It's now nearly three years since I set off into the Empty Quarter desert; it's just under two since the film premiered at the Royal Geographical Society. It's been one of the most rewarding pieces of creative work that I've been part of, and I'm still amazed the the great response we get to the movie. Ultimately, it was an incredibly fun journey which we were fortunate to have had.
One of the main aims of the film was to show a different side to the Middle East - a side that doesn't get much airtime. Hopefully we've done that - we've taken the feature film round festivals, sold it on DVD and as downloads, and now even got it out to broadcast too.
There's also a short version of the film - 20 minutes long, which was created for festivals and events that were limited on time. It too has been well received, and we figured the time has come to put that out to all of you to watch, anytime, anyplace, for free.
So here it is - if you haven't seen it, I'm proud to present to you Into The Empty Quarter!
If you'd like to see the feature version (2 1/2 times as long!), then you can do so here. If you enjoy the film, then do check out our little follow up movie below...
Good news, everybody - we've made it!
Thanks to 662 of you putting faith in our project, Tom and I have successfully crowdfunded the editing budget for our films from Iran and Patagonia. Not just that, we managed to hit 112% of the target!
The deadline was midnight on Monday, and we began work on Tuesday morning. There's no messing around with this - we have until just the end of May to create two feature-length films. The team of professionals that we're going to surround ourselves with are readying themselves (think of it like the Avengers, but with more sitting down in dark editing room and less crime fighting.) In short - it's all happening!
I'll keep you updated every step of the way via this blog and on social media. In the meantime, let me say again how immensely happy Tom and I are to be making these films, and how grateful we are to all of you for being a part of them. These really couldn't happen without you! So - thank you, and I can't wait to share more of the material with you.
In late September last year, I saw the chance to squeeze in one last big journey before 2014 drew to a close. Within a few weeks had I put together the logistics, roped in a couple of friends and we were off with barely time to catch our breath and question what was going on...just the way adventures should be!
Our destination was the Rio Santa Cruz, the last free-flowing glacial river in Patagonia. It begins life in Lago Argentino, at the foothills of the Andes in the west of Argentina, then winds and meanders its way across the country to the Atlantic Ocean. We hoped to begin there, at its terminus in the east, and follow it upstream to the source just as the first explorers had tried to do.
Our journey was inspired by the story of that first comprehensive European expedition along the river, undertaken by Captain FitzRoy in 1834. FitzRoy had been charged with charting the coastline of South America, and his crew included a very young and very impressionable Charles Darwin who fancied himself as a bit of a geologist and amateur explorer. Both FitzRoy and Darwin left detailed writings of their journey along the river which, unfortunately, ultimately ended in their failure to reach the source (though they came heartbreakingly close.) Together with Tom Allen (who I travelled to Iran with earlier in the year) and an Argentinian friend, Jose, we hoped to use these diaries to make a journey in the footsteps of FitzRoy and Darwin. Patagonia is a land than can only be truly traversed on horseback, so we prepared for the expedition by acquiring five horses which we hoped would carry us all the way to the Andes.
There was another reason for our trip, too - in February 2015, construction is due to begin on two dams, which will flood huge sections of the valley and change the ecosystem and landscape completely. Somewhat sadly, it seemed we would not just be following in the footsteps of the first explorers; we would perhaps simultaneously be the last explorers ever to see the Rio Santa Cruz before it changes forever.
Below are a few pictures to give a hint of the journey. Watch out for more writing, and news on the film, coming soon. Enjoy!
In 2010 I set off from New York City on a bicycle, headed west for an indefinite amount of time. The bike was my one-way ticket to new experiences, and I was determined to see what lay beyond the boundaries of comfortable living.
There were a lot of reasons why I decided to launch off across America on a bike, but the main one was that I just wanted to - to be more specific, I felt I needed to.
It didn't matter that it was America, or even that I was on a bike. What was important was that I was 22 years old and I felt completely mollycoddled by my previous life in the UK (my knowledge of the word mollycoddle was a prime example of this.) I'd never been tested; never been tried and found wanting. I'd almost always been comfortable and safe, and more than anything I wanted to break free of that for even just a little while.
I wanted to head off into the wilderness, towards places and people that scared me because I knew nothing about them, and to see what would happen when I arrived. How would I respond? If it went well, I would learn to trust in myself a lot more. If it went badly, at least I'd know comprehensively that I was in fact a wimp, and I should return home to wrap myself back up in cotton wool.
There are many great ways to travel - ways which offer a wonderful perspective for seeing the world and for exploring landscapes and cultures and everything inbetween. My pick has always been for the non-motorised ways; for the slower, more intimate journeys that occur when the power to move forward must be generated by one's own body. Over the last few years I've developed a love of walking, the slowest and most natural method of all, and most recently I also experimented with travelling by packraft (an inflatable boat that folds down to the size of a two-man tent.) My first ever adventures, however, all took place on bicycles and as I found on a recent trip by bike in Iran, it is still hard to beat the joys of cycling.
