Whilst paddling along the Yukon River I had the honour to sit and speak with people of the Northern Shoshone, Tlingit and the Yupik whom live across this vast wilderness and watershed. The long conversations we had were about traditions, heritage and what it means to be human in one of the remotest locations on earth. This is one of those conversations.
With Yaari Walker, Yupik People, Alaska. Filmed by Caroline Cote, Interview by Ian Finch.
“Once you have respect you care, when you care you share, once you share you teach”
As soon as her words enveloped my thoughts I knew I’d heard something special. Freda was Northern Shoshone and lived in a remote region on the banks of the Yukon River, Canada. As we sat outside a small cabin beyond the abandoned church from the Klondike era, I contemplated the week of paddling in the canoe that it had taken me to arrive here, hundreds of miles from the source of the river. I had at least one thousand four hundred miles left until I reached the river’s mouth in western Alaska.
Along the way, from Freda and other native elders, I’d get a lesson in what landscape and connection truly meant, shared with me from people who rely on it as a way of life and a means of living.
All of my journeys, long or short, involve the intertwining ribbon of culture and landscape, which I see as intrinsically linked. Within this is my ongoing search for simplicity, meaning and a way of life. This simple notion is what drew me to the vastness of the Yukon to meet the first nation groups who have permeated this landscape for 10,000 years. For the people of this region their culture, identity and psyche are firmly rooted in their partnership with the landscape and the wildlife. For centuries and even up until the modern day, their success as a culture is directed by this vital partnership. To lose this connection would be catastrophic for their spiritual health, and ultimately their survival.
The elders explained to me how humans still need a living dynamic relationship with the landscape in order to feel nourished and to feel connected. On returning to the rhythm and rush of urban life, I realised this was as true for the people of Alaska as it is for the people of London. We were one and the same, nourished in life by the land. My outlook towards the greater framework of nature was indelibly shaped by those intimate conversations.
With the recent insights of the Yukon expedition crackling like an ember inside me, I developed the Kodak / 27 Images project in the spring of 2017. At its heart the project was as much about disconnecting as it was reconnecting, experimenting this time in the landscapes I call home. I decided to cross, on foot and alone, two major regions of the Lake District, Coniston to Buttermere. Instead of taking my DSLR I would use a simple Kodak throwaway camera to photograph the entire journey. If I took my DSLR, or even a smartphone, there would be countless opportunities to get the images I wanted. But spending so much time behind the lens meant the camera could become like a middleman, moderating my relationship with the land.
With the Kodak, I wanted its limitations to become its strengths. The limit of 27 exposures meant I would have to slow down so that I could more closely observe my surroundings. I was hoping a calmer and more present mind would bring clarity and a new creative perspective.
Essentially, stripping back technology and choice would give breathing space for things that meant the most to me; nature, creativity and connection with the land. Looking back an elder once said “ When you slow down more, you’ll look more, and when you look more you’ll learn more”. This became not only the ethos for the project but shaped my way of living and a component of my future business.
(You can see a selection of the 27 Images here)
Walking Wild – Helping others connect to the land
I’d always been drawn to ancient forests and dense woodlands: their enchantment and complexity captured my imagination. Within the mosaic of these wonderfully wild places lies a hierarchy of families and cross species generosity.
After my expedition to the Yukon I became even more intrigued by the complex society of life within a forest eco-system. Months after the journey, it was now time to share and teach the knowledge that had inspired me. Focusing on the landscape of forests and woodlands, I said “yes” in the face of fear and failure to starting an immersive outdoor business where walking, slowing down and looking more took precedence over the mileage counter on a watch or smartphone.
I founded ‘Walk Wild’ to offer people carefully crafted day walks in some of the southern UK’s most ancient woodlands. They are designed to give people more time and space in wild locations to support the development of their relationship to nature. During these walks I share nuggets of information about the inner workings of forests, wisdom about individual trees and the how complex society of trees communicate.
For some, connecting with nature is a sense of relationship with something far greater than ourselves. The lessons passed to me from elders on the Yukon River, from generation to generation had changed a humble life on another continent. Their lessons had also spurned an organisation on a mission to spread their wisdom to one million people.
All across the world, first nation and indigenous communities believe that everything around us - the humble butterfly and the bird, the forests and the river, the mountains and the sky, all possess the spirit of life. I am now convinced of this too. Nature is a healer, the great teacher and a universal force of birth and death. Spending time in nature and taking time to listen, observe, and use all of our senses, is how we can start to understand the wonders of nature, and develop a personal relationship to the land.
I also wholeheartedly believe that if we begin to adopt that same awareness to the interconnection between all life, as the native communities do, we’ll naturally develop a deep sense of connection to and respect for the landscapes we all call home.
Adventure Uncovered Live:
A 20 minute piece on Connection to Nature via a journey through native Alaskan wisdom and the Kodak 27 Images project. Institute for Contemporary Arts, Monday 30th October 2017
The Language of the Wild
"The Language of the Wild" - This short film is about my personal connection to wild places. It touches on why I explore and take solace in the places others would feel lost. Proud to be supporting Blacks.co.uk as part of their ambassadorial program.
In my time with the Royal Marines the term “ration pack” conjures memories of pushing and shoving in the stores to get the best menu box from the pallet. If you didn’t, we’d play spoof to swap individual elements, deconstructing our original pack and forging completely different menus. Other than sleep and shelter, solid nutrition was and is an integral part of a life spent outdoors. Just as a power station requires gas or coal to power its turbines and generate energy, so we need fuel – to power our journeys and expeditions, no matter how big or small.
The outdoor/expedition food market falls into 2 categories, wet and dry. Each has benefits and drawbacks. Wet, albeit heavy can be eaten cold reducing the need for stoves and extra water, dry is lightweight but needs warm or cold hydration to be consumed. Since the military I’ve never opted for wet, purely from a weight reduction perspective, which means dry is always the preferred option. Until my recent discovery of Outdoorfood, only a couple of brands had made the podium when taste and nutrition is at stake. In this quest lays the eternal challenge: Making dehydrated meals that are nutritious, ethically sourced with deep authentic flavours.
I’d heard of Outdoorfood from a friend when he’d raved about a new “Firepot” menu. With some interest I checked the website and read the back-story about how the meals were passionately put together. I was also impressed and intrigued to see how these elements would shine though in the final product. At this serendipitous moment I was in the planning stages of an expedition to northern Norway and decided to contact founder John. In the weeks that followed a friendship was formed and we ended up partnering with Outdoorfood, selecting a large number of the 5 different meals to support the journey.
Opening the postal box the first thing I noticed was the quality of the meal packaging. Other than great design and informative instructions on how to rehydrate the meals the actual packaging feels strong and superior. There’s a nice head nod to the “local” element of the brands origins and production in the way of a front of packet map to where Outdoorfoods natural ingredients are locally sourced. What I found special is that the beef comes from a local Dorset butcher and the vegetables come from a greengrocer in Chideock. This ethical and locally supported approach is a beautiful and thoughtful touch.
The sachets come in two sizes, a 135g (500 to 700 Cal) serving and a larger sachet that packs a whopping 200g (800 - 1000 Cal) serving. Flavours include a rich and beautiful Orzo Pasta Bolognese, a zingy Dal and Rice with Spinach, a deep Chilli Con Carne, an earthy Porcini Mushroom Risotto and sweet and plush Posh Pork and Beans. Within each meal is a cacophony of flavours with each real ingredient noticeable and subtle. Most dehydrated meal producers mix their ingredients after they have been separately freeze-dried, not so here. Outdoorfood cooks the complete one-pot meal like you would at home, and then dehydrates the whole meal. This means that Firepot meals have a deeper original and more authentic flavour. This is one element of many as to why they are unique in the marketplace.
With the time involved and the thoughtful process from start to finish their individual meal price start at £6.50, coming in slightly higher than most brands. To counter-act the increase they offer the taster pack for £10 bringing each meal perfectly inline with the market value of £5 per outdoor meal. I however am of the mind that you’re not only paying £6.50 for the food inside the sachet, but the effort, sustainable production and support for local producers as well, also the years of planning and research to get it to this stage. This effort is worth more than the extra £1.50, its piece of mind. This approach of the Firepot meals goes along way in a world where brands are placing more and more focus towards “local and environmental” production methods. Outdoorfoods are already here and setting the industry standard.
