Self-confessed “lazy” adventurer Alastair Humphreys talks about boredom, arguing over spoonfuls of jam and why he’s the opposite to Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Words: Damian Hall Pictures: Dennis Danfung
Professional adventurer Alastair Humphreys has spent four years cycling around the world, walked 1,000 miles across the Empty Quarter desert, 600 miles across India, rowed the Atlantic and completed the Marathon des Sables (breaking a foot).
He was named as one of National Geographic Adventurers of the Year 2012 for his microadventures concept, promoting accessible adventures, such as wild camping and walking around the M25.
He’s also a motivational speaker and author of adventure and children’s books.
Damian Hall: Hello Alastair. What’s your definition of adventure?
Alastair Humphreys: It’s such a broad word. You have Ranulph Fiennes on one side doing these really extreme things, all the way to Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Wood – two middle-aged guys strolling through the woods for a while. Adventure fits in that whole realm and I enjoy bouncing backwards and forwards along that line. Adventure for me is doing activities and challenges that are new, stuff that’s difficult, that I get curious about.
I get very bored when I’m familiar with things. I find routine and normal life boring. I’m very excited about being a beginner, so doing stuff I’m rubbish at, and having to learn excites me a lot more than trying to get the last one percent out of something I already do.
DH: Can you recall your first adventure?
AH: The pivotal time in my life was when I finished A-levels. Instead of going to university, I went to South Africa for a year and taught English in a little village school. That really opened my eyes to the world and made me want to go and see lots of different places, places very different to those I’d grown up in. When I got home I went to university and joined the Territorial Army.
That got me excited about physical challenges. I was always quite rubbish at team sports, but I learnt that up in the hills anyone can push themselves hard and be measured against the wildness. In the TA one time the Regimental Sergeant Major came to chat to us. He was ex-Special Forces and he terrified me, but I had huge respect for him. He asked us all about our plans after uni and everyone else spoke of joining the Army or jobs in the City. I had no idea what to say.
But my mouth opened and said, “I’m going to be an adventurer.” My pals burst out laughing. But the RSM said: “That’s the best f*&*$£g answer I’ve heard all day”.
When you’re saying things out loud, articulating them, things start to become real. I had restless angst and general laziness and I didn’t want to get a proper job like everyone else.
DH: You cycled round the world for four years. What did you learn from the trip?
AH: It changed my focus in life. It made me massively more selfconfident and more ambitious to make the most of my opportunities and potential, and made me less scared of taking on new difficult things. It also made me realise how friendly and safe the world is.
It wasn’t a daunting, dangerous experience. It was a positive, happy, giant world-community experience. Of course I felt out of my depth and in danger at times, but if you spent four years cycling around London you would have some frightening experiences. But an adventure almost needs that sort of thing, whether you’re scared or exhausted, the struggle side of things is really important.
But most days were just happy and fun, if a little bit tiring, because I had to cycle 46,000 miles.
DH: Have you ever had what some people tend to call a “proper” job?
AH: I was a teacher for a year. I did the Marathon des Sables and came back on crutches, with a broken foot. I thought the kids would think I was amazingly heroic, but they all thought I was an idiot. I really enjoyed teaching, but I felt it was a career I could do perhaps later in life.
I hadn’t explored the adventure side of things enough yet. I was writing magazine stories, doing talks, planning my next expedition. I had some sort of momentum. So I decided to commit, to turn adventure from being my hobby and passion, into being my job.
DH: After quitting teaching you walked 600 miles across India…
AH: One thing that never seems to go away is that walking a long way with a big pack on really, really hurts. That was in my more masochistic era of life. I wanted to prove things to myself. I spent five years trying to plan a South Pole expedition, chasing £1 million of sponsorship through the financial crisis.
I had to withdraw from the trip, for boring family reasons, and went back to doing stuff off my own back. If I do it all myself, I’m the master of my fate. So I walked across the Empty Quarter desert with a friend, pulling a home-made cart with 300kgs of food and water.
DH: Next you rowed across the Atlantic Ocean for 45 days. It must have become monotonous…
AH: There were four of us and we rowed in twos: two hours on, two hours off, two hours on, two hours off. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. You do 12 hours of rowing each day and never have more than 90 minutes of sleep.
The routine is brutal and grinding. On the one hand it’s massively boring. But you start to really observe details in the sea, how it looks in different weathers or different times of day. Things like seeing fish are real moments of excitement. And you spend a lot of time nattering. It felt like a lot more of a human expedition.
