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What's your next adventure?...


following an invisible track


A track may not be obvious. There may be few signs even if the tracker knows what to look for. But just as important as what is on the ground is what is in the tracker’s head- his ‘rich context’ so to speak. It is just as Kant suggested- perception is about what is OUT THERE and also about how we conceptualise what we see. Kant is never better exemplified than when someone points at an object far distant and says, “What’s that?” Everyone  looks and makes suggestions. At this stage it is just a strange shape an anomaly, an incongruity in the mostly unsurprising vista or landscape. Then someone will get it- a car, a tree, ‘just’ a rock, a man walking. With the concept we can then all ‘see’ what it really is. Sometimes you have the wrong concept working quite happily for hours. That oil drum you’ve been walking towards suddenly appears much quicker than you’d have expected and turns out to be a bearing case from a lorry axle. The object instantly transforms- as quickly as the duck becomes the rabbit in the famous ambiguous duck/rabbit drawing. In a world of odd objects, strange journeys, new sights- in the desert world- you understand just how much we as humans bring to what we see in the world.

As well as bringing our knowledge of shape and colour we import meaning to what we see. The ‘rich context’ is all the knowledge we have about something. It is all the ways we can relate it to other things we know about in our lives. To the experienced tracker there is much more to see than what is obviously in front of one’s eyes. And once you know the direction of a track, have figured a reason why the track is going in that direction, then you can guess its route between track signs accurately- and by looking in likely places find evidence of the track you suspected.

I am no tracker but I remember following a track of a fennec fox in the area north of the Gilf Kebir. It is known for tektite glass- that lies glinting on the surface of the sand. I followed the fennec tracks, like those of a small dog, easily across the sand. But on the stony gravelly base of the dune corridor I lost him. I tried for the first time to look ‘sideways’. A bedouin had told me this was a way to see better. You sort of half close your eyes and defocus on details in the hope of seeing a pattern, a track. It was early morning and all I saw were the many glinting pieces of natural glass spread out in front of me. By looking sideways at this confusing sight I picked up a line of absences of reflected light. Maybe here the fox had knocked a stone or two, kicked them out of place where the wind kept them clear of drift sand. I managed to see this faintest of lines and walked it- sure enough on the only piece of sand big enough to hold a print there was one. And yet the line I had been following had been almost imaginary. It brought to mind, for some reason, that famous ‘torch drawing’ of Picasso where the artist depicts the image of a bull using a swirling flashlight and a camera on a long exposure to capture the track of the light, to make a picture from nothing but rapidly moving light.

The track can be almost imaginary, inside your head and you can still follow it. The track becomes a path, in the mystical sense of the word perhaps. The context of the track, if it is richly endowed with meanings, allows such feats of navigation through thin air, featureless desert.



getting bogged

We get stuck in life. We get bogged down. This happens when we go to fast, don’t check out the land ahead, or get plain unlucky. I don’t think it really matters, though when you start out it seems to mark you out as having failed in some way, an embarrassment. Everyone loves a success and being a success- but in fact the only real success you can hang on to, that can never be taken away is the alacrity and speed with which you got yourself unstuck, unbogged, up and running again.

We travel by car more than we travel on foot. In the desert you only get bogged by sand if you are in a car. Camels and people are at some risk from sabka sand- sand lying on a salt crust, but never from the soft sand that traps a speeding car. We travel faster than we need to- perhaps- but then we travel at the speed of our fellows, so we get bogged from time to time. Instead of marvelling at the misfortune what you need is a routine for extraction. We make elaborate habitual systems for achieving success, but who thinks to have a plan for getting back up after a set-back?

In the desert you need sand plates, time, a decent jack, time, a shovel helps but isn’t absolutely essential. The more time you have the quicker it takes. Once bogged stop the engine as soon as you can. Make the best possible attempt at escape first. Do not rush it, hoping for the best. Do not be tempted to drive up metal sandplates stuck in the ground at an angle and set like ramps- I’ve only seen it work about 10% of the time. Usually the car’s turning wheel buries the plates causing yet more work. Instead excavate patiently a long gulley in the sand, lay the plates flat and drive out. Or jack the front and fill sand in under the tyres.