In summary, it’s not often you find these handful of positive elements packaged and executed in such a complete fashion. Usually there’s battle between compromising flavor to weight with the consumer losing out somewhere along the line. Not here, not in this barn, not with Firepot. These meals are now my expedition go to.
Find out more at: www.outdoorfood.com
Images 2 and 3 by Jamie Barnes - Instagram @jamiebarnesuk
I’m often asked about my favourite wild corners of the landscape to spend a night under canvas. After a scratch of the two-day stubble and wistful gaze into the distance I usually struggle with a definitive answer. I battle between Snowdonias quieter western border where the mountains meet the sea or the jagged peaks that cradle Loch Lurgainn up in North West Scotland. Each location occupies a truly wild corner of my heart and somehow satisfies a quieter more reflective side of my nature. They also can be brutal and demand that you are prepared for what Mother Nature has in store.
In the past I’ve walked the entire length of the Outer Hebrides Islands, crossed frozen pack ice in Greenland and canoed 2000 miles of the Yukon River. Where mental, physical and logistical preparations are key, kit and clothing choices play a huge role in the success and enjoyment of any adventurous journey. Whether on a narrow mountain ridge or an ancient woodland trail we want to be comfortable and equipped. Wherever you go, some sound clothing prep and foreknowledge of local weather conditions should keep you at the very least adapted and ready for whatever challenge comes along.
With that in mind I recently partnered with Blacks, the UK’s leading outdoor retailer, to road test some of their newest items of clothing. Part of Blacks approach as well as their sound product knowledge is getting live on the ground testing and feedback of their kit. To me, this is what suppliers should be doing and is what sets them apart in the UK marketplace.
On the backseat of my 4 X4 I had an Osprey Talon 44 rucksack, a super lightweight Berghaus waterproof shell, a Mountain Equipment Astron Hoody and a Berghaus Cairngorm 2 tent. I had two days off and I wanted a short sharp hit of wildness. I decided to drop into a deep wooded pocket of the Cotswolds, a valley bowl that overlooked the Severn Estuary and the fringes of Wales.
On the pack front, the Osprey Talon 44 is one of the top technical over night packs out there. It’s light, nimble and super comfortable even when loaded heavy. The Osprey design teams always pay attention to the small details that matter – The toggle whistle on the shoulder straps, the updated airscape back pad to effectively circulate air and the continuous and smooth hip belt. These made a huge overall difference to the comfort of my journey. For me the real key additions are the trekking pole attachments and the floating lid for extra capacity. This will become my go to overnight pack.
Beneath the Talon I wore the Mountain Equipment Astron Hoody in a deep red over a standard t-shirt. My initial thoughts were that this appeared to be a multi-use spacious soft shell with a crossover sporty appeal. The two Polartec fabrics provided sound windproof ability on the high ground and I felt protected by its weatherproof DWR (durable water repellency) when the drizzle threatened. One of my big plus points were the 3 adjustment options for the hood, the smooth inner fleece fabric and its overall light weight. This is a great 3-season jacket, especially for those running the trail.
As the afternoon weather darkened and began to drizzle it was time to turn to the Berghaus Fastpacking Waterproof Shell in vibrant blue. I wasn’t sure what to make of this jacket as I held it and moved it between my fingers. The material is so fine, the product so light. As I slipped this over my lightweight down jacket it felt secure and snug, an impenetrable barrier. I found it amazing how this packed so small and packed such a waterproof punch. If a tough multi day jacket is what you’re after I’d probably go for a hard shell, yet for backpacking and a day in the mountains I wouldn’t look any further than the Berghaus Fast shell, it’s a key component to a short lightweight adventure.
As dusk landed I’d found my hidden hilltop. With 360-degree view of the valley, I pulled out the Berghaus Cairngorm 2 tent. At 3.7kg it could be considered a fraction heavy for the solo light back packer or wild camper. Having said, for an adventurous duo, this is certainly a tent to consider. The four colour coded poles were easy to assemble even in low light. Once in and the cross poles pinned the tent takes shape instantly and effortlessly. Once pegged and clipped down I noticed the feature of glow in the dark guy-lines, a thoughtful and brilliant idea. The tents dual entry at its nose and spacious porch makes kit storage well away from the inner sanctuary. What I found impressive was how rock solid this tent was; I’d certainly feel safe in tough weather. All in all first time pitch was around 10 minutes. A two-person adventure cave for under £150? This is certainly worth a serious look.
For more information and to purchase the above items please visit www.blacks.co.uk
Wild Camping is mini-adventure in its purest form. When you arrive at a location, whether it’s familiar or for the first time, mountain or ancient woodland, that feeling of constructing your home for the night is unforgettable. And when the zip to the door of your sanctuary slides to the top there is an aura of security and refuge until morning comes.
Yet, with this magical experience of risk and reward, wild camping has its “legal” limitations. In England, Wales and Ireland current law states that you’re to not wild camp unless there is express permission from the landowner. Even though this framework exists the UK National Park website freely offers advice and appears wild camping friendly as long you adhere to the ethics and rules of the legal landscape. To support this perspective Dartmoor has maps of where you can camp on common land, in the Brecon Beacons you can find a list of farms that provide camp locations and in certain areas of Scotland The Scottish Outdoor Code provides you with permitted access as long as you adhere, again, to the rules and access laws that come with wild camping in that region. Lets look into that a bit deeper.
The beautiful and un-spoilt Dartmoor frequently allows wild camping on its common land as long as numbers are kept down to small groups. Also on Dartmoor it’s permitted for you to stay for two nights (no more) in the same place without asking for permission. It’s always worth confirming on your Ordnance Survey maps that access to the location is permitted prior to setting off. Understandably, these light restrictions are put in place to safeguard the parks special qualities for present and future generations.
In the rugged wild beauty of Scotland, The Outdoor Code states that access is allowed if group numbers are limited, kit is lightweight and time on location is kept to a minimum of two or three nights on one site. Also, to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers, camping in enclosed fields of crops, near farm animals and/or historic sites should be avoided. Importantly for this region extra care is to be taken to avoid disturbing deer stalking or grouse shooting seasons and having an awareness of the yearly schedules and locations is advisable. To accompany the Outdoor Code seasonal byelaws have been introduced from March 2017 in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs area that state camping permits must now be obtained.
“Leave No Trace” is the wild camping code:
· Take away ALL your litter, whether created by yourself or others.
· Remove all traces of your tent pitch.
· Do not cause any pollution.
· Be responsible for your actions.
· Noise to be kept to a minimum.
· (Scotland) In permitted areas, when a fire is lit, all traces must be removed.
· Respect and protect the immediate natural environment and wildlife.
In summary, even though the legality of wild camping (on paper) says in certain regions it’s not allowed, there’s a friendly and lenient approach to this statute in most National Parks as long as we follow, with care, the No Trace Code. It’s important to remember that the byelaws and outdoor codes are there to be adhered to with foremost priority and respect being for the landowner, the natural environment and the local wildlife. It’s my firm belief that to get this right means future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy the wild places as freely as we do now.
Written exclusively for British Exploring Society.
“In every one of the paddle strokes played the song of the Alaskan wilderness. In every tribal dialect spoken was a thousand years of history passed and in every unseen turn of the river were fear, uncertainty, discovery and learning. Sitting here, near that inevitable finish line, warn and cracked fingers scribble these words with a blunt yellow pencil. The mile wide Yukon River sweeps slowly past me on its last turning leg before draining and widening at the Bering Sea“
Looking back at these words from my crushed and dog-eared journal, written 67 days into a 90-day canoe expedition, I could never have fathomed the personal impact that such a journey would have. From the very seed and inception of the idea until the day my kit bag crashed back onto the living room floor I’ve been undeniably shaped by the depth and knowledge recieved from such a unique journey. Hard physical experience and remote regions have a habit of teaching you fast but the real lessons came from the intricate conversations with tribal elders and understanding their connection to the world they live in.
Directly from my expedition journal here are four of the valuable lessons taken from Source to Sea.
