Guest blog: Alastair Humphreys

“The reward is the deep draught of joy that comes from feeling completely free.”

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In the years I spent travelling round the world I learned that the real highlights of travel are not the famous tourist hotspots. The best bits are the small, unexpected things in the places in between. Machu Picchu was nice, but it wasn’t a patch on riding the crazy mountain roads that lead to Cusco. The pyramids are pleasant, but not as fun as cycling across the Sinai desert to reach them. And so it goes on.

The world is a strange and wonderful place of infinite variety. What a shame then to only see sights you’ve already seen on TV. Be bold and brave and take a punt on a place that you know nothing about.

The same applies with microadventures. As much as possible I have tried to fill this book with ideas you can try anywhere, not with specific destinations and instructions. Microadventures are about making the most of your time and your surroundings rather than being limited by them. Which is to say that all you need to do is grab a map. Then close your eyes, wave your finger above the map, then jab down randomly.

You have now selected the objective for an interesting microadventure. The aim is to travel, however you wish, to that randomly chosen point. The stuff you encounter, the things you see, the thoughts you think along the way: these will probably be more interesting than the random point on the map. But without having that point to aim for in the first place, you are unlikely to do the hardest part of any adventure – begin.

You could try this idea with a map of your home town, with an Ordnance Survey map or, if you’ve really got guts and time to spare, with a map of the world! Spin the globe, adventurous stranger, and see where your destiny lies…

It is not quite cheating, but this idea certainly has more chance of a scenic outcome if you try it in the highlands of Scotland, as I did one rainy morning. I was eating a bacon butty in the cafe in Torridon, one of my favourite spots in Britain. My first jab of the finger landed mid-ocean. I opted for a “best of 3” approach and poked again. I brushed the crumbs from my map and peered down at where I had pointed.

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My finger had landed in the mountains. Red contour lines lay thick and jumbled, like a bowl of spaghetti. I tried to visualise how the ground would look from the contours and symbols on the map. Huddled into this tight corrie, halfway up the flank of a mountain massif, was a tiny circular loch. It looked as though I was going for a swim.

It was a grey morning and rain lashed on the windows. As usual I ordered one more cup of coffee. For the road. Before I go. I ran out of things to procrastinate about. The cafe was quiet. I was the only customer. Perhaps I imagined it, but I felt the waitress’ eyes boring into my bike, a look of scorn on her face. I sighed, paid, and walked out into the rain.

I headed out of town, chuntering to myself about what an idiot I was and doing my best to persuade myself that the sensible thing to do was return to the cafe for a piece of cake. But once you are soaking wet you might as well accept it. You realise that things are not going to get any wetter. And in a little while you come to realise that you are not nearly so miserable as you are trying to pretend to yourself.

The clouds lifted just enough to reveal the mountain tops around me. It really is a stunning part of the country. And I began to enjoy trudging through the rain. The fact that I was not heading to any place in particular actually made me enjoy it more. My natural inclination is always to rush, to get where I am going as quickly as I can. But on this trip I had nothing much to do except savour the small moments along the way. So I detoured to climb a hill by scrambling up a boulder field rather than just trudging up the wet grass slope. It was a longer route, but it was more fun. One of the hills grew so steep that I had to resort to rock climbing for the final few yards of ascent. It was difficult and frightening, for I am no climber at all. If I fell the consequences would have been unpleasant.

“Dawn is the ‘Wow’ moment, when you feel vindicated in deciding to sleep on a hilltop.”

I slept high that night. Sometimes it’s the only way to escape the midges in Scotland. I was alone, high on a rainy Munro (any Scottish mountain with a height over 3,000ft). There was no view. I hadn’t brought a book. It began to drizzle. It was neither particularly exciting nor particularly enjoyable. So I went to bed very early and dozed my way through a damp night.

Rainy nights in a bivvy are not great. You can do nothing except hunker deep down into the bag, haul the hood up over your head, and wait for morning.

