This week and next, I'll be in the US on a 10-day speaking tour. I'll be sharing stories from my expeditions - and talking about my new book, 'The Land Beyond' - at various locations on the west and east coast. The events below are open to the public, and I'd love to see you there if you live close by!
23 April - Explorers Club, NYC
24 April - Princeton Library , NJ
25 April - Harvard Law School, MA
26 April - Filson store, NYC
Special thanks to CLIF Bar, Filson, Wolfsong Media and IB Tauris for making this happen.
I recently tested some new outdoor gear and wrote a piece for Zalando with some tips for getting out on an adventure. Here are a few of the key points (you can read the full article here.)
1. Never compromise on the most important bits of kit for the type of activity you want to do. For me, these are normally boots and pack – both have the potential to make or break a hiking trip. It’s always important to remember that price and quality aren’t always intrinsically connected – often the right piece of kit can be the cheapest available option. I’d urge you though not to buy solely based on low price – half way up that next mountain, you might regret it.
2. Layer up to keep warm. This is old advice, but it’s the best there is. I like to use polyester or merino wool base layers next to the skin, with a fleeced item on top of that. Depending on conditions, my outer layer will be a breathable hardshell or, if required, an insulated and hooded synthetic-down jacket. As always, when you stop moving, put on an extra layer to counteract your body cooling down.
3. While we’re on the topic of layers, it’s important to understand a little about materials. The key is to look at heat and moisture, and how each item of clothing reacts to those. Cotton, for example, is very comfortable. I will only wear it in dry weather, however – cotton is a nightmare in the rain (it stays wet, and therefore so do you.) In wet conditions I’ll wear merino wool as a base layer for regulating my body temperature, and a polyester fleece to trap warmth. Occasionally, in very cold conditions, I’ll wear down-insulated jackets, but for the most part I prefer the synthetic materials in the UK – they’re not quite as warm, or as light, but they react much better to getting damp.
4. If you’re scrambling up and down hills, then make sure the trousers that you choose are robust yet flexible. They also need to fit snugly, but not too tight. This might all seem obvious, but there is nothing worse than having a loose waistband getting in the way or, even worse, stretching for that next rock to hear the dreaded rip of fabric from behind! That can make for a very cold (and embarrassing) walk home…
5. Look after the extremities! I can’t remember how many times I’ve been told that the human body can lose up to 80% of its heat through the head. This isn’t actually true, but what I have learned from my own experiences is that any uncovered extremity - head, hands etc. - can very quickly drain heat. I use my head as a kind of cooling system on the trail – when I need to insulate, I cover up with a beanie hat. A jacket with a hood is a good idea for this, too. If the intensity of activity increases, or the temperature climbs a little, I remove it (and any gloves) to release any excess heat. A good trick is to keep your hat inside your jacket when you’re not using it – that way, when you do put it on, it’ll be nicely warmed in advance.
For my thoughts on jackets, footwear, backpacks, and more, visit Zalando here.
I was fortunate recently to travel to Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania, where I spent a week walking along a trail called ‘Peaks of the Balkans.’ Most of my journeys are much longer than this and before leaving I’d wondered: just how much can be seen or achieved in just a week? The answer, I’m pleased to say, is a lot.
The trail is beautiful, especially so as I caught the Balkans in the sweet transition spot of autumn to winter; my days were filled with golden and rust coloured leaves falling upon fresh snow, and from the summits I had clear, crisp air and views for across the mountains for many miles in every direction.
The journey also gave me a chance to test out some new gear, and over the course of journey I became familiar with the latest iteration in Gerber’s long line of multi-tools: The Centre-Drive. I’m aware that people like me probably take much more pleasure than is healthy from using kit like this, but so it goes: the older I get, the more of a gear nerd I become.
The Centre-Drive does a number of things, and it does them all very well indeed. On journeys like mine, I am particularly grateful for reliability and a robust build-quality, and I’m pleased to say that I found this here. The Balkans were cold, especially at night, and with the temperature dropping well below zero I appreciated the simplicity of the one-thumb opening sliding jaws (it was much too chilly to be faffing around with anything too fiddly.)
