Al once described himself as, “a normal bloke with a mildly interesting story.” This is a typically British, self-deprecating way of saying that that he has ridden his bike 46,000 miles around the world, crossed Iceland's glorious wilderness on foot and inflatable packraft, spontaneously trekked the length of one of India's longest rivers, and pioneered the concept of microadventures.
In fact Ranulph Fiennes once described Al’s mildly interesting story as, “probably the first great adventure of the new millennium.”
Back in July 2010, Al teamed up with photographer Chris Herwig and hatched a plan to cross Iceland on foot, inland from the north coast up into the central highlands. From there, they then crossed the Hofsjokull ice cap to gain access to the headwaters of Iceland’s longest river, where they inflated packrafts and attempted to paddle downstream to the southern coast.
We chatted with Al about this epic adventure, his lasting impressions of Iceland, the microadventure movement, and his unrelenting desire to set himself a challenge. Look out for our microadventure competition at the end of the interview!
Hey Al, great to have you on the Latitude Series! Thanks for taking the time. Let’s dive right in. So you and Chris must have spent a fair amount of time carefully planning and anxiously anticipating your Icelandic crossing - bet you were eager to get out there! However, thinking back, what were you most apprehensive about before you set off and how did your preconceptions of Iceland itself compare with the reality of the crossing?
We were mostly concerned with the packrafting phases. Neither of us were expert paddlers and we found it very hard to get useful information about the rivers we were going to tackle. This meant we were heading far more into the unknown than is wise for novice paddlers, and we were very far from help. Iceland was everything I had hoped. Sophisticated, charming, quirky in the city, wild and beautiful and remote in the wild places. I absolutely loved it.
During the expedition you found yourself in a few rather unenviable positions... whether it was eating out-of-date dehydrated food packs boiled with muddy water or trudging for days in the relentless wind and freezing rain. Yet it seems you have a wonderful gift of being able to convince yourself to embrace the hard times in order to 'earn' the good times. Although we understand that you are afflicted with 'selective amnesia', can you share with us a couple of the most intense highs and lows from the crossing?
Ahh… the power of selective amnesia and the rewards of retrospective pleasures… the essence of my entire 'career'! The highs were numerous - the hot springs, the mountains, the beautiful rivers, the remote camps, the midnight sun… I loved that trip! The lows were fewer - wind and rain and grimness on the high central plateau, very heavy packs, permanent hunger, and nearly dying when trying to packraft down a canyon way beyond my skill level!
We’ve read that you spent many strenuous days hiking through a monochrome, featureless, and almost lunar landscape - with tiny pink flowers and your little red tent bringing the only colour to each day. Besides the occasional inch of morale-boosting salami, how did you and Chris keep your spirits up while hiking through this bleak landscape, or did you both simply enjoy the feeling of pushing your limits?
Salami was the key! That plus talking a lot of rubbish. Chris is a hilarious guy and humour is vital on a trip like this, particularly self-deprecating humour. It was a hard trip but we were so excited by the beauty of the landscapes we were passing through.
Despite those periods trudging through the somewhat barren landscapes of the highlands, it sounds like the sheer variety of the Icelandic terrain kept things interesting for you. With the thundering waterfalls of the moist green lowlands, the chaotic and turbulent glacial rivers, and the once blue ice-caps buried under volcanic ash, Iceland sounds like a wild and unusual place. If you were to return to one single place there, where would it be and why?
We detoured from our wild route to walk the Landmannlaugur, Iceland's famous multi-day trek and one of the most gorgeous hikes in the world. I'd recommend it to anyone.
Weaving through the wetland region on your packraft canoes, there came a time when you were running out of fresh drinking water and you somehow found a tiny island in the middle of the river bubbling with a fresh water spring. Can you recall any other memorable moments during the expedition when it seemed like the universe was conspiring to help you succeed?
This trip was pretty remote so any chances for serendipity were few and far between. I suppose the fact that I didn't die despite stupidly attempting to paddle into a canyon way beyond my skill level was quite fortunate!
At one point during your expedition, despite lacking any real glacial experience, you wanted to head up over the glacier to the headwaters of the Þjórsá river even though you also had the option of skirting the ice and joining the river further downstream. This sounds like the time you were told by a policeman in the Yukon that a road was impassable due to forest fires. Your response was to borrow a canoe, strap a lucky moose skull to the front, and set off down the river instead. In both these situations the vast majority of people would have taken the easy route. Where do you think your motivation to constantly challenge yourself comes from? Do you draw a line between bravery and recklessness?
There is a fine line between bravery and recklessness. Nobody knows precisely where that line is and it really does not matter until you stray to the wrong side of the line. I am not particularly brave or macho. I trust myself to be cautious and pragmatic. And I know that most people's opinion of 'danger' is ridiculously, pathetically, whimpishly feeble. People declare things to be dangerous which, if they just had the gumption and the bollocks to have a crack at, they would realise really is not such a big deal.
Switching gears a little, if you’ll excuse the pun, let’s look back to when you took your first cautious pedal strokes at the cliffs of Dover... you were setting off on an epic journey to cycle 46,000 miles around the world, and in the end visited an amazing 60 countries on your meagre budget of just £7,000. We were curious to learn that you haven't re-read either of the books you wrote about the trip... aren’t you tempted by the prospect of polishing fading memories and of meeting the gloriously naive 24 year old who set off in search of adventure? How do you think your perception of the world has changed since then?
