Tag Archives: New Lives in the Wild

A week in the wild with Ben Fogle

Our “New Lives in the Wild” Filming with Ben Fogle

Since deciding to stay on in Panama with Ian, we’ve had a fun and busy time together. We spent Ian’s 50th birthday in LA with friends Teresa and Evan where we also attended a course to learn about public speaking. Ian had recently been invited by TEDx Vienna to talk about living “an unlimited life” and if seemed that this might be the beginning of a new career path. It was something he could do as we travelled, if he were able to sell “Usher’s Island”. We had been looking at ways to continue earning money which we obviously needed, to support our unconventional lifestyle.

“Sell the island?” I hear you ask. “But you’ve only just arrived”.

"Usher's Island"
“Usher’s Island”

When I met Ian in London, he had already decided that his time in Panama was coming to a close. He had spent well over two years clearing the island, building a house and developing what was now a viable off-grid property. He was ready for a new challenge.

But, as in any new relationship, we had lots of things to discover about each other. We decided we would be happy to remain living inexpensively on the island while I also waited for my home to sell back in England. We both wanted to travel more and it was fun to explore all the different options – the world was quite literally our oyster – with no strings we could pretty much take off wherever we wanted.

However, there were to be a couple of distractions before we could make any decisions about our future, and one that would certainly take me outside my own comfort zone!

Ian was contacted by Renegade Pictures in London, who film the UK Channel 5 program “New Lives in the Wild”, featuring the presenter, Ben Fogle. Renegade had read about Ian’s story and wanted to know if he’d be interested in appearing on an episode for the second season. On hearing that I had recently given up my life in London to live with him in Panama, the producer was keen to chat, and before I knew it I had agreed to be featured alongside Ian in the hour long TV documentary.

We explained to them that we were trying to sell the island, although it hadn’t yet been placed with any agents. Ian had managed to secure an article with the Daily Mail, but with the market the way it was, we fully expected it could be another year or so before the island sold. The producer had no problem with that, it was a lifestyle that Ian had chosen and had been living for a couple of years. It didn’t necessarily have to be a lifestyle that would continue forever.

Bocas Town Seafront
Bocas Town Seafront

It was a beautifully hot sunny Tuesday morning when Director, Elliot and Producer, Kate arrived in Bocas del Toro. We had arranged to meet up with them in town for lunch and were feeling quite relaxed about the whole affair. We’d already had a couple of Skype conversations with them both in London, but still we were surprised at how laid back and easy going they were. I suppose we expected them to be a little more formal, but we were soon all enjoying our lunch and chatting through ideas for the show.

Ben Fogle, and the crew weren’t arriving until the Sunday, and Elliott and Kate had plenty of preparation and location scouting scheduled for us over the coming days. There was a lot to organise, not least because boat transport was involved in most activities and this was very much weather dependent.

We were both intrigued to discover more about the process behind the filming of a documentary and were keen and willing “helpers”. Ian has produced a fair number of YouTube videos and we both have a love of film, so this was going to be a very interesting experience.

We left Elliot and Kate to settle into their hotel and headed back to the island after braving a flash storm that saw us dangerously close to sinking our neighbour Kent’s borrowed boat, a second time! Kent was fixing our new engine so that we could get our boat back on the water in time for the filming. The crew had arranged to hire a boat and driver to ferry them and their equipment back and forth to the island and filming locations, but we needed our boat for our own use. Thankfully, both boat and new engine were waiting for us on our return.

Part of our weekly routine here on the island is to contribute to the broadcasting of the daily radio station via the VHF radio, quite aptly named the BEN network. This stands for Bocas Emergency Network and both local gringos and boat owners partake in the daily broadcast. Ian acts as Net Controller on Wednesday mornings and I do the weather for “Ladies Day”, on Thursdays.

We thought this would be a great opportunity for Ben Fogle to make contact with the local community. Kate and Elliot were keen to listen to the format of the program and so arrived at 7.30am ready for the start. They were impressed and it was agreed that Ben should partake on the following Wednesday. And so we had our first activity agreed. That was easy! Now we just had to work out an itinerary for the rest of the week. But that couldn’t possibly be considered until we had baked some lovely fresh olive bread and tucked into warm slices with lots of butter and blackberry jam.