1. The Power of Generosity
I believe one of the most beautiful facets of the human spirit, in any culture, is generosity. Unbeknown to me traditional customs in the tribal communities along the Yukon dictate that when a visitor is welcomed into a home, regardless of ethnic background or religion, they are treated with a distinct warm friendship and kindness. Also as a mark of respect it is custom to offer the best food available, even when in short supply. What makes this generosity unique is the food and from where it is sourced (nearby forests and rivers) and so precious the message in offering it. To them, this selfless act of giving takes on a spiritual meaning. From community to community, day after day, we experienced this same level of generosity, which only deepened my perception of this special human quality. Ultimately, I found the act of true generosity was in giving time, love and friendship and asking for nothing in return.
2. Wilderness - A Space For Wonder
The Yukon is a powerful place and the river itself is only one part of an immense living ecosystem. The landmass covers over four hundred and eighty two thousand square kilometres with much of the southern region sitting rugged and untamed. Those basic facts alone focus the attention and open the minds door for a wondrous curiosity. The lessons of immersion in such a remote environment ran deeper than the tangible grandeur, vastness and solitude of the wilderness. Such prolonged exposure afforded the time and inspiration to question the inner vastness of our spirit on a human level. Some moments opened my eyes to the immense and cyclical forces around me, yet other occasions showed the delicate intricacies of nature and the passive turning of the seasons. Not only is the wilderness a space for wonder it regularly demonstrates (on a grand and micro scale) the often beautiful and harsh balancing act of the natural world. This alone is magical.
3. Our Connection to Environment and Landscape
All of my expeditions, long or short, involve the story thread of native cultures. Within this there is my search for simplicity, wisdom and a way of life. 1st nation groups have permeated the vast Yukon River region for over ten thousand years and with that their connection to the environment and the wildlife has taken on a spiritual significance. Not only does this sacred relationship govern their way of life, it holds the key to the people and their culture. From conversations with native elders, subsistence fisherman and tribal chiefs I learnt how we as humans still require a living dynamic relationship to the landscape in order to feel connected to something greater than ourselves. And in order to deepen this connection, learning about and living close to the land was the way to achieve it. During one of those conversations I was told, “Once you have respect you care, and when you care you share, once you share you teach” – For me, these are all ways of living.
4. The River Of Life
On those long expedition nights, where darkness never fell, I would sit and be hypnotised by the influence of the river and its inevitable demise. In my journal I would sometimes contemplate how gradually I learnt about the rivers power and complexity. More so I would reflect on how our own human nature and lives subtly mimic the rivers journey. On July 28th 2016 – Day 67 – My journal read:
“Every man and woman has a river running through them. In us all there is a source, where everything begins. As we go through life the knowledge from tributaries, streams and other rivers gently feed into us, increasing confidence and flow. We learn to adjust and navigate as we face life’s rapids and turbulent waters. These obstacles do not cease our river yet they divert its course; the forward movement magnetised by something greater. As the river widens it has the power to give life and death, to move mountains and carve valleys, much as we learn find and follow passions we move the same mountains. At some points on our river the way is unclear and the next turn uncertain. By passing through with instinct and trust we learn to embrace the undefined and irregular. Finally, the once glacial droplet spills into the ocean and two of nature’s greatest forces are combined. Here, the pull of the river and the swell of the sea become a singular force of intricate systems working in tandem, much like us.“
I spent a year planning and dreaming about the Yukon descent. My waking life for that eternity was geared to making the journey happen. Top of the list was making it enjoyable. Problems and suffering was at the bottom. At times, canoes, sponsors and logistics consumed my thoughts. For months I would fall asleep at night visualising the image of myself in a canoe with a paddle gripped in my hands. This would play out like a stuttering old film using the back of my eyelids as a screen. Fast-forward one year and in a whirlwind of kit bags and printed boarding passes I was off, wholeheartedly consumed in completing the journey and coming home alive.
Returning to England was magical. To see the green fields from the plane and to hear the broad London accent of the customs officer welcomed me back like a warm hug. As I waited to be picked up, the feelings of being home anxiously fizzed in my stomach like an alka seltzer.
For the next few weeks I threw myself into a frenzy of blog posts and networking with magazines and podcasts. My mind became a hurricane of new expedition ideas and a deep crevasse of memories. Albeit an exciting period I wasn’t feeling myself. There was something that needed addressing, something far more important: a feeling of loss. I noticed these hollow moments felt as if I’d lost a dear friend. Like leaving them behind alone on another continent, never to speak again. I couldn’t decipher how I felt other than I longed to be back in the unsophisticated and lucid world of my journey. I found the feeling of loss was down to leaving my friend, the expedition, behind.
Life on the Yukon had a simplistic beauty and this is what I missed. We would wake, eat, paddle for four hours, eat, paddle for another four hours, eat and sleep. We had a target mileage each day and a clear objective. I was important, we were important, the journey was important. This way of life made sense to me in a place only my DNA could reach. In the canoe I had everything I needed to succeed; Food, water, tents, spare paddles, my journal and a direction of travel. Everything else I could live without. For three months this river routine stripped away my previous exterior and brought my character and soul back to a meditative and tranquil footing via a wilderness cleansing. In the act of coming home and losing this i’d now discovered how I wanted to live - Outdoors and with simplicity. With fire and with passion.
Today I can feel my daily choices and decisions silently being driven by the positive imprint of the expedition and not the sensation of what I left behind. I’ve found more than ever, that I have a deep desire to live the simple and creative outdoor life. The transparency and effect of living this way now permeates through me like water seeping through rock, positively changing its structure.
I can still feel that my friend the river is out there somewhere, alive and waiting for me to return. Even though the texture of loss still remains it now serves a different purpose as a helpful reminder to what has been and what immense feats can be achieved. It’s with those nostalgic feelings in tow that I re-load my canoe with a ferocious forward thinking positivity while not forgetting to appreciate and remember my river. From here I look to the future, to the next chapter and a bright new horizon.
Every journey we take has the potential to inspire, challenge, shape and teach us. These journeys can be as simple as a walk in your local park to a major expedition across oceans and to the top of mountains. It is important to note that we are talking about outdoor journeys in this article, although there is incredible value in exploring the world and your life from within your own mind and your own home. Today we want to talk about the range of benefits that outdoor exploration and journeys can provide us and what we believe to be the most powerful regions of discovery.
There is no doubt that the magic starts from the spark of an idea and continues through every single stage of the journey - from planning logistics to the physical undertaking of the adventure to sharing your story with the wider world. Both of us have done our fair share of adventuring around the world - we’ve climbed mountains, canoed rivers, sailed oceans - but we’ve also explored and enjoyed our local backyards, parks, beaches in the UK and Canada. We hope this will inspire you to see adventure everywhere you look and will encourage you to undertake journeys of all shapes and sizes as well as reflect on those you’ve taken already. They truly are one of the most rewarding experiences you will have in your life - so let’s get exploring.
As you travel through a new environment filled with unfamiliar smells, sights, sounds and faces - one of the first regions of discovery is cultural. People, whether it’s in your local town, a global city or a mountain village half way across the world, are fascinating. Their lifestyles, behaviours, values and also their connection and relationships to one another and the world around them often appear magical and vastly different. Exposing ourselves to different cultures is one of the most rewarding parts of travelling and adventure. It’s a chance to experience and learn about different ways of living and interacting with the planet.
But it’s also an opportunity to reflect on your own culture. The version of the world you grew up in, that’s shaped you and the culture you choose to, or currently, live in. If you are coming from cultures similar to ours - urban city centres or even small towns and villages in North America or Europe - very often with international and remote expeditions, you will have the chance to experience cultures and communities that have a very different worldview and relationship to one another and the environment around them. We encourage you to be open, curious and respectful to other cultures as you plan, experience and share your journey. This can be one of the richest and most fulfilling aspects of your adventure and if given the chance, it has the potential to shift and shape your thoughts, behaviours and approaches to all or many aspects of your life.
Undoubtedly, one of the main reasons we as human beings undertake journeys, is to experience far off places and new environments. Our need, or in most cases, is to discover and explore the world is deeply rooted within us. However, as anyone who is planning an adventure will soon realise - there are fewer and fewer “new” places to discover and so we must be innovative and creative in the ways that we approach journeys.
Instead, we think there is a different form of discovery - not of “new” spaces and places - but instead, the discovery of Environmental awareness and connection. Anywhere you travel will be new to you. Never forget that. But the way that we experience these diverse ecosystems and environments matters - we encourage you to take journeys that will demand a close interaction with the ground, water, flora and fauna of the place you are exploring. This direct and intimate experience allows us to reflect on the interconnectedness of the world and our role within that wider web of relationships.
