The tough times make me feel alive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 November, 2011, 12:00am


In a few days I will fly to Mongolia, to walk 5,000 kilometres back to Hong Kong, through a very cold and wintery China. One of the most frequent questions I am asked about this expedition is why.

Why leave behind a comfortable life in Hong Kong? Why set out on an expedition which, to quote Shackleton's apocryphal newspaper advert recruiting people for a 1914 Antarctic expedition, will consist of 'low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful.' (He allegedly received more than 5,000 applications.)

My frequent expedition partner, Al Humphreys, points out that different adventurers have given very different answers to this question. George Mallory, perhaps the first man to climb Everest (although we don't know if he made it to the top before he died) said he was trying to climb the world's tallest mountain 'because it's there'; Ranulph Fiennes, Guinness World Records' 'greatest living explorer', says he keeps going on adventures to pay the bills; Robert Swan, the first man to reach both poles on foot, apparently said it was 'to impress girls at parties'.

While many women enjoy adventure, it seems to hold a particularly powerful appeal for men. Indeed, upon hearing about the new expedition, the first thing that women usually say is 'Gosh, how does your wife feel', whereas a guy's reaction is usually 'Man, I wish I could do that!'

For me, an initial reason for seeking adventure is that it makes me feel alive to get out into the wild and take on a huge challenge. I love cycling or hiking all day through valleys or deserts or plains and seeing what they are really like (rather than surveying them on Google Earth, as intriguing as that may be), and then camping on the sides of mountains in the snow under the stars.

I relish the unpredictability of adventures - I don't know what will happen, who I will encounter, or how I will respond to situations, although I usually find that I meet many interesting and kind people.

On this Walking Home From Mongolia adventure, I am incredibly excited to get a chance to view rural, rarely seen China at ground level, at walking pace. We hear so much about China. We all know it is developing faster than almost any other country in history, and yet we mainly tend to see and hear about the booming cities and popular tourist sites, rather than the regular lives of millions of people.

Two other more practical reasons for the journey are that I will be using the expedition to raise money for my favourite charity (Viva, which works with vulnerable children. See, and also that I have stumbled into a career whereby doing such crazy things has become the way that I pay the bills - through writing, television and motivational speaking.

At the same time, I am under no illusion that this is going to be easy or painless. It is easy to romanticise going on an adventurous journey, but the reality is that this expedition will actually involve endless hours (or days or weeks) of walking through quite monotonous landscapes, lost in my own thoughts, sometimes growing very bored of my own company.

I will be doing this expedition with my friend Leon - great for companionship - but no doubt we will sometimes drive each other mad. Carrying more than 20kg for more than seven hours a day, for more than 150 days, the journey will also involve plenty of pain - blisters, sore knees and backache. There will be moments of fear (perhaps the occasional aggressive person or when the temperature drops below minus 20), as well as emotional sadness because I will be missing my wife, Christine, every day.

All these tough aspects drive me to look forward to finishing the expedition and getting home again. At the same time, I am determined to live and enjoy every moment. And the challenging, tough times will make me stop taking for granted the many things that make 'home' such a good place to be, when I eventually make it back there.

Rob Lilwall's previous expedition, Cycling Home From Siberia, became the subject of a television series, a book and an acclaimed motivational talk. Every week in Health Post, he will write about the progress of his new expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which supports the children's charity Viva.