But whilst you may be even less comfortable than in a Travelodge, the reward is the deep draught of joy that comes from feeling completely free. Better this than the stifling hot sterility of the Travelodge. In my normal life morning comes crashing in, sudden and unwelcome, with the awful beep of an alarm clock. Every morning begins with a brief register of regret. I wish it wasn’t morning. I wish this day had not yet arrived. Psychologically this cannot be a good start to a day!

But up there on my mountain I was happy to wake up. The rain had stopped. The sky was clear and the view was sensational. I am a lucky man. Luckier than a man with a damp sleeping bag and damp crisps for breakfast ought to feel.

Anyone who has woken in the countryside knows how pleasant it is to walk outside and gaze up at the hills. On a clear, damp morning -after rain- the air is sweet and fresh. Now imagine how much better that feels when you are up on top of those hills. When you feel as though all this is briefly yours…

I sat for a while on a boulder in the clear morning air and drank in the view. I was thrilled to be up there. The advantage of climbing a hill in the mist is the sensation of sudden surprise if the weather improves like this and suddenly you see the world clear and vast beneath you for the first time. The drop beneath me was so steep that it looked more like the view from an aeroplane than from a mountain. I looked down the valley towards the grey sea loch. I could see the road I had trudged up yesterday morning in the rain. I was glad I had made the effort. A river ran beside it, sinewy and silver.

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The valley floor was flat until it climbed, suddenly, up the flanks of the craggy mountains, climbing in a regular series of steep cliffs and brief ledges. The silence was absolute. Once I noticed this silence, draped like a silk sheet across the land to the horizon in every direction, I felt awkward to move and to break it.

Perhaps this was the most pointless journey I had ever done. I was hiking to an arbitrary point on a map knowing full well that there was nothing there. All I would do once I arrived there was turn around and return. But to dismiss this is to dismiss the entire genres of mountaineering, polar adventure, not to mention leaving home to cycle all the way round the world simply to arrive back home again…

So I scrambled down and up rocky slopes, my legs wet from sweeping through heather and lank moorland grass. The weather closed in again. The clouds dropped until I was walking through the cold damp heart of one and unable to see much in front of me. I followed a compass bearing. I jumped small streams and balanced over rocks across the top of a waterfall. It would have been beautiful and inviting on a warm summer’s day. But this is the lottery of adventuring in Britain. If you wait for a guarantee of fine weather you’ll rarely go anywhere.

In a couple more hours I arrived at my grid reference. From my map I knew that on three sides of me rock walls rose steeply out of the small loch. I am sure it would have been very impressive had I been able to see anything. But instead all I could see was the flat line of the water amongst the rocks and grass.

I smiled wryly to myself and removed my rucksack. I sat down by the calm grey water. This was a place I would never have been to without this arbitrary exercise. In the interest of fairness I should also point out that this was a scene I probably wouldn’t have missed never visiting! But that is the chance you have to take.
I sat and enjoyed the peace for as long as my impatient nature could bear. If I achieve nothing else from all these microadventures I hope that I can learn to sit still for a little while.

The only way I could think of to mark my arrival was to go for a swim. I stripped off, waded into the cold loch and swam out as far as I dared. I swam until I couldn’t see the shore anymore. All I could see, whichever way I turned, was water and mist. It felt as though I was disappearing off the planet. I lost my nerve and turned back. Back to my clothes and a jog back down to the village for a well-earned cup of tea and another bacon sandwich.

 

Alastair Humphreys

Visit Alastair’s Blog to watch a video of this microadventure.

 

 

Alastair Humphreys is a 35-year-old british Adventurer, motivational speaker and author of several books. He travelled 74,000 km on his bike in four years, wandered India, the area around South Pole and of course, his native U.K. In the year of 2012 National Geographic honored him as Adventurer of the Year.

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Coast to coast, source to sea, office to offroad

– enter your MICROADVENTURE!

 

Signed by Alastair

– Get the book here.