Last week I was honoured to be present for the world premiere of Into The Empty Quarter at the Royal Geographical Society.
Al Humphreys’ and Leon McCarron’s film about their unsupported trek across the Omani desert is one I approached with trepidation. Even though they were friends of mine, how interesting could it be to watch them dragging a cart across a desert for 52 minutes?
The tent is one of the mainstays of adventure bicycle travel. It was the revolutionary idea of taking my own accommodation with me that largely fuelled my decision to travel under my own steam on two wheels. A good tent will provide shelter in a broad variety of climates and weather conditions for many years.
But it wasn’t long after I began my first journey that I realised something:
I really disliked actually sleeping in a tent.
To all in-tents (sorry) and purposes, sleeping in a tent is the same as sleeping indoors. It is a retreat from the natural world to a place of manmade isolation, shelter and perceived safety. With the door of my tent zipped up I could quite literally be anywhere (anywhere small, cramped and sweaty, at least).
For some, that was the main attraction. For me, it became the biggest drawback. I wanted to feel that I was really in the place, senses alert, involved, exposed; not withdrawn inside a fabricated cocoon.
Soon I realised that there were numerous alternatives to sleeping in a tent. I’d brought a bivvy bag and poncho along and made a habit of using them whenever the opportunity arose. And, as summer in Europe wandered on and my eye for a good spot grew better trained, these opportunities grew more and more regular.
As a result, my strongest memories of overnighting on my first continental crossing road involve sleeping literally under the stars, waking in the pre-dawn blue beside the glow of a still-smouldering campfire, and giving silent thanks for the joy of being outside in nature.
A friend who briefly joined our adventure simply slept on a tarpaulin in a cheap sleeping bag. No bivvy bag, no mattress, no nothing. Nobody had told her she ‘needed’ these things. As it turned out, she didn’t.
The rewards of bivvying continued to be revealed as autumn replaced summer.
No longer did I bother packing my gear away in the morning; I simply rolled up the bivvy-bag with the mattress, sleeping bag and liner still inside it, like a Swiss Roll, and strapped it to the back of the bike.
At the same time I became less picky still about where I slept, and the increasing number of nights spent in building sites, bus stops, tramps’ hovels and on rooftops were made all the more efficient by being able to retrieve and unfurl a complete sleeping system in ten seconds flat!
In the Middle East, with nights proving reliably dry, I took to sleeping outside and abandoned even the bivvy bag, whose main function as a water-resistant and breathable cover was no longer required.
Instead I hung a basic mosquito net from the handlebars of my bike, lay the mattress beneath it on a thin ground sheet, and fell asleep in my clothes — waking only in the early hours to drag my sleeping bag from its stuff-sack to protect against the encroaching chill.
More recently on a recumbent bike tour I took with me an ultralight Hennessy Hammock, taking the ground out of the equation altogether.
Initially concerned about how comfortable I would be, how it would influence my chronic lower back pain, and how I’d find suitable spots in which to rig it, I deliberately made it my only option for sleeping in order to find out.
It turns out that the process of finding a hammock-rigging spot is no more or less onerous than that of finding a suitable wild-camping spot for a tent — it’s just that the criteria are slightly different. By the third night I was sleeping like a baby.
For flexibility on longer bike trips I still carry a tent when weight and space is not at an absolute premium.
Sleeping rough is not always comfortable. It’s frequently challenging and hard on the nerves. And more often than not it involves battling hard-won instincts that kick in once the sun goes down in new and unknown places.
But given the choice I’d rather sleep on bare earth or in lush long grass than within the feeble shelter of a tent. To do so – and to be rewarded with a blanket of dew and a perfect dawn from the comfort of your bed – is one of the greatest joys of these slightly pointless bicycle adventures.
Next time you’re camping out, why not try shunning the tent for a change?
As of right now, the video above has been played 1,311,131 times. (Check it.)
Needless to say, when Armen and I popped out to buy a couple of cans of Kozel for this film, we were not expecting this to happen.
It’s been fun to watch the statistics over the last few days. It’s also been interesting to ruminate on why content ‘goes viral’ — internet shorthand for a shedload of people seeing something online in a short space of time.