And let the tyres down- 12psi will work.

Have a procedure in life for when you get bogged. Get some metaphorical sand plates to help you escape. Have a hi-lift jack- that is probably a good friend or two. And take your time, never rush an escape from total entrapment. The more time you have the quicker it will take.



£20 Sevylor packraft

First buy your el cheapo adult +child sevylor inflatable boat (marked as capable of carrying 120kg). Then cut off the outside tube.

Use cheap army groundsheet to cover.

Tougher, cheaper, about as light and no wetter than a $750 Alpacka.



The Third Law of Adventure

The third law of adventure is: adventures break new ground.

We know that every time we repeat something the neural network associated with that activity is strengthened. The circuit becomes stronger, more connected to the rest of our brain. It’s like a rut getting deeper and deeper as each cart wheel rolls along and cuts further into the mud. Eventually a road is built out of something that may have started life as a simple path. Once it is asphalted it can be used by cars and trucks. Maybe it then gets widened into a motorway.

Adventures aren’t like that. They don’t strengthen existing nerve paths, they make new ones, laying down new experiences as new memories. New connections are forged with other parts of the brain. What is strengthened are certain skills and attitudes associated with adventure. Perhaps we embark on a path to become some kind of master adventurer, nebulous though the concept might seem. What would adventure mastery look like? A bunch of psychological skills: not being too easily phased, a nose for novelty and interest, creativity when in a tight spot, persistence, a sense of humour, flexibility, resourcefulness, playfulness. The kind of skills you need if you want to make a habit of breaking new ground.


Breaking new ground in an inner sense.

We all have a series of preferences which becomes our comfort zone. It is all that we have grown habitually used to. Going outside our comfort zone can be either painful or pleasurable. It makes sense to get an idea of your own comfort zone first, before embarking on a new adventure. Better knowledge of your comfort zone in another sense can actually generate new adventures. What I mean is, the things you are comfortable with which other people are not. If you kind of like wet sleeping bags, battling leeches, bugs and spiders then the jungle is for you. I must admit I fall into this perverse minority. For me it is all part of the adventure, the strangeness of it all. I read yesterday about Ollie Hicks’ first successful attempt to kayak from Scotland to Norway. It took 62 hours. That’s 62 hours of sitting upright, getting very wet and cold and dodging north sea oil terminal traffic through the night and day. Pretty miserable if you ask me. But for some people that’s half the fun of it. So if you have a skewed comfort zone some adventures suggest themselves more than others.

I think you have to rely on an inner hunch about what kind of adventure will test your comfort zone to destruction and what kind will play to your strengths. I see one part of adventure as attention seeking- giving yourself attention as well as getting it from others- and if you can do something easily that others find uncomfortable or dangerous it makes that activity all the more appealing. Psychologist Michael Apter analysed adventure as making safe and controlling (to the individual concerned’s satisfaction) events and experiences that others find perilous or offputting. When you see someone climbing solo without a rope he’s doing something safe in his own mind, safer than driving without a seatbelt for some.

So adventure can spring from exploiting your own comfort zone anomalies. But the higher levels of adventure must come from confronting your own comfort zone and picking away at it. Many adventurers don’t do this. Respect, then, to Ranulph Fiennes, famously scared of heights, who, in his 60s, took up climbing. Though he wasn’t technically gifted, he still got up the Eiger and Everest. I consider the other factors (being guided etc) irrelevant to the argument I am making here, which is: the man left his comfort zone of polar expeditions to enter a zone he was frankly nervous about: heights.

