The urge to explore has been a primary driver of human development ever since we started staggering around on two legs, but the motives for meandering have changed plenty.
Our footloose forbears were driven by visceral forces ranging from survival instincts to the greedy search for El Dorado, but modern-day adventurers are mostly seeking liberation from the comfortable cell of their own everyday existence.
I like to imagine everyone has at least one quixotic quest wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside them. Something – no matter how massive, modest or plain daft – they’d love to achieve. A desire to be the first, or the fastest, or to go the furthest; a self-set challenge, based on elusiveness, distance, speed, depth or longevity; a lost city, remote island, wild river, wide ocean, dark forest, deep cave, alluring crag or high peak that’s singing a siren’s song, audible only to them.
Lots of us listen to these songs and long to loosen the knots tying us to the mast, but only a few dare to really cut the ties and go for it. Those who do often garner an audience of armchair explorers – remote spectators happy to sate their own wild urges vicariously, or keen to criticise from the sidelines.
What constitutes a ‘real’ adventure is a polarising subject. An inspirational explorer in one person’s eyes is just another ego-driven idiot to someone else – a vainglorious vagabond unwilling to do a proper job, dressing a holiday up as an expedition, while engaged in an endless pursuit of attention, affirmation and social media likes.
Occasionally these accusations are entirely accurate, but many haters are either missing the point or reflecting their own frustrations. I’m often equally inspired by the imagination people demonstrate in coming up with extraordinary challenges, and the courage they show in taking their first steps, as I am by the skills and physical endurance it takes to see the mission through.
But how does one translate an idea into an actual adventure? What drives some of us to cut the ties and go for it?
REVOLT AGAINST THE DAILY GRIND
Sometimes it’s a reaction to the cut-throat nature of ‘normal’ life that propels people into the arms of adventure.
Anna McNuff was a GB rower aiming for an Olympic spot when she fell out of love with the competitiveness of that sport, and retreated into an office job.
Five years later, despite having climbed high on the corporate ladder, she felt thoroughly unfulfilled, except when swimming along coastlines and scrambling up mountains at the weekends.
“So one night, I got out a world map and vowed to turn my life upside down – to focus more on the activities that made me truly happy, and less on the things that didn't,” recounts Anna.
“A year later I left on my first big adventure, to ride a bike 11,000 miles through every state of America, and I haven't looked back.”
Since then, Anna has run New Zealand’s 3,057km Te Araroa trail, pedalled along the spine of the Andes and legged it along England’s Jurassic Coast dressed as a dinosaur.
She’s also launched a movement called Adventure Queens, aimed at encouraging more women to explore outdoors, and has recently been announced as the UK’s first Girlguiding Ambassador.
Many journeys start with epiphanies like Anna’s, with their own personal twist.
For example, I remember talking to Roz Savage shortly before she rowed from Fremantle to Mauritius in 2011. Full of adrenaline for upcoming adventure, Roz passionately explained exactly why she was about to risk mountainous waves and encounters with pirates, whales and titanic tankers.
In her mid 30s, while working as a management consultant, Roz sat down one day and wrote two auto-obituaries: one a synopsis of her life if she died the next day, and the other an account of how she’d like to be remembered. The stark difference between the two convinced her to leave her husband, house and high-flying career, and take up ocean rowing.
Years later, having spent 500 days at sea alone, travelling 15,000 miles, making 5-million-ish oarstrokes, she can add awards including National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and fellowships of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers Club of New York to that first obituary.
IN THE FACE OF MORTALITY
Other adventurers have been galvanised by more direct brushes with mortality or life-changing challenges.
Having always been physically active, Mel Nicholls suffered three strokes in her 30s, the last of which left her unable to walk. A decade later she’s not only a Paralympian, but also an outdoor adventurer and Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion, who is about to embark on a bid to solo handcycle around the Faroe Islands.
“During the long months spent in hospital following my last stroke, I needed a challenge and a focus to help me move forward,” recounts Mel.
“My physio said, ‘take one step at a time, try not to climb the mountain in one’. So my focus became that mountain. Outdoors, through sport and adventure, the journey continues to make me stronger, healthier and happier, and allows me to support and inspire others to do the same. And that mountain summit gets closer.”
Kiko Matthews, who recently became the fastest female to row solo unsupported across the Atlantic – was spurred into action by the diagnosis of a life-threatening condition that led to the removal of a brain tumour half way through her training.
Similarly, Lizzie Carr – first person to SUP the coast of England and first woman to SUP across the English Channel – began paddleboarding while recovering from cancer treatment.
And Jamie McDonald, who has already run 8,000 kilometres across Canada unsupported and is currently doing the equivalent of 230 back-to-back marathons to cross the United States, spent much of the first nine years of his life in hospital with a rare spinal condition.
You can find the full version of this article (which covers several other adventurers and their stunning motivations) in the September/October 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine.