I have two thoughts as to how best start this blog; “Its wonderfully difficult....” or “It’s horribly difficult...” Actually, the syntax is largely irrelevant the way I’m feeling, it’s just difficult. The cycling I mean. The juggling act which involved fitting five protracted visa applications into two months left us with only fourteen days to cross Turkey and enter Iran before the visa period expired. The result has been near continuous cycling.
On Monday and Tuesday we climbed incessantly for hours and both nights slept below freezing. Come Wednesday afternoon I was frantically searching a town for suncream as temperatures soared above 30 degrees Celsius. Today we cycled surrounded by a landscape hidden completely by snow in t-shirts and shorts desperately trying to stay cool.
We now have four days remaining with which to cycle the remaining 560 km climbing over 2000 mtrs in the process. Turkey has been nothing if not unpredictable. The people have been magnificent, the climate a contradiction and the cycling a constant challenge. Confronted with such extremes and save for sitting on our bikes and peddling most things are out of our hands, however, the one thing we have been able to control is our diet. And control it we have;
- 1 days cycling 8-10 hours.
- 1 days eating;
- Half-pan bread
- 4 tablespoons Turkish nutella
- 100g cheese
- 150g Salami
- 250g pasta
- 1.5 - 2 ltrs coke (or equivalent)
- 1 packet biscuits
- 250 g Turkish cake
- 200g beans
- 4 slices brown bread
- 4 tablespoons mayonnaise
Gotta go pitch a tent.
Guest Blog by John Hogan
Trying to keep up with a pair of friends who cycled the length of Africa on a whim only to turn around and cycle it a second time because they didn’t fancy flying home is a daunting task. It’s made all the more intimidating when the tagging along is being done on a week when said pair are doing an intense course of white-water kayaking as preparation for their next expedition on China’s occasionally ferocious Yangtze.
Thankfully I consider the same two amongst my closest friends and while Maghnus had always been encouraging, telling me that I’d be well able for the rigours that awaited on the rivers of the Scottish Highlands, Burnsy went the extra mile on the first day to make me feel comfortable.
A few hours after arriving at Glasgow Airport and ascending a few hours into the Highlands, we became acquainted with our drysuits. The name does all the explaining but suffice it to say the outfit is designed to keep one dry and relatively warm underneath by maintaining a watertight seal at each potential point of entry for the painfully cold water.
Prior to actually tackling any white water rapids in a kayak, our instructor for the week, über-kayaker Chris Eastabrook, decided it would be best for us to jump into a few rapids sans kayak. After tossing about like ragdolls for a while, the three of us convened at the side of the river.
“Are you two taking on much water?” enquired Burnsy of Maghnus and I.
We both looked at each other and then back at Burnsy, as if to say; “They’re called drysuits David,” but before we could say anything, Chris shouted from across the river; “Burnsy, your suits open at the back mate.”
The greatest danger of the week thus far occurred at that point as both Maghnus and I struggled to keep our feet while in convulsions of laughter at poor Burnsy. As signified by his purple cheeks and chattering jaws, he had indeed smuggled quite a portion of the river in through the zipper at his back, turning it from a drysuit into a wet-and-cold-as-fuck-suit.
I knew that an adventurer as well-travelled and experienced as Burnsy couldn’t have genuinely made this error and surmised that he had intentionally flooded his outfit just to calm some of my nerves and show that he and Maghnus were also mere mortals. What a guy.
Having spent St Patrick’s Day in London, our trio of adventurers (well, duo of adventurers and a tagalong virgin) were a little worse for wear when Chris collected us at Glasgow Airport after a 9am flight on March 18th. Our stomachs and minds were more than a little tender so you can imagine our delight at spending the next three hours on roads that were so bendy, one could be forgiven for thinking they were constructed as part of a large-scale practical joke.
Thankfully our stomachs held firm and after rolling about in the river for a few hours (some more comfortably than others) we set up our base for the first night in a camping spot with no other campers.
