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Exclusive interview with Expedition Unknown host Josh Gates

Josh Gates
Josh Gates and Expedition Unknown are back tonight on the Travel Channel. Pic credit: Trvl

Tonight on Travel Channel, Expedition Unknown returns with host Josh Gates in the thick of it around the world — exploring and uncovering the lore and the legends that keep people wondering.

The adventurer has an insatiable desire to learn about new cultures and his new season takes us along as he dives deeply into everything from the travel patterns of the Vikings to the great women of Egypt in 12 new expeditions.

We spoke to Josh about what’s to come in the new season:

Monsters and Critics: You’re into your fourth season! How has the series grown and changed, how has it tweaked over the four seasons you’ve been doing it?

Josh Gates: Well, I think that in some ways, it just gets bigger and bigger. Every year, we try to take on bigger legends, bigger stories. This year, we’re tackling a lot of really iconic places and iconic characters. We’re gonna be doing a huge special on the Vikings, a big two-part special that’s gonna take us all across the North Atlantic.

We’re also doing a big two-part special on great women of Egypt focusing on characters like Cleopatra and Nefertiti. We’re visiting some really remote locations this year, some of the remote locations we’ve been on in the show — deep in the jungles of Guatemala, investigating Mayan pyramids. I think the show has over time just continued to expand, and really we’ve tried to take on bigger and bigger adventures.

M&C: How do you get your leads? How do you get the stories that you’re presented by producers and people? 

Josh: A lot of research goes into the show, and it’s really a team effort. We’re looking for stories where there’s a really completing legend or mystery, but where there’s also meat on the bone, where there’s also something happening. We love working with archaeologists and explores that are on the cusp of discovery. So we’re always trying to look for stories where there are real discoveries being made. And that really drives a lot of the research process.

M&C: Every location that you visit is so remote and has such unique challenges. How much negotiating do you guys have to do before you bring your crews into certain locations?

Josh: Every show is a different challenge. I mean one of the things that’s really true about the series is that it’s not all pre-produced. These are real adventures where we really head off into the unknown, and we don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen. And so that makes for very interesting filming.

We obviously do a lot of work with local producers to make sure that we have the right visas and permits and all those kind of good things, and that can be really complex depending on where you’re visiting.

Other times it can be straightforward. But this year, we spent about three weeks filming in Egypt, a really complex place to film, and in some ways a lot of permitting, a lot of security and safety issues and things like that for these episodes that we’re doing in Guatemala.  We did a really incredible story in the jungles of Ecuador in the Amazon.

Just the logistics of filming can be really complex, trying to figure out where we’re getting food and clean water from and things like that during the treks. There’s a ton of behind the scenes work that gets done, but at the end of the day, it always ends up being a seat of your pants adventures.

M&C: Has your sense of humor ever fallen flat with the person on the other end of it? Or has your humor kind of transcended culture and language?

Josh: Oh, I think my sense of humor falls flat all the time. But I think you have to have a good sense of humor when you’re doing this kind of work, or it’s gonna grind you down. Because as anyone who’s traveled anywhere knows, whether it’s on a simple trip or a trek to the ends of the earth, things always go wrong. Right? So that’s the one constant of traveling, is that nothing goes exactly the way you think it’s going to go.

I think you have to roll with the punches, and really by doing that, you tend to get through situations quicker, you tend to find solutions quicker, and you tend to enjoy the experience more. If you know that at some point the wheels are gonna come off the wagon, then you’re a little bit better prepared for when it happens.  So I think that that approach has served us well.

M&C: You’ve had some close calls?

Josh: Myanmar. It’s a really fascinating story, this lost golden bell that’s meant to be at the bottom of the Yangon River in Myanmar. And maybe one of the reasons it’s never been found is how extraordinarily difficult it is to dive there.