I also found the new longer blade to be very beneficial for the variety of uses that an adventure like this demands. Equally, the centre-axis driver, which operates exactly like a real screw-driver instead of a compromised outdoor version, is something that I found myself using much more often than I had expected. That’s the thing about journeys like this: they are unpredictable. Twice I had to open and repair wire mesh on the trail; once a boulder fell on my kit crushing my camping mug, and I had to twist and rebuild a new handle using the Centre-Drive.
In an empty cabin in one of the valleys in Montenegro, I took shelter for an evening and was able to screw the door back onto its frame to cut out the chill of oncoming winter winds. All would have been very difficult, if not impossible, if I’d left the Centre-Drive at home.
The other thing I noticed is that there is no excess fat on the Centre-Drive – over the course of a week I found use for most of the 16 tools included. The market for equipment like this is saturated, and competition is huge, but I can safely say that I was extremely impressed with the quality and design of the Centre-Drive. For journeys of a day, a week, or a year, this does the job and, as was the case on this trip, it allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience which, after all, is what adventure is all about.
Read more about Gerber Gear here
I'm delighted to finally be able to share with you all my new book - The Land Beyond - about walking 1000 miles through the heart of the Middle East. Many of you who follow this blog will already know some of the story, and I hope that you'll enjoy reading more about the people and places that I encountered between Jerusalem and Mount Sinai. Above all, this is a book about positivity and connection in a region from which we often hear only hear negative things. I feel very privileged to have travelled there, and very proud to share these stories. You can buy a copy of the book (physical or digital) on Amazon here, or you can buy signed copies from my website here.
I've also made a short film, above, about walking (and in particular, about walking in the Middle East.) Let me know what you think!
In March of this year I travelled to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast, to begin a journey that would take me on foot, across the Holy Land, to the sacred home of the Samaritans - Mount Gerizim. I made the journey as the recipient of the Neville Shulman Challenge Award from the Royal Geographical Society. Below is something of a long-read - the first instalment of my story from the journey:
The Samaritans are a distinct religious and ethnic group in the Holy Land - there are just 802 of them in existence at the time of writing. One of the primary (and earliest) schisms between Samaritanism and Judaism is that they believe it was upon Mount Gerizim, near the contemporary city of Nablus, where Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son Issac; not, as Jewish and Christian belief holds, in Jerusalem (in Islam it’s different again: Abraham, or Ibrahim, has a dream in which he decides to sacrifice Issac, and it is God/Allah that stops him just before he commits the act. This takes place in Mecca, not Jerusalem nor Gerizim.)
Briefly, some background: it is generally agreed upon (in Judaism and Christianity) that, when Abraham heard the call from God to go, he was in Beersheba on the northern edge of the Negev desert. From there he walked for two days and: “On the third day, he looked up, and saw the place in the distance” (Genesis 22:4) I have, in the past, walked this route from Beersheba to Jerusalem. It took me nearly 5 days, but that’s not really the point - if I’ve learned one thing from walking in ancient footsteps in the Middle East it is this: if Abraham existed, he was a total beast. Had thru-hiking been a thing 4000 years ago, he’d have been a champ.
In one of my previous visits to the Samaritans, Abraham’s walking speed had also come up in conversation. I take full blame - there’s only so much theology I can handle before we have to get back to walking. “He would not have made it!” Benny, my septuagenarian Samaritan guru and friend told me in his home in Holon, near Tel Aviv. “It’s too far, and anyway, he wasn’t even in Beersheba.” Benny’s reading of the text was that Abraham was instead somewhere in the Philistines pentapolis of the time; of those five cities, it was most likely he would have been in Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast and from there, walked to Gerizim.
Does any of this matter? Probably not, really - at least, not to most of us. Whether or not Abraham even existed is up for debate, so perhaps his travel itinerary is a little academic. It did, however, seem worth my while exploring on this journey for two reasons. First, I was there to learn from and understand the Samaritans, and the story of Abraham is a big deal, so why not see what it feels like to follow in footsteps according to that narrative; it seemed like it might set me up well for the month ahead. Second, I love to walk, and I’d already tried the other way. I’ll take any excuse.
