1. You lived in Nepal for three months, why Nepal?
Several reasons really. The main one I guess was because although I had good friends living in places like Australia & New Zealand, which were countries I’d visited a couple of times and knew well, I wanted to go somewhere different and try to test myself. It would have been very easy to go to another first world, English speaking country, but my lifestyle would have been very similar to what it is in London. That certainly was not the case in Kathmandu.
I had also spent quite a lot of time over there prior to moving, visiting for the first time at Christmas 2008, going again in April & October 2009 before eventually moving in April 2010 – so I knew a few people and had a few possible job prospects, although unfortunately none of those worked out.
2.Was the language barrier an issue?
At times certainly. I lived with a Nepali family and when I first arrived there were six of us in a two bedroom apartment, and only Nir, the man of the house, spoke any English at all. But you find a way around that. They had an 18-month-old boy who was great fun to be around and once I built up a rapport with him I think the rest of the family were a bit more comfortable to just get on with their lives and accept me as part of the furniture.
In the businesses though, most people spoke some English, so I was able to get by. Of course, there are not many street names or road maps for Kathmandu, so taxi rides across town were often quite entertaining when I was trying to meet up with people – I remember one episode when I first arrived trying to meet some friends for dinner and the 15-minute journey taking more than an hour. You try to work of landmarks, the crumbling wall on your left; or broken road sign near the temple, but communicating that can be a struggle! At one stage we were just parked up on the side of the main road in pitch black as the driver and I tried to communicate in sign language. It’s funny now – but at the time I was incredibly frustrated!
3. You organised a cricket match at Everest base camp (impressive!), tell me more about that?
The idea belonged to my friend Richard Kirtley. He was in Nepal in 2006 and comes from a cricket playing background (his cousin represented England a few times) and when he first came over the ridge and looked down at Gorak Shep (The Base Camp for Hillary & Tenzing in 1953, Base Camp now is actually another four hour trek away) he immediately noticed it was the right shape for a cricket pitch. The idea to set a new world record for the highest game of cricket grew from there. He was also caught up in the Maoist demonstrations that year and saw how tough life could be for Nepali’s so was keen to do something for the people out there.
What started as a few mates talking about something a bit random in the pub turned into this enormous event, we took 50 people from the UK, including two professional photographers, someone from a PR Company and a cameraman from ITN who sent news reports back on our progress via satellite every night! We made the front page of the Independent and most major news channels reported on the match itself. We also raised around £100k for four different charities and created a group of friends from almost nothing. It’s impossible to do the whole thing justice, the work on it started in November 2007 and the event took place in April 2009. It was done as the recession started and entirely in our free time. I’ve actually written a book on the event (trying to self publish at the moment, any advice on how to do that welcome!) because there were all sorts of things going on, getting permission from the Nepali government and having to deal with corrupt officials, trying to find sponsorship (we eventually ended up with Nokia & Qatar Airways) not to mention the actual logistics of taking a cricket pitch up to 5165 metres above sea level!
I could genuinely talk about it for days, it was a real passion project and ultimately set me on the path I am now. If you type “Cricket on Everest” into You Tube then you can see some of the reports – there’s also a 5-min showreel which I never get bored of watching!
4.You trek in places that are quite off the beaten track – Afghanistan, Pakistan. What is the appeal here?
I think just going places others haven’t been. The world is a huge place and as soon as someone mentions the word Afghanistan everyone immediately thinks of war and terrorism, but the fact is the country does have plenty to offer the tourist if you know the right areas to go to. I was up in the Wakhan Corridor which has a fascinating history in itself (have a read of “The Great Game” by Piers Hopkirk to understand the whole history of central Asia and why it is how it is today) and is a real treat for people who enjoy trekking.
The Wakhan is totally removed from the rest of Afghanistan, people laugh but I refer to it as their equivalent of Cornwall. It sticks off the end and the rest of the country pays little attention to it, and vice-versa. You won’t find any TV’s up there, maybe the odd radio, but the politics of Kabul and the south are not their problem. The people living there are hard as nails and even though I was there in summer there was still heavy snow up on the high passes, which often leads to people being stranded there for months on end. Getting an insight into a way of life like that is a precious thing and not something the average holiday maker experiences.
As for Pakistan, that place had a positively thriving tourist industry before the 9/11 attacks. It is an incredible place and one I will definitely go back to.
5.Explain your current job to me and how you got into it?