It’s basically the muddiest water you can imagine. You’re talking about zero visibility, pitch black water. And the river has a really strong current, it’s really polluted, it’s filled with tons of debris and wrecks and ropes, and all sorts of nasty stuff. So to dive in that kind of conditions with no visibility in really swift currents is extremely dangerous, and a number of people have actually died trying to dive to find this bell.

Going down there and experiencing what it is like to look for this thing was something that seemed like a good idea at the time. I really wanted to put myself in the position of the searchers, and understand what it means to look for this thing. But the minute I got down there, I just thought ‘this is insane.’ It is like working with a blindfold on, feeling around underwater.

Basically, the worst possible conditions you could be in. We try to minimize experiences that are quite that bad on the show. This year is really no exception, we have some really dangerous experiences this season as well. One of the stories that I’m really excited about is this trip to Ecuador that we do.

One of our episodes is focused on this cave that’s deep in the jungles of Ecuador, where there’s this legend about this mysterious metal library, it’s called. This library of artifacts from an ancient civilization, that is meant to be deep in this cave in the Amazon. It’s a legend that’s persisted for 75 years or so.

We wanted to go there with these guys that are mapping this cave to really understand where the story came from, and could there be any truth to it? Getting into this cave is probably one of the scariest things that I’ve ever done. It’s a vertical drop to get into the cave of at least 200 feet straight down into basically complete darkness.

To rig that climb and to work with specialists to try to get not just me, but our entire team down into this cave was a huge challenge. But sometimes, that’s how it goes on Expedition Unknown. Getting to the story means undertaking a big adventure sometimes.

M&C: So you’re not a squeamish guy? 

Josh: I’m okay with spiders, I don’t do great with scorpions. Not a fan, not a fan of scorpions at all. I just think they’re nasty … They seem like they’re designed to be really horrible. The whole design of the scorpion bothers me. The pincers, the tail that comes over the head with the stinger, it’s horrible. I hate them. So spiders I can handle, scorpions I have a major fear of. And snakes are somewhere in the middle. I don’t love them, but I can sort of deal with them.

M&C: You kissed a cobra.

Josh: I did, that’s true. I did kiss a cobra back on Destination Truth. I don’t know why I did that. I look back on that now, and it seems like a really bad idea.

M&C: Yeah, well, you have children now. You must be careful.

Josh: Exactly, exactly.

M&C: Do you prefer exploring and adventuring actual structures and physical places, or do you like the lure of the mythical being and yeti and ghosts? 

Josh:  I love the creature stories that we focused on Destination Truth. I love the yeti, which we did a four-part special on last year on Expedition Unknown. I’ve always loved the legend of the Yeti. There’s something about that story that’s always appealed to me, the idea of this lone creature living up in the snow-swept Himalayas.

It’s just such a kind of romantic idea of this beast out in the wilderness. I also really love the archeological stuff that we focused on Expedition Unknown. I have to say that to be able to meet up with archeologists and explorers and bushwhack through the jungle to see these incredible pyramids or to go diving in sunken ruins of abandoned cities, it’s just so incredible. There are times when it feels like it’s something out of a movie.

I really love the archeological exploring, because there’s something so tangible to it. To be able to come face to face with these spectacular ruins is such a thrill.

M&C: What’s the most breathtaking thing you’ve discovered yourself, in all your travels and all the countries you’ve been?

Josh: That’s a tough question.  I’m always amazed when we visit a site and I realize how much is left to be discovered.  I think that we sometimes feel like the whole world has been mapped. I think the fact that we’ve got these incredible phones in our pockets and GPS and navigation systems in our cars, we sort of feel like everything is kind of known. Whenever I go somewhere and realize the scope of what isn’t known, I’m really blown away.

We have this great special coming up this season on the Mayans in Guatemala. And it involves visiting this site really deep in the jungles of Guatemala, this place called El Mirador. And it’s this huge basin in northern Guatemala near the border of Mexico, and it’s a place that we helicopter into.