Ashkelon is now mostly forgotten outside of the region. It sits just a few kilometres north of the Gaza strip and I found it to be a quiet, windswept and characterless city, with lots of new-build apartment blocks aimed to cater for Israeli tourists that come to enjoy the vast expanse of beach that reaches out like a yellow ribbon between conurbation and Mediterranean. Historically, however, this was a major seaport, as far back as 3500BC. A walk out to the site of ancient Ashkelon, now a national park, proved to be a walk back through time, with the layers of each era peeling away to reveal the last. From the modern state of Israel I walked past remnants of the Mandate era and the Ottomans, then back to the Islamic period and, before that, the Crusaders, who’s ramparts can still be found beneath overgrown marram grass on the headlands. Finally I found what I was looking for - the remains of the Canaanite city. Around 2000BC - at the time of Abraham - this was a thriving city of 15,000 people, built strategically on a high outcropping that protected it from both sea and land. Now, there’s not much there. In fact, there’s really only one thing - a small gate, complete with an ever-so-slightly reconstructed arch. The faded information board beside me told me it was the oldest arched gateway in the world. Across the brown earth beneath my feet, a beautiful cobbled mosaic from a later era spread out, protected by the elements by only a narrow wooden sloping roof. There was no-one around, save two elderly Russian tourists who told me they were Christians. They rolled their eyes at the gateway. I took this to mean it had failed to impress them. “We preferred Jerusalem,” one confided, leaning in close.
Later I went to the museum to ask about the Samaritan Abraham narrative. The gateway showed that the timelines matched up, so it wasn’t beyond belief that he could have been there. The clerk at the museum, however, was not up for a discussion. “Abraham was in Beersheva,” he told me, patiently at first.
“Yes, but I’ve heard another story, which I wanted to investigate. Have you ever heard any version that places Abraham here?”
“He then went to Jerusalem,” the clerk continued, ignoring my interjection. Then slowly” “From Beersheva, to Jerusalem. You see?”
I tried again, and he looked at me for a long time. He was in his late 50’s with sad, wide eyes, and the apparent stupidity of my question seemed to bring even more sorrow. “From Beersheva,” he started again. “To Jerusalem.” We looked at each other. The, brightly: “Perhaps you’d like to watch this film about the creation of the state of Israel?” he offered. We would not solve the question of Abraham that day, I discovered.
It was with this inauspicious blessing that I began my journey, following Benny’s Samaritan Abraham narrative, heading roughly in the direction of Mount Gerizim. The beauty of my quest was that there would be no certainties, so even if this was a wild goose chase - what a place for it.
A week of walking lay ahead; I had made my peace with not keeping up with Abraham’s pace; it wasn’t a competition, I told myself. The next morning I left my guesthouse, bid Shalom to my hosts, and set out east along National Highway 3. The sky was a perfect basalt blue, pierced only by the angry golden orb of early summer sunlight; even the concrete underfoot seems to soften in the heat, and I wondered what it might be doing to my brain. It suddenly seemed like a long way to the Holy Mountain.
If you'd like to read more about my journeys in the Holy Land, then check out 'The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East.'
Years ago, when I was young and naïve (I’m still the latter, probably, but with the excuse of the former) I set out to ride across the USA as my first big foray into the world of adventure. It was a terrifying experience to begin with - I was hideously underprepared, hugely overloaded and, ultimately, completely inept. I struggled to navigate, and my bike was too heavy for me to haul more than 40 or 50 miles a day. I spent nights in my tent wide awake, recoiling at every sound in the darkness, and I worried about everything: how would people respond to me? What would happen if my bike broke? How would I sustain body and mind for thousands of miles and an indefinite amount of time on the road?
