Click here to listen to Matt Copper's interview with Maghnus and David on Today FM yesterday. (Skip to 41 mins in on part 2 of Wednesdays show.)
In the context of a lifetime the possibilities on this planet are infinite. However lofty such a statement may appear it is without any real profundity. It seems to me self-evident that regardless of the path on which we travel these possibilities are truly boundless and infinite in the sense that even the appreciation of the scantiest few is the work of a lifetime. The limit to what can be experienced is a constraint of our own creation, our own limited imagination. Perhaps it is the curse of adventure but once you have started down this path the vastness of potential experience, often desired experience, becomes obviated in a way that brings to mind that oft repeated truism; knowledge is often knowing less and less about more and more. So I sit nearing the end of this particular possibility knowing so much less about so much more. Rather than detracting a single possibility from the bottomless well we will have toiled merely to further excavate our appreciation, deepening only our own awareness of what we might know. What we might do.
The purpose of this amateur fumbling with philosophy is an attempt to articulate for myself the value and worth of what we have done. In finishing this expedition we will have conquered nothing, exhausted not a single possibility. The pounded tarmac of Turkey, Iran, India and Nepal will be met by many more bicycle tyres. The Tibetan Plateau is no more accessible now than before we ran across it, nor less. The waters of the Yangtze will keep on making their journey from Himalayan glaciers to the Pacific shore long after they have dried from our clothes. The expedition’s beginning and end were and are of our choosing, it’s start and finish lines exist only in our minds. The mountains, rivers, oceans, and deserts of this planet care not a jot for our conquests, descents, ascents and crossings. They are resolute and unmoved by our travails, changing at their own imperceptible pace and on their own terms as they have always done. The possibilities on this planet are indeed endless but as far as our host is concerned, inconsequential. What then of adventure? What then of our adventure?
As it so often does the true question you are asking yourself suddenly seems blatant; why? It cannot be avoided. Deriding those who ask it as incapable of apprehension can quell your own uncertainty for a time, their incomprehension masking your own. But only for a time. Enjoyment and fulfillment in the act are not dependent on an answer and even motivation can be summoned without an understanding. The question, however, remains. It’s answer neither vital nor urgent, yet quietly persistent. And so, three years after first asking myself the question at a similar stage of an expedition I find myself again asking why? Then, as now, I cannot see past six simple words I heard somewhere on the roads, lanes and tracks of Africa, the Middle East and Europe; Not things, but men and women. The value and worth of this journey if any exist, exist only because of people. They exist in the help of friends and family who saw some themselves or valued us enough to back our judgement. They are substantiated by the truly worthwhile and priceless works of a charity who’s creed belies the term. They reside in mothers who encouraged us to continue when every shred of their being wanted us to stop. They can be seen in fathers who made a mockery of the term ‘unsupported’ expedition. Hopefully some can be seen in the eyes of children who saw us passing and maybe saw a few new possibilities themselves. More still lies in the deeds of countless strangers who paused to share a wave or a roof. Why do I do this? Because of the people.
What a difference a couple of months make. This time two months ago I was raft-less, in need of new equipment and desperately trying to convince Chinese Immigration to give me a new visa on a temporary passport. I write now from Chongqing nearly 2000 km further down the river and at the end of the whitewater. In the meantime we have had some of the most difficult, exhilarating, terrifying and memorable moments we have ever experienced. Trying to capture those experiences in their totality is difficult and i fear may not accurately reflect how I felt on a daily basis. Thus I again look to my diary to better articulate my true feelings at the time;
The rapids keep coming. Every corner seems to bring something substantial and there appears to be no end in sight. Four long messy sections greeted us in the first two hours on the water. On the last of which I took a stupid swim entirely because I switched off. Our skill level, or lack thereof, dictates that we be “on it” constantly. The relentless spells of total focus numb the mind after a time and I got flipped before I even knew what was happening.
A couple of km later we arrived at a very large rapid. We scouted it and reckoned that although the swim would be unpleasant there was time enough to self rescue before the next bend. Unlike earlier we were both switched on. Despite this the waves proved two much for us and my raft was flipped back on itself and I was again swimming. The swell sucked me under a few times before I eventually righted the raft and clambered back in just before being swept around the next bend. Bloody horrible feeling being sucked under.
The current condition of the river is pushing us further and further toward what we cannot handle. It is also demanding more and more of us mentally just to get through the day. The river is often referred to as ‘The Dragon’s Back’ and at the moment we are barely clinging to the reigns. The day finished with three back to back rapids. Burnsy scouted ahead and reported that they were just about manageable and that the carrot at the end of a watery stick was a possible campsite beneath a waterfall.
The first of the rapids we both passed through with not a small amount of difficulty. The second, though, was one which I will not soon forget. Edging in on the lip trying to avoid a very messy left hand side I was hit from the right by three or four large waves pushing me directly into the worst of the mess on the left. Waves, bubbling aerated water and whirlpools of huge proportions seemed to crash and form all around me. I forgot all thoughts of lines and direction as I spun wildly, sticking my paddle into the swirling mass simply to stay upright. Just as i resigned myself to a nasty swim I was spat out the right way up. No time to reflect we hit the last of the three and with manic excitement we both squeezed through before eddying out at the base of the waterfall. In hundreds of nights camping we have never experienced a more special site. Water hazed from 100 metres above bouncing off glistening rock before plunging into a shallow pool as if rain.
It has truly been a testing stage, filled with adventure, genuine danger and at times great fun. The mental fatigue we both currently feel is testament to the size of the task it has been. Although we are both reticent to say it aloud we feel we are now within touching distance of completing what we set out to do so many months ago. It is far from over with over 2000 km of hard slog ahead but in making such a sustained push at a time when such a push was most difficult we have taken an important step. I believe, or rather hope, that when we look back at the river in its entirety those few weeks will be the ones that convinced the dragon to permit us passage.