We fly over these jungles and just see nothing but trees. And then you land and you go into this site, and realize that there are literally hundreds of pyramids at this site that are completely covered and earth and vines and vegetation. You look around and see these huge mounds, and you say ‘what’s that?’

An archeologist will say, ‘that’s a pyramid.’ And what’s that? Oh, that’s a pyramid. Everywhere you look, there are these pyramids. And they’ve never been excavated. Just the amount of work that has to be done to excavate these sites is extraordinary. And you think, how is that possible? How could there be whole pyramids still buried under the earth that could contain absolutely mind-blowing treasures and archeological remains, and nobody’s ever seen them?

That, to me, is the most astounding thing. When you realize that there is so much out there that has yet to be explored.

M&C: For our foreign readers, what’s the most exciting American state that they can explore for adventure? What would you recommend for someone who’s never been to the United States?

Josh: That’s a tough question. Look, I think one of the great things about the United States is that it’s a really diverse place when it comes to natural wonders. For me, for a first-time visitor, I think it’s hard to beat the American Southwest. Just the absolute treasures of Arizona and Utah between the Grand Canyon and Bryce and Zion National Parks. It’s really, having been all over the world, it’s some of the most spectacular wilderness on earth, with incredible archeological remains of early peoples, but also just breathtaking natural beauty.

So I think for a first-time visitor who’s looking for adventure, that’s probably the part of the country I would direct them to.

M&C: You’re an expert mountain climber, and you also are a scuba diver. What do you prefer? Do you love them both equally, or do you have more apprehension when you go underwater?

Josh: I love being underwater, that’s my preferred space. I grew up on the coast in Massachusetts, and my father was a commercial deep sea diver. So the ocean was always kind of in my blood I think from an early age. And there’s nothing I love more than going diving. Just being underwater, being weightless, and floating around this world that no matter how often I go down there, it just feels alien. It feels like another planet. So for me, there’s nothing better than that. Any day I get to go in the water is a good day.

M&C: Nice. Do you still have those Amazon hamburger earmuffs that they sent you inadvertently?


Josh: Oh, of course. They’re in a glass case, insured by Lloyds of London. They’re my most prized possession.

M&C: Tell us a bit about the premiere and the Vikings that came over to Greenland?

Josh: Well, the really cool thing about the Vikings is that there’s so much we kind of know about them, and yet so much that we don’t know about them. They are a huge part of our culture in ways that I think a lot of people, myself included, don’t really know. The amount of words in our language that are taken from old Norse words, and many of them, even some of the days of the week. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are all named after Viking gods.

Thursday is Thor’s day, Wednesday is Woden’s day or Odin’s day. And so these are things we don’t really think about. The fact that there is a lot of Viking culture embedded in our own culture.

This show is all about exploring various mysteries of the Vikings. One of those mysteries is really what made them so powerful and such a force of nature. We spent part of the show in the Viking homeland in Denmark exploring really what made them so successful. We think of the Vikings as the brute warriors and raiders and pillagers.

There’s a much more complex story than that to what made them so successful. We also look into stories in Iceland and Greenland, places that the Vikings pushed out to. In Greenland, there was a thriving Viking population that sort of vanished off the face of the earth. Archeologists there are trying to understand what happened to them.

Finally, this question of how far west they really made it. There is a Viking settlement known as Vinland that was established by Leif Erikson that appears on several maps, but it’s unclear exactly where Vinland is. There’s a lot of people who believe it might be in Nova Scotia, or somewhere in Canada. But growing up in Massachusetts, I was always under the impression that the Vikings made it to New England.

There are all of these weird monuments in and around Boston, there’s a statue of Leif Erikson in downtown Boston. And there’s this story that the Vikings came ashore in New England. One of the things we wanted to explore in this show is, why do we think that? And is it possible that that’s true? Is there any evidence to support it?

It’s a really interesting show that really explores the mystery of the Vikings, what made them such a force of nature, and how far they really traveled.

M&C: Do you think that the Vikings with their more egalitarian view of their women – for the time – might have had something to do with their success?