After breakfast Elliot and Kate wanted to scout the local environment around Dolphin Bay and to see some of the swimming locations we had suggested. We had hoped that the guys would see dolphins and we weren’t disappointed.

Dolphins in Dolphin Bay
Dolphins in Dolphin Bay

We managed to get some photos of the dolphins surfacing in the bay before motoring on toward the “Secret Lagoon”. We tied the boat up to the mangroves and clambered across the roots into the hidden expanse of water. The locals are very adept at traversing the mangrove roots – we were all a little less nimble!

We took a well earned dip in the lovely deep, clear water around the outside of the lagoon where we put the fear of God into poor Kate, as we told her our shark encounter stories. She was to be the brunt of many shark jokes over the next week but she took all the jesting in great spirits. We had only spent a couple of days with her, but we both really liked her and felt very comfortable in her presence. We were going to “bare our souls” over the coming week so it was important that we felt comfortable and relaxed around the guys. Kate and Elliot reassured us with tips about how to remain natural throughout the filming and assured us that within no time we would forget that the camera and sound were there at all.

We spent the rest of the day talking through ideas and activities that we could film with Ben and were pleased when they confirmed that the building of the Helipad was still on the list. We worked out a preliminary schedule and it was soon clear that Ian was playing a vital part in helping Kate get these projects organised. Kate joked about him being part of her production team as well as “contributor” to the show!

Building the Helipad
Building the Helipad

Over the next couple of days we had to locate sheep, organise catering for the crew, visit the local fiesta at the Indian Village and check out the Chocolate Farm. Finally we would need to visit our Thursday afternoon social at “Valley of the Frogs” and talk to Jean about ordering a new canoe.

By now we had a better understanding as to why Elliot and Kate had arrived so much earlier than the rest of the crew. Elliot also explained that he had to try and formulate the story line for the program ahead of filming. Kate also had to carry out risk assessments and deal with all the local contractual and payment transactions. We were starting to see just how involved the process was.

With Director Elliot at Rana Azul
With Director Elliot at Rana Azul

We had a brief day of rest on the Saturday before the arrival of the crew on the Sunday. Before I knew it Ben and Ian were heading toward the balcony with an entourage of people, including cameraman Geraint, known simply as “G”, Jackson, his young assistant, sound man Grant, and of course Kate and Elliot in tow. Elliot’s head was now buried in his monitor unit where he could see and hear exactly what was being filmed.

The crew in action
The crew in action

 After a short period of nervousness, I quickly became at ease as we went about our daily tasks, me with microphone permanently attached to my cleavage. We shot more than 23 hours of film over six days and so it was quite an intense schedule. The crew stayed in town but Ben remained each evening on the island. He was an easy person to have around – Ian and he are quite similar. They established a great rapport which comes across well in the final program and makes for some very funny moments. Both Ian and I agreed that the overall experience was probably one of the best we had to date. The crew were such great people, and all felt like friends by the time they left.

Ben reading Ian's book "Paradise Delayed"
Ben reading Ian’s book “Paradise Delayed”

The program aired in February 2014 and we were very excited to watch the final edited version. We had been at pains to ensure that our interaction with the community, both Indian and other local ex-pats, was portrayed. We particularly wanted to include our wonderful afternoons at jungle Pizzeria, Rana Azul, where filming had begun on the Sunday. Kate and Elliot seemed to understand how important this was to our lifestyle, having spent time with us. However, the final cut is made by the Executive Producers back in London, and unfortunately they removed all filming that portrayed time spent with our friends.

Oktoberfest at Rana Azul
Oktoberfest at Rana Azul

Overall we were really happy with the portrayal of our lives and had tremendous feedback from viewers. Our disappointment surrounded the fact that they made our lifestyle look much more remote than it actually was. They also got a number of facts and figures relating to the cost and development of the island incorrect. However, Elliot “got” our situation totally, when he had Ben summarise in the narrative at the end of the show:

“but now Ian and Vanessa will be going in search of their own adventure together,  a shared adventure”.

And what an adventure it is turning out to be!

Painting the Helipad
Painting the Helipad

If you would like to know more about what it’s like buying, developing and living on an island, Ian’s book Paradise Delayed” details the trials, tribulations and joy of this adventure. He has recently updated the book to bring our story up-to-date.

A Harsh Judgment

Dealing with a negative response to our lifestyle!