When you experience different cultures, one of the most fascinating aspects is how people around the world relate and act toward their environment. As mentioned in the cultural piece above, if you are from urban areas, towns or villages in North America or Europe - despite your best efforts and intentions - our societies have become increasingly disconnected from our ancestral environment. When we experience cultures that rely on nature to stay alive, like the Yukon, or we rely on the environment to keep ourselves alive on remote expeditions, we tend to reconnect to the planet and learn or re-learn that it provides everything we need to not only survive but to thrive! In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, it accounts for human need but not for human greed. This return to simplicity and direct reliance on the environment around us often creates and strengthens our connection to the world.
When reflecting on adventures we’ve undertaken, both of us agreed that the region of Personal discovery is undeniably interwoven and creates the foundation for all other regions of discovery. But, there are aspects of it that deserve to be separately explored. We believe there are three distinct parts of the personal experience of journeys that are powerful and enlightening to the adventurer. These are Psychological, Physical & Spiritual aspects, and they can be seen as smaller internal journeys within the trip as a whole.
The psychological journey you experience when on an expedition or adventure will often be characterised by your interaction with other people (or lack thereof) and yourself. If undertaking the journey alone or as part of a team, each will have it’s own sets of strengths, drawbacks and psychological challenges.
When adventuring as part of a team or alone, we have the opportunity to learn in-depth and first-hand about interpersonal relationships with others and our selves. When travelling with others, you tend to learn very quickly about people’s likes and dislikes, annoying habits, skills, characteristics and things you can learn and teach one another. What’s actually most powerful about experiencing journeys with other people - in some cases under pressure and in life-or-death situations - is that it provides us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on all of these different aspects in ourselves and how we show up in the world.
As with mental resilience, physical resilience plays an equally integral and interconnected role in adventure. Just as you train physically for endurance and the challenges you will face - so you train your mind.
It is so important and educational to listen to your body when you are on a journey. Your safety and health must come first, but learning the difference between a life threatening exhaustion and just “feeling the strain” is vital. Obviously, you wouldn’t head out on a 3-month canoeing expedition having never canoed before - that’s a no-brainer. However, it is the training of your mind alongside your body that can make all the difference. It will allow you to understand when you have gone to far (and are putting yourself or your teammates at risk) or knowing when there is more gas in the tank and you can push further. It is amazing that on expeditions, people always surprise themselves with their ability to physically and mentally overcome obstacles when needed. This is a sign of good overall preparation.
This is an aspect of the personal journey that takes different forms for different people, but it is an integral part of any expedition. For some it is feeling a greater connection to a deity or a closer connection to nature and the earth - this is an aspect almost always experienced in one form or another. We encourage you to be open to this - to feel it, explore it, explain it to others if you can and talk about how it affects you. It may be moments shared with your teammates, or on your own. It may be a view that takes your breathe away or a feeling of complete calm as you sit by the fire. It may be the case that your exposure to other cultures will also create or enhance your spiritual experience while on your journey. In cultures that have strong beliefs about deities, spirits and the earth - your likelihood of having a profound spiritual experience are increased. Above all, seek your own version of this and if you choose not to seek it, at least be open to it finding you - we are confident it will.
One of the most incredible parts of being on an any journey is the physical and psychological spatial separation from everyday stresses of money, commuting, work, social media - to name a few. Expeditions and journeys allow us the gift of survival and simplicity. Our main tasks for each day are getting from Point A to Point B and living to tell the tale. It’s a pretty liberating experience - but as with any adventure not without it’s moments of fear and frustration. However, the challenges faced out on adventures have very different manifestations and are often simpler than what we face at home - in the sense that they can and need to be dealt with straight away. There is no ignoring blisters on your feet when you are hiking for 9 hours a day, just as there is only one way to deal with a confrontation between you and your teammate. You don’t ignore things, you don’t procrastinate. you solve things and you solve them as fast as you can. No time for anything but forward movement. It’s a glorious approach to life that we’ve unfortunately become unfamiliar with.
As you undertake a journey, there is guaranteed to be at least one moment where you feel breathless with the vastness of the world, how small we all are and how short our time is here. For some it might be bobbing on a sailboat in the middle of an ocean, for others it might be sat on the edge of a cliff staring over endless swathes of pristine forest, or maybe it’s just lying in your tent listening to the rainfall around you. Regardless, these are magic moments. The piece of space and time when you have a choice to make. You can choose to see yourself as insignificant and powerless or you can choose to try and understand where you fit within this world and explore your sphere of influence. This is the influential region of discovery.
These moments are an opportunity to reflect and understand that your actions inspire others. We believe that ninety-five percent of the people you inspire in your life you will never know about. This is the curse but also the blessing of the modern world - we are increasingly connected yet disconnected. You can reach people with your stories of adventure and meaningful thoughts - yet most will not let you know that your actions shaped their values and behaviours. So just as we shape others through our experiences and stories - we are shaped ourselves. There are many interwoven and empowering experiences that join together to create the larger journey - your journey. We encourage you to be open to the magic that happens when you choose to adventure and please allow yourself to explore all of these regions of discovery.
We promise you won’t regret it.
Pic (1) Credit: Tom Long
After school I didn’t think much about attending a writing course. I also didn’t go to university to study English or journalism. If I became inspired I would write on the nearest notepad, paper or napkins. Early on my writing had a theme but no point; it had feeling but no structure. I would try to describe how a landscape appeared to me, or the intricacies of a bird in flight and sometimes the visceral feelings of being exhausted and cold. I would wake up at 4am, write (sometimes on the toilet) and go back to sleep. I often struggled to write about things where I wasn’t presently or directly involved. Years passed as I followed an almost instinctive urge to write. I had no destination in mind. I did it for the love, the creative rush and the release.
Becoming older the creative growth mirrored the spiritual and physical journey. Travel (and later expeditions) became a lightning rod to the writing process with all its visceral sensations and emotions. Exposure to new and ancient cultures plugged me into an overwhelming landscape of inspiration. Never before did I feel more creative than when I was part of a human story in a remote environment, the two arms of the wishbone were converging. It had taken me 25 years to discover that my writing path was leading me here to discover, create and share a different kind of story. It was here, amongst the tiredness and discovery of expeditions and adventure, that I’d finally found my voice.
Today, travel writing is a widely competitive market. Never before have there been more ways get your stories read and published. From free blogs, competitions and magazines, there’s a myriad of options at your disposal. That of the “niche” expedition writing is somewhat more difficult. Like the expeditions themselves, they are few and far between and success here is momentary. This world relies on a specific circumstance aimed at a narrow and highly specialised marketplace. Yet, launching yourself into either direction is certainly achievable with regular content and being dog-eared persistent. On that note, I’d love to share my four tips that you might find useful:
1. Find Your Niche.
Your niche will be linked directly to your passions. When you write this will be your voice, your standpoint and your view of the world. You will determine your niche by what you write about, directly categorising your content. Start writing now, throw yourself in and enter the market. Identify areas where other travel writers aren’t focusing and bring your voice consistently to the table. See where you’re making progress, acknowledge what doesn’t work and don’t worry if your writing doesn’t fit in with the normal travel framework. Being different means you are unique and people are drawn towards the unique.
2. Listen To Your Passion and Values.
Possibly the most important point of all. Your destinations, what you write about and how you write will be driven by your passions and values. When you begin, if you’re writing from a place of passion, you’ll be carving your niche with every letter. You’ll notice huge differences when you write about something you’re interested in rather than something you’re not. One will flow like a powerful river; and one the water will run dry very quickly. Find a subject matter, destination or way of life that makes you feel most alive and drawn to. Follow that trail of breadcrumbs, it will lead you somewhere special.
3. Know the Point of Your Piece.
This is something that I had to work on a lot. Up until a few years ago I frequently over wrote my work. Before you begin the writing process have a clear vision of what you are trying to say and what you’re trying to get across. Remember, the reader is not standing in your shoes, put them there with words. So be creative, clear and concise as to what point your piece is making. Always start your work from a place of value and finish with a take away lesson.
