“It made me realise the power of travel to break down the barriers of ignorance between countries and cultures.”
With his adventurous spirit and a ruffian-esque charm, not to mention those dazzling blue eyes, it is with much excitement, more than a little blushing, that I am able to share this, coming from the amazing National Geographic Explorer of the Year 2012, Alastair Humphreys…
He’s walked across India, cycled the world (which attracted Ranulph Fiennes’ comment of it as the “first great adventure of the 21st century”), rowed the Atlantic, completed the gruelling Marathon des Sables, and spends much of his time inspiring the next generation of youngsters to embrace the world around them with his concept of the “microadventure”. Having listened to him speak, and read his books, Alastair certainly played his part in inspiring a pre-university me to embrace my wanderlust, rather than just contemplate it. Reflecting on a younger him, Al says:
I was confident (a confidence forged during those years on the road) that if I was willing to work very hard, with enthusiasm, persistence and imagination, that I might be able to make a living out of doing the things that I enjoy.
And, without question, it is these three, “enthusiasm, persistence, and imagination”, that would reveal Alastair’s character perfectly. Add to that a wicked sense of humour, and you have quite the adventurer! Given how in demand he is, it was fantastic to hear back from Alastair that he was willing to answer these for me, especially given I tried to convince him with a particularly terrible joke*! Mind you, having heard the joke he offered in return, I suddenly didn’t feel so bad…
There must have been points on his bigger adventures – walking around India and the Empty Quarter, cycling the world – when he thought about turning back, surely. They were epic, both in terms of time dedicated and sheer scale of what Al wanted to achieve. When he did hesitate, what kept him going, I wondered?
The realisation that giving up is such a short term pleasure and that the real solid satisfaction comes from persevering. It’s about retrospective pleasures, pride, and long-term satisfaction.
It must have taken come courage to just take off that first time, and whilst in the most part people are welcoming and kind and will try to help, it is inevitable that any traveller will come across those instances where we are unsure of what would come next. Often the balance between planning an adventure down to the last minutae (particularly if you’re just starting off, or have family back home who want to know where they can get to you if they need), and the care-free, happy-go-lucky approach is difficult to get just right. I’m one for leaning towards the latter, but have had to learn to curb that with a “just in case”.
I was interested in knowing what Alastair, with all his extraordinary experience, would suggest to people setting off on similar journeys (on bikes, on foot, on horseback)… Whether to plan and prepare (just in case things go wrong), or whether to rely on going with the flow (for when things go right)?
I think preparation is really important, but mostly because of the confidence it gives you rather than any concerts information it gives you. Planning gave me an illusion of security and competence which allowed me to do the most important thing: begin.
When you were in your university years, just starting to get into the world of adventures, could you imagine that you would be where you are today? What did you want to get out of that first cycling adventures?
I dreamed (but not seriously plan) to make a career from adventure. My huge dream from cycling around the world was to write a book which one day would pay for the trip. That was the limit of my ambition.
Do you think the traditional idea of “expeditions” is going to be challenged more and more given how much of the world we now know about?
No. I think the more we know the more it opens up to a broader group of people. People who would never have contemplated going on expeditions a couple of generations ago.
Many of Alastair’s talks and discussions seem to be with the younger generations; not fearing failure, understanding that dreaming big but starting small is okay, and that we should aim to do things we love for the sake of doing what we love rather than for fame or fortune seems to be a reoccurring theme through these talks, at least it certainly seemed that way from the talks I went to! I put this to Alastair, whether his idea of the “micro-adventure”, that are close-to-home, but still challenging, is a way of helping people to realise this?
Absolutely! I think the point of micro-adventures is about taking the first tiny step, overcoming the inertia and fear, and taking the first tiny step towards whatever your grand plan might be.
Most of your adventures are physically very demanding, but must also take a psychological toll, in particular, it seems from reading about it, your rowing. Were there any particular pieces of advise that helped you prepare for this aspect of it?
Nothing that is not a cliche. But cliches are true, I suppose. I try not to think too far ahead. To think only of what I am doing now. To remind myself that if I was in London I would give anything to be where I am now. To remind myself how good it will feel when it is over. And to enjoy the moment too – to embrace the absurdity, to be proud that I can tolerate these hard things, and to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all.
Do you think, that given the misconceptions people hold about certain areas of the world, the Middle East in particular comes to mind, expeditions like yours into the Empty Quarter are important in encouraging an interest in the lives and livelihoods of people living there?
For sure. My recent trip across the Empty Quarter was one of the safest trips I have ever done. I was struck cycling through the US how much it reminded me of the Middle East: proud, insular people, very kind and hospitable, very proud of their culture and religion, very welcoming to me. It made me realise the power of travel to break down the barriers of ignorance between countries and cultures.
If you could invite five people, from any point in history, to join you for dinner, who would they be and why?
1. Ranulph Fiennes. His book Living Dangerously sowed the seeds for me of contemplating a professional life of adventure.
2. Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer morning is my favourite travel book.
3. Captain Scott. I’d love to discuss his mistakes and his bad luck with him: it would not have taken doing many things differently for him to succeed and his story to be so different.
4. Ibn Battuta. The most voracious traveller of all time.
5. Neil Armstrong. Standing on the moon is the greatest adventure man has ever done.
For more about Alastair, go here.
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Check out his beautiful photographs here.
Follow Alastair on Twitter @Al_Humphries
* My joke:
What do you call a deer with no eyes? No idea. And what do you call a bear with no ears? B.
What do you get hanging from an apple tree? Sore arms.
It’s a difficult one to decide which of these made me groan the loudest!