Nibbling away at comfort zones rather than hacking off more than you can chew probably makes sense. But there is a subtle point here, though, which is- you may have a good reason to be nervous of a certain activity. When you read about bicycle stunt riders who have bad accidents, they often have an intuition, a ‘bad feeling’ before something happens. A few years ago I took up tall tree climbing. I used to be a rock climber and I’ve been climbing trees all my life. But this time, instead of following my instincts, which is to do things my way until I reach a roadblock, whereupon I ask others/search books/the net for answers I decided to relearn tree climbing the ‘official way’. This involved harnesses, special ropes and a lot of gear I rather enjoyed buying. But it got in the way. Climbing a very easy hundred foot sycamore with a friend I found myself less than twenty feet from the ground, unclipping to let him abseil down. So I was breaking the new rules I had imposed on myself, yet without the awareness I usually cultivated through doing things my own way. The boots I had on were stiff soled (the only ones that really work for climbing ropes). Without feeling the surface of the branch coming through the sole I made a false move and slipped- and fell headfast fifteen feet to the ground. I broke the fall with my wrist, which took on a nasty ‘S’ curve look. Driving to the hospital with my pal doing the gears for me I vowed to never abandon my own sense of intuition about the safe way FOR ME to undertake any adventure.

I suppose what I am edging around is the best way you adopt for nibbling away at your comfort zone. Taking courses and going with friends both work but I think one must always try and find a way that suits you first. Safety procedures are no substitute for heightened awareness, which includes the awareness that you are tired, ill and prone to making foolish decisions under such conditions.


Breaking new ground in an outer sense

Most adventures break new ground in a geographical sense. Going someplace new, or going there in a novel way, or approaching from a new perspective. If you explore Oxford as T.E. Lawrence did, by kayaking through its sewers, you’ll get a different perspective than strolling down St. Giles.

I keep circling this subject in my homemade expedition posts, but we always end up butting up against the objection that the world is all explored. In a macro sense this may be true: aerial photos long ago revealed the earth’s surface geography, but in any other sense the world is an ever changing place where exploration is always a possibility. Places become isolated and forgotten, either because of politics or economics, then we return to them and explore them anew. People change, places change- bringing back news of this is exploration, and a guaranteed adventure. Colin Wilson, a writer I really enjoy reading, always puzzled me by his assertion that ‘travel bored me’. He boasted of spending an entire visit to Sweden holed up in a hotel reading science fiction. I know now that he was expecting too much of travel, that being in the hotel or the hotel coffee shop is sometimes all you need. The adventure is just being there, the slight edge of excitement on all you do. Seeing the conventional sights IS boring sometimes, unless you use them as an alibi to get out and about. My good friend Tarquin Hall taught me long ago that you can turn around as soon as you reach the tourist sight you’ve travelled to, no need for silly reverence or even a photo, however many hours you took. The journey there was the real meat.


Bandwidth and adventure

Modern industrial and large scale capitalism operates within a very narrow bandwidth. By this I mean, the kind of experiences it requires or recognises is very limited. It requires the ideal human to be a consumer of novelties, often ill, largely unsatisfied with life, scared, profligate but hard working, and above all a follower of trends and fashions.

I think that the thirst for adventure is partly driven by a desire to get beyond this narrow bandwidth. Adventure can test relationships in a way that not many aspects of normal life can. It can push you into places where you ‘see yourself’; reacting in a stilted or automatic way in a novel situation you realise you aren’t as cool as you thought. The most ‘normal’ people I know are those who have travelled and had various adventures- not necessarily dangerous ones. The people I have always thought as cleaving mostly closely to an ad writer’s stereotype of normality are those I see teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

We simply aren’t designed to live in prison, and by this I mean the prison of narrow bandwidth. Indigenous people tend to accept this. For them, life is so much more than a job and a family, from joy to resignation the mysteries of the universe are claimed as being their birthright, and not the province of professors and theologians. Adventure breaks new ground in that it beings us out of this narrow bandwidth. It may start with a simple desire to experience a thrill such as climbing or rafting, but the places you go to do these things come with spectacular and welcome extra baggage- the people and the surroundings of the wilderness. I was drawn at first to the gymnastic aspects of climbing, now I’m only really interested in the exploratory, going to places very rarely visited before.


Solo adventures

Doing something alone can be another way of breaking new ground. Audrey Sutherland, one of my favourite adventurers, favoured using at first, a cheap Tahiti blow up canoe for her solo journeys around Hawaii and Alaska. She realised that a blow-up boat is a lot easier to get back into after a solo spill than a kayak. And since she was alone it didn’t matter that she travelled slowly. And when you are alone you can rest and wait out bad weather conditions – groups are notoriously less patient with such things. Her boat could also carry far more gear than a kayak. By taking her time and a lot of food she could get places long considered too distant and dangerous by others. By going alone she found a way to travel that hadn’t been used before.

Solo travel such as rail or bus travel is more adventurous than travelling in a group (unless you travel with an outgoing type who keeps meeting new people along the way. Somerset Maugham always travelled with an extrovert friend who created adventures in this way.) Alone, but always with a book or kindle (this is THE secret of solo travel, making any restaurant or train a place of pleasure not pain) you are free to join up or leave with anyone you run into on your journey.

Solo travel such as sailing alone around the world without touching land or otherwise meeting anyone (the purity of this now a bit spoilt by satphones) is not for many. The adventure of such an intense self-reliance is the chance to become one with your environment; and also to show you have bigger balls than anyone who has to go with others. And it may just suit you- it may be a quirk of your comfort zone that being alone all day and every day really is no problem at all.


Risk and adventure

Breaking new ground involves risk.

What is risky to some is utterly safe to others. In the above section, leaving your comfort zone, we touched on the way that heightened awareness is the best protection you have- it has been serving humans for many millennia longer than safety rules and procedures. I have learnt the hard way, fracturing vertebrae my back in a climbing accident when I was 19. Anytime my emotions are engaged- anger, competitiveness, or when I am switched off- say when descending a mountain- that is when I NOW know I am most vulnerable.

Practising visualisation, being much more aware of emotional states, seeing how those states interfere with your own judgement. Relying on your inner voice- trusting it in simple things- easy route finding for example- and then getting to trust it more and more in dangerous situations; these are a few ways you can do things without getting hurt along the way. As the saying goes: a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, only a fool learns from his own mistakes. Or make that an average person, a fool, presumably never learning anything at all.




Ken Ilgunas on adventure

Nice guy and leading US writer and adventurer, Ken Ilgunas, author of the superb Walden on Wheels, (and with whom I went on an adventure down a tunnel in Scotland) was kind enough to send me his thoughts on adventure.

-Adventure evolves. What was once adventurous may – with repetition – become mundane. The professional skydiver who daily tumbles into the air is as much an adventurer as the secretary who daily reorders her filing cabinet. Inversely, the agoraphobic’s walk across the street could be just as intrepid as the astronaut’s first leap across a lonely planet.

-Adventure is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t matter what it means to other people; just what it means to you. What may seem like a sorry adventure to some (some simple road trip), may, for someone else, bring about a flurry of wild, pre-adventure ecstasies, perhaps as intensely as those felt in the breasts of explorers before their most daring expeditions.

-We know a journey will be a proper adventure when we not only feel frightened by it, but recognize its potential to spur personal growth. That which merely frightens us (i.e. bungee jumping, skydiving) is more a cheap thrill than an adventure. An adventure, or a true adventure, rather, also represents some chasm within us that must be bridged. It must confront the very beasts that haunt our dreams, block our paths, and muffle the voice of the wild man howling within all of us. It’s an opportunity for a psychic breakthrough. This adventure will not necessarily transform us into someone else; rather, it can show us who we’ve been all along.

-Adventure is the exploration of the unknown. The experienced hiker/climber/traveler may very well experience adventurous moments, but he is no adventurer. The naïf, rather, must relentlessly conjure courage and conquer fears. The climbing guide or common seafarer function as machines, reading the manual of routine that repetition has imprinted in their heads. The naïf explores his self as much as he does the land around him. It is he who, in bounding over unexplored terrain, reshapes the contours of his mind.

-The true adventurer is a paradox. He is self-centered, yet sacrificial. Living for others is eclipsed by his need to live for himself. Yet, his very life comes secondary to the fulfillment of his dream: his mind is so fixed on his prize that he is willing to forfeit his life to attain it. That’s because his dream is more precious than his life. Could it be that it is this hellbent resolve that has populated the distant islands of the Pacific, put men atop previously-unclimbed, cloud-covered peaks, and sent the European explorer sailing along an arc of an endless ocean? His self-centered dream could be everyone’s salvation.

