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Sunday, 23 September 2012

WHAT IS THE 'SLOW ADVENTURE,' ANYWAY?







'Slow Adventure' is a post-event concept like 'folk-rock.' Possibly. Well, a little, at least. Something like, anyway.

Something happens and then it keeps happening. And then, with the benefit of hindsight comes the realisation that that something that's been happening a lot has become 'something' and so needs a label.

There would have been plenty of people – folk, even – with electric guitars, and drums and basses playing skiffle and proto-rock 'n' roll and jump jive in the 1950s and early 60s – hell, maybe way earlier than that, too - who'd taken to bashing out versions of John Henry and Blowing in the Wind and for all I know, Greensleeves with full 4/4 back-beat, 12-string Rickenbacker power chords, Little Richard-styled vocals and up-the-neck solos. But it didn't get called folk-rock till way after it had started, when it became apparent – around the mid-1960s - that folk purists being annoyed by Dylan and the Byrds and the rest of the folkies-gone-rock was some kind of movement, and so needed to be called something. Something like, er, folk-rock


Pretty much the same with slow adventures. Once one knows what constitutes a slow adventure – can I deal with that later? – one can look back in time and see how much slow adventuring people were doing even if they didn't know that that was what they were doing. So, I was able to look back in time and see how much slow adventuring I'd been doing, without knowing that's what I'd been doing. In fact it was pretty much the only kind of adventuring I'd been doing over thirty years of remote and wilderness, (and sometimes quite local and pretty tame), travel.

It seemed that there was some kind of unifying theory that tied together my three decades of poorly-planned, low-tech, comically-inept but ultimately successful travel.

Cycling across the Sahara (twice, actually, due to a planning oversight); paddling down the 2,500 kms length of the Danube in toy-store folding canoes during Iron Curtain days; a triathlon length of Ireland by hire-bike, borrowed canoe and on foot; in-line skating the length of the Netherlands. They were all amusing trips, and they inspired more serious journeys. But those 'serious' jaunts, whether walking thousands of kilometres in Africa to research transhumance, or working with local horsemen on long in-the-saddle trips across twenty different countries in five continents to study traditional horse skills, or sea-kayaking the 1,600 kms around Ireland's coastline to write a book, all seemed to follow similar patterns. They were all part of 'the slow adventure' that is life. My life, and everyone else's life too, whether they realise it or not.


Here's a piece I wrote for the Irish Times a few months ago, when I was still trying to define just what it was that defined some experiences and endeavours as expeditions and feats, and others as slow adventures.

A friend of mine, Sophie Campbell, got up one morning, and on a whim walked out of her door in London and kept on walking until, a couple of weeks later, she reached the coast at Chesil Beach in Dorset some 250 kilometres away. “I just grabbed a day pack, I wore my trainers, oh, and I forgot my toothbrush so I had to buy one on the way,” she says, “I got onto the Thames Path, then the Ridgeway and then the Macmillian Way, but none of it was planned. I just went. I wanted to see what it was like if I got up to go to work but then didn't catch my bus and instead just kept walking. It was a wonderful thing to do.”

Wonderful, yes. But was it an adventure? Well, considering the trip wasn't plotted and prepared for then no less an authority than Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer who beat Scott to the South Pole, certainly would have thought so. Though not in an approving way. “Adventure,” he claimed, “is just bad planning." His polar expedition was based on extensively tested skills, equipment and clothing, and his meticulous organisation included calculating how many of his sled dogs his men and the other dogs would eat on the return journey from the Pole. There was certainly no lee-way for whims and forgetting your toothbrush on Amundsen's trip.

Maybe not doing too much planning is a good thing when travelling in the modern world. Especially if you do want to have adventures. It's getting harder to find genuinely remote places and have authentic experiences in the manner of the explorers of the past. Pretty much anywhere in the world that could only be reached by long walks fifty years ago now has a road running to it, and an internet cafe at the end of that road. But does that mean that there are no travel adventures still to be had? Of course not. It's just a question of how to do it.

Some take the Amundsen way, by training, preparing and equipping themselves to take on geographical extremes.. Right now I'm following Sarah Outen's blog as she prepares to row from Japan to Canada, the next stage in her 35,000 kilometres London-to-London kayak-cycle-rowboat circumnavigation of the globe. On a previous trip she rowed seven and a half thousand kilometres alone across the Indian Ocean, so her current expedition probably has a good chance of success.

And then there's Chris Duff who is preparing to row from Scotland via the Faeroe Islands to Iceland. It's his second attempt at the route. And I guess he's done even more planning this time around. Chris' voyage I can sort of identify with. He circumnavigated Ireland in a sea-kayak in 1996, eleven years before I paddled the same 1,600 kms of coastline. But there the similarities end. He was an proven sea-paddler and my experience was limited. I didn't do much planning because I didn't know what I was planning for. But I did have one thing in my favour; I had as much time at my disposal as the trip might take. Many months if, as it turned out, they were needed. That – taking as long as it takes to achieve something, rather than racing the clock – is another way of doing things. It's not Amsuden-style, but the way of 'slow adventure.'

