Legendary Aussie explorer Alby Mangels on what drove him to adventure


Known for his short shorts, laconic attitude and beautiful travel companions, for generations of Australians the name 'Alby Mangels' was the very definition of adventure.

Starting with just $400 in his pocket and no training in filmmaking, Mangels and his friend John Fields travelled to more than 50 countries to shoot the adventure documentary 'World Safari 1,' which Mangels then promoted himself to audiences across Australia back in 1977.

Alby Mangels and Judy Green

Alby Mangels and Judy Green Photo: Supplied

It became such a hit that Mangels headed out again six years later and filmed 'World Safari 2', which cemented him as a pioneer of the adventure film genre, followed by TV icons like Steve Irwin and Bear Grylls.

But as he reached the zenith of his fame in the 1980s, things started to go badly for the Dutch-born adventurer, with accusations of animal cruelty, fakery and ripping off investors plaguing him.

Mangels has always denied the accusations, and in a rare public interview, he revealed the pain this criticism caused him, and how it drove him to redefine his own definition of success.

"I think it's more in Australia than anywhere else - the tall poppy syndrome. And it makes you stronger every time. You don't really go ahead in life if everything goes smooth or - spiritually wise I mean," he said.

"You only really go ahead with knocks and sad as it is to say, the more knocks you have and the bigger they are, the quicker you'll get to that spiritual enlightenment that we are all looking for."

Alby opens up

Mangels spoke to The Thread, a Kickstarter-funded documentary project that seeks to "learn what connects different Aussie icons who broke away from the pack," such as businessman Alan Bond, horse trainer Gai Waterhouse and burns specialist Dr Fiona Wood.

Created by two university mates, former AFL player with Port Adelaide Hugh Minson and journalist Jack Morphet, the making of The Thread saw the pair fly across the country to speak in person with as many top rank Aussies as they could.

Minson said reaching Mangel's remote home outside Adelaide was a challenge, but once he and Morphet arrived the famous adventurer was a keen host.

Alby Mangels credits hard work, the freedom of his childhood and the courage to take risks as the keys to his success.

Alby Mangels credits hard work, the freedom of his childhood and the courage to take risks as the keys to his success. Photo: The Thread

"Alby is just a stone cold salesman and storyteller. He's lived such an incredible life with so much drive and passion and we wanted to see what that meant to him," Minson said.

"It's easy for people just to say 'work hard' is why they're successful and we all go 'oh okay.' But to really see what hard work means, what it means to risk and go for things, that's why we wanted to speak to Alby.

"He lived such an unconventional life, and with no apologies. It was a great experience to go to his place and we think he really enjoyed speaking to us, what we wanted to know from him."

The impact of Mangel's films on Australian audiences in the late 70s and early 80s was profound, with media reporting that "in one week during 1984, the top three grossing films in Australian cinemas were Gremlins, Ghostbusters and World Safari 2."

Minson said while this exposure catapulted Mangels to great fame and fortune, he told them it was only when he'd lost it all after going bankrupt for World Safari 3 that life began to make more sense.

"I've started with absolutely nothing and then I made a lot of money with the films and I had planes and boats and farms and then I lost everything again - the whole lot," Mangels said.

"I just had the jeans I was walking in and that was devastating to me at the time but when I look now, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because then I started off all over again and then only just to have enough and if I can help some other people with any more that I have, that's where my life is going now."

Taking the road less travelled

Mangels recovered from this low, going on to make 70 more documentaries in a series called Adventure Bound in the 1990s while also supporting environmental causes.

Asked to share his personal definition of success these days, Mangels became reflective.

"I have a lot of admiration for the aborigines, you know, how they can be out in the bush and sit under a tree and just mellow out and that to me is success. I don't mean that in a bad way but they can sit there and just be at one with nature and they are totally living in the now and that is success to me.

"But then in the Western world success is all about how much, I suppose, how much money you can accumulate and how high up the ladder you can go and for a long time that probably was success for me but now I have completely turned around the other way.

"Most people don't even live life. They exist and they are always living somewhere else in their mind, you know. So living now is important to me. Sit under a tree and just be there under that tree, that's where I am at now."

Alby Amngels with The Thread hosts Jack Morphet (left) and Hugh Minson (centre).

Alby Mangels with The Thread hosts Jack Morphet (left) and Hugh Minson (centre). Photo: The Thread

Looking back on Mangels' long career, Minson said what made him stand out from the pack was his willingness to go further than others, something Mangels acknowledged gave him an edge over contemporaries like the Leyland brothers and Malcolm Douglas.

"Well, I think that the Leylands I have a great admiration for those guys and Malcolm Douglas - great friend of mine and beautiful work what they've done but I think they did it more in the early days they just stuck to Australia, like 40 years ago, at that time the world was not like it is today," Mangels said.

"Not a lot of young people were on the road like they are today and I took on the world whereas they took on more or less Australia and New Guinea and I think that was probably a little bit the difference.

"Plus I always tried to get a bit of humour into the films and things and we had the odd pretty girl in the film and that helped a bit whereas the Leyland Brothers and Malcolm Douglas, I think they were married so they couldn't do that but that labelled me a bit too. But that is all part of it."

Pointing true north

The big lesson The Thread takes from Mangels is the influence of childhood, which was difficult for the adventurer who dropped out of school to work and support his mother, who became ill and sadly died a year later.

Mangels' step-father then kicked him out of home, forcing him to become self-reliant, but also freeing him of strictures that may have held others back.

"Alby has led the life a lot of us dream of living. We felt this had a lot to do with his childhood, one where, as he said, he was free to make mistakes and dream big," Minson said.

"Jack and I realised, the things that happen to us before the age of 18 have a huge impact on our lives. Having a childhood shaped by independence and discovery is a common thread we see with every person we meet."

On a lighter note, Mangels shared a trade secret with The Thread's hosts he learned from his time as a record-breaking insurance salesman in South Africa - how he convinced so many women to appear in his films.

Here's the transcript:

Alby: I knew to be successful you have to really do things that you don't like doing. It's like if you see a gorgeous girl walking along the street and your first reaction is wow, you know fwoh, is she beautiful, I'd love to go out with her. Well go up and ask her out. Not many would do that and that is what I had to do. I had to do that. So I started practicing by talking to pretty girls when I was on my way to work.

Hugh: Not a bad way to start.

Alby: And there was good rewards there because there was some great successes.

Hugh: In terms of selling life insurance?

Alby: No, in terms of chatting up!

This story Legendary Aussie explorer Alby Mangels on what drove him to adventure first appeared on WA Today.