-No matter how mapped the world becomes and how much wildness gets paved over, adventure will forever exist because we’ll always have the boundless and one-of-a-kind wildlands within ourselves to explore. -To some degree, naiveté, though a shortcoming in most any other situation, is a prerequisite to adventure. (Stupidity can be an outright asset.)

Walden on Wheels at Amazon here 


Liars get work

According to a new national survey in the UK, British citizens lie up to three times a guess is that the figure is more like three times a day, or even per hour in some situations. Facebook updates and job applications are where the most memorable lies take place it seems. My favourite factoid, though, is that unemployed people are more likely to be honest and tell the truth than those with jobs....


The Second Law of Adventure

The second law of adventure is:  the right kit can help create an adventure.

There is an early Simpsons episode where Bart, banned from seeing the new Itchy and Scratchy movie, tries to use his imagination instead. He imagines the characters alright but they stand there dumbly in a thought bubble with a questioning look on their faces. I sometimes think that is what it is like when you ‘ban’ yourself from using equipment in an attempt to get back to basics; sometimes you so starve your imagination nothing happens.

When I was a student I was interested in film making but did nothing about it. I could have borrowed a camera anytime but I never did. Then I used my grant to buy a Super 8 camera and started making films. Once I owned that camera I was ready to go. It taught me a simple lesson- kit can get you in the right zone. Naturally this is exploited by every manufacturer out there. The cumulative effect of all their advertising can be to paralyse you or to pervert every adventure into a shopping trip.

Kit can provide a uniform. If it is a uniform that gets you moving and doing things, then all well and good. But if it is a uniform you cannot afford, so you end up doing nothing then that is not so good.

The right piece of kit can open a window into a different world. A climbing rope. Crampons. A canoe. A tent. But then you can always use a tarp instead of a tent, or make a shelter of leaves instead of using a tarp. The urge to use less kit seems to promise even more adventure…


What about no kit at all?

There is something intoxicating about someone facing the wilderness with no kit at all. I have written about Bedouin who believe that the more tools a man carries the weaker he is- a real expert can make do with very little in the harsh environment of the desert. Survival experts test themselves by carrying a knife and a cooking pot and that’s it (sometimes, a la Rambo, it’s just a knife- and without the cute little button compass at the end…)

So the fantasy of no-kit is strong. And for a day hike it’s a good idea, if you are able or allowed to start a fire en route. An adventure without a fire or a brew is just not really quite as good in my view.

But try a multi-day hike without kit, as I did once, and be prepared to suffer. It was many years ago when I attempted to walk the benign Ridgeway of southern England armed with just a box of matches, a mess tin, a cycling poncho, food, and a lightweight sleeping bag. From the first hour it started raining. The cycling poncho worked well until the wind got up and blew rain underneath it. In retrospect I would tie a belt around the outside but then my brain was already a little sodden. By nightfall I had found a damp wood. Much creative foraging revealed some tinder trapped in still dry tree trunks. More fossicking and a lot of palaver with building a wooden rain cover, followed by splitting to get at dry wood and some carving and I had a little fire of curled fire sticks going. The mess tin bubbled with a welcome cup of tea- it had taken about an hour to prepare it. As all survival types know- it’s not the skills that count, it’s the time it takes to make those skills count that counts; and I had taken an awful long time. I then had to make some kind of shelter for the night, which was already upon me. The rain thrummed down as I artfully arranged the poncho- which would keep the water off my head and upper body but not my feet. Hmm, talk about optimism but I had simply not believed it would rain for so long. In the morning my feet were drenched and cold. I knew this because I had only slept about ten minutes all night (or so it seemed).

