May the quest man win

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am


From time to time, I get an e-mail from a young person asking me for advice on how to become a professional adventurer. Certainly, making a living from doing adventures seems pretty appealing.

But really, I ended up becoming a 'professional' rather by accident. When I was younger, I used to enjoy scraping together what spare cash I had to go on adventures - walking across Spain, hitch-hiking around America, cycling across Ethiopia or Pakistan or Peru. I always just did this on my holidays and never had in mind that I was going to make money through my experiences.

Then, I decided to go on a really giant adventure - Cycling Home From Siberia - which took me more than three years and through such wild places as Papua New Guinea, Tibet and Afghanistan. For the first time in my life, I wrote a blog about what happened and bought a video camera to film the adventures.

When I got home to London, I still didn't have any thought about becoming a 'pro adventurer'. But then a publisher read my blog and asked me to write a book. I started to be invited to give paid talks in schools. National Geographic heard that I'd filmed the journey - suddenly there was a six-part television series.

Things grew from there. I had a successful career - with corporate motivational speaking all over the world, translation deals for the book, and writing opportunities for papers and magazines. Right now I am in the middle of another madcap trip - Walking Home From Mongolia, a 5,000-kilometre expedition - and filming it for a new television series.

However, going pro has some less appealing sides. Now, when dreaming up new adventures, I have to focus and wrestle with the career side of it, too - speaking, writing, filming, sponsors and media partners.

I think back wistfully to the days when I used to embark on good, old-fashioned adventures - when my motive was simply to feel alive and learn about the world and about myself.

Charles Foster's recent book about pilgrimage, The Sacred Journey, evokes an old memory about how good it is to be on the road as a mere pilgrim and enjoy the beauty of being on a journey that is raw, simple and close to the ground. Pilgrims live one day at a time and take the rough, the smooth, the companionship, solitude, adventure and monotony in their stride, as they plod on steadily towards their destination.

So, how does one become a professional adventurer? First, make sure you are going on trips that make you come alive. You have to find it exciting for yourself.

Second, try to find something that will really capture other people's imagination. Scotsman Mark Beaumont did very well on this front when, in 2007, he broke the speed record for cycling round the world, covering the 29,000 kilometres in 194 days and 17 hours (161 kilometres a day with a day off every fortnight). That journey kick-started a very successful career for Mark in Britain as a television adventurer.

Third, try not to make your exploits too long. Cycling Home From Siberia took me three years and yet I wrote only one book about it and I had to do some severe editing to stop the book from getting astronomically long. I probably could have gone on four or five decent adventures in that time - and written a number of books. But I had never planned that expedition as a professional one, and it was an important rite of passage for me.

Fourth, factor in the extra strain on your time, energy and finances. For example, if you are filming the journey, remember that this in itself will change the experience you are having, as filming is hard work. Getting television backing (and for that matter significant equipment sponsorship) is incredibly difficult.

But these are only hints and guesses, and perhaps in conclusion I should swing this article back to pure and simple amateur adventuring, and to the thought that you can just step out your door and go for an adventure for the weekend or even just the evening.

The best man at my wedding, Al Humphreys, who was one of 10 people named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic this year, has been using his incredibly popular adventure blog in Britain ( to encourage people to get out and have what he calls 'micro-adventures'. These are adventures that you can do with minimal cost, experience and time.

Al has showcased a number of these, including swimming down his local river, camping on top of a hill, and picking a random place on the map and walking to it. About two years ago, we spent a week together walking a lap of the M25 motorway in England in its adjacent fields and forests. It cost only about HK$600 each, but boy, did we have a great time.

In Hong Kong, we are spoilt for opportunities - scrambling up a stream bed (be careful of snakes), climbing a hill (or a tree) or finding a new, hard-to-access beach. These mini-adventures are the best place to prep for the big time.

Every week in Health Post, Rob Lilwall will write about the progress of his latest expedition, Walking Home From Mongolia, which is in support of the children's charity Viva.