What it boils down to, I think, is simple, resonant ideas put into easily shareable form, plus a dice-roll. The dice roll is whether anyone with the reach of Lifehacker, TrueActivist or RealFarmacy will pick up on it. But in the words of someone cleverer than me, “you miss 100% of the shots you never take”.
We’ve all handled drinks cans in our lives, used scissors, and come across surgical spirit. The delight comes from the combination and reinvention of these every day things to serve a basic human need.
This genuine utility value was demonstrated by a comment from Noel Carual of the Philippines.
“I wish to express my heartfelt thanks for sharing this very informative video especially during these times that my country is recently ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan [ Yolanda ].”
Who’d have thought this would end up cooking food and sterilizing water after a natural disaster?
Another thing worth mentioning is that there’s no particular credit due or fame bestowed upon any individual. All I did was splice together some video of what I thought was a genuinely awesome idea. All Armen did was practice hard and spend time demonstrating a revolutionary concept he’d come across. What’s spread like wildfire over the last few days is the idea, which doesn’t belong to anyone.
No, I’m not selling anything. I know almost everyone who reads this blog has seen Janapar now.
I’d just like to share a selection of the more interesting, challenging and downright bizarre things that have happened since we released the film one year ago.
The first thing that happened, at 9am on November 27th 2012, was that most of you bought Janapar and watched it. We received a lot of fantastic feedback and took a strong first step towards paying off the (considerable) costs of the film (no, we haven’t finished doing that yet).
The second thing that happened, a few days later, was that we received our first slice of nastiness. I remember it well; an email from someone whose identity I’m legally bound to keep anonymous. Let’s call him Barry. Barry emailed to say there was a glitch in the film at 29 minutes in and could we look into it? We obliged, there was no glitch and then we realised that what Barry was actually doing was taking the piss out of our non-linear storyline.
“I suggest you needed [sic] a more skilful continuity director,” lilted Barry in a further piss-taking email. “I may amuse myself by re-editing.”
Yes, that’s right. Barry contacted me directly to let me know he was considering chopping up four years of my life, my wife, and two years of unpaid work on the biggest passion project of my life. For his own personal amusement.
That was when I discovered that when you stick your head above the parapet you’re going to get a few pot-shots coming your way. The anonymous arena of the Internet allows certain tortured people to indulge their most spiteful and unpleasant urges with absolutely no concept of how it might feel to be on the receiving end. It is the perfect consequence-free environment.
More unpleasantness soon arrived from Justin, who contributed a whopping £5 to the book’s Kickstarter campaign for an eBook and then assumed that both my project and my character wouldn’t mind being measured publicly and solely against his own exacting personal standards.
“The author tries to relay the message that he changed… from an uncaring, thoughtless whiny bloke into a person of understanding, tolerance and character. Unfortunately… he accomplishes none of this and just adds arrogance to his repertoire,” he wrote, with understanding and tolerance.
(Yeah, thanks for the unconditional support, Justin. That’s just what we value most from our backers.)
So I pressed the wrong buttons with a couple of disturbed, vocal individuals. Big deal, right? I had forty-whatever nice reviews and this video to make up for it. And, as another author later said, better getting 5‑star and 1‑star reviews over loads of 3‑star reviews, which just means you wrote a tragically average book that didn’t really say anything to anyone.
Except that the maths didn’t match with the reality. It seemed that the psychological effect of a handful of negative reviews massively outweighed the positive feedback. It took Roz Savage (who’s been there, done that, and then some with her first book) to point out the obvious: I’d done and created something I truly believed in, and no judgement-sniper would ever change that. “To create is much braver and more difficult than to destroy.” Having done plenty of destroying in my time too, I’ll have to concur.
I set off around the country to share Janapar in real life. Lots of blog readers got in touch and set up local screening events. The story took on a life of its own and the themes of personal adventure and following your own path through life were delivered. Standing up afterwards to answer questions, I felt as though I was speaking for anyone who’d made themselves the guinea-pig in their own experiment and tried their damndest to draw a conclusion or two from the results.