Energy was always a concern. I’d never been an athlete (and sadly I probably never will be) yet I’d committed to something that was a pretty serious physical endeavour. I’d buy rice and lentils to eat each night and, occasionally, if I was feeling adventurous, I’d fry up some peppers and onions. My budget was $5 a day, so there wasn’t much wiggle room. While I was riding, I mostly ate breakfast cereal and peanut butter. Sometimes I’d eat the latter out of the jar, sometimes with jam. Other times, rarely, I’d experiment with other alternatives, but I’d usually return to the classics. Then, about a third of the way across the country, I met three other cyclists going my way, and we teamed up. The company, and comfort of travelling in a group, combined with my increasing aptitude of this new lifestyle that I’d chosen, was a huge relief. Everything seemed to get easier. I even tried to introduce Matt, Andy and Morgan to my cycling diet. They were unimpressed, and confirmed my hunch: they were taking a more ‘professional’ approach than I was. Andy mentioned "nutritional content", and Matt talked about protein replenishment. I wondered if we could still be friends. “We eat CLIF Bars,” Morgan told me one afternoon. I had no idea what that meant.
A couple of days later, on the outskirts of a large town, Matt suggested we detour to an industrial area. “Morgan’s got this loyalty card, and we can go buy stuff in bulk,” he told me. Then, the magic words – “it makes things way cheaper.”
This, then, was my accidental introduction to CLIF Bars – we walked out of the supermarket that afternoon with at least 40 bars each. The majority of mine were, inevitably, peanut butter flavoured. Over the following days I noticed a significant difference in the consistency of my energy levels, based on when I ate the energy bars – under the guidance of Matt, who had apparently lived on them through his days playing football at university – and for the first time I understood why someone might choose to use products specifically designed to boost performance. It was a revelation, and it powered me happily across the rest of the continent.
This summer, some seven years since those glorious days of riding across Middle America, I teamed up with Clif for a journey that I made to the Geghama Mountains in Armenia. These days I take my diet a little more seriously (and, I’m glad to say, I’m no longer restricted to a $5 a day budget for life.) With my friend Tom Allen, who is currently directing a project to create hiking trails across the Caucasus mountain range, I set off into the volcanic Geghama range carrying 10 days-worth of nutritionally balanced and energising food – including CLIF Bars - for a wilderness journey that, we hoped, could eventually become a part of the Transcaucasian Trail project.
This is one of the shorter expeditions that I’ve been on in recent years, but it came with an intensity of experience that, even after years of travelling like this, surprised me. Our packs were heavy, the air was a little thin (we topped out at just under 3600 metres on the mountain Azdaak) and it was real wilderness – blazing sunshine during the days, electrical storms at night, snow on the peaks and a lot of big, steep climbs as we headed south. It was also, undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. The shape of the landscape looked like it had been designed with aesthetics in mind – the conically shaped dormant volcanoes grew directly out of vast plateaus that stretched out across our horizon, and in both the valleys and the summit craters we’d find high altitude freshwater lakes to admire, drink from and, when we felt brave enough, swim in.
There are no permanent residents but for the short summer season, when the snow begins to clear, nomadic herders from the Yazidi minority of Armenia leave the outskirts of Yerevan and the Ararat plains, and come to set up camp in the shadows of the mountains; their flocks of goats and sheep roam the hills during the day, but are always under careful watch by shepherds and rounded up each night to protect them from the wolves. We’d see two or three camps a day, and stop for tea and the obligatory conversations about the weather (and to answer questions about what on earth we were doing out there) and then we’d move on, often with warnings to watch out for the bears (which we never saw.)
Towards the end of the expedition we descended down into the wetlands, where farmers were camping out in the back of their trucks while they made hay. Finally, at the top of an improbably steep pass that led down into the next vast valley and another province, we finished our journey at a 13th century caravanserai, which one would once have hosted travellers and traders on their way to and fro across the continent. This was, of course, the Silk Road.
I’m always grateful on these journey for kit that works, and that applies to food too – eating CLIF Bars above the snow line, by a crater lake, atop a dormant volcano, after a 700 metre climb, is a joy that I’ll remember for quite some time.
There’ll be more on my journey to Armenia soon, on this blog and elsewhere. You can check out Clif here, and follow their drive to #feedyouradventure via this hashtag.
The CLIF Bar products that I used are a blend of organic rolled oats and natural ingredients, designed with an optimal blend of protein, fat, fiber, and multiple carb sources to help get the best performance from athletes and adventurers.