It was here that Chris told me that for their own benefit, he would be putting the lads through the ringer over the next few days, to ensure that they were as prepared as possible for what awaited them in China.
“You don’t have to do as much as them if you don’t want to and there will be parts of the rivers that I’m going to ask you to walk around for safety’s sake,” he said in an apologetic tone. I did my best impression of someone who was quite disappointed at having to opt out of life-threatening danger. His consoling pat on the shoulder suggested that he might have even bought it.
Although afraid of being a hindrance and unnecessary dead weight on this trip, I was able to make a real contribution on our second day in the water by, well, being dead weight.
Chris wanted to teach the lads some basic lifesaving skills should either of them run into trouble while in the water. For this exercise they needed someone to act as a lifeless corpse. Step up Hoge.
Years experience at mimicking a couch-ridden corpse in the evenings and most weekends meant that nobody was better prepared for this role than I. If there were an Oscar for floating lifelessly down a river, Yours Truly would be drafting an acceptance speech after my performance that day.
True to his word, Chris put the guys through as many scenarios as possible as the week went on and was impressed with the adaptability of their inflatable pack rafts to the rapids and falls of the many rivers we kayaked over the five days. Occasionally we would also come across fellow kayakers who would inspect the pack rafts with wonder. More often than not they would also inspect my kayaking skills with a mix of pity and just a hint of disgust.
On a few occasions, upon reaching the end of our stretch in the water, Maghnus and Burnsy would run back – while still wearing the heavy drysuits - to where we had parked the car as part of their training for the second stage of Silk Roads to Shanhai. While they ran, I did the responsible thing and remained with the kayaks. We may have been in some of the most remote parts of the Scottish Highlands but one never knows when kayak bandits might show up.
To allow the lads go over their route along the Yangtze in the evening time, we stayed in a hostel in Fort William for a few nights. Unsurprisingly for the time of year, most of the rooms were vacant with a group of young German students the only other guests. One night Maghnus convinced us all to sit down and watch Man on Fire on the hostel’s one small TV, with promises that watching the movie would be a life-changing experience. Apparently the magic of Denzel Washington dishing out liberal helpings of revenge is lost on Germans. Maghnus was a little disgusted that they didn’t even have the respect to remain reverently silent throughout the scene where he inserts a C4 explosive device into a corrupt cop’s rectum. I guess some forms of cinematic beauty really are lost in translation.
The white water rapids dished out their own style of revenge on myself over the next few days for showing the temerity to attempt to ride them, but the boys started to show real confidence as they got used to the feel of their recently-acquired rafts. Burnsy also got used to the feel of boulders against his arse as he had forgotten to bring the seat for his boat. Luckily for him though, he maintained that both cheeks were numb by about the third day.
The highlight of the week for all of us was on day five when we took to the triple falls on the River Etive. As the name would suggest, it’s three small waterfalls, one after the other, that we each did circuits of countless times. Chris described this location as where we would take a break from the lessons and just have a lot of fun. Look up ‘Triple Falls on the River Etive’ on You Tube and you’ll see what he meant. Maghnus probably summed it up best when he said that it was like being at an incredible amusement park as a child but you don’t have to worry about your parents at any moment breaking the devastating news that it’s time to go home. With no such parental supervision, we tackled the triple falls to our heart’s content until we were too tired to carry our kayaks back to the start point. Too tired to move any further at all in fact, as evidenced by our setting up camp on the riverside that night.
Although our parents hadn’t shown up to tell us it was time to get off the River Etive on the Thursday evening, inevitably the party had to end and on Friday we had to descend from the Highlands to catch our flights home from Glasgow. Not before stopping off in a chipper described by Chris as ‘the nicest in Scotland’, a boast with which I couldn’t disagree after gobbling down their lovely chips and some battered haggis.
Special thanks has to go to Chris Eastabrook for the guidance and advice he provided to the lads and myself all week. He also showed the patience of a saint with the newbie, never once complaining about having to retrieve my paddle, my kayak and sometimes me on the many occasions when I toppled over and baled out during the course of the week. Maghnus and Burnsy might give off an air of flightiness about the task that lies ahead of them but acquiring this guy’s services shows how seriously they are taking it. He is undoubtedly one of the main reasons why they will return home safely in nine months time.