Emails started coming in bearing news of people who’d seen the film, read the book, thrown off the shackles and followed suit in their own unique way. The most memorable came from Gary, who’d left a crap job in Lancaster, cycled to Georgia, met a girl, got married, reinvented himself as an English tutor in Tbilisi and now had a baby on the way. Many more stories came in that had nothing to do with cycling at all but nevertheless expressed the realisation that an adventurous life was there waiting to be grasped and lived — the same realisation I’d had back in 2006 while poring over the Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook and the tales of people like Al Humphreys and Rob Lilwall. And that’s why we share stories.
The odd negative outburst still popped out, but it began to seem that they said more about the correspondents in question than anything else. They were sometimes comic.
“Just text and some small drawings,” wrote a 1‑star reviewer of the paperback book after having read only one chapter.
(I noted that the same reviewer did however give 5 stars to the Downton Abbey DVD box-set, which added considerable context to his comment.)
The events were fun. I visited more places in the UK in a month than I’d done in the previous 29 years, and met more cool people. We paid off all the credit cards we’d maxed out to finish the film and started chipping away at the rest of the budget.
The events were also knackering. Utterly, utterly emotionally draining. I started sitting outside venues while the film played. Who wants to relive the most traumatic moments of four years of their life, over and over again, night after night, no matter how important they believe the themes of the story that contains them?
Eventually I escaped. To Iran. I almost drowned trying to packraft a swollen river alone. I did plenty more, too, during the two months I was there. Not a word of my most challenging and personal journey yet has ever been published, and nor will it ever be. There is a time for keeping things back for yourself, even if your purpose in life is to share, facilitate and inspire through storytelling.
In Iran I realised that there will always be compromises in everything one chooses to do. Ideals are just that. The reality of life on your own terms — which includes equally adventures and creative projects — is exposure to the new and unexpected, the need to react quickly, to think big and small together. It requires a level of perspective difficult to maintain. I had burned out through investing too intensely in something too emotional. Whatever the future of Janapar, it would need to be contained and managed in order not to become a source of regret, and to allow it to continue carrying the messages with which James and I had originally saddled it.
Before the release, those messages had lain dormat for a year while we’d searched for a film festival to premiere them. The launchpad of Raindance 2012 has since got us invited to dozens more such celebrations of storytelling, including some that rejected us the previous time round. The film has now screened on 6 continents. It’s screened in Antarctica at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. At the World Domination Summit in Oregon. In a tiny bike shop in Sheffield. In the mountains of Bulgaria. And in dozens of other places too.
And in the very near future the story of Janapar is going to escape the grasp of those who created and lived it. It’s on the files of a broadcast agent and a digital distributor. I would do well to forsake the idea of a real, personal connection with all the unsuspecting individuals who will end up as future audience members. Their connection will only be with the world created during the 79 minutes of the film. There is no point getting melancholy; I’ve served the people closest to the project (you) as faithfully as I can, and there’s a growing gulf between my life today and the ever more distant story that continues to be told on ever more distant screens.
It is with faith in the power of storytelling and in the universal messages contained within Janapar that we’re going to let it loose. It will continue to live its own life; to spawn its own adventures. These things that happened to some hapless bloke from England might just prompt a few more folk to take up the reins of adventure. Discover more. Understand more. Then come home and set about making their own contribution to the world a slightly more balanced and — dare I say it — better one. That’s all I really want. (That, and paying off the rest of the budget!)
If you endorse the values I promote through this blog and through Janapar, and you’d like to get involved, there’s going to be a big push early next year when the film becomes available on some well-known global platforms. When the time comes, I hope that you’ll join me and participate in the word-of-mouth, the micro-storytelling, that’s got us this far both online and off.
Rob Lilwall’s second book, Walking Home From Mongolia, is a strange yet compelling beast.
It is, on the face of it, a linear account of an extremely long and admittedly monotonous walk across the full breadth of mainland China. Rob positions the story deliberately as a sequel to his Cycling Home From Siberia* book of some years ago. As with Siberia, the journey will begin somewhere dauntingly remote; rules few in number but clear in scope are set; and in declaring a final destination of Rob’s home in Hong Kong the foundations are laid for a simple, gruelling adventure.