When I was 15 I set off to cycle around the UK with a couple of friends. I remember buying my first ever bike less than a week before we left. It took us four days to get out of Northern Ireland (we'd figured on one) and we spent much of that first trip making terrible navigational errors, complaining about how big the (small) hills were and apologising to policemen for accidentally cycling on motorways. It was brilliant! I loved it so much that the next summer I cycled with a friend from Northern Ireland to Germany for the football World Cup. It was another poorly planned escapade with more wrong turns than right, and in the end we only got there because Germany is so big that we couldn't help but run into it eventually. Needless to say, that adventure was also life-enhancingly wonderful. It didn't matter that we got lost, or weren't sure how to fix our bikes, or that we didn't speak any German (or French or Dutch) - all of our shortcomings seemed to add to the fun.
For the last 5 weeks I've been in Iran, attempting to follow the river Karun (the longest in the country) from source to sea.
Tom and I found all sorts of exciting, wild and madcap adventures in the mountains and plains of Southwest Iran. I'm very excited to share them with you in the coming weeks and months.
For now, here are a few very early pictures (the captions along the bottom will help orientate the images as a photo essay if you watch through from start to end.)
I'm also very hopeful that we'll be able to create a film of our story, so if you're keen to be updated on that then please pop your email address in the box below and I'll make sure you know when there's something to watch (no spam, I promise!)
Finally, I'm also very excited to let you know that after many years of pretending to write a book, I've eventually actually written a book! It tells the story of my very first (and still favourite) journey - cycling across America. The book will be published this summer, and as with the Iran film, there'll be more news to follow soon.
Enjoy the pictures!
With thanks to:
1. You will move slowly. This gives time to appreciate the world around you; to feel how a country, a culture and a landscape changes and develops beneath your feet.
2. It will often be miserable. This is good! Adventures are all about misery - enduring and then retrospectively enjoying. No-one wants to go off and have a lovely time all the time, right? Misery is brilliant. Walking provides it in bucketloads.
3. You are at your most vulnerable. This, too, is mostly a good thing - it will encourage people much more inclined to be kind and hospitable towards you, and will immediately break down many of the barriers of the 'rich foreigner' should you be travelling far from home.
4. You can carry everything you need on your back. The old 'tortoise effect' - your life upon your shoulders. With no more than a 15-20kg load you can carry a tent, sleeping bag, gas stove, spare clothes (even for cold weather) and all the expedition knick-knacks we tend to accumulate (notebooks, compass, penknife, map, whisky etc.) There's something deeply gratifying about being so self-sufficient. For remote journeys you can try pulling a large cart filled with worldly possessions and food/water supplies (just try making a better one that Al and I did in the Empty Quarter...)
5. You can get to places impossible to reach by any other method of transport. I'm not just talking about plane or trains or automobiles here; even my all-time favourite, the bicycle, has limitations. On foot you can scramble up a hill, over a hedge, swim across a river (maybe), through a shopping mall, into a sewer...the possibilities are endless!
It seems only fair that I also include:
This morning I was gathering together some photos to accompany an article I had written about walking across China. Just as I was about to send the pictures off to the magazine publisher, I came across one I didn't remember. Next to it was another I had no recollection of - not until I stared at it for nearly 30 seconds, wracking my brain for a memory hook. It's amazing how some of these experiences get away from us. I suppose that is one of the nice things about taking photos on a journey, and especially making a film of these types of expeditions - a visual memory bank, freezing a spot in time and space and capturing it as it was then and may never be again.
Before I knew it I'd spent the next couple of hours drifting off down memory lane, flicking through photographs. Lots of them made me smile, or shiver, or just bathe in the nostalgia, but what I always find time and time again is that the most evocative pictures are always those of people - the characters that really make these trips such wonderful and unique experiences.
In the last 3 years, I have gone on two quite similar adventures. Both were done with a skeleton team of two people, both involved walking quite a long way. Both were often miserable, yet I think back on them now with great satisfaction. I filmed both extensively using the same camera, but, subsequently, have now made two very different end products.
The first journey began in November 2011: a 6-month, 3000 mile epic of a walk through China, from the Gobi desert in Mongolia down to Hong Kong. I went to accompany Rob Lilwall, a Hong Kong-based adventurer, and together we had a wonderful (if hard) journey south through the Middle Kingdom. One of the most exciting things about the trip was that we got a commission from a big broadcaster (National Geographic) to make a 4-part TV show. As a fledgling adventurer and cameraman, it was a bigger break than I could ever have imagined.
Skip forward a year, and in November 2012 I set off into The Empty Quarter desert with Alastair Humphreys to try and walk from Salalah, Oman to Dubai, UAE roughly following a route taken by the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. We trekked for 1000 miles, and a major goal of the journey was to make a film of the adventure. The difference this time was that we had no broadcaster behind us - we funded the trip ourselves and had no guarantee that it would ever get made or seen by anyone except us and our mums.
This time three years ago, I was cycling the Desert Road in New Zealand, en route to Wellington with 7000 miles of pedalling on the clock (and, unbeknown to me, another 7000 to go before I would make it home.)