As we arrived back home, I began preparations to return to the office on Monday, having experienced a taste of life as an adventurer. My two companions, however, had only a few last-minute arrangements to handle before they turned around again to begin the adventure proper. Five days on the white water in Scotland no doubt helped them prepare for what lies ahead. From a purely selfish point of view though, I was glad to spend a few memorable days with my friends before they departed, while also getting the slightest of glimpses into what keeps them heading back into the unknown for more.
What makes a good campsite? Solitude? Security? Access to water? Large rock to sit on/lean? What does a good campsite mean to the traveller? To us it meant nearly 200 extra kilometres on dirt track roads, it meant cycling through charred darkness with only l.e.d. headlamps to light the dirt, and it meant a room or at least a wall between us and a true campsite. As the world rolled from the sun’s glare we scoured the roadside for that elusive site. As night followed dusk, day after day, Ethiopia seemed devoid of ‘good campsites’. Rather than settling for what we perceived to be inadequate spots, we cycled endlessly and at times dangerously toward settlements where we could pay for what the countryside could not provide. Three months and 8,000km later I crawled into a sleeping bag wedged in a storm drain with a 2 and a half foot diameter under a road at the apex of the highest mountain pass in South Africa and slept as if in the bed i grew up in. What changed in the intervening months? We had.
To a large extent the place in which you find yourself has little bearing on one’s ability to find a ‘campsite’. The prevailing factor is not the existence of a site but our ability to see a site. Humour me for a moment. Imagine yourself plodding along a road, backpack straining on your shoulders, boots nagging at your swollen heels and the sun flirting with the western horizon. Now imagine glancing up from the road and in front of you lies the perfect campsite. What do you see in your mind’s eye? Perhaps i am being presumptuous, but i would wager that the picture looks something like this; A relatively secluded spot, but by no means vulnerable. Lush grass growing from forgiving yet dry soil and a stream flowing faster than a trickle nearby. A tree or two delineate the site and provide as yet unnecessary shelter. The road is quiet and the only sign of life is the chatter of curious birds.
Details may vary but for those of us who were not brought up on the road this postcard of the outdoors represents are only insight into what we should be looking for. Thus when we are confronted with tired legs and an aching back on roads and trails, near and far, we find ourselves searching for this idyllic spot. Unsurprisingly, as we learned to our cost, such a spot is hard to find. The reason for this is no great mystery. The worlds greatest campsites have already been taken, we call them cities. The very good ones are occupied too, we call these towns. The good ones? You see where I’m going. Humans seek what they perceive to be the most idyllic campsite they can find. When we do we stay put. We always have. We look for the obvious spot and if were not sure where that is we’ll follow the herd.
Thus, in an evermore populated planet the camper must learn to see what the masses cannot. Like all skills worthy of the name this ability can only be attained through failure. I now immediately discount scorched earth when considering a site after spending a night ‘cooking’ on its’ released heat. Nor will I pitch a tent in a hollow having woken in a bath. Lessons such as these and countless others endow upon the camper a hard earned knowledge. The ideal campsites are mostly taken so stop looking for the characterisitcs of a great spot, instead start recognising the terrible ones. A campsite’s value is not determined by what is has, but rather by what it does not have.
“Be mindful of the link between present action and desired future outcome. Ask yourself: if I repeat today’s actions 365 times, will I be where I want to be in a year?”
There are occasions, usually as I step into a lift on a Monday morning that I contemplate a dramatic exit from this current office lifestyle. I think of my bike itching for action in the parking lot two floors below and picture myself hurriedly packing a few essentials into my now moth eaten panniers and cycling off towards the sunset.
Such dreams are only that and after a cup of tea and a bite to eat I'm happier to swap the dramatics for practicalities and focus on the more realistic timelines needed to bring this dream to fruition.
