More DW Blogs DW.COM

Talking Germany

Blog with Peter Craven

Rüdiger Nehberg – exuberant explorer, effective activist

78 going on 17

He disappeared from home when he was still a tiny boy. He survived the war. Then he got into snake charming. And that was all before the serious adventures began. So just how old was he when he departed on that first expedition? “I think I was three or four. People can’t quite agree. All I wanted to do was to visit my grandmother on the other side of town.” It’s Rüdiger Nehberg speaking: adventurer and activist – and my latest guest on Talking Germany.

The war years must have been tough. He was, after all, just ten when the Nazis capitulated. His family were among the last Germans to leave Danzig – present day Gdańsk. Two years in an interment camp in Denmark followed. So, what does he remember of his first decade? “Above all, the feeling of Ohnmacht, of helplessness.” His parents were clearly kind and understanding, but life at home was all too staid and settled: “There was no action.” So, at just 17, Rüdiger headed off (on a bike) for Morocco (and his first encounter with snakes).

Later he became the first person to introduce survival training to Germany: “It’s all about overcoming fear and learning to live with deprivation.” But fear hardly appears to be part of Rüdiger’s makeup. One of his three(!) transatlantic crossings was on a tree trunk! ( Now surely, that must have been scary? “Well, I’m not a good swimmer,” he admits, “but my boat was literally unsinkable. It was safer than the Titanic! The waves were sometimes eight meters high. But the boat went up and down – just like a lift.” This is clearly Rüdiger’s idea of fun. And sometimes he almost sounds like a character from Tintin: “Because I generally had the wind behind me, all I needed to do was to hold my shirt open like a pair of wings and I flew forward.”

Rüdiger Nehberg is such an enthusiastic narrator that it’s easy to forget that there’s a serious side to most everything he does. These days he’s a very effective activist against the shocking but widespread practice of female genital mutilation. His campaign has taken him to some of the highest places in Islam. The remarkable thing is that his voice – the voice of an outsider – is being heard. That he is having an impact. “And a big new development might be lying just ahead,” he assures me: “But there’s still work to do.” Rüdiger’s next destination on this latest journey is Mecca. I wish him well.


May 13, 2013