Ian and I have worked together on this response today after receiving the following comments on the “DivergingRoads.com” website and “Caribbean Life 4 Sale” Facebook page. It would be easy to dismiss or ignore this response, but we believe that if one person has written this, maybe others are thinking it. We are also aware that whatever we say may be seen as defensive or reactive, but it is tough to know in these situations which way forward is best.

So, we want to take this opportunity to respond to the issues raised to try and give some clarity to the author of the comments and for anyone else who may have similar concerns.


“This is an utter shame to see the exploitation and deceit you and Ian have made. With Ben Fogle’s visit just having aired this past February and sharing your story; Ian’s true motives were previously revealed last year when he listed the property for sale for $250,000. Having spent less than 60K total on the property since he landed and two women later, yourself included, it seems Ian is merely, developing and flipping properties instead of how he acts and is portrayed on the television episodes.

With the equity split to Graham in February, I see this as merely a series of profit ventures for the both of you. I am disgraced by your deception that you both exhibited on television only to find the truth with a bit of research.

While you claim you reasons for the initial trip were somewhat grounded and innocent in nature, apparently you haven’t left society that far behind when you exhibit the negative behaviors that are prevalent in society today. Many of us who seek to “escape” this consumer driven “rat race’ have now witnessed the actual scam that you two are. I wouldn’t doubt this was your plan all along and probably in cohorts with similar individuals to aid during this flimflam!”  

D Hudson


Thank you, Mr Hudson, for the comments expressing your concerns and doubts over the way Ian and I have chosen to live. You may not be the only person who has had such thoughts, as the “New Lives in the Wild” documentary does appear to raise conflicts in certain aspects of our current travel adventures.

It is a little alarming however, to see how the tone of your message seems incredibly negative and judgmental. When there are so few facts available to you and most through unreliable media sources, perhaps a better approach might have been to ask some questions and enter into a dialogue. Making assumptions and giving unconsidered opinions is the source of all conflict it seems, and it would have been much more intelligent to question these issues rather than simply labelling us as “deceitful and exploitative”.

Let’s have a look at some of your points individually.

ISLAND FOR SALE

Ian very publicly listed the island for sale long before the “New Lives” production company ever contacted us. See this article, published 11th April 2013 on The Daily Mail website:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2307621/

He created a Facebook page and a website to try and sell the property and notified everyone that had ever contacted him, of his intention to sell.

The first email from Renegade Pictures was received on 26th June 2013, almost three months after the island was initially put up for sale. Ian was completely upfront with them about the island being for sale. That was not an issue for Renegade, as they simply wanted to document our current lives, not what may or may not happen in the future.

PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

By the time we filmed the documentary (October 2013) Ian and I were already planning to head for the States to buy an RV and travel together for a while. All we needed was a buyer for the island, as we didn’t have the funds to both keep hold of the island and to go on extended travels.

Life is often about choices and sacrifice. You can’t have everything. To achieve new things you often have to sacrifice something else. We would love to be able to maintain ownership of the island and to travel extensively, but we are not wealthy people and this was not an option.

While Renegade chose not to mention that the island was for sale, our future plans were hinted at by the Director’s narrative at the end of the show, when Ben Fogle said:

“I know Ian’s type, because I’m quite similar to him. The point of being an adventurous person… is that you need to keep adding spice to your days. The two years that Ian has been here has been an unbelievable adventure, but the fact that they’ve teamed up now – it’s Ian AND Vanessa – I think they’re going to go in search of their own adventure together – a shared adventure.”

That is exactly what we are doing.

IAN’S PARTNERS

Ian met his previous partner in 2008 and the relationship ended after a lot of soul searching last year. I’m not really sure what point you are making by stating “two women later” but it is incredibly rude and we see no relevant link to your other comments.

DOCUMENTARY PORTRAYAL

Let’s not forget that we have no editorial control whatsoever over our portrayal in the “New Lives” documentary. Renegade Pictures are in the entertainment industry, and are contracted by Channel 5 to produce a series of informative and entertaining shows.

While what was eventually aired on TV is true to life, it doesn’t tell the full story of life on the island and in the archipelago. 23 hours of film were shot which had to be reduced to a 45 minute show. This meant that only certain elements of our lives could be examined.