Josh: I think so. Yeah, I think that one of the things that made them successful in general is that they seem to be somewhat flexible and malleable in a way. They would go to different places and in some ways, either adapt to that location, take on, or raid or pillage the best things about that location and take it for themselves. They were, in that sense I think, really successful because they were kind of equal opportunity explorers.

M&C: What’s your favorite new thing to pack, or advice on how to travel smarter?

Josh: Well, packing is an art. I feel like I’ve been traveling professionally for 10 years now, and I’m still trying to master it. One of the things I always say but it really is true is that we all over pack. You need less than you think you need. I think we all kind of get into this mindset that we have to bring everything and the kitchen sink with us. I think it’s really about the basics. If you’re gonna be doing anything outdoorsy, you need a killer, reliable pair of waterproof boots, you need sensible clothes for wet conditions, especially if you’re going to Europe. You need those basics.

I think we all sort of travel and think, like ‘oh I need an outfit for every single day I’m going to be in a place.’ And the fact of the matter is that much of the same way we do laundry at home, you can do laundry overseas.  I think the less you pack, the more agile you are. So it happens to all of us, where we pack for a trip and then we come home and we go through our bag, and half of the stuff in the bag was never worn. And so for me, it is about packing light. It’s about having the basics, to be dry and to be warm and comfortable, but not to over pack.

In terms of everything else, I pretty much don’t go anywhere without my Kindle. I love reading paper books but I’ve kind of converted to the joys of having one tiny sliver of electronics that can hold thousands of books. I don’t go anywhere without that, and I don’t go anywhere without a good journal.

I do bring a camera with me wherever I go, but I always try to write down my experiences. It’s hard to do, it’s hard to take that time every day to keep a diary or a journal. But I think it’s so much more meaningful to look back on than any photograph. So I always try to bring a Kindle, a good notebook, good pen, and of course my phone. And I try to keep it light.

M&C: How do you keep in touch with your family? 

Josh: It depends. There are some places where you’d be surprised there are better telecommunications than you’d expect. I always say that in like Africa and places like that where there were never good landlines, the cell towers and connectivity are almost more developed in some areas than it is in the states. Because that’s the primary mode of communications for a lot of people. I also think that it’s important sometimes to be out of touch.

There are places we go that are remote, and rather than sort of fighting against that and trying to point an antenna at a satellite, sometimes it’s about being off the grid. I think it’s important on any trip to remember not to be too tied to your electronics, to take the opportunity in places where there isn’t this kind of digital connectivity to embrace that. Not to see it as an inconvenience or as a shortcoming, but almost as a welcome relief from being tied to your phone. And to take that time to just be tied to nature instead.

M&C: Is there any place that you’ve not been to that you have to go before you die? 

Josh: It’s a never-ending list. I think 10 years ago when I started doing this kind of work, I thought, ‘oh man we’re gonna run out of monsters or mysteries or legends.’ Every place I go, I hear about four more stories I never knew about. Or you’ll go to a country, say I always wanted to go to China.

Then you go to China, and you really sit down and look at a map of China for the first time when you’re gonna go there, and realize how enormous it is and that you’re gonna see one percent of the country. It’s a funny thing, the more you travel, the longer your list gets. Because you realize just how much really is out there to see in the world.

I’ve been really fortunate to be able to go to more than 100 countries and to see a lot of really spectacular places. But the more I travel, the longer that list just gets.

M&C: Your own mother is British?

Josh: She’s from West Sussex, she’s from around Chichester, which is south of London down by the coast.

M&C: Do you think you’d bring your son into the business? Or daughter?

Josh: Yeah. A daughter on the way. I don’t know about into the business. But I’ll certainly encourage them to travel, and I can’t wait to take them out onto the road and to show them some of the parts of the world that I’ve been able to see.

Expedition Unknown returns for Season 4 tonight, Wednesday, December 27 at 9pm ET/PT on Travel Channel.


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