I have worked in the travel industry since 2004 but most of that was just as a standard travel agent. Through that I got a much better understanding of the geography of the world and started developing and interest in some of the less visited places. Most days the typical enquiry I would get would be: “I want to go somewhere hot” and after a while that started to grate! After The Everest Test I wanted to get into something different, hence the time spent in Nepal, but after I came back from that I decided that Adventure Travel was my passion and in my searches I stumbled across a company called Wild Frontiers (www.wildfrontiers.co.uk) .
The company was set up by a chap called Jonny Bealby back in 1998. He’s a fascinating bloke who took his motorbike all the way down the west coast of Africa in the mid-90s, passing through borders that virtually no people had ever crossed, and at the end of it decided to come back up the east coast. He wrote a book about it (Running with the Moon) and suddenly became a bit of a travel writer, doing another two books one about his journey through Pakistan and Afghanistan where he ended up living with a Pagan family for a while (For a Pagan Song), and the third then he rode horses all the way across the old Silk Road from Kashgar to the Caspian Sea (Silk Dreams, Troubled Road). The sort of trips Wild Frontiers run are all built around that ethos of adventurous places and the vast majority are designed by the guys in the office, based on our experiences, which makes them unique.
The funny thing is that everyone in the small office are independent travellers who never really did the group tours thing, but we recognise that not everyone can do that for reasons ranging from time and money to actually having the courage to go to some places alone. Every place we visit is done responsibly and we try to give people proper adventures. The Wakhan Corridor is somewhere we visit twice a year, once as a trekking holiday and once as a cultural trip for those who do not want to trek. This year we also ran a trip from Kisangani to Kinshasa on a boat all the way down the Congo River and next year we have a trip to the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. These all come under our “Wild Expedition” brand and sit alongside more normal trips to places like India, Cambodia and even Romania, but our staple are the out of the way places in Central Asia – all the ‘Stans along with Mongolia and places like Iran and Georgia.
It’s a very cool company to work for and I’m lucky to have had two big trips with them this year (The Wakhan Corridor and K2: Concordia trek). I’m not sure it’ll be like that every year!
6.Nepal is so different , cultural wise. Was it difficult to adapt and did you experience any homesickness?
Not really. I knew a reasonable amount about the country so was careful not to offend, but they are fairly liberal over there and like a laugh and a joke as much as anyone. As for homesickness, I guess there were lonely times but I’m used to being away from home as I was at boarding school from the age of eight. In the modern world today people are only the touch of a button away thanks to things like Skype and Facebook, so that helps combat homesickness.
7 Which do you prefer, travelling solo or in company? Why?
Hmmm, now that is a hard one. I was slightly spoilt by the Everest Test in that I was trekking with 50 of my very best friends so there was always someone nearby to talk to and keep you going. The next trek I did just a few months later was the exact opposite, up to Langtang in Nepal and I was alone with just a guide who spoke almost no English. The people you meet along the way are what colours any trip and I chatted to various other trekkers and heard some great stories, which I would not have done if I was with a big group of friends, but it’s rare that you ever see or hear from people like that again and so when you try to explain the experience you’ve had it can be quite hard. I’m sad in a way that I can’t sit and have a beer with any of my friends and talk about my trips this year openly because they weren’t there and most people get bored pretty quickly of looking at your photos and want to talk about their own lives, which is fair enough.
I’ve not really answered this question have I?! I think ultimately travelling with a companion is better for the journey itself because you have more fun, but you learn more about yourself when travelling solo, how you react to certain situations when there is nobody to guide you, who you make conversation with etc. And that is more rewarding, but given the choice I think I’d always want to have a friend along for the ride. Of course, not all good friends make good travelling companions, so it really has to be the right person.
8.You are on a similar mission to my own, finding that one sport. Does it matter if you never find it?
Not really. There are so many cool things out there to do that I just want to do as many of them as possible while I can. Life is too short to sit around watching other people do all the good stuff!
9.I read on your blog;”…One was to help re-write a travel companies website…but they were unable to pay much but I liked the guy and the company and said I would do it on a freelance basis.” I love when people do stuff like that. How important is this to you, the act of kindness over say material wealth?
It’s funny how your outlook and priorities change the moment you cross an international border. I would rarely do something like that back home, I have qualifications and should get paid for the work I do, but when on the road things are different. I am always happy to help someone out because often kindness is a form of currency. I was living with this guy and his family in Kathmandu and he point blank refused to accept any payment (which was just as well since I was basically broke at the time anyway!) so I thought right, what can I do for him instead? His company’s website (www.peacenepaltreks.com) was full of “Nepali English” so I spent about a month re-writing the whole thing. It took so long because they have load-shedding over there, which means they turn the power off for as much as 18 hours a day. There was a schedule for when it was supposed to be switched on/off but that was never stuck to. Man it was infuriating!
