There are, of course, all sorts of reasons to set off on an adventure. We look for challenge, peace, happiness, pain. We seek to find something, or we go to escape. I admit that on many of the journeys I’ve made in the past, I’ve not quite been sure what it was that I was hoping to discover, or why I was there. Perhaps that’s part of the beauty. Those time of aimless wanderings have shaped and altered the course of my life, and I'm eternally thankful for them.
One thing that is clear, however, is that many of these desires come from a selfish place. We (certainly, I) so often travel for self-gratification; to learn and push personal boundaries. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this – in fact, I would actively encourage it. Anyone reading this blog is almost certainly privileged (in a global sense) - as part of defining who we are, we are lucky to be able to choose to go on adventures. That choice is an incredible gift. We can choose to suffer in the name of self-development!
Recently, however, I’ve felt a shift in my motivations. I have begun to tire of travel just for the sake of travel. I imagine that is a natural part of maturing. I first began to look for another focus for the journeys I was making and narrowed my interests down, rather broadly, to story telling. I’ve become mostly focused now on finding tales that I think are really worth sharing and then bringing them to as wide an audience as I can muster (thanks for reading, mum!)
A story – a greater purpose, a message to share, a point to prove –is so often the greatest way to turn a jolly into something that a larger audience can empathise with. None of us are going to change the world. But we can perhaps change one person's perception of a place, people or idea. That is still extremely valuable. That then, is the key - find a story, and hunt it down. Take no prisoners in finding it. I've written elsewhere about the quest for a story in adventure filmmaking, so here I'm going to look at something else - one of the ways in which we can unlock that story.
It's remarkably easy to ruin a journey by going too fast. Unless we’re actively trying to get somewhere at speed, then what’s the rush? I’ve often slipped into a negative spiral on trips where I begin to push further and faster every day, increasingly losing track of my surroundings and the reasons I’m there. This is most evident when I travel on foot – going as fast as possible using the slowest means of transport is particularly pointless.
I’ve always been a champion of human power for that very reason – it forces us to slow down; to immerse, interact and engage. If we travel by bicycle, kayak or on foot, we most be alert to the temperature, the wind, the sights, sounds and smells all around whether we like it or not. I’d argue that a valid way of bringing meaning into any adventure is by documenting the place we are travelling through (or, at least, documenting our impression of it.) Human power is the surest way to do this.
I’m wary, however, of championing walking too much. It is probably my favourite way to travel, but it’s hard work. I’m rarely, if ever, not in some sort of pain when I walk. Blisters are a definite way to make every aspect of our surroundings seem utterly pointless (unless those surrounding happen to include a comfy chair to sit on and someone to massage our feet.) Walking works best, I think, when we can travel light and move freely. Long journeys in reasonably remote places that require carrying a lot of gear are designed only for a certain type of masochist. I, perhaps, am that person, as I seem to continually seek out such a journey, but I am at least aware that it’s far from ideal (I think the physical challenge of that type of trip appeals to the selfish side in me, taking me back full circle.)
Cycling is the best way to travel. I don’t even feel the need to temper that statement. It’s lovely! You can go as fast or slow as you like, you get super fit, free miles come along in the form of downhills and the bike does all the heavy gear-carrying work for you. For first journeys, or trips focused on communities and stories along roads, the bike is ideal. But it’s this connection to roads that is a weakness. Sure, you can ride mountain bikes or fat bikes or whatever and get away, but for the most part cycling restricts the rider to roads. Roads tell us where to go – this can be good, but it can also be frustrating. Following a story does not always mean we can stick to the road; oftentimes it's quite the opposite.
In Iran last year I tried travelling on the water for the first time (and in the water, in fact, though that was unplanned! See karunfilm.com for more…) For a couple of weeks on the Karun river, my journey took me along wide slow stretches in wide valleys, through deep set gorges with whitewater well above my skill level, and finally onto endless flat water backed up from dams downstream. Aside from the thrill (and fear factor) of the paddling itself, I found the method a real revelation. Suddenly I was looking up at the valley walls, seeing fisherman and farmers wandering along the banks miles from the nearest road, and passing through remote communities that rely on the river for life. It was a stop-start process, and one always ready to punish a naïve paddler, but as a part of our attempt tounderstand the Karun – as best we could – it was perfect for the sections that we floated along.
The big omission from my travelling CV, and the way that I’d idly day dreamed about for manys a year, was to cross a wilderness area on horseback. I grew up around horses in Northern Ireland and as a child was probably the world’s worst and most un-enthusiastic rider. Somehow the passage of time made me forget all the occasions that I ended up upside down in a bush, or even that one time when I was thrown from the saddle and bounced of a farm gate on my teeth. I was ready to try again. When Tom, Jose and I went to the Santa Cruz river, it simply never occurred to me to travel in any other way. Using horses was the only way we could carry enough supplies, and the animals would give us a freedom unlike anything I’d found before.
Our horses were strong, both physically and in character. They tested us, then came to accept us (mostly- I don’t think Tom and Petiso will be dying to see each other again any time soon.) I was surprised by how much time they required, and the near constant attention. They are, of course living, breathing beasts, and all our husbandry was amply rewarded in the building of trust between riders and horses. Our team of three became a crew of eight (we rode with five horses altogether, two as pack animals.) We moved where we pleased, although logistically we could never leave the river too far behind for fear of the barren, waterless step leaving us dry. It was far from easy, but it always felt like it was a good battle to be in. This was Patagonia – the land of gauchos and endless horizons. Any other mode of transport is folly. That notion was reinforced when we met people on the river – the estancia owners, peons and other passing figures. We were greeted with warmth, mostly on account of having arrived on horseback. There is great trust in recognition of a common bond between strangers.
This, I think, is my point. In order to try and understand the places we are passing through, it is important to travel in a way that fits the landscape, people and culture. We must choose wisely, and in keeping with the purpose of our visit. It says a lot about us reasons for being there – we wear a statement of intent for the world to see in our choice of transport.
I certainly don’t mean to rule out anything with motors – I simply haven’t found the right location or concept to use them. Those journeys do exist. But, from my experiences – positive and negative, through good choices and bad – I can safely say in broad terms that how we decide to move through a new place dramatically affects the type of experience that we will have there, and that human/animal power exposes us to elements that we can't ignore.
If you would like to see the results of my last two journeys - one by walking, kayak and bike, and another on horseback - then please do check them out here. Tom and I are running a Kickstarter campaign to try and bring those stories to life, and if you'd like to be part of it, we'd be delighted!