On this particular day that may only mean sending a couple of emails at lunch or watching a ten minute web design clip in the evening, but once your goals are in place and you can visualise your daily, weekly and monthly targets those anxious moments are replaced with constructive thoughts and when you do dream you know its coming closer to reality.
“There are more things to alarm us than to harm us, and we suffer more often in apprehension than reality.”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“Next time we’ll just put it all on red or black!” The logic was flawless. We had spent €4000 on over 2000 roses with a prospect of making €8000. The house holds a 5.26% edge on a roulette wheel giving the gambler a 47.37% chance of doubling up. It was past ten in the evening two days before Valentines Day. We were roughly two thirds of the way through 180 bouquets after twelve hours work and with less than half of the same spoken for. If a bookmaker had happened upon our temporary florist and opened a book what odds would he have offered on us being successful? Would he offer more than 47%?
Launching an expedition invariably brings a raft (no pun intended) of questions concerning fear or trepidation. Predictably the more outrageous the perception of the expedition in another’s eyes the more pressing the questions become. The reality is that fear is rarely experienced until directly confronted by something to be fearful of. However, any such anxiety is dwarfed by the sheer terror experienced when embarking upon a fundraiser. Whether booking a venue for a ball, ordering a van full of roses or committing to any other idea there is ultimately a point where you assess the odds and gamble. Like any attempted accumulation some speculation is demanded. But speculation in such instances is necessarily proffered by the charity and thus the apprehension arises. In a strange circularity, though, this apprehension is ultimately the greatest motivator. Fear of failure brings an urgency that potential success can rarely match.
In January Sand2Snow Adventures launched two fundraisers; The Sand2Snow Adventures Charity Ball and Roses for Self Help Africa. Both were undoubtedly gambles. Both were huge successes. 420 friends, old and new packed out the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin on Friday 17th Feb last to help launch the new expedition and more importantly to support Self Help. Three days before, on Valentine’s day, 180 bouquets of a dozen roses were sold and delivered throughout Dublin organized and executed by a group of friends that sensed the fear and shouldered it. Success hinges on perspiration over inspiration. But the perspiration is best driven by apprehension.
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” C.S. Lewis
Let’s be absolutely clear, adventuring is one of the most selfish professions one can choose. For a moment disregard the expeditions themselves. The preparation itself is so often fraught with hurdles and pitfalls as to demand absolute persistence. Such persistence must necessarily, at times, resemble obsession. Alas the thing about such a trait is that it is those who must live with the obsessed that suffer more than the obsessed themselves.
Successful preparation demands that the persistence is not left at the office. Every meal can be interrupted by a call concerning visa applications. Breaks away must be planned around training. Commitments of any sort must acknowledge the volatility of preparation. Invariably the expedition must come first, and invariably, that dictates that family and friends come second.
Such selfishness pales when set against the strains put on those closest to the adventurer once the expedition proper begins. It is said with casual regularity how ‘tough’ it must be to battle against the elements or how ‘admirable’ it is to seek and find adventure. I contend that such characteristics and platitudes are far more inherent and deserved by those who cannot battle or search.
There is no bravery to be admired in pushing your body toward a certain goal if you have chosen that goal, this is simply survival. The courage exists in those who are powerless to control a situation and must live with a helplessness that they have not chosen for themselves. The fear and anxiety have been forced upon them. The adventurer can affect change in a given situation, those closest to him cannot, and it is he who has cast both in their respective roles. He chooses a life of trepidation for himself and thus imposes it upon those he cares about, yet retains autonomy only for himself.
How then does one react when friends and family alike see past this selfishness and help with such abundant selflessness? How can you reveal the depths of gratitude you feel or shake the sense of not deserving their work? I am learning that you cannot. Reliance on others is a defining characteristic of this profession. One must simply hope that the burden carried by others can someday be shared. It is a tired and worn phrase, hijacked time and again by those who cannot express to those upon whom they truly rely just what that reliance entails; ‘I could not do it without you’. For those who have ever said and truly meant this there can be no greater goal than to have it said and meant about themselves.