4. Development, Persistence and Feedback.
There is no failure, only feedback, it’s that simple. Keep writing, keep making mistakes and keep evolving. I look at writing as important as the beating of my own heart, without it i’m a ship left on the dock. With that, feedback and criticism can be hard to swallow, as writing is intensely personal. Let it fly because feedback will consistently make you a more effective and dynamic writer. What I’ve learnt is that with any skill, accepting, learning and applying feedback is key to development. Persistence is the engine driving you to your destination.
Even though the technical aspects of writing are certainly pivotal for success, the true creativity and depth of your writing will come from your unique experience and passionate standpoint.
Images by Jay Kolsch at www.jaykolsch.com
Over the years I’ve found inspiration comes from many sources. Photography, film, people and literature – All have the power to shape lives and light an internal fire. I’ve often found illumination in the adventurous journeys of others; ones that share a chronicle of a life lived fully. Yet, up until recently I’d barely thought to look towards the much younger generation as a source of inspiration. Maybe it’s because I’m not a father yet and my time spent with children as a whole has been limited to the rare experiences I’ve had with my nephew.
The catalyst for this post smoldered inside me as I drove home from a day spent with 4 to 9 year olds at Grow Your Own Nature School in Bath. GYOS is a beautiful and humbling education project. Set amongst the serene hills of the Cotswold’s the focus of the nature school is to develop social and emotional skills, promote child led projects and incorporate social and environmental sustainability into their learning. All this is done within the framework of leadership and inspiring staff that use nature and the outdoor experience as their classroom.
I’d arrived with my pre-planned delivery of the Yukon expedition story. I was primed to spark fire in the hearts of a new band of explorers and illuminate the beacon of adventure and worldly curiosity. As I stood in front of the children and we began to speak I soon became aware of their already passionate and collective interest in the outdoors. Little did I know that this was no ordinary school and that I was about to get a crash course in living and learning from children 28 years my junior, here’s why:
When my talk was finished the children shared one thing they were grateful for whilst holding a wooden stick. The stick represents the child’s chance to speak without group interruption and for the others to respect this moment (A Native American tradition). At lunch we sang songs around the fire giving thanks for the food and nature. Also at the end of the day the kids shared one person they were grateful for and one word that expressed how they felt in that moment. Gratitude became the wonderful thread holding the happiness together.
Throughout the day the children continued to inspire me with their vibrancy and endless curiosity for the world. There was a fearlessness and endeavor to their questions that I adored. In everything I sensed inquisitiveness and a desire for understanding. In an adult world full of responsibility and social pressure sometimes we forget to always remain curious and interested in other people and the world. To do this with a child like sense of wonder can only impact our lives in a beautiful way.
Once the talk had come to a close the children acknowledged, whilst holding the wooden stick, their individual thanks and appreciation for what they enjoyed most about the Yukon story. It was humbling to find that some of the most interesting aspects of the story were those moments of risk and challenge. I sensed growth in not only the children’s awareness but in my appreciation of those virtues of patience, listening and acknowledgement.
4) Nature, The Worlds Best Teacher
Nature is the greatest teacher and the outdoors is the finest classroom. From the short time I spent with these children I was humbled to see how this nature based free play and outdoor learning was positively impacting these children to a degree I’d rarely seen. I witnessed happiness and a free state of spirit in this diverse play experience that I’m sure could only contribute to their healthy development. It appeared that their time spent outdoors and their gratitude for nature was the ultimate framework for their educational and emotional growth.
Anna, one of the founders said it beautifully: “We very much feel that pioneering the Green House Education Project approach to living and learning has and is a wild adventure, driven by an invisible call to finding a better way, to live, to be, to learn and to raise the next generation for a better, more compassionate, connected and peaceful world.”
Amen to that.
I’m a self taught amateur, a buffoon and by no means an expert when it comes to filming my adventures. In fact all I can share is my limited experience, the lessons learnt and things I’ve found that worked for me.
I would like you to know that I haven’t completed an expensive film-making course, had a cozy one to one with expert or spent my hard earned wages on a superior DSLR that can do the hard graft for me. What I have done is use the best camera and lens on my budget (which isn’t much), watched to see how other adventure films are produced and made a lot of good mistakes out on the ground, mistakes I learnt from the hard way.
I’ve always had a deep love for imagery. For the most part it was for still pictures but over the last year and half cinematography and short filmmaking has breathed a new creative life into my adventures and the overall expression of the journey. There are so many benefits to learning the old school way through college courses, online tutorials and alike but that doesn’t mean you can’t start now and create something worthwhile without the tuition, in todays world its never been easier. I won’t bore you with models and makes, as it doesn’t really matter what you to start with. In the early stages concentrate your initial efforts on the content, the “why” of the story and the characters within the story that people will have the emotional connection to – that’s worth more of your valuable time than spending money on an expensive and complicated camera.
What I’d love to share with you today is some of the basic film making principles I used to make my 4-minute film “Upon A Ribbon of Wildness”.
· Let the story move you, before you move the story
All of my journeys involve moving through a region on foot or by canoe, preferably remote, that still has links to an ancient culture that I can learn from, for me that’s really important. On this occasion the isolated Scottish Islands of The Outer Hebrides offered a beautiful backdrop and the Gaelic speaking crofting people provided the rich human history. Where are you going to go in your film and “why” are you going? What’s going to take place and will you be the only person involved? Think about your story before you go, what is the core question?
· Shoot a lot but shoot smart (5 Shot rule)
Use a tripod to steady your camera before every shot. Seat it firm and level recording for 10 seconds or more at a time. Keep something of interest in the fore ground; mid ground and background, this will give the shots balance and depth. When filming a scene take a wide establishing shot first, then close in for a mid (range) shot. Shoot 2 close ups that show an interesting detail and take one creative shot. I followed this rule numerous times a day throughout my time in Hebrides.
Because of the continual strong winds in the Hebrides I had trouble recording good sound, even when sheltered. If you intend on including audio make it the best you possibly can. If you use poor audio it could potentially ruin all your efforts in making a polished film. If you decide to use an external microphone (Rode Videomic Pro or similar) use a deadcat (wind protector) and record the dialogue out of the wind.
· Editing – don’t be precious
Remember this is a short story; keep it concise, varied and interesting – 3 to 4 minute tops. Include those shots where you feel immersed, sideline the ones that feel ordinary. Be tough with scene choices and don’t be precious. We want to entertain and inspire the viewer by keeping their emotions engaged. “Don’t edit from knowledge, edit from feeling” - Michael Kahn
· Have fun, lots of fun
Record the funny times, the bad times and the tired cranky times. When you want to scream those are the moments to film. Be a fool, make mistakes and always remember that every film you make is a huge learning experience. Let trial and error be your best friend, casting away the perfectionism and self-doubt. Aim to entertain, educate and inspire from the heart and not for recognition. Aim to make a film that moves you and is important to you and don’t be discouraged if progress takes time.
The islands of Lewis, Harris, Berneray, North Uist, Benbencula, South Uist lay behind me reaching north under the constant churn of the gulf stream. From the rugged mountains of Harris to the soft fertile coast of South Uist each island had its own feel, temperament and identity but there was one island left, and one that was to be the most special of all, Barra.
As I stood next to my dew-covered dwelling on the morning of my last day, I could feel the early glow of the sun on the back on my neck. The tent entrance fluttered in the breeze as the hot sugary caffeine of my coffee began to work its magic. In the background I could hear bubbling water boiling for a second time ready to hydrate my porridge oats. After the mother of all sunsets yesterday I was ready for today but desperately tired. My feet screamed for a day off. My right wrist, badly strained after constant work with the trekking pole, had given up to the point where I couldn’t even brush my teeth without severe shooting pains. There was only one day left, two tops, so the pain could be suffered.
From my flat wild camping spot ten metres above the benign sea I had clear line of sight up the valley past the village of Borgh and up to the summits of Hartabhal and Heabhal. The unmarked route would take me east through the village and up to the H shaped saddle between the peaks, then south up onto the highest summit on the island, Heabhal. I’d decided that this was my finishing point of the entire Hebridean journey and a place I was itching to reach. As I rolled away the tent and painfully tightened the laces to my boots I peered over my left shoulder. I savoured the crimson glimmer of the sunrise and the final cry of the seabirds. These are sights and sounds so beautiful, they would cast a spell.
