An interview is not just for the benefit of the interviewer, as I was recently reminded when I gave an interview to Orla O Muiri for Beyond Limits magazine. As well as forcing you to reassess your own ideas, motives and achievements, having questions fired at you from someone else’s perspective can say a lot about the assumptions of that interviewer. And that, in turn, can say a lot about the way you have presented yourself; what your ‘public face’ looks like.
I spent quite a portion of this interview trying to defuse an underlying assumption that I was some kind of legendary overachieving extreme sports fanatic, which I am most definitely not. Since I answered these questions I’ve spent some time going through this site in an attempt to ensure that this isn’t the portrait I’ve painted of myself. It’s a difficult thing to balance, as there is always going to be a degree of mismatch between the writer and the reader. I hope I’ve got it roughly right.
In any case, do enjoy the full interview. Grab a cup of tea — this might take some time.
What are your emotional motives behind your adventures?
Mostly I go on adventures to satisfy my own curiosity. But what I’m curious about has changed since I started. On my first trip I was naive and idealistic, so everything was interesting and new and it broke my preconceptions. As time went on I became curious variously about my own endurance, my ability to tolerate discomfort, whether places in the world would live up to my fears, how it would be to learn a completely new language, how I might best communicate this whole process to those who stayed at home – so it’s curiosity and satisfaction at the root of it all.
Are you looking or have you found a certain fulfilment in your life of adventure?
It’s true that my post-university options didn’t look particularly exciting and fulfilling, so quitting everything and heading off into the sunset was almost the only choice I had left! As for fulfilment — yes, but it hasn’t come about through a list of achievements, rather through realising that adventure is a way of thinking and therefore can be a lifelong process, rather than something that starts and ends at distinct points. It follows that the only judge of success in that process is me myself. Because of that there’s no risk of disappointment of having ‘failed’ to achieve some abstract mission in the eyes of someone else, and none of the anticlimax that happens when you finish a trip, because ‘home’ and ‘away’ are two parts of the same whole. Living in London is just as much an adventure in one sense as cycling across Lapland last winter. Everything is new and ready to be explored in a multitude of ways.
Do you have limits?
Very abstract question! Yes. Who doesn’t? Exactly what limits are I’m not quite sure. There are obvious limits such as physical endurance, but there’s nothing very mysterious about that. My life right now is all uncharted territory — I’m about to take my first feature documentary to the international film festival circuit, and I’m in the middle of writing my first book, without a publisher or editor. I have no idea what I’ll be doing in a year’s time. It’s a massive adventure in itself. (I have no idea whether that relates to the idea of limits!)
Tell me the story about when and how you decided to become a full time adventurer?
There’s not actually a particular moment in time, I don’t think. If you pressed me, it would probably be the day I set off from home in 2007 on my bike. I jacked it all in and didn’t look back, and I never have, even though I’ve been back to the same physical location since then. I didn’t set off thinking ‘I’m going to be a full-time adventurer’, though. What I’m doing now has pretty much emerged organically from that starting point. That, and my stubborn refusal to get a ‘real job’!
What is it about these extreme expeditions that pull you in?
I think the answer to the first question covers most of it. I’ve never thought of myself as an ‘extreme expeditioner’, though. Some of what I do might look extreme to people with different perspectives, that’s all. I think that could relate back to the idea of ‘limits’. Maybe a limit is a point past which your imagination can’t go. When you try something new and a little daunting, though, your imagination gets new material to draw from – even if you screw up. So, little by little, the goalposts start to move. And one day you realise that people are calling you ‘extreme’!
You are clearly a bike man, but have you tried all the other sports and settled on cycling or has your focus just always been cycling?
I began travelling by bicycle as a reaction against traditional notions of travel – inevitably motorised or relying on public transport or someone else’s schedule – which had never appealed to me. I wanted the fundamental freedom to go literally wherever I liked, not just where I liked from a list of towns and cities on a timetable. I wanted to be able to travel under my own steam, but at the same time I didn’t fancy the restrictive slowness of walking while travelling was still a new experience. Cycling ticked all of these boxes, and has proved to have an enormously long shelf life. It’s not a sport, though. I’m no athlete. Ask my mates.
What is your favourite bike, I am guessing you have a few?
I’m not really attached to any particular bike, but I was a bit gutted when the custom-built frame I’d inherited from my Grandad got stolen from outside the university library when I was a student. That had sentimental value. My expedition bikes are fantastic machines, and I’m hugely grateful to Kona Bikes for supporting my trips with them, but they’re tools to do a job.
What age were you when you embarked on Ride Earth?
I was 23 when I left – two years after graduating from university.
What did your parents say when you told them about your mission?
They were pretty cool about it. They knew I wasn’t content to mope around at home or apply for jobs I didn’t believe in. I think they were glad when I’d found something to focus on. I really appreciate that they supported me rather than telling me it was a silly thing to do and trying to stop me.
