicest people on earth. And it deserves better than some poor job done by Western media just looking to sensationalize things.

And the Bedus are the original people, or one of the groups, who populated the Arabian peninsula, so they taught us a lot about life in the desert and in Arabia.

CheapTents: What are the main similarities and differences between expeditions in the desert and the frozen wilderness?

Mikael Strandberg: Both are extreme and puts a human at severe risk if you don´t know what you do. At least in extreme old you always have liquid. In the desert you don´t. And in extreme cold you can take your clothes off, in the desert, you can´t strip yourself off your skin. There´s way more similarities than differences when it comes to the travelling part.

Mikael Strandberg and Tanya Holm in the Yemeni Desert
Mikael Strandberg, travelling companion Tanya Holm and Kensington the camel

CheapTents: How big a part do people play in your expeditions?

Mikael Strandberg: Human beings are my main focus and interest. I honestly love people.

CheapTents: What aspects of human behaviour have most touched you during your expeditions?

Mikael Strandberg: 99% of all my meetings with other people are overwhelmingly positive. The poorer, the more generous and warm hearted. And I am often amazed how much compassion they have for other people.

CheapTents: Do you ever encounter any hostility towards you from people that you meet? If so, how do you deal with these situations?

Mikael Strandberg: Very seldom and if, it is mainly due to my own behaviour. At times, like in Yemen, I passed through areas of complete ignorance and they often thought I was something I was not. Like a Jew, spy or an Africa refugee. before they understood why I was there, they could at times be a bit challenging.

The best way to deal with all these situations are to be 100% compassionate and non-aggressive. Not always easy when you are dead tired and hungry.

CheapTents: On your expeditions in many different countries you have met many people from different cultures. What strikes you as the most important similarities between people and their outlook on life?

Mikael Strandberg: You know, I did spend some time with the Maasai once upon a time and they have this age generation culture where you spend a lot of your time with people from the same generation as the one you belong to. And if I meet somebody from my generation no matter where, there´s more things that binds us together, than not. Like family, marriage, children, how to find money or possibilities to give the kids the best opportunities and what is important with life. And most want to do good for others.

Three months have passed since the Bolton lass Georgia Villalobos, my 2 year old daughter Sardana (Dana) and myself reached Buckingham Palace after walking and pushing a heavy loaded pram 460 miles ( 750 km:s) from Moss Side in Manchester. … I have to say what I have seen and discovered on this journey I personally rate my most important of all journeys. It has changed the way I personally see life and how I am going to live after the journey. Who knew!

CheapTents: After travelling all across the world, what made you want to do an expedition in England?

Mikael Strandberg: There are many reasons that I wanted to do an expedition in England. I am one of many who have bought the image of Britain as being equal, rich and offering the same opportunities for everyone. This is not the case. England like the US have a tendency to sell their own culture as the best and like to bully others who doesn´t conform to how they think the world should look like. I ended up in an area called Moss Side, which has gone through a lot of hardships, but have some of the best people on earth living there.

The time in Moss Side changed me completely. I don´t want to be known as an explorer any more, in England this creates division between people, I despise myself for selling myself as better than others earlier, which is so common in the industry of exploration and adventure, well, I started to change 4½ years ago when I had my first daughter and in the future I want to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. Moss Side made me a better human on all levels.

Mikael Strandberg and his daughter Dana walking on Expedition England
Where is the real England and who are the English? Mikael Strandberg searches for answers during Expedition England

And I am an Anglophile, I have always been, always will be and I really, really enjoyed being together with my 2 year old daughter on this journey, and our partner Georgia, to give a new perspective on the former imperial Britain. On Islam, immigration and much more. Hot topics.

My film is about this plus a lot of fun. The English are generally very nice people, but the class system is extremely unfair and out of date and the difference between rich and poor are enormous! Who knew!

The England Documentary will be my best so far.

CheapTents: What are the main differences in challenges you face during Expedition England and expeditions in other parts of the world?

Mikael Strandberg: England is after all quite similar to Sweden in culture and ways of behaviour, so it was kind of initially odd to travel through the white part of England. But the mixed one, the immigrant parts of England, is among the best in the world on all levels.

The biggest challenge was to understand why one of the richest countries in the world, selling themselves still today as some sort of a dominant power, and have so enormous gaps between rich and poor, when it doesn´t have to be like that.

As regards to the issue of private land accessible to just a very few, and how scared most English people are of trespassing and questioning this status quo, I can just not fathom this point as little as the reality that on paper one of the richest countries on earth, display these big gaps between people. I cannot understand this.

CheapTents: Any people or sponsors that you would like thank? Anything else you want to say…?

Mikael Strandberg: Ah, there´s so many people to thank it would take me years. I just want to thank everyone who supports my way of living. I am privileged to have many, many extremely good friends. And remember to show compassion to others. it doesn´t take a lot to smile at somebody.

CheapTents: Thank you Mikael for your insightful answers to our questions.

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Photocredits: © Mikael Strandberg @explorerglobal