Random acts of kindness was something that struck me when I watched “The Long Way Round” a show that really inspired me. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman got all the way around the world on their motorbikes and yes they had a lot of money behind them etc, but when they would break down in the middle of nowhere, local people always seemed to just turn up and help out. Everyone needs a helping hand once in a while.
10.Are you still involved in cricket?
Not really. One of the job prospects I had in Nepal was to try and help build a new stadium over there, but the politics got so much in the way that it never got off the ground. The man behind the idea is still fighting for it now but it has been three years and the headway made is pretty minimal. I love the game of course, but really just from a spectators point of view, although I still play for my club, The Drovers, every summer. It was that club that was really the sounding board for the whole Everest Cricket idea and on another tour of our tours we played in a tournament on an ice rink in Riga. It was all very bizarre, but great fun.
11.Do you have a tendency to build your trips and expeditions up so much that they are often destined to disappoint? (I am just asking because I have a tendency to do this)
Expeditions are hard. There are often times when I’ve sat in my tent or teahouse, or even room at home while planning, and wondered what the hell I’m doing. Why am I putting myself through this? I guess I’ve been lucky in that I’ve loved all my trips, but I suppose my time in Nepal was ultimately a failure. I didn’t find the work I hoped for or achieve what I set out to achieve, and came home after three months when my visa ran out because I had not found the right kind of work that would sponsor me to stay. I went out there on a wing and a prayer really and was probably a bit naive. I think while planning you need to know what you want to achieve from whatever it is you’re doing, and even when you don’t reach that goal, as long as you learn something along the way then it was worth doing and you’ll be sure not to make the same mistake again. Not every trip will be a success, but my favourite quote of all time is from a speech by Roosevelt in Paris, 1912 which has been dubbed “The Man in the Arena”:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I don’t want to ever be disappointed by a trip I do because every time I visit somewhere new it is an experience and you never know where it might lead next. Everyone fails at something, but like the quote says, the greatest failure of all is not trying.
12.What is the main lesson you have learned from your travels?
To keep doing it.
13.Do you have any advice for me who is just starting out in this business?
A lot of people get quickly disheartened. Frankly, there’s next to fuck all money in adventure, so it’s hard to make a living from it. I made a sacrifice and left a job that was paying me well but I wasn’t enjoying, to take up one that paid peanuts but I loved. I also work with people who I have something in common with, rather than a random collection like I have in the past. I’ve also done crap jobs to pay for big trips, and always had to keep the end goal in sight while I was miserable at 6:30am cleaning the mud off some rich bloke’s golf shoes! (1999)
It’s also easy if you find yourself being offered a good job that pays well to take it and think, ‘I’ll come back to adventure travel’, but often once you step away and get a comfortable life it’s hard to go back again. So I’d just say stick with it. You’re pretty young right? Do one trip a year and by the time you’re 30 you’ll have an incredible list of things behind you. I really only got started when I was 25/26 on the adventure side of things but even now at 30 I’ve probably done more than most will in a lifetime. I’m pretty proud of that, even if most of my friends are now married with kids and mortgages!
14.What have you been up to since your return from Nepal and what is your next adventure?
Like I said above, the return from Nepal prompted me to find a career in adventure travel, so that I can work at something I love rather than have a mundane job and do what I love as a hobby. Yeah, the job has dull parts, not many don’t, but planning new trips or reading feedback after one I’ve put together goes well is very rewarding.
The next adventure is a tricky one. I’ve a friend living in Japan and I’ve booked to see him in February. I am not going to plan too much for that one, it is going to be more of a holiday but it is a country with a huge amount going for it away from the cities so I’m looking forward to seeing that. I’ve pencilled in the Lanka Challenge in 2013, to race a tuk tuk around Sri Lanka, but in terms of an individual project – I’m still waiting for that unique, original idea to just pop into my head – and when it does I’ll hopefully be in a position to run with it! I do still want to see more of the UK though, Knoydart in Scotland is supposed to be the most remote part of the UK, and I’d very much like to get up there for a long weekend at some point in 2012.
15.How importing do you think money is in aiding your dreams?