What did you study in University? Has it been of use to you in your unconventional career?
I studied Computer Science. It was about as interesting as it sounds! But I did well in it, and it has come in useful, particularly when it comes to web technology. If you’re self-employed in this way and you rely in part on the web in order to build an audience, knowing how to build and run a website from the ground up (and fix it when it breaks) is a really useful area of know-how to have. It’s also allowed me to earn money as a web consultant while I’ve been living in other places, funding subsequent adventures.
You have your first book coming out in 2012, are you shitting it?
Not really. I’m enjoying the process of writing it immensely – I don’t think I’d be writing it at all if I wasn’t. There’s no pressure from the publisher, because as yet there is no publisher! I guess if I’m afraid of anything it’s that I’ll never be 100% happy with the finished product. I’m a recovering ex-perfectionist still struggling with minor details that nobody else will notice.
Your expeditions so far include:
- Scotland Off Road 2006
- Europe and near the East 2007
- The Caucasus and Iran 2008
- The Middle East and Africa 2009
- Mongolia 2010
- Scandinavia 2011
Why do you do so many of them solo?
Only two of the above were solo trips, actually. One of them was pretty epic, though – the Middle East and Africa – and by far and away had the greatest effect on me. There’s a huge value in having at least one such adventure, in which you’re entirely responsible for everything and you’ve gone to the place about which you have the most doubts – you learn a huge amount that way. Now, whether I do a trip alone or in a pair or group largely depends on my motivations for doing that particular trip in the first place. Next year I’m planning one in a pair and another solo, and it’s for very fundamental reasons that they’ll be done that way.
How long does it take to plan an expedition?
It has varied. My first big trip was massively over-planned. I spent a year preparing for something I could now easily depart for and do tomorrow. A bike ride is pretty simple once you’ve got a few essential bits of kit and an idea in your head. The Scandinavia trip took a few days of preparation – I decided to do it less than a month before I arrived in Oslo. Mongolia took a bit longer, but that was almost entirely because of the complicated Russian visa application process. I rarely bother planning routes until I’m already on the road and have a better feel for where I am. And even then I change my plans all the time!
Which was your favourite trip?
The ride through the Middle East and Africa was a definitive journey, in which I lost and found myself and travelled through the most unearthly places (physical and mental) of all. Because of what it taught me, it’s my favourite trip. But it certainly wasn’t the most ‘fun’. Far from it.
….and your favourite moment of that trip?
I honestly can’t come up with a single moment of any trip which I could describe as my ‘favourite’! I suppose waking up on the banks of Lake Khovsgol in northern Mongolia and looking out of my tent over a few thousand square kilometres of floating ice, before taking a swim in water so pure that I could drink it without any kind of treatment. That’s going to take a bit of beating!
Next spring I’ll head to the West Coast of the States for a couple of months. It’s easy to assume that we know what America is like, because we’re force-fed American culture through our screens. But it’s probably no less of a misconception as we hold for the rest of the world. But I have a feeling that 2012 is going to be mainly about getting the documentary film, Janapar, out to as many audiences as we can find.
Will you stick with cycling until the very end?
I’ve no particular attachment to cycling. I’ve just found that it gives me access to all the things I value about adventure travel. When something better comes along, I’d like to think you’ll find me giving it a try. Or maybe my priorities will shift of their own accord. Long distance walking and packrafting are two things I’ve definitely got in my sights, because both of them are close the the ground and give you the kind of freedom and unthreatening access to society that cycling does – just from slightly different perspectives.
You have an advice page on your website, it is one of the first I have seen, why have you done this? How important is helping others out to you?
I received so much help and advice during the planning of my first trip, and it was all given freely and enthusiastically. Most of the articles in that section are ‘how-to’ style articles or equipment reviews. But the real value of that kind of content is that it reassures people that what they’re planning is possible, and that it’s actually pretty simple. The subtle considerations of wild camping, for example, are something everyone will learn through experience. My article about it is there to defuse people’s fears. They’re unlikely to remember anything I wrote, but it might convince them to give it a shot and find out for themselves, and the same goes for the other topics I’ve covered. In general, I believe that there are countless individual and social benefits to people going on these kinds of personal journeys of discovery, so I’ll do anything I can to encourage it. Putting the new film out there is part of that.
Does the rest of the world (non – adventurers) ever frustrate you? Why or why not?
There’s a lot of imperfection in the world. We have all of life’s basic needs here, whether complacency has blinded us to that simple fact or not. So a lot of our so-called problems are now existential ones: What am I doing with my life? Why am I always stressed out? Why am I afraid to leave my comfort zone?
