In 2005, Dwayne Fields found himself staring down the barrel of a gun in east London. The explorer, who in 2010 would become the first black Briton to reach the north pole, had got himself into a very different, but still extreme environment. Now a presenter on Countryfile, he had gone to a neighbouring housing estate to demand the return of his motorbike, which had been stolen by boys he recognised. “Walking on to someone else’s estate is the stupidest thing you can do. But I was blinded by anger and frustration.” While negotiating the bike’s return, Fields found himself in a physical confrontation with a man who pulled out a gun. “Before I could say, ‘You don’t have to go that far!’, I heard the click.” The man had fired twice. But for some reason the gun jammed – and Fields escaped with his life.
All these years later the experience has not left Fields. Now 37, he still feels “phantom pains” in his stomach where he anticipated an entry wound would be. “It’s something I’ll never forget,” he says. It was not a Damascene moment, but the night he was almost shot – and the paranoia he felt in the days following – was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
Fields already had an uneasy relationship with the gang culture around him. He says he never carried a knife or robbed anyone, but he felt close friends were drawing him towards a life of “suitcases of weed, cocaine and guns”. “I just said yes to things because that’s how you learn to survive as a young kid.” Fields grew up in Stoke Newington, east London, having moved there from Jamaica at the age of six.
“In my area there were two to three estates in conflict and mine was bang in the middle. I was 10 years old the first time I had a knife in my face. From a young age, I knew how cheap life was.” As a young man, Fields was robbed numerous times and has scars on his chest and abdomen from stab wounds. “We were on their turf. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says, adding that he “almost became numb to the violence. Maybe that was my coping mechanism.”
After the attempted shooting, his friends urged him to take revenge but he “didn’t want any retribution”. Fields instead accepted the possibility that he might be killed and “lost all fear”. He became determined to change his life, turning his back on the friends he felt were leading him astray. “My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be able to say no to all the voices telling me to go and get this guy … That night forced me to evaluate who I was around and what I wanted to achieve,” he says.
His next step was to complete a charity run on behalf of Mothers Against Guns. But, he says, “it wasn’t enough”. Previously a sales assistant at Boots, Fields felt working in a bank would be a route to respectability and started working as a cashier at Barclays. About 18 months later, he enrolled at the University of East London. But he was always happiest outside, and Fields started spending time in Hackney Marshes – then the biggest outdoor space in which he felt safe amid the postcode wars raging around him. “I know it sounds silly, but I still had that mentality of avoiding certain areas. Going to Epping Forest [on the London/Essex border] felt like too big a risk.”
I meet Fields at Clissold House, minutes from where he grew up in Stoke Newington. Restless and energetic despite having four children, the youngest of whom is five weeks old, he is eager to point out how much the area has changed – from the new pubs and schools right down to the lush hedgerows, which were nonexistent in his youth. “I climb mountains and stuff so I’m a bit weird. But I’m not a weirdo,” he says. He is wearing a bright orange Patagonia fleece and has what appears to be a dog tag hanging from his neck. “It’s a sharpening stone,” he says. “I’ve always got a bit of cordage or a knife on me.”
Raised by his great-grandmother, Fields moved to London to live with his mother. “Imagine being a six-year-old kid and you’re moving to a new place to live with family you don’t know.” He had loved life in rural Jamaica, the food, the oral tradition and the extent to which he was free to climb trees and go to beaches. “I was that kid who used to lift up rocks to see what was underneath,” he says.
In London, he felt isolated. Teased at school for his foreign accent and total ignorance of British popular culture, he felt penned in at home. By the end of his education he was rudderless. “I was always quite athletic but I was never taken to athletics, I was never taken to football,” he says. “My mum was too busy trying to put food on the table. Anything outside that was a rare bonus.” He left home at 15 and then again, for 18 months, when he was 17. Fields says he and his mother have not spoken in 15 years. “I only went back because of money,” he says.
Not long before that gun jammed, Fields was homeless, walking through the night or sleeping on the No 73 bus for safety. “Black men – we’ve got this way of dealing with things. Rather than think, ‘is this suffering something I need to rectify?’ I did what everyone around me was doing and tried to hide how I felt.”
As for his dad? “I’ve spoken to you more in the last 20 seconds than I have him in my entire life,” he says.
The world of professional adventuring has come a long way since its Victorian heyday, but its ranks are still largely dominated by the white and privileged. But one day Fields, then a psychology and business management student at the University of East London, saw Ben Fogle and James Cracknell on breakfast TV. They said they were looking for a third member for an expedition to Antarctica. “I thought things like that were once in a lifetime, but they were so flippant … It got me thinking, is this something people do for a career?” The moment I heard them say, ‘We’re going to Antarctica’ just opened up a whole new world.”
But Fields didn’t have enormous confidence. “I had very few people who had any belief in me, and as a result I had very little belief in myself,” he says. “One teacher said that the best I could achieve was a short prison sentence.”
By the time Fields mustered the courage to apply, it was too late. But, impressed by his application, and fitness, he was asked to join an expedition to the north pole to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Peary and Henson’s 1908-9 expedition, long understood to be the first to reach the geographic north pole (although a 1989 analysis found they probably fell 30 miles short).