Past the village of Borgh I made my way from the local tarmac road up onto a muddy trail with quad tyre tracks sunken deep into the silky mud. I knew from the map this led to a new wind turbine adjacent to a loch at a height of two hundred and sixteen metres above sea level. The route up was steep, uneven and hard going but, saving my energy, I was very aware the most testing climbing was still to come. As I leaned with my back against the cold grey metal of the turbine I could see down into the village of Borgh. I smiled as an energetic border collie chased the bright red local Post Office van on its early morning mail run.
Setting my sights on the H shaped saddle between the two summits I envisaged my proposed route and followed it with my eyes checking for dangerous drop-offs or vertical gradients. It looked ruthless, lung bursting and emotional – just how I liked it. As I crested the next ridge in front of me the southwesterly wind, to which I’d been shielded, hit me sideways, blowing me off my unstable footing. I estimated the relentless gusts to be at 35-40mph.
As I lay in the saddle I savoured the chewy goodness of my last flapjack, I was now out of food. I tucked in tight behind my rucksack away from the wind in a small indentation in the hill. I could feel the damp of the wet heather on my back intruding on my break time, urging me to get up and keep moving. From my position in the grass I could see my very final destination of Castlebay sitting in a closed valley to the south. It’s iconic castle sitting two hundred metres alone out to sea, hauntingly old and injured by years surrounded by the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
Up on my feet again I looked up to the steep face of Heabhal. I caught glimpses of the whale shaped summit through the rolling mist that enveloped the peak. There was no path or standard route up, I would have to zig zag through the deep spongy heather and overhanging cliffs. My steps were labored and painful, my strained wrist tucked uselessly into my trouser pocket. My lungs forcibly thrusting air out as quickly as I could suck it in. I would zig zag every twenty feet picking rocky points to stop and catch my breath. This reduced to fifteen feet, ten feet then five as the climb became steeper and the heather became deeper. The anxieties of modern life were distant memories as I was thrust into the present by having to concentrate on each upward step. I would look up, take fifteen steps and look up again, willing the invisible summit closer and closer with a random sequence of expletives.
Onward and upwards until finally the ground to my west began to level and clear and the ground in front harden and stretch out to a narrow summit ridge. When I caught a glimpse of its apex, I stopped, withholding this inevitable moment. Looking with a lump in my throat – I estimated thirty paces would signify an end to the whole journey. My eyes darted left to the expansive view, which stretched out for thirty miles over the lower Hebrides. The memories of passing through those wild and remote places played out like an old stuttering film. I could see the white tips of the waves buffeting the small fishing boats coming into the harbour below, the sea being their highway. Walking forwards, the cold and ferocious summit wind became irrelevant, the pain in my feet and arm draining away. As I sat on my rucksack, using the ancient rock as a backrest I leaned in pulled up the hood to my jacket and zipped it up to my chin. In a daze, I nestled into this secluded rock face and took stock of everything I’d experienced on this unique and graceful collection of islands.
Walking the old way, using old routes and pathways meant a certain freedom. A freedom to see the islands as the people did for centuries before modern roads brought tourism and the car; ultimately I found a freedom of spirit and a culture proud of their rich and ancient heritage. These are islands of song, fable and legend, Islands of crofters, fishermen and tweed weavers. I found the real value here, even in the modern day, lies in the eternal link between the people and the land, and that is what I dreamed of finding. Through the greater scaffolding of adventure, I managed to weave a path between richness and struggle that ultimately added to the sense of growth and achievement that I felt. As I sat shivering with my back high up against some of the oldest rock in the world I surveyed the scene for the last time, tucked my knees up into my chest and closed my eyes. My thoughts drifted to Yukon.
As I stepped off the small local bus my boot reached the uneven damp tarmac. The straps of my heavy rucksack pinched my skin as I hauled it onto my shoulders. Since leaving London I’d been travelling twenty seven hours until this point and I’d slept all of six. As I watched the red taillights disappear on the road over the Lewis moor I stood still to take stock of my surroundings. It was 11pm and four yellow streetlights illuminated the small crossroad where I was standing. Through the fine drizzle I could make out three houses with small gardens, blue wooden doors, all windows dark. From here I turned north and followed a small tarmac road no wider than six feet. At the end of this road was the furthest north I could physically go on this expedition and in the Outer Hebrides as a whole, marking this point was a stone lighthouse, the Butt of Lewis. From here I would walk one hundred and eighty miles south through the six islands in eleven days.
After twenty minutes I could begin to make out the eerie sweeping rotation of the lamp from the unmanned lighthouse, its strong beam illuminating the rugged coast every few seconds. Silence was everywhere apart from the odd crashing wave or crunch of a stone underfoot. As I approached the lighthouse the scene felt ghostly. Deserted buildings, a deep mist and of course the towering cylindrical building sat black and unassuming. I found a small flattish bed of grass twenty feet from the cliffs which was sheltered from the south westerly wind. I put my rucksack down and pulled out the tent. The gentle dark breeze flapped its fabric as I fed in the pole and pulled it back tight into position.
As the morning light flooded the tent, I popped my head out to get a bearing of my new cliff top home. As my bleary eyes adjusted to the bright green carpet underneath I was startled by a loud barking noise deep below the cliffs. Walking barefoot towards the ocean I noticed four seals bobbing around in the deep blue surf below me, they were my alarm call. I heard the cry of seagulls as they weaved and bobbed through the ancient black rocks. I stood in awe of the mighty power of the ocean here. The Hebrides lies as the final frontier to the restless Atlantic and is prone to violent weather but today she offered me a swirling breeze and blue skies. Day one, I’ll take that.
The breakfast of porridge and raw nuts went down with ease. As I packed up and said farewell to the start point my first step was southeast. I hand railed the coastline for two miles until I could see the village in the distance that I stood at the night before. My route led me through the Port of Ness, a small modern fishing community, and up a small road past a tiny disused post office. Under my feet I noticed the tarmac road leaving the town merged into an uneven cobbled track, from here it would lead me onto the infamous Lewis Moor. From my research I’d learned about this notorious location which spans one hundred and twenty squares miles on the Isle of Lewis. Mainly consisting of peat, water and bog it’s famous for being hard to negotiate at any point of the year.
My direct route of twelve miles would take me straight through the middle following an ancient trade path. I had previously decided to keep this whole journey as authentic as possible by using old pathways that linked the crofting communities from one to another. I knew that if I could bridge these old pathways together, through each island, I would walk in the footsteps of people that had thrived in this harsh yet beautiful landscape. More Importantly I would see the islands as they saw it, from their perspective.
Passing an old sign that lead onto the moor it warned of the dangers of crossing terrain such as this alone. I took on the advice, ate a flapjack and continued anyway. I knew from my map that at some stage the cobbled track would become a footpath and at some stage this footpath would die out. After this I deduced that I would have to follow a compass bearing and the two feet high green poles that were scattered over the moor directing safe passage. This would lead me to the sands of Toldsta, my wild camping destination for the day. I stood still looking down to where the cobbles ran no more, the pack now beginning to strain my shoulders painfully. Looking out across the moor all I could do was follow my bearing and use the contours of the ground as efficiently as I could. The terrain resembled Iceland’s interior; Barron, undulating, wet and unforgiving. As I moved onto the moor the ground felt as if it was in continual movement. It was impossible to walk in a straight line. The vibrant browns and greens of the heather sat on top of deep black water and peat and every step felt like it was my turn to sink through to my knees. After counting every fifty paces I’d check the bearing, pick a point on the horizon and keep an eye on my foot placement.
With the heavy weight of my pack pushing down each step, progress was painfully slow. I came across a beautiful old ruin amongst an abandoned settlement, which gave me some respite from the slow advancement on the moor. After exploring its roofless walls my bearing cut back onto the moor where I negotiated valleys and streams and a wavering compass needle. Hour after hour I battled the endless unforgiving terrain, my trekking pole disappearing up to the handle moments before I had decided to step on its very spot. Backtracking became second nature. Stepping and leaping onto the thicker lighter clumps gained me progress. The sounds of rare birds and silence offering me dreamlike distraction. My watch told me I had been on here six hours, that’s slow progress by anyone’s standards. I was worn, wet and tired but I had made it to the resemblance of an old footpath that ran south from an abandoned cottage. Following it down through the ankle deep purples of the heather I crossed the “Bridge to Nowhere” with a sign that pointed back across the moor from which I’d come. How apt that name was. The moor was testing, even in summer; In winter it would be a deathtrap.