Finally, here are a few more pictures of the Geghama mountains to keep you going…
I recently did an interview with the outdoor store Blacks, focusing on wild camping. Here's what we talked about:
Where is your favourite place you have camped in the wild?
That’s an almost impossible question to answer! I’ll give two answers. A couple of years ago I crossed Patagonia on horseback, following the Santa Cruz river, and every night I was able to tie my horse to a bush and simply roll out my sleeping bag by the riverbank. The sky was clear, and I was hundreds of miles away from roads and towns – it was pretty special.
The second place is a little closer to home. I love wild camping in the UK, and perhaps my favourite ever spot was at the foot of Snowdon in Wales. I’d ridden my bike over the pass just as the sun fell, and I hopped over a drystone wall and sheltered in behind. I had a few curious sheep for company, and then the most amazing sunrise to encourage me to get out of bed and up the hill in time for breakfast. It’s worth noting here that it’s so important to respect the land in places like this, and to leave no trace. Wild camping in the UK operates mostly on trust, and it’s a responsibility for all of us to be stewards of the outdoors, but also to be considerate of where we are.
Can you tell us about your first wild camping experience?
I grew up on the north coast of Northern Ireland, so I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I suspect though that my first real wild camping experience was when I was 15 and, together with two friends, decided to cycle around the UK. It was a bit of a disaster logistically because we were hopelessly inept, but it was also one of the best adventures I’ve ever been on. The first night, we all slept in a field about 20 miles short of where we’d hope to get to because we drastically overestimated our fitness. It didn’t matter; apart for a slight panic when a dog walker quietly stepped over our sleeping bodies in the morning, we got that first taste of the real freedom that comes with wild camping.
What would be your best tip for first-timers?
Again, I have two. The first is to put some research into finding somewhere really nice. If it’s your first time, you want it to be memorable, and not for all the wrong reasons. Ask around, or go online, and try and find a spot that gives you a good view, is relatively isolated so you’re not in anyone’s way, and perhaps has provision for shelter if it might rain (and if you’re not using a tent.) Also, bring some whisky, or whatever your own particular luxury is. Wild camping is all about making the most of the outdoors – it’s worth doing it right!
The second tip is to reiterate the importance of respecting where you are. Don’t make fires, and don’t leave any trace that you were there. Don’t get in anyone’s way, and don’t make excessive amounts of noise. The idea is to blend in – its more enjoyable that way, and you’re less likely to have someone bother you in the middle of the night wondering what you’re doing.
What piece of kit do you consider to be essential?
A good camping mat is key. Your sleeping bag needs to be suitably warm, of course, but a good camping mattress will take all the lumps out of the ground and give you the best chance of a comfortable night’s sleep. I use a lightweight inflatable mattress these days – it’s easy to pack, light to carry and quick to inflate, and I never wake up with a sore back!
Can you tell us about your best wild camping experience?
My best wild camping experiences are usually the ones where I am tired after a long day on the road and desperate for some rest, and then an idyllic camping spot turns up just as I’m on my last legs. In particular, I recall a great spot in Jordan, where I was walking in the middle of a 1000 mile journey through the Middle East. I’d covered 30 miles since breakfast and been up and down more hills that I care to remember, and just as my legs were starting to fail I found a small cave in the side of a cliff that I could just about squeeze into. I rolled out my sleeping bag and stowed my backpack, and watched a storm roll in across the mountains. When night fell, small pinpricks of firelight popped up on adjacent hills, lit by Bedouin shepherds who were also sleeping out in the wild. It was very special.
How about your worst?
Once, when I was cycling through China, I thought it might be a good idea to try and sleep inside a large concrete pipe outside a construction site. I’d done it before, and it was quite cosy. On this occasion, however, I chose a pipe that was slightly too small, and spent the night with hunched shoulders and cramp in my legs. If it hadn’t been raining so heavily outside I might have given up, but instead I stayed for 6 miserable hours. Lesson learned…
Finally, can you finish this sentence: I wild camp because…
It’s the best way to feel a part of the landscape, and to really appreciate the nature that surrounds us.