We were very happy with the portrayal of our lives, but a little disappointed that some sections we filmed were dropped from the final edit. Partying with all of our ex-pat friends at the local jungle restaurant, Rana Azul, didn’t make the final cut. We built a helipad, visited neighbours, toured the local cacao farm and filmed the morning radio program. None of this was featured in the final program.

We spent a lot of time trying to convince the director and producer of the importance of our interactions with our friends and the original plan was for this to be portrayed. However, the Executive Directors based in London, who we do not meet or interact with, make the final choice. They obviously decided to show our lives as much more “wild”, to keep the theme of the series intact.

PRICES – SOME FACTS & FIGURES

While it is true that the initial cost of the island was quite low, Ian has spent a significant amount of money and time developing the property. Prices quoted on the show are in UK Pounds Sterling, which when converted into US Dollars at a rate of about $1.60 to a pound, gives a much higher initial cost than the “60K” you mention.

The price for the island and the lumber for the house are only a tiny fraction of what has to be spent to develop a whole island from thick jungle to a self-sustaining home.

Boat, fuel, wages, sand, gravel, cement, plants, solar panels, water tanks and more are just some of the other costs involved. Everything has to be brought from the mainland by boat by local workers and this is expensive. All heavy materials have to be moved by hand, as mechanical vehicles cannot be transported to the island.

Ian has worked on the property almost full time for two years to create what you saw on the documentary. It is therefore somewhat unreasonable to expect the sale price to be set simply at the cost of the island and the raw materials. Any self build project would value the time taken to build the property as part of the sale price. Moreover, is it wrong to want to make a profit? Isn’t that what everyone does?

Anyone who spends time working hard on improving a property expects some sort of return for their efforts. Have you never tried to achieve a profit by selling a property?

GRAHAM HUGHES & THE NEW ISLAND PARTNERSHIP

In the current climate, and with funds running low it became more important to sell the island. We had very little serious interest, and so Graham’s offer to purchase a one third share of the island presented us with a win-win situation. We could maintain some ownership of the island, but still have the funds to travel whilst trying to build a speaking career for Ian that would sustain us in the future.

Graham plans to further develop the island with the goal of making it even more self-sustainable. When he has put in a year of long hard work in the tropical heat he also hopes to increase his investment and the overall value of the property – just like anyone else that invests time, money and effort into improving their home.

If we then put the island up for sale at a reasonable market value, taking into consideration all of the improvements made, does that make us “scammers” or “flim-flammers”?

LIFESTYLE

Ian has often stated publicly his belief that life is all about adventure and experience, and that ownership of an island is just one of the many experiences on his lifelong journey. He really has enjoyed his time on the island, and has adapted well to an off-grid lifestyle. But he has never professed to be any sort of new-age environmentalist.

His passions are for higher octane adventurous activities. A glance at his list of 100 goals will reveal skydiving, flying planes, helicopters and riding fast motorbikes, among a wide variety of other less intense interests.

Ian’s “true motives” have always been to live an adventurous and fun-filled life. What in the Ben Fogle show conflicts with that?

Neither of us has ever expressed a desire to escape society – simply to live a more interesting life. We may have left the “rat-race” in the sense of “nine-to-five” jobs and mass consumerism, but contrary to your suggestion, I don’t think either of us has ever tried to deceive anyone. We are both living our lives exactly as we wish to, and have been quite open and public about all aspects of that.

I have sold my house in England and own just a small box of possessions. Ian and I currently live in an RV which cost us $14,500 and is 16 years old. Of course, we have purchased items for day to day living, and we have our computers and some items of technology necessary to earn a living. We live minimally but happily but we do still have to make money. We can do this best by speaking and writing, and inspiring others to live the lives they really want to. We are blown away by the people we meet where a mutual inspiration is imparted, and thankfully we experience very few people who make negative judgements and criticize our way of living.

We find that many people are inspired by Ian’s story and the way we live our lives. There is never an aspect of it that we don’t divulge and that does not seem to be an issue for most people, who just see this as a progression through the rich tapestry of life.


I hope this article is a reminder to us all how easy it is to jump to conclusions without attempting to ask questions and without thinking about how hurtful comments may be. Escaping the rat-race is one thing, but it seems to me that there are some people who need to look at their own behaviour and unconsidered opinions before making harsh judgements about others. Perhaps then the world would be a happier, more pleasant place to live in and there would be no need for “escape”.

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