Every inch of the moor was beautiful and naturally diverse. Such a unique habitat breeds astonishing wildlife, harbouring buzzards and eagles overhead and monster trout in its remotely situated Lochs. As I crested the final hill I looked down excitedly to the small town of Toldsta only a few miles away, it’s houses perched neatly on the grassy hillside overlooking the Atlantic sea. The unmistakable Hebridean sheep sat still in their cobbled enclosures and white smoke puffed from the chimneys all across the valley. I had visions of the warm fire burners crackling away, the smell of stews in the ovens and families around old varnished oak tables. I smiled and hoped they would invite me in as I passed by. Yet I continued south, forever heading south.
We arrived at Gorak Shep (16,942ft) early afternoon. To get here we had ploughed through the shin-deep snow up hill through the narrow valleys past Lebouche contouring all the way for 5 hours. We were now as deep into the Himalayas as you could be. The angry rolling clouds spitting a constant stream of snow at us had given way to periodic blue skies. The previous few days had been a nightmare. The group had fallen ill with severe diarrhea due to poor quality food and this had perpetuated over days, halting us until we were physically strong enough to continue. We weren’t all 100% but as time was of the essence we had to push on and higher up to make Everest.
Easing the rucksacks off our shoulders and placing the wet gloves on the lobby floor, we slumped into our seats for a morale boosting hot chocolate insides Gorak Shep’s dining hall. Taking off our hats, we scratched away at our matted thick hair, while our lungs adjusted to the diluted air. Outside, the snow and low cloud clung to anything above ground level, obscuring the faces of Everest and Lhotse that stood guard around us.
We’ d made it this far and during lunch we made a group decision to try and reach the base of Everest that day returning to Gorak Shep that night to sleep; it was ambitious and doable. Leaving the warmth of the teahouse I reluctantly stood shattered, depleted of all energy staring down the valley at our direction of travel. We were low on time. Winds were swirling turbulently and visibility was reducing – the weather was becoming unstable by the minute.
For the next 2 hours, we weaved through small snowy trails below the shadow of Everest. The horizontal wind and snow stung our faces until they were a burning red. The hoods of our jackets were closed tight around our faces, the steam of the goggles only screening a few feet of visibility as stepped into the footprints in front. We were in the midst of a vicious blizzard and we had found ourselves on a ridge that we thought would lead us all the way down across the emerald glacier to the base of Everest. It was touching distance when everything came to a halt. We were suddenly standing at end of the ridge.
At this point dusk was falling and the weather had deteriorated to such a degree that with no shelter we were at high risk of being stranded or worse. Staring at the point we’d aimed to get to, we made a tough group decision that it was too dangerous to go any further. As the violent winds and snow battered our jackets, we looked on, worn out and disappointed that this now may all be at an end, the furthest point we’d walk to. We’d endeavored to go every step only to stand 500m away from the mysterious pile of rocks we’d walked 10 days to find. For that moment, looking down, In my mind I shut out the wind, the blinding snow and opened up to a feeling of respect and admiration. Not only for the 5 men I’d walked, climbed and laughed with but for the astonishing, brutal and diverse weather that was playing out before me. At the last possible minute she had showed us her teeth and kept us from standing on her foundation. This WAS the nature of the beast up here. We all stood, shivering in contemplation at how far we’d come only to turn our backs to the wind and head for home on safety grounds. As my numb hand adjusted my hood and I began to follow the snowy trail back to the warmth of Gorak Shep all I could think of was the quote etched with biro onto the back of my battered notepad:
“Adventure is the struggle itself. We may not have blazed much of a trail through an unknown wilderness, but through our trials, however big or small, we are making discoveries about ourselves and the world around us.”
And in our own way, we did.
As we arrive at our deserted train station in Tibet’s capital Lharsa it felt good to finally stretch the limbs out. For the last 72 hours we had travelled non-stop 4064km across the remotest parts of China and Tibet on the Qinghai-Tibet railway. The wild untouched reaches of the environment and a shifting culture had lured us here, we would witness both, sadly, in equal measure.
At nearly 12,000ft Lharsa is a beautiful ancient city, bustling and colourful. The local population devoted to the Buddhist faith display carved shrines alongside small smoking towers. The fragrance of smouldering pine needles engulfs the market squares. Under the blue skies of our first morning, we stood quiet and humbled as 100’s of Tibetan locals circumnavigated the Potala Palace (The Dalai Lamas former residence) with prayer wheels and prayer beads, offering their blessing and commitment at this sacred and remarkable spot.
As the sun rose on our 3rd day it was time to leave Lharsa to start our 4-day 800-mile vehicle journey across Tibet. The route would take us out alongside the Himalayas and down to the sub-tropical Nepalise border. The journey out of the city was a moment of reflection. We had all learned about the influence and history of the Chinese in this region but I didn’t think we expected to discover such an overwhelming authority from the larger neighbour and occupier.
As Lharsa became a distant sight in the wing mirror, Tibet’s civilisation became less evident. Hour after hour the empty road meandered through 5000m passes, past ugly hydroelectric dams nestled over the mountain reservoirs and eventually taking us further towards the remote communities out amongst the Tibetan plateau. At this point the mountain terrain became all-powerful, snowcapped and rugged. For 2 days our frozen accommodations are small remote tea houses in dusty wild west towns where every dog is malnourished and stray, cows wander the streets eating cardboard and the galaxy chocolate is 1 year out of date. We attract funny looks and attention from our western faces and grizzly beards.
As day 3 became day 4, the harsh Himalayan temperatures and terrain slowly give way to lush green mountains and alpine-like forests as we descended down towards Nepal. The narrow mountain roads snake and contour until we reach a bustling border town set on a hill reminiscent of a Brazilian favela. Drivers from India and Nepal wait their turn to cross the border with their vibrantly coloured trucks while small restaurants churn out local spicy noodles with yak for little under £3. As we safely make our way on foot through the strict Chinese border crossing we go from one country to another, and from one adventure to the next. Kathmandu is our new destination; it will take us 8 hours by 4 x 4. In the coming weeks Mt Everest will be our journey’s end.
There is something to be said about Tibet, it is a country of landscape and culture that is of unrivalled beauty. For someone like myself who is driven into the arms of certain remote environments because of their native cultures Tibet is a goldmine of history. In a place where verbal communication was hard I found the locals shared their life stories through their faces, hands and kindness. Their stories are of nomadic lifestyles and hardship built around their community, family and their need to simply survive. How strange we go so far in search of adventure, only to meet and be humbled our fellow man and his way of life.
Kneeling down on the damp grass I pulled a short blade of grass from the ground. Using the mileage chart from the map I pinched the grass down to the equivalent length of 1 mile. I traced the winding river route with my fingers from Windsor to The Thames Barrier; I estimated it close to 62 miles. I had 2 and half days, no more.
Walking away from Windsor and towards Walton on Thames I knew tonight would be my last chance to find a suitable wild spot to sleep. Up until this point, the green expanses between the smaller cities provided a perfect place to tuck my tent away but I knew the nearer I got to London the less frequent these spots would become. The next few days would be tricky to say the least.
After a solid 20 mile first day and with quickly fading light I had set my eye on a location called Sunbury Lock. From previous experience I knew locks were always a good sleeping option because of their lack of human habitation, so as darkness fell I walked the last mile in and dropped off the route down onto a small open field. Using a tree line to give me cover from the operators of the lock house I quietly put my rucksack down. As always my plan was to arrive late, leave early and to leave no trace of my being there. Within the hour I was fed, watered and pulling the nylon chord of my sleeping bag tightly around my head.
A pigeon perched on my tent woke me with his territorial coo roo-c'too-coo. Squinting at my watch it was 5am. As I peeked my head out of my sleeping bag I could smell the wild rosemary I’d picked the day before hanging in the tent, I could also hear the 100’s birds outside in morning song, intent on getting me up. Light had flooded the tent illuminating my tired eyes; through the tussles and turns I had slept only a few hours. Today was a big day so after a few more minutes in my warm bag I was up and looking around, taking in my daylight environment and smelling the incredible lavender aroma’s of the riverbank. After 20 minutes of yawning, scratching and making noises similar to Chewbacca from Star Wars I was off and away. En-route I had a decision to make – would I walk the 40 miles to the finish in one hit or try and find somewhere green to sleep in the heart of London, finishing the following day. I wanted the latter but the decision would be made for me later that day.
