[words Mark Eveleigh / photograph © Randulf Valle, The WideAngle]
“What I’m looking for,” he wrote, “is some advice on becoming, for lack of a better word, an Adventurer.”
It wasn’t the sort of email you tend to get very often. Perhaps it was the inherent desperation in the way he’d capitalized “Adventurer” that convinced me that his email merited the most serious response I could give it.
I knew nothing about him beyond what I read in his email, but something had clearly pushed him to the verge of a big change in his life: “Over the last several years I have undergone many personal life-changing events and know first hand, that life can change in an instant,” he said. “I have come to the conclusion that it is time to put serious thought into following my dreams of adventure and travel. What I really want is advice on how to pursue a career and lifestyle as an Explorer.”
After 17 years as a professional traveller, I could offer some advice on the dog-eat-dog world of freelance photojournalism…but had little idea how to carve a lifestyle as an “Explorer”.
“I’m writing to you now because I have been a fan of yours for several years and I very much enjoy the work you have done,” he said. “I want to do something similar.”
I thought back to the beginning in search of a clue that might help him. The hunger for travel that made me turn towards a career in full time travel-writing… and to the resulting poverty that that made adventurous travel a virtual impossibility for the first few years. I based myself in Madrid because it seemed like a good place for a budding writer. I refused to write for free and paid commissions were so few and far between that for quite a while I could barely finance hitch-hiking trips to Andalusia, where I would sleep rough in the hills or occasionally, a ferry ticket to Morocco, where at least I could afford a room.
I thought back further. Before “the beginning”. For a decade before I started writing professionally I’d worked as a labourer, lorry driver or security guard to pay for long, seat-of-my-pants, back-to-basics trips to the remotest regions I could reach. I hitch-hiked everywhere and slept under bridges and on building-sites on four continents.
As far back as I could remember I’d wanted to be an Adventurer but, like my friend, I had no idea how to achieve it. Freelance travel-writing was never my dream job, simply because I never dreamed that a job like this even existed.
I’d always travelled with guidebooks of course but I’d began to use them ‘negatively’. I ignored the recommended places and began more and more to hunt out remote corners that didn’t even merit coverage in the books. In Guatemala I rented a hut and a horse and rode through the northern jungles, far beyond Tikal Ruins, looking for jaguars. In Morocco I hitch-hiked to a desert enclave to spend Christmas (mine was almost certainly the only ‘Christmas’ in town) surrounded on three sides by Algerian machine-gun nests. In Venezuela I almost died in a cable-car accident while on a mission to travel through the High Andes with a mule.
And it struck me that the only advice I could offer to someone who wants to live a life of adventure is to do something so incredibly different that people have to notice. The biggest boost I had at the beginning of my career was my expedition through Central Borneo. The six-week jungle trip came near to killing me and I finally stumbled out of those mountains severely emaciated and with a case of malaria that I would carry for the next six months. My book Fever Tress of Borneo was the story of the first Westerners ever to cross those mountain passes. It wasn’t a good book – to this day I can’t read it without cringing – but it convinced editors take a minor interest in me and it was because of this that I started getting commissions. After that I became the first foreigner in 125 years to walk right across Madagascar’s Zone Rouge bandit country. I remember meeting a young motoring journalist who had made a similar discovery: he had won the world record for fastest driver blind-folded and for the most number of donuts in a minute. Because of this magazines took an interest in him and began to commission him.
So you want to be an Adventurer? An Explorer? Are you willing to take a couple of years out of your life to dedicate to a single mind-blowing trip? Research hard (I taught myself Indonesian for Borneo), prepare thoroughly and undertake the most recklessly exciting trip you can imagine. More than a decade ago another would-be adventurer wrote me a similar email asking for advice on a cycle trip around the world that he was planning. To my shame I told him he might be biting off more than he could chew and that he should perhaps concentrate on something smaller (cycling across New Guinea or the length of Sumatra for example). Al Humphreys went on to peddle 50,000 miles in five gruelling years and is now a very successful professional adventurer. Fellow Englishman Ed Stafford has already walked the length of the Amazon, and at this moment Sarah Outen (another Brit) is rowing and cycling 20,000 miles around the world.
There are no prizes for second place so pick something completely original – and at least slightly insane – that nobody has ever done.
When you get back build on your own personal skills to turn the experience into a career. If you have that real love for writing then write. If you’re an artist tell your stories through photography or painting. If you’re a gifted speaker then use the inspiring tale of your travels to launch a career as a motivational speaker (and earn more in an hour than you can in weeks as a writer).
The glory of that wild trip won’t carry you forever and you will need to do something to follow up but it could provide the momentum for your next ground-breaking trip. Do it enough times and before long you could be a professional Adventurer. And if it doesn’t work…well, at least you made that one awesome, incredible, once-in-a-lifetime journey.
The world is still an immensely big and wild place and the possibilities are endless.
The only question now is: where do you want to go?