I skipped breakfast, drank a cup of cold water and headed off. The following night was a little dryer, but then the downpour began at 5am. Rain before 7, fine before 11 or so the adage goes. Not always…

And so I gave up. Left the ridgeway. Bought a meal in a pub and phoned my Dad to pick me up…

Too little kit can stymie a good adventure. So knowing this we often go to the other extreme…


The delusion of getting all the kit first

I see them on the internet, cramming the threads and forums with their endless chat about the kit they have and the kit they want. Do they ever use it? Or are they, like the Cairo bikers and off-roaders I used to know, keener on just gathering in the wilderness for a few hours to simply…examine each others kit?

If only I could have X then I would do Y is a simple equation for doing nothing, a persuasive opiate, a nice opportunity to peruse Amazon looking for bargains and upgrades. In fact, why buy now when the new upgrade will be out in a couple of months? I’ve gone years not getting a decent camera because the next upgrade promises to be so much better…

In the end you have to take the first step. You have to go out the front door and have your adventure. Almost any kit will do as long as you can keep warm and dry and can eat and drink. I speak as someone who has just spent two hours looking for the perfect drysuit for sea kayaking…when I know almost any suit will do. Which leads us to…


Get the BEST kit

I once read a book on backpacking by an author who claimed to hate all camping until they discovered modern backpacking gear. He revelled in super-lightweight tents, hi-capacity rucksacks, thermarest, jet-boil stove and toasty warm RAB quantum down bag. Not to mention the LED headlight, the Parimo jacket and trousers, the pump filter and all the other gadgets he loved. One may scoff- but it got him outside and doing things.

In an earlier post I wrote about how mountain bikes injected some much needed pizzazz into cycling. Now ultra lightweight gear makes backpacking fun again. You will have to pay for the privilege unless you become adept at making things.


Make kit or make do.

Pack rafts are nifty very durable very light blow up rafts. They are also very expensive. I’ve made a much cheaper alternative by removing the outer ring on a cheap sevylor seahawk and using a tarp or bivvy bag to protect the more fragile pvc outer. This cost about one twentieth the price of the Alpacka pack raft. For my purposes it’s just as good.

Instead of a sil-nylon tarp I’ve used an old army one. Instead of top end down bags I’ve used a silk liner inside an artificial down bag in temperatures well below zero. Making do isn’t so hard, especially when you have steeled yourself for a few days away whatever happens.


How to use kit to create an adventure

Kit can suggest an adventure. I wanted to travel in a birchbark canoe. I started reading about them. I found that the longest birchbark canoe journey in history had been the first crossing of Canada by Alexander Mackenzie in 1793. No one had replicated his exact journey so I decided to do it. I would never have even thought of this adventure without first getting interested in birchbark canoes. Plastic boats may suggest different possibilities. Sometimes a new development- like the ultra-portable pack raft- suggests a whole slew of new adventures.


The things you carry

Kit I always carry: my leatherman classic- the well named supertool version with saw. Despite breaking the lock on one side this tool has been used to fix cars, saw off moose antlers, extricate someone from a locked Macdonalds’ loo, file down nail heads into fish hooks and countless other tasks. Though I like a Victorinox hunter penknife for lightweight camping you can’t beat the supertool for sheer toughness and utility. No other leatherman or gerber comes close.

But does it inspire me to have the idea for a new adventure? Maybe not. For that I think you need a piece of transport related kit. After building the desert trolley all sorts of desert expeditions suggested themselves. Having an inflatable kayak meant solo sea canoeing was less risky than solo sea kayaking in a regular kayak. A mountain bike with a sideways extendable handlebar (making it easier to push without getting hit by the peddles) allowed the transport of loads more gear, suggesting longer trips, again in the desert.

I think kit is one of those things you probably want to have experienced before you give it up. You need to have used a tent, maybe, before you try a bivvy bag or sleep out under the stars. Kit is the way we transport ourselves psychologically out of our comfort zone. Think of those people who travel everywhere in a mobile home, taking their comfort zone with them like a tortoise or hermit crab. Gradually you get used to less. For years I only liked new kit. Now I always go to ebay first. There is nothing like getting a hardly used piece of kit for almost no money because of a wrong listing or because the owner didn’t know what they were selling. Some people go the other way, demanding more comfort, which is a little different from demanding more of a comfort zone. As Baden Powell was fond of remarking, ‘any fool can rough it’.


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