Part of me would really like to re-write my books. Especially as, through hubris and unfortunate circumstance, I never had any pre-readers or editors for any of my books. Clearly then they could be massively improved. And I'd love them to be better. But I resist because surely a better thing for me to do is to take new journeys, write new books, rather than trying to polish my youth.
After graduating from university you said that you wanted to “set yourself a challenge you were likely to fail” - cue pedalling 46,000 miles around the world on your bike! Since then you have said that you like to consciously attack your own fear of failure. Can you give us a couple of examples of other challenges you have since set yourself, but which haven’t quite gone to plan?
I spent 5 years trying to undertake an expedition to the South Pole. We failed last September to raise the money necessary and so instead I found myself making a very bad cart to tow for 1000 miles across the Empty Quarter desert. Adventure and opportunity is all around if you only seek it out.
Recently you have devoted a lot of your time and energy into encouraging people to take microadventures. Mike Sowden, in his recent Latitude interview, described them as, “a short, tight burst of meaningful, uncomfortable, challenging madness that teaches you something about the world and yourself.” We agree that adventure is really just a state of mind, and should be about stretching yourself, whether it is mentally, physically or culturally. Your concept of democratising the ‘refresh button for busy lives’ particularly appeals to us. Can you share with us one of the most innovative or intriguing microadventures that you have completed so far?
One of my first microadventures was walking a lap of the M25 with a friend and fellow adventurer Ron Lilwall. The general consensus was that we were mad, that it was a stupid, nonsensical idea. It made people chuckle, made them roll their eyes at our folly, made folks wrap their arms round themselves and be glad they would soon be in their warm car commuting to work, their warm bed at night. Completely by chance, we had chosen the coldest week of the worst winter in 30 years with which to undertake our adventure. A Siberian suburban experience. We deliberately had no real plan. We carried just one map, a large scale one that showed the whole M25. Nevertheless, after a full week of walking we completed the circle, cold, tired and more jubilant than we would have imagined.
We also love your Mappazine and its non-linear approach to storytelling! Can you tell us what about maps inspires you and elaborate a little on why you prefer a foldsheet mappazine to a traditional book?
I love maps. They are a license to dream and to imagine and to hope. The most recent book I wrote was non-linear (i.e. it could be read in any order). So I used this opportunity to share my story in a more exploratory way - to reproduce it along with 100 colour photos in a giant, double-sided fold out map. I am really, really proud of the result.
Jonny holding up our much-loved copy of Al's mappazine in the Maptia HQ in Morocco.
On a more reflective note, Rudyard Kipling once gave an address to students, in which he warned them against an over-concern for money or status: "One day you will meet a man who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are." Early on, you made a clear decision early on to choose to collect experiences over possessions, happy memories over pay-cheques, and to try and make a living doing something you love. During your cycle around the world you even had a $50 tent with a big hole in it and lawnmower safety specs instead of ski goggles... Yet, despite your apparent relentless enthusiasm and passion, we imagine it hasn't always been an easy road. What aspects of life as a professional adventurer do you find most challenging and what would your advice be to the next generation of explorers?
The frustration comes from the people who make more noise than substance. The people who cloud the waters that make it difficult for the real achievers. Top Gear ‘drove to the North Pole’. No, they did not. They were barely within 1000 miles of the Pole. This stuff irritates me and makes it massively harder to earn a living from expeditions. I find it hard to tread a line between novelty and gimmick with my adventures. My advice to the next generation (how old does that make me sound!?) would be to do it because you love it, not for fame or fortune. Do it because you love it. Do it well and all the rest will/might follow.
We have one last question just for fun. If you have seen the Pixar film Up you will have got to know the delightful character of Mr Fredricksen. Hypothetically, if you did spontaneously decide to tie 10,000 helium balloons to your house, where in the world would you most like to end up and what would you do there?
I'd like to take it to the South Pole. I've spent 5 years trying to get there and I failed - so I'd love to go there. That film is so sad - it breaks my heart! So many people wasting their lives and living in regret.
If you found yourself inspired by Al's expedition and his adventurous approach to life please tweet this post so others can enjoy it too!
The microadventure challenge
We hope you are feeling suitably inspired after reading Al’s Interview and are either ready to set off on a wild expedition across Iceland or at the very least on your very own microadventure. Any novices can volunteer to join him here.
We want to help Al spark the microadventure revolution and so are inviting everyone to take part in the following challenge to help create a beautiful map of microadventures!
Here are the steps to take part:
Step 1. Tell us about your microadventure idea in the comments below.
Step 2. Complete the microadventure and record it somehow - using photos, words, a video or even using the Vine iphone app.
Step 3. Tweet a photo, video, or link documenting your microadventure. Be sure to mention @Maptia, @Al_Humphreys, and #microadventure, and remember to tell us the location your microadventure took place.
As soon as Maptia is launched we will be creating a beautiful microadventure map of the world, and we will feature all the submissions we receive. In the meantime, we will also feature the best ones on our blog!
We will also be giving the first 10 microadventurers, who send us their tweets, copies of Al’s awesome mappazine - so start planning your escape today.
Don’t know where to begin? Check out these 11 videos taken from microadventures that Al did last year or dive into the twittersphere to see what other people are up to. And if you are reluctant to do a microadventure yourself, then please let Al know what is holding you back... he is a man on a mission!