Keeping pace at 5km an hour I passed the beautiful Hampton Court Palace on my way to Kingston and Richmond. As I crossed the bridge I passed the morning queues of people waiting to enter the gates of this regal building, entering themselves into a real life Tudor world. Passing Teddington Lock and Eal Pie Island I could smell Kew Gardens before I finally reached it. The delicate perfume of flowers trickled through the trees to hit me on the river, the smell was beautiful and enticing. As I walked on, I had the urge to climb the wall and hop over the fence to have a look but I would’ve surely dropped my Cornetto and that would’ve been disastrous to morale.
Past the endless riverboats of Richmond, into Chiswick and under Hammersmith Bridge I had hit the 30 mile marker. The green meadows and fields had now given birth to the city skyline as I’ve always known it. With my feet and shins sore I took a break at Putney Bridge. Feeling hungry I got the stove burning quickly and boiled some noodles under a tree in a small park, my feet resting up on my rucksack. I cursed as the water boiled over. The last bites of the liquorice allsorts were now all but gone, but I found one at the bottom of the bag which sent morale skyward. It was now getting dark and I had a decision to make. The map showed no green space by the river, nor anywhere, no cover and nowhere to covertly put up my tent. This meant I would have no choice but to walk a further 10 miles and finish at around 10pm. My feet resisted the idea.
Passing the iconic landmarks of London it was now dusk. I had a frustrating time navigating the route as it weaved away from the river, through council estates and shops to only be re-routed back to the river gaining me a meagre 50 yards. I found it incredible to watch as slowly as I walked the lights of London came to illuminate the skyline. Looking over my left shoulder I will never forget, in one frame could see the turn of the river below The Shard, The Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, The London Eye and St Pauls, I wondered if this was a unknown vantage point somewhere near the Bermondsey that nobody knew about. As I hobbled the last few miles in pitch black I willed the Thames Barrier to appear around every corner only to be disappointed and another lengthy turn of the river would have to be negotiated. As the green aluminous glow of my watch struck 10pm I finally took my last steps to the foot of the barrier and to the mouth of the Thames River. Onwards from here was estuary then open sea. As I sat, mumbling and groaning about my sore feet, I thought back 184 miles to the start of my journey and what I’d seen of this beautiful and mighty river.
The lure of an adventure to fill a few weekends enticed me to that meadow in February. The rivers winding path through the countryside remains, until London, off the beaten track waiting to be discovered by each new generation, this generation no less than my own. I think to some degree the Thames is taken a little for granted and is seen as far from chic, yet along it’s remote banks and past its quiet rolling turns adventure is most definitely still possible.
With a hiss of pressure the doors slide open to the warm train carriage and I step out into the crisp air of Kemble station in the heart of the Cotswolds. I am here to find the source of the Thames River and follow it all the way to the sea on foot: A journey of 200 miles.
It was my aim to see the river from a more natural perspective and immerse myself into this adventure as much as I could. I would walk it’s full length to sea, I would sleep on the banks, experience the sunrises, wind and rain and totally absorb myself in the temperament of the river. I would attempt to do this walk over 4 long weekends.
Other than the Thames being the famous arterial waterway that carves our great city in half the only other basic knowledge I’d gathered over the years was of its importance to the history and development of London through Roman trade routes and ship building. Until now, I had never fully considered its origin, its growth or its route to London.
As I left the station all I knew was the official source of the Thames started in a dry meadow 1 mile north of the sleepy village of Kemble, Cirencester. I had an ordinance survey map tucked in my trouser leg pocket, a circle drawn in pencil marked this illusive spot. After a 30-minute walk over walls and stiles I found my position on the contours of the map. When I dropped to one knee to scour the meadow I noticed a standing stone no more than three feet high and two feet across, tucked under the tree in the far left hand side of the field. Approaching the stone i could see that I’d found what I was looking for. A carving on the stone read:
“The Conservators of the River Thames 1857 - 1974. This stone was placed here to mark the source of the River Thames”
I had to touch the stone. This would signify the start of the journey. I noticed a dry canal, 8 inches across, that left the base of the stone and ran the length of the meadow, its indentation visible. I would follow this until I found water. Putting my back to the stone and looking east into the sun, it was now 200 miles to the sea.
As my feet crunched on the morning frost, my eyes scanned the field in front of me. I came across the first sign of water in a small culvert that lead into a tree line. At this point the water was pooling rather than flowing, its direction meandered towards a tiny stone bridge in a small forested area. Excitedly walking towards the crumbled bridge I saw the first signs of water movement. As if coming from nowhere it now had direction and life as if it knew where to go, like a magnet pulling it onwards. As it trickled from the side of a small hill it began to create a 1 metre wide stream carving a small route through the meadow out in front of me. It was hard to believe that such an important river to the history and development of England came from such humble beginning.
For the next 4 hours I followed the river past the bare winter trees, through tiny villages, over walls and through muddy fields as it meandered effortlessly through this exposed English countryside. The wet browns and winter greens of the bank, no higher than two feet, held the rivers unhurried pace. For miles it was desolate, not a person in sight and intensely peaceful until I passed through the chocolate box villages of Cricklade and Letchlade.
As the sunset on the first day I rolled out my sleeping bag next the river. The stove was boiling my first pot of hot water as I put on my warm jacket and settled into my bag ready to eat my homemade butter flapjack and freeze dried Pasta and Bolognese. As I lay on my back, the restful tones of trickling water to my right, I looked up through the trees at the stars. It would be a cold, restless and sleepless night until I saw the sun again.
From inside my sleeping bag the green aluminous glow of my watch told me it was 7am. When I peered out I could see the clear skies had given way to a grey miserable start. In some ways I was happy with this; cloud meant a rise in temperature and also a night warmer than the last. As I adjusted the straps of my Osprey rucksack I knew today was a marathon distance day - For me to make Oxford the following afternoon I had to push on beside the river until sunset.
As I continued through the flat muddy fields, following this majestic and still modest river, I past scattered Cotswold towns and beautiful old bridges. There were times when my route took me away from the river, it didn’t feel right not to be able to see it, yet when I returned to its banks it felt like seeing an old familiar friend. After 26 muddy, frustrating yet beautiful miles I arrived in darkness at Shifford Lock. Looking at the met centre forecast on my phone I could see there was the threat of rain then a sharp fall in temperature so tonight the tent would go up. As I sat listening to the bubbling water boiling on my stove, I squinted through the beam of my head torch at the map that lay out on the grass in front of me; I still had 17 miles to go.
On Sunday I was awoken to my tent awash with golden light. Sitting up and re-adjusting my eyes and ears to where I was I could hear the wildlife alive and vibrant outside. Peering through a tiny gap in the tent I could see blue skies and the hushed river beside me. Excitedly I fought with the zip of my sleeping bag and climbed out to see one of the most beautiful mornings I had seen in a while. The skies had cleared during the night and the temperature had dropped to -2. A veil of frost cloaked everything around me. Although I had slept badly and felt fatigued I was grateful to be the only person here to see this. This is exactly why I was on this journey and what I’d hoped for. I wouldn’t have seen this at home.
After breakfast I crossed the bridge at Shifford Lock and took the first steps towards Oxford. The mist was hugging the still water of the river as I passed the old and time-worn villages of Newbridge and Eynsham. The frost, melting in the morning sun yet lingering in the shade made the river look more beautiful that I’d seen in recent days. Arriving at the outskirts of Oxford I could see the rowing teams practicing their unified strokes. At 2:30pm I sat at the station platform with tired shoulders and a hot latte in hand waiting for my train to arrive to take me back to Paddington. I was muddy, fatigued yet thoroughly happy that nobody had a clue of the 56 mile adventure I’d just been on. I just looked like I’d been drag through bushes, repeatedly and sideways for all they knew.
On the train home I couldn’t help but think that I’d found something more beautiful and more remote that I had originally thought. There was definitely something magical about following a river from its source, especially a river that i’d grown up around in London and my dad had fished on his whole life, it felt important to me. To see it flourish and grow at such a measured pace from its humble beginnings as a puddle in a meadow had made this all become a very intimate experience and an adventure I couldn’t wait to get back on the following week..