Slow adventure is similar to the whole 'slow' movement. Slow food. Slow towns. Slow sex. Slow travel. It's all about enjoying the process rather than the result. Maybe not actually having a goal at all. It's about taking time to appreciate what one's doing rather than what ones hoping to do.

Anyone can have a slow adventure. It's as easy as deciding to step out of your door one morning and just keeping walking. Or doing something new on the spur of the moment the next time you're abroad. Adventure will follow. Just don't plan on it.



What constitutes an actual slow adventure?
  • Well, it's maybe a travel-based challenge, but only in the loosest sense of the words 'travel' and 'challenge.' Certainly a poorly- or un-planned short walk full of surprises is more of a slow adventure than a carefully prepared, well-executed and successful trek across the Sahara or to either of the Poles.
  • Using minimal or unsuitable or no kit is in the spirit of slow adventure.
  • Setting out to do one thing and then getting distracted and ending up doing something totally different is a staple scenario in slow adventuring.
  • Reducing something serious and actually quite dangerous to a series of comic cock-ups, yet still surviving, and even having fun, pretty much defines a true slow adventure.

Here's some early slow adventures, (though i didn't know that's what they were back then). I've tried to indicate what the key element in each is that makes it a 'slow adventure,' and so puts it midway between an expedition at one end of the spectrum and a paid-for, itinerary-ed, time-tabled, guided experience. Nothing wrong with either of those ways of travelling (or indeed getting through life) it's just that neither way works for me. Nor I guess for a lot of other people. 

A slow adventure, I reckon, usually comes about because of something happening that's unplanned, or comic, or a mistake, or a distraction. None of those tend to make the any particular jaunt a failure, or less successful, or less challenging or more dangerous (much). Mostly the random nature of slow adventuring means the unexpected happening just makes the trip different but as good as anything else you might have intended to do, or even have done.


So, some case studies (that don't bear too much studying, to be honest) draw from my early slow adventures:

  • Hitching around Europe for three winter months, when I was 17, intending to live by playing music. Not being able to play the guitar in a way that was either competent or pleasurable to listen to made things difficult; either I got better or people got kinder the further south through France and Spain I went.
  • Kayaking the rivers and canals of Ireland, England and France to get from Dublin to the Mediterranean. Completely unplanned; bought a kayak out of the small-ads in the Evening Herald, set off to see what happened, just kept going.
  • Hitching and working my way across North Africa, and then south across the Sahara. A trip full of surprises; running out of money, joining a band in Ouagadougou, earning enough to buy a single-speed bicycle to pedal across Birkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and the Gambia. Working on a Gambian delta boat got me back to Europe some six months after i'd left.
  • Kayaked down the Danube from its Black Forest source to the Black Sea with two friends (one of the few jaunts I've done in company). Quite well-planned. And wanting to go the length of a river provided an actual goal. But the politics – and my arrests in then-Czechoslovakia, then-Yugoslavia (twice), Bulgaria (thrice) and Romania (twice) – added an unexpected dimension to the trip. As did the inter-personal dynamics of three people with very different attitudes to the voyage.
  • Cycled from Ireland, through France and then south across the Sahara to Tamanrasset and the Hogar Mountains. And then most of the way back when I discovered that was the only way to get back to Algiers.
  • Cycled the 1,600 kms around Iceland's dirt-track ring road. It would have been smart to have taken a tent, as I bivvied for a month in nightly rain and wind.
  • Walked pilgrimage routes in Ireland, England, Spain (the obvious destination by the less obvious Camino Portueguesa) and North Africa. None of these diminished or enhanced my religious beliefs.
  • Bought a Barb stallion in Morocco and rode from Marrakech to Fez through the Atlas Mountains. I actually knew a lot about horses and horse care; I knew nothing about travel with horses.
  • In-line skated 300 kms between the Netherland's most southerly and northerly points.

And so on. I guess one can see a pattern in all the above. An idea rather than a too-specific goal, not much planning, a tendency to just head off and see what happens, no specialised kit, nor much money, trying something different when things seem to be going wrong, no sense of record breaking or competition or having to achieve something. 

2 comments:

  1. Lovely concept and, as you suggest, accessible to all if they will only let the slow adventure happen to them.Or, looking back, recognise one that's been happening for a while.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anna, Hi,
    Glad you liked the post. More to come - just long-handing a piece now. Thanks for following.

    Best,
    Jasper

    ReplyDelete

About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.