Urgh, well that’s the hardest question of the lot. There’s no hiding from the fact that these things cost money and unless you can gain the qualifications to lead trips, or perhaps volunteer on scientific expeditions, it’s pretty hard. Like I said, I get paid pretty little but am putting money away each month to pay for whatever adventure may come along next. That’s why these things take a lot of planning, but there are adventures closer to home, we don’t have to go to the other side of the world to find them. I’ve done things on tight budgets before and it often leads to tough times on a trip, but coming through them is pretty rewarding.
If I won the lottery tomorrow I would probably spend my life travelling the earth and writing about it, but in the meantime I have to keep earning a living and finding the appropriate adventure that fits my earnings. If it wasn’t for the job I do there is no way I could have gone to the Wakhan Corridor this year, or even K2 probably, so I am very lucky in that respect – but at the same time you make your own luck and the choices I’ve made in the last couple of years have led to those trips coming my way, so it makes me feel vindicated in a way.
16.You got to witness the Maoist demonstrations, how amazing was that?
Hmmm, I’m not sure if amazing is the word! It was quite frightening at times as people literally could not leave their houses or open their shops and getting across town was impossible. Nobody could make a living and did not really care much for the Maoist cause; they just wanted to go about their daily lives. Trucks were not able to get into the city carrying food from the farms outside and so tons went rotten. The villagers who came to Kathmandu were often given a couple of hundred rupees (a few pounds) in order to come and support the Maoists, but they had no real idea what they were supporting and were not looked after once they got here. Disease spread pretty quickly and many were left to make their own way back to these remote villages afterwards having been shipped down in trucks. It was all pretty uncomfortable but thankfully was a lot shorter than many people expected. That said, I’m not sure we’ve heard the last of it – although there are signs that progress is being made.
17.Living in Nepal, does it put life into perspective, or is it too easy to forget when you are back in the familiar?
It totally puts life into perspective, and it’s easy to forget when you are back in the familiar. Living in a city like London it is all too easy to get swallowed up by the daily routine so I do have to constantly remind myself of what I experienced living in Nepal. In fact I dropped Nir an email just last week as I was aware Id not been in touch for a few months and felt bad about that. I try to send as much business his way as I can, because he’s a great guy who is honest and hard working, but his business is a small, family run thing so he’ll never be able to compete with the bigger guys. Yet that’s not what he wants, he just wants enough to be able to feed his family and educate his kid, it’s not much to ask really. I certainly came back with a newfound appreciation for my parents and the life they’ve worked hard to give me, especially as I’m one of five kids!
18.When you travel to a different country, is it difficult to stay out of the politics?
Staying out of the politics is easy, but ignoring it is impossible. I’m not a political person and care little for politics in the UK, but I became fascinated with the history of Nepal when I was there – an entire Royal family was massacred in 2001 at a palace dinner, the King was removed from power in 2008 and it has been a bit of a disaster ever since. It’s just really interesting.
It has been the same with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan is such a new country, barely 60 years old, and after what they went through in 1947 when they were shipped out of India and thousands lost their lives, it’s hardly surprising there are extremists there. This is all stuff I’m only starting to learn about now having just visited. Afghanistan as well, that place is so incredibly complicated it would take a lifetime to be able to really get to grips with it all, but I do find it fascinating and there’s no doubt that the British have played their part in making it what it is today, but it was the Russian invasion of 1979 that really destroyed the country, it was actually doing pretty well up until then. A lot of this stuff is forgotten/ignored or not known by the modern world and so people just think of these countries as the stereotype. My favourite memory of my time in Pakistan was walking around the town of Skardu, right at the start of the trip, and a local shop owner seeing us go passed came rushing out, not to drag us into his shop, but to thank us for coming to his country. He was over the moon, jumping up and down shouting “thank you, thank you for coming to Pakistan, we are so glad to have you here” – it was not what I had expected.
19.From your experience, do the places you go to match the stereotype presented in the media back home?
Absolutely, 100% not. Hopefully you’ve picked that up from all of what I’ve said above. That said, I’m not totally naive and understand that stereotypes are formed for a reason. Certain places are incredibly dangerous and need to be avoided, but not necessarily entire countries. Afghanistan is a big place and it’s not all bad news. People need to be sensible and do the required planning and research if they want to visit sensitive areas, but I believe that people are generally good, and they just want to get by. It’s a small percentage that cause the problems and I genuinely believe that every country on earth has something to offer.
20.Do you love it, your life I mean?
Yeah, I love it. Although I am always looking to make it better and am certainly not fully satisfied yet! Being away all the time makes it difficult to have relationships etc, so when all your friends are getting married and having kids you do wonder if perhaps you’re missing something – but then the majority of them are jealous of what I’m doing/have done – so that tells its own story!