Check out the other wild campers' thoughts here
Perhaps the most common blog post in the world is the one that begins: 'I'm afraid that I've neglected this blog for a while...'
Here, then, is my entry to that esteemed Canon. I offer sincere apologies - I've never really been a blogger, though I do go through phrases of trying. To cover the awkward six-month silence on these pages, let me fill you in on what I've been up to:
From December through until late February, I was locked away in a dark cell, writing a book. Although it didn't seem possible at the time, that book is now close to becoming a real thing that will be in shops and that people (you?) can read, instead of just an endless series of blank documents on Microsoft Word that sucked away my soul.
The book, published by IB Tauris, will be called The Land Beyond: A Thousand Miles on Foot through the Heart of the Middle East, and will be available in all good UK bookshops (news on international versions to follow.)
In March I went back to the West Bank to walk once more, revisiting some of my favourite parts of the region. I'll be there again in November, leading a two week hiking tour. There are still spaces to join me: http://www.edge-expeditions.com/tours/walk-the-masar-ibrahim-al-khalil-november-2017/
In April, as recipient of the Neville Shulman Challenge Award, I flew back to Israel (it's been a pretty Middle East-heavy year) to begin a journey across the Holy Land that culminated in joining the Israelite Samaritans - perhaps the world's smallest and oldest ethno-religious group - for their unique, ancient Passover celebration.
More to follow on that soon - there will be some significant writing on the story, and some radio work too.
Finally, that brings us here to July, where I've just returned from some time in the Italian Dolomites, and am preparing for an expedition to Armenia in a couple of weeks. If you're wondering what the point is here, other than a condensed version of my diary over the first half of the year, then it's probably simply a long-winded way of saying that there have been some exciting adventures recently, and some great stories, and pretty soon they'll be coming your way.
Expect: a film from Patagonia, a radio piece on the Samaritans, a book on the Middle East, a long-form article on Portugal and, hopefully much more.
I'm not sure when I'll next check in here, but I'll try and make it sharpish. Thanks for the support, readers!
Recently, I've been writing a book. Or, at least, I think I have been. Here's how my days look:
5am- plan to get up
7am- actually get up
7.30am- head to the gym for an ass-kicking 90-minute workout!
9am - return from the gym after 30 minutes of light weights and a lot of sitting down
9.15am - eat breakfast at desk- much too busy to take a break
9.30am- arse around on twitter, make and drink three coffees, chew pen. Check Facebook, back to twitter immediately. Remember about Instagram- make a note to check it later
10am- finally get going. Writing writing writing! Pause occasionally to think of parallels with Hemingway. So many parallels
12.30pm- lunch, nap, walk. Consider going to pub- go home instead. Discipline is important. Think about how well book is going
1.30pm consider another nap, play guitar
2pm- spend 25 minutes trying to think of an amusing twitter status about writing
2.25pm - briefly catch sight of what's happening in the real world on twitter, feel humbled
2.26pm- begin complaining about writing again
2.45pm- back on it. Move over, Steinbeck, Dostoevsky...etc. Occasionally look at reference books on desk and think 'Suckers, this is what a real book looks like.'
4.30pm- drink seventh coffee of the day, take a 5 minute break
7pm - act surprised that it's been over two hours since any writing happened
7.30pm - eat toast and apples at desk- too busy to pause to make proper food
8pm- do best writing of the day. What a legend!
9.30pm - read over day's work. Feel horribly, awfully depressed. Text everyone to tell them about the full day of writing that's just occurred
10pm- go to bed - early nights are important
10.05pm-check twitter on phone for an hour. Look at weeks of unanswered emails. Think about how long it's been since any money came in. Descend into deep fear and self-loathing
REPEAT FOR THREE MONTHS
*occasionally replace all steps from 12pm onwards with 'Drink Heavily'
In November, I'm returning to the West Bank to spend two weeks walking along the Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil - a new hiking trail that runs from the length of the region.
It's one of the most spectacular places that I've ever been, with a unique combination of history, faith, culture and epic scenery. If that sounds like something you might enjoy experiencing, then get in touch!
There are still two places left to join us on the tour. It'd be great to have your company for a hike in the Holy Land!