Henson, an African American, was born to sharecroppers in Maryland in 1866. The expedition made him famous and a couple of years later, he published a memoir titled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. “You naturally find parallels between yourself and the people who you admire. He was this guy who was great with his hands, he loved the outdoors, I understand he might have even been estranged from his parents at quite a young age.”
Finding out about Henson gave Fields a “little bit of fire in my belly”. “When I started, there was this narrative that adventure, exploration … it’s for a 50-year-old white man who’s ex-army, has got some money behind him … at the time [Henson] did it, they didn’t respect black people in the slightest. Black and white people couldn’t drink in the same place. If he could overcome all of those challenges and do this, then I could do it, too.”
There was one final hurdle however. He needed to raise £23,000. “I was so naive. I didn’t realise you had to pay,” he says. “Can you imagine a black guy coming up to you saying ‘Hey, I’m going to the north pole – give me some money?’ I went to tens of organisations only to be told, ‘Sorry, we don’t know who you are. You’re not a known quantity’.”
In the end, Fields poured most of his student loan into the trip, then went door to door asking people for donations for the final third of the cash. “It was the most horrible thing for me to do, saying to people, ‘I’m walking to the north pole, give me a pound’.”
Yet when he made it, it was worth it. “It was freezing cold, so cold you can feel your skin tingling. But, breathing in the crispest, freshest air you can imagine, I had this feeling of arrival.” The expedition, says Fields, was “walking for six days and you see nothing but white”. “You go days without smelling anything and then you’ll suddenly get this waft of disgusting fragrance on the wind. It could be a dead seal or a polar bear farting for all you knew.” Fields and his two companions were stalked by a polar bear – one of the scariest moments of his life. “I spotted this polar bear roughly 1km off just weaving behind us, left and right. It kept coming closer [Fields estimates the bear came within 50m] until we fired off a few flares to get it moving in the right direction.”
After reaching the north pole, Fields carried on adventuring – traversing the jungles of Central America, circumnavigating Jamaica and trekking across Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. “Horrible,” is how he describes the last one. “It’s not like the Arctic where you only need cooking utensils and clothing. You’ve got to prepare for the heat, the cold, the winds, the dry harshness of it.”.
Unsurprisingly, the expedition gave him an overwhelming sense of wellbeing that he is now determined to give to others. He began presenting and last year fronted a Countryfile report on whether BAME people feel unwelcome in the countryside. “When I talk to people from the BAME community, it’s clear that they don’t view the UK countryside as somewhere that’s for them. It’s not theirs, they don’t belong there,” he says.
“There’s still a lot of young people who think certain things are impossible because they haven’t seen anyone from their background doing it. That’s where I come in. I think of all the young people who are just like me and how amazing it would be if they had a different route, or if they had deeds that inspired them.”
“I want to demonstrate that there are no limits to what you can achieve, but that doesn’t mean climbing Everest, or crossing Antartica on foot, are the be-all and end-all. It’s not about planting flags, but planting seeds.”
Fields estimates he’s spoken to more than 20,000 young people over the past few years. During lockdown, he held video classes in his role as an ambassador for the Scout Association. “I saw first-hand the challenges facing young people with no escape, especially in families where you have six or seven people living together and no garden. I can’t imagine being a kid who can’t understand the reasons for being isolated.”
His next project may be his most ambitious – taking a group of underprivileged 16- to 19-year-olds on an expedition to Antarctica in spring 2022. He’s organising the journey with his expedition partner, Phoebe Smith, through their #WeTwo Foundation, which they set up in 2019 to encourage young people to explore the outdoors and highlight environmental issues facing Antarctica. How does he find participants? “I meet young people on the street, give them a business card and say ‘Look: I climb mountains. Would you ever want to climb a mountain?’ They look at me with nothing but suspicion!”
The plan is for 10 teenagers to use a ship as a base to explore the marine environment and the impact of rising temperatures on the continent’s landscape and wildlife. “These will be the young people who will be protecting our climate going forward,” he says. Two places on the expedition will be funded by the Vasey Family Trust and British Airways is offering discounted airfares. Research conducted by the students will feed into wider, Nasa-led research into Antarctic cloud formations and the region’s ecology.
Fields tells me 2019 was the bloodiest year for more than a decade on London streets, with 149 homicides in total, and a surge in knife and gang-related killings. “As kids we’re led to believe we can do anything. Then you get to the age of about 11 or 12 and society, or our environments, just beat that out of us. It’s a never-ending battle trying to change that.” At least 22 teenagers have been killed in the capital this year. The youngest is 14-year-old Fares Maatou, who was stabbed to death in east London. “In 20, 30 years time, I don’t want my kids to feel unsafe walking down the road. The more young people we can get to aspire to be more, the better.”
Fields is working with National Geographic and Disney+ on projects including Welcome to Earth, a six-part series that sees Will Smith dive into the inner workings of the planet with a different explorer. Fields’s episode sees him showing Smith around Icelandic volcanoes. He also runs Street2Peak to help transform the lives of inner city youths through adventure – he recently took six of the capital’s youngsters up Ben Nevis – but Fields knows his work is far from done.
“I still want to go to unexplored parts of the outback and the Amazon. I’d love to walk across the Gobi desert,” he says. “Every single expedition is that five-year-old kid lifting up a new rock … I’ve got stories of these far-flung places, and by sharing these experiences, I can start a dialogue. You see their minds, and the possibilities, opening. For me, that’s what it’s about.”
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