My adventure stories implicitly advocate simplicity, risk-taking, curiosity, spontaneity, non-conformity – these aren’t answers, but ideas that might have value in the context of these problems. So I think I’m doing my bit, and that stops me getting too frustrated!
Do you believe in fear?
Is fear an article of faith? It’s real enough, I think. Whether a fear is justified is another question, as is the issue of what you do with it.
“Sure. Sell everything. Quit your job. Get a bike. Ride it. The rest of it will work itself out.” – I love this line, but is it really as easy as that?
How did you learn to shoot videos, take decent photos….etc?
I learnt by experimentation, imitation, and by making mistakes. I didn’t have any training or education in these things. Living on the road, I could dedicate as much time to these pursuits as I liked, and I ended up spending a lot of time on them. They were rewarding and important creative outlets.
Are you happy…..always?
Happiness is a fleeting emotion, isn’t it? Contentment, on the other hand, might be something more long-term. I’ve never been more content than now. (Incidentally, it might be worth mentioning that the UK government defines me as living below the poverty line.)
When en route in an expedition, do you camp out, couch surf, hostel it?
I almost never stay in hostels or hotels, because I don’t go travelling in order to escape from the place I’m in every night. I’m probably a bit of a snob when it comes to this! My first choice is always wild-camping (sometimes this has been in urban areas). Second is asking around for a place to put my tent or sleeping bag – the list of places that’s led me is long and fascinating! I’ll never decline an invitation to stay the night in a local household, which I’ve now done probably hundreds of times. In cities – which comprise a very minor part of my journeys – Couchsurfing is the norm.
What are your must pack items on an expedition?
Everything you need, and nothing that you don’t. Every non-essential item you leave at home will make your trip a better one!
Have you ever went on a normal holiday (aka no bikes included)?
Loads of times when I was a child. A small handful since.
Is there always another adventure, something better to be chased?
I’m not sure how to answer this. I just try to follow my nose and enjoy the ride. But I don’t believe in some far-off, unattainable Holy Grail.
Does that make it difficult to be content in the moment?
I imagine it would, but I’m perfectly content in the moment.
Is it a race/chase for happiness or for an adrenaline rush?
Neither of the above. I lead an adventurous life because it gives me a greal deal of intrinsic satisfaction. There are bursts of happiness and adrenaline in life, as well as their opposites, but my motives are nothing to do with instant gratification.
Travelling and expeditions broaden your mind so much, you are a global man now. Is it difficult to return home, come back down to earth and engage in the UK’s everyday banter once more (moaning about the government etc)?
There’s a definite sense that a lot of the banter you mention is fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. It depends how far you want to take it, though. For many people, these things are very significant. Being able to see how lucky we all actually are here doesn’t make me ‘better’. Also, being in the UK isn’t a ‘return home’. I would say my home is equally in Yerevan, Armenia where I spent nearly two years. My travels have also given me the ability to feel at home pretty much anywhere – when camping, or in someone’s home – although that’s much more temporary. Am I waffling?
So this interview is all about you and this is a totally random question but is your wife much cooler than you?
Of course she is. I’m just a grumpy old man!
If you weren’t working in this market, what career could you see yourself in?
Never thought about that, really. I’m good at web consultancy, but it’s boring and involves too many screens. I’ve occasionally applied my photography and filmmaking skills to other industries, which has been fun. At times I’ve tried to imagine other careers, but I’d want them to involve a lot of exercise and being outdoors. That points to the military, of course, but the idea of it seems to clash on a few levels.
Do you ever find that people are jealous of your achievements or are the majority completely supportive? How do you deal with this?
I’ve never found anyone who’s jealous. But many people who don’t know me well write me off as an eccentric and don’t enquire far enough to know more. A few clearly believe that I’m simply procrastinating from getting what they think of as a ‘real job’. The fact is that how I spend my time is very difficult to explain in a nutshell, so most people I meet are left with very little meaningful idea of what I do. That’s probably my fault for not being a good enough communicator. I’m still not sure how to deal with it.
Who is your hero in the adventure world? Why?
I have a huge amount of respect for Bruce Parry – his shows are heartfelt, well-made and unpretentious, and he does them for the right reasons. I don’t know that many names in the adventure world, though – I don’t really read adventure books, and when I began my first trips I didn’t know the industry existed. In the world of cycling, James Bowthorpe did a round-the-world record-breaking attempt. Several others did, too, but it was his motivation and attitude that struck a chord with me. Despite breaking the record, he didn’t bother completing the paperwork for it, because his core reasons for doing the ride lay outside the field of fame and sporting achievement.
Any advice for our readers on their own quest?
Follow your heart. Stop making excuses. Take the first step right now. These well-worn mantras are well-worn for a reason!
Still here? Bloody well done to you! Why not read the article that Orla wrote based on this interview over at the Beyond Limits magazine website?