DH: It must have been easy to get on each others’ nerves?
AH: Inevitably, if you spend a lot of time with anyone and you haven’t had enough sleep, you start being a little bit tetchy, saying things in the heat of the moment. You have huge arguments about who’s had the biggest spoonful of jam, but that’s about the limit of it. The knowledge that your life depends on them and vice versa helps you be calm and rational.
You are hungry and scared and bored and homesick, therefore the others are likely to be too. Empathy and kindness are more important in an expedition partner than being able to tie a bowline [knot] in the dark and being really tough. Those sorts of things you can learn.
DH: Why do you think some people are not drawn to adventure?
AH: The sheer numbers who go and see, say, the Grand Canyon, suggests people do have a connection with wilderness and nature. And the shear number of people who do things like the Great North Run suggests there’s an appetite for physical challenges too. Adventure is the perfect combination of the two. I think people think it’s too difficult; it’s for elite athletes or rich, middle-class men.
I’ve been trying to make adventure more accessible, to make people realise they don’t need to be an expert or own a £500 Gore-Tex jacket to climb up a hill. Once they do it once, the next time is so much easier. A lot of people have never had the opportunity to try it.
DH: David Hempleman-Adams says the best bit of an adventure is the planning stage. What’s your favourite part?
AH: I entirely agree with him. I love planning trips, tootling about on the internet looking for ideas, buying maps and sticking them up on walls, meeting your friends and getting excited about the trip. I love all that.
The day dawns and if it’s a good adventure it’s going to be difficult, so it’s a bit scary and daunting, and the actual trip itself is usually quite miserable. The moment I get to the end of the journey I almost always feel a lot of anticlimax. I’ve done it. The appeal is trying to do things I might not be able to do. So once I’ve done it, it loses a lot of interest for me. You get the blues and you fix that by coming up with a new plan. And so it continues…
DH: How do you make a living from being an adventurer?
AH: I do it by living incredibly cheaply. I started doing talks at schools, which led to corporate talks, which has led to income. And huge amounts of self-promotion, which is quite distasteful to some and isn’t something I particularly love. But the only way to earn money is if people know about you.
So you try to build your brand which is a horrible phrase and that comes about by doing interesting stuff, sharing it in an interesting way and repeating that for several years and hopefully at some point you’ll earn enough for it to be sustainable.
I make my money primarily from speaking about adventures. I’ve written nine books, but I’m a long, long way from making a living from them. What I do is so much easier than 99.99 percent of people in Britain are doing all the time. There’s definitely a large bit of laziness in there.
DH: What sort of responses do you get when you tell people you’re an adventurer?
AH: Very different responses. I try not to talk about it initially with new people, but if it does come up a lot of people are sort of envious they say, “Wow, that’s amazing.”
The responses that annoy me though are: “Oh you must be really rich to be able to do that.” Or, “You’re really lucky to do that”. Or, “I can’t do that”.
It’s the decisions I’ve made and worked towards that have made it happen for me.
Sometimes I get: “When are you going to get a proper job and start paying your taxes” and that really annoys me, because I work hard and I pay my taxes. But I also feel very happy that what I’m doing is something I really love.
Most people wouldn’t want to be an adventurer. But I think it’s really important that people try and find something that they enjoy doing. I feel lucky that I get up in the morning and I love going to work, wherever that might be that day.
DH: Do you think too many people are frightened to fail?
AH: I ummed and ahhed about cycling around the world for a long time. Eventually what I realised was that I wasn’t scared about cycling thousands of miles, or crossing Africa, I was scared of failing… coming home and people saying “Ha ha, you failed”.
But what I know now is that a lot of those people who might tease or mock me are slightly jealous and would love to be doing their own thing as well.
But it’s better to try it and fail than to not try it at all. I do talks to high-end businessmen, people who on the surface are far more powerful, rich and successful than I will ever be. But when we get talking, they’re usually quite jealous of me living in a tent and eating banana sandwiches.
DH: Is fellow adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes an inspiration to you?
AH: He’s a previous generation adventurer who’s built his career by being tougher than all the rest of us, being properly hard and aloof.
I’ve gone for the opposite approach, trying to be much more honest and human and open about difficulties and how I find things. I’m a big fan of Ranulph Fiennes, but when people ask him why he does adventures his answer is always “To pay the bills”. I find that infuriating.