What's the point of adventure?

Guest blog by Alastair Humphreys. Alastair is an adventurer, blogger, author, speaker, film maker and photographer. He is National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and has written nine books. 

What is the point of adventure? Everyone’s answer is different, of course. But I have been interested to notice how my own personal answer also changes over time. Let’s start at the beginning...

When I first got a taste for adventure it was simply for the fun of it. Climbing hills and looking around at the view from the top, riding a mountain bike downhill as fast as you can, leaning hard in a heeling dinghy: these things are fun and exciting to do. We should not make the mistake of seeing fun and excitement as flippant, or something to save for the weekend. The world would be a better place with more of both in it.

By the time I was in my 20’s, however, my relationship with adventure had changed. “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun” was my mantra. “Miles not smiles!” “If you’re enjoying yourself you’re on holiday: this is supposed to be an adventure...” Adventure became about the challenge. Pushing my body and my mind. Striving to be tough. “It’s easy to be fit. It’s being hard that’s hard!” Seeking an identity. Exploring what I was capable of. This can all be a valuable part of personal growth.

I was fortunate growing up: my life was very easy and happy. That is a blessing, of course, but adventure then served as the artificial grit in my oyster. It helped toughen me up, taught me to appreciate things that I habitually took for granted, and gave me some momentum in life to get on and try to do something interesting with my life.

Al Humphreys Iceland

Walking a long way over a big hill teaches you at least as much about yourself and life as a dollop of classroom education does. Every night spent running over the moors, every freezing river swim, every long distance bike ride: this is classic, old-fashioned “character building”. A simplistic argument, perhaps, more stoic British Empire-era than selfie Brexit-era, maybe, but pedalling through Pakistan or swimming in a snow-fed loch, or running further than I had ever run before undoubtedly helped me develop self-confidence, self-esteem, and the drive to begin trying to achieve more in life and make the most of my potential and my opportunities.

After the masochistic personal challenges came the curiosity phase. I wonder if it’s possible to hitch a lift on a yacht across the Atlantic? What is running an ultramarathon in the Sahara like? Can I go have a look at life in a random part of India, far from the nearest tourist hotspot? Could you combine a folding bicycle and a blow up boat into an interesting idea for a journey?

Al Humphries Mix

The answer, time after time, was ‘yes’. A curiosity about the world and the way different people live their lives is one of the key reasons to encourage people to travel to distant parts of the world. It also gives you perspective on your own life, in the same way that you appreciate a fine oil painting much better if you step a few paces back from the canvas. The fact that time and again the questions I asked of myself came back with positive replies taught me, over and over again, that I was capable of more than I had realised. We all are. This is a growth mindset, and it is one of the most precious gifts that adventure has given me.

The trouble with learning to think this way, however, is that it becomes hard to remain satisfied with the way you ordinarily do things. I began to realise that if I wished to continue chasing adventure in my life then just repeating more of the same types of expedition was not the way to go. Sure, I could strive to do things on a more epic level - pushing ever harder challenges. But a dog will never catch its tail, and Sisyphus never gets to sit down and feel the satisfaction of completion. Chasing the horizon is a mug’s game. And so my interpretation of adventure changed direction once again. Still drawn to scaring myself, surprising myself, risking failure, and trying things that are new, I began learning the violin. My plan was to walk penniless through Spain, busking in order to survive. The idea frightened me, amused me, challenged me, and excited me. It was, in other words, a fine adventure.

These days my life is very busy. I say that not as a boast. I like most of what I spend my days doing, so I am not complaining. But busy-ness is one of the scourges of our age. Studies have shown that 8/10 of us would like to be less busy. It’s a daft state of affairs when I spend more time on Twitter than I do listening to birdsong. Here, yet again, adventure comes to the rescue in my life.

So last summer I spent a week on a raft in Scandinavia. I had wanted to do this for years but, you guessed it, I was always too busy. There were six of us, each with busy lives and full calendars. We made time, however, for this trip and convened on a quiet Swedish riverbank. Being busy sorts (and competitive), we set to work building our raft with gusto, eager to build the biggest raft, the best raft, the fastest raft. And then we pushed away from the shore. It was an interesting moment. Because, suddenly, and unusually in this day and age, there was now absolutely nothing to do.

Al Humphries Rafting

Drifting downstream on a two-tonne raft there is no point paddling. It makes negligible difference. You can’t really steer the thing either. You just, literally, have to go with the flow. It was fascinating to see all six of us bustling around our new little 6metre x 3metre home trying to get to terms with the fact that there was nothing to be achieved by our bustling. No To Do list. No emails, no social media, no admin, no nothing. Nothing to do except to sit and stare. To watch the river, the hills and the forest. To look for birds and beavers. And - crikey - maybe even to talk to one another...

Five days later the calmness on our raft was tangible. We chatted about everything. And when there was nothing to say we were able to sit, amiably, in silence and just let the moment drift along. When I returned home and posted photos of our raft on social media (yes, I see the irony here), the outpouring of envy and vicarious longing for this simple wilderness experience really took me back. The younger me would have sneered and scoffed at the notion that this was “adventure”: there was no suffering in sight. We drank tea all day and ate pancakes in the gentle sunshine. Perhaps this was a “slow adventure”. I was certainly struck by the impact that the trip had on me, personally.

The Klarälven River from Studiocanoe on Vimeo.

Whether it is an overnight microadventure on a work night, waking at dawn on a hilltop and being back at your desk by 9am, your first ever cycle touring trip, or scheming to cycle across a continent, I feel that there is a time, a place, and a need in all of our lives - whatever stage of life we are at - to live a little more adventurously than we do right now. And the time to begin it is, of course, right now.

(Photography courtesy of Alastair Humphreys)