Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Q&A: Olly Steeds, the mystery investigator

Olly Steeds is a man on a mission to plumb the world’s most enduring myths and legends
© Discovery Channel

We’ve all wanted to be Indiana Jones, Allan Quatermain – even Alan Whicker. Not many get chosen to get out there are experience the truth, unearthing secrets and capsizing legends. Olly Steeds is clearly a lucky guy. An investigative journalist and Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, who has an equally bracing career in adventuring, his new series on the Discovery Channel combines his two loves. Mystery Investigator: Olly Steeds is a global romp that examines the truth behind our most well worn legends, from Nazca lines to Nazi mummies. We caught up with Olly on his return from filming to talk about the truths he found – and where WideWorld readers can go to find their own adventures.

We’ve just seen the photos of you adrift on a raft – what was that for?

That was just off the coast of French Guiana, during a recreation of the escape of Papillon from Devil’s Island. We rebuilt the raft that he made to get off the coast of the prison island, and took it right out to sea. It was okay while we had the safety boat there too – but when the guys all took off for lunch after filming some long shots, they’d forgotten I was out there on my own! After an hour and a half, I was drifting about five miles out to sea on my own in shark infested waters – quite a scare really!

Mystery investigator comes quite high on everyone’s list of ideal jobs, doesn’t it?

You could say that! It’s one of those jobs where someone gives you a call, and you think they’re either on hard pharmaceuticals or an inspired visionary. I grew up with all these mysteries and they certainly inspired me. The main thing was Indiana Jones, though. He’s all about the adventure. One of the guys that Spielberg has said Jones was based on was an American paleontologist from the 20s, Roy Chapman Andrews. Now he actually said that “Adventure is a sign of incompetence” – and that sums up Indiana Jones, really. It also seems to reflect on my own adventures! It looks like being not so good at something can actually make the adventure better.

The first show looks at Robin Hood – a true British mystery. Just how do you recreate that kind of life?

Obviously it’s difficult to recreate some of these things that we cover in the series. For Robin Hood I met experts who informed me about the life and times, and who could show me what kernels of truth there are. One part of the show is taken up with the survival techniques you’d need back then. Like now, you’d need shelter, food, water – but you also don’t want to get caught as an outlaw. For that you need escape and evasion techniques, so I drafted in my very own Sheriff of Nottingham – my dad. He was in the army and specialized in counter surveillance and espionage, so could teach me tricks, like how to avoid dogs by doubling back, using the open ground to take your scent away in the wind, how to use undergrowth. The main thing is to plan and know the terrain.

So, are you a believer in the legend?

It’s a tricky one to know if he’s a true figure. There are eight mentions of his name in the historical record from the courts. Invariably, they used to change people’s names, and his became a pseudonym for unknown men. Robin, after all, is a medieval word for robber, and Hood? Well the lower classes all used to wear hoods. Only the gentry wore hats. I think that the character has been changed through history to face different times; we investigated this historical line.

You also attempt to follow the route of the Ark of the Covenant as it left Jerusalem. How do you even begin to do that?

This was the first episode we shot, and I think it’s the most iconic of the lot. We started in Jerusalem, where Solomon’s Temple was the last place the Ark was seen before the Babylonians sacked it. There are actually ancient tunnels underneath Jerusalem, so we built our own Ark – budget restrictions meant we couldn’t gild it, obviously – and we saw if we could get it from there to Egypt, where legend says it ended up. Inside our Ark there were two stone tablets of the same weight too – very realistic.
As part of the episode we visited some antiquity smugglers in the West Bank – under the radar, of course – but coming back, the border police stopped up and took our stone tablets away – they wouldn’t let us back into Israel proper with them in the boot!

The Nazca lines in Peru attract all kinds of cranky theorists, including the attention of UFO enthusiasts. After your visit, just how difficult was it to believe that people made them?

Very easy. In fact, we rebuilt one and it was extremely easy. We recreated the monkey lines that were already there. You’ve got to realise that the Nazca desert is a massive open canvas. If you scrape away the top later of blackened dust, underneath there’s bright white dust. These lines have managed to survive thanks to a lack of rain and very little wind at ground level. You know, it’s actually quite condescending to go on about how these native people couldn’t have built things themselves: it’s a line of thought that really gets to me.

When it comes to ideas like Atlantis, most people doubt they were ever true, don’t they?

You need to ask: where is the element of truth that thing was built on? You then start to see the historical context of the myths, the source of where they came from. Researching Atlantis, we found that the first time it was mentioned was in Plato’s Dialogues. He was really using it to say that if you misuse power and become corrupt you world would fall apart. It could be a simple metaphor, but there are clues: could the place be destroyed in one day by a cataclysmic event? Well, Minoan world did!

One of your most serious investigations looks into the Nazi world. Why are people so fascinated by it?

Possibly because it’s one of the darkest periods of history. One of our lines of inquiry took us to see some Nazi mummies, which were found Mannheim. They were probably hidden away so bombings at the end of the war wouldn’t destroy them. Our mission to find out how they came to be there became an investigation into the Nazi scientific community justifying the racial policy that provided pseudo-legitimacy for their industrial mass murder. There was even a group who were put in charge of traveling the world to accumulate evidence for their racial theories, going to places like Tibet to trace the Buddha. They thought that the Buddha was the ‘last of the Aryan leaders’ – really ridiculous stuff, since the Aryan didn’t exist apart from as a construct of linguistics and semantics. It’s important that travel brings these things to light, because so much of this evil is still being done in the world today.

Would you recommend WideWorld readers heading out on their own investigations?

I certainly think travel is more fulfilling when there’s a reason. It’s about the adventure, not the destination: you can pick anything you want, something that you might have some expertise in, and just get up and go and see where it takes you. Some things in this series have some incredible repercussions for today. Take the Nazca lines: the people who made these faded out of history because of water. They couldn’t exist without it and bad management meant they got dried out. Obviously that has some major parallels with what is happening today. You could also take the quest for the lost City of Gold, El Dorado, which is really a story or colonialism, dominance and conquest that you see going on today, with oil companies in places like Peru taking away indigenous lands and giving nothing in return.


Mystery Investigator: Olly Steeds begins on the Discovery Channel, Monday 17th May 2012 at 10pm

To find out more about Olly’s adventures read his blog at oliversteeds.com