Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Dave Cornthwaite’s Expedition1000

The British adventurer on why he loves collecting stories

It’s early December and I’m heading back to London after a 5-week tour of Australia, presenting my new Adventurous Motivation Lecture alongside my good friend and fellow adventurer, Sebastian Terry. I’ll admit, the idea of swapping golden beaches and tanned, happy people for a wind-and-snow-swept country infected by Seasonal Affective Disorder is tough to come to terms with, but the future is bright enough to compensate for a British winter.

Since my first expedition four and half years ago – a 900 mile, length-of-Britain journey by skateboard – I’ve been slowly filling in the pieces of a personal adventure puzzle. With a bit of determination, any of us can produce an expedition worthy of support and sponsors, but to do it again and again? I didn’t have the answer, there was no guidebook or end-game, I simply wanted to make a living doing what I loved and this was driven by a love for travel, an insatiable appetite for meeting people and discovering new places and staying healthy. Adventure wasn’t a cliché. I didn’t have ideals of making it onto the wall in the Royal Geographical Society; it was just code for all things I wanted to do. So how?

I was ripped from a soul-sucking job in 2005 by a long skateboard that ultimately took me 7500km across Britain and then Australia. Suddenly my hometown looked different as I swapped two feet for four wheels, and two years later there were two world records for a non-skater bloke who once designed local newspapers in Wales. I confess, before the skating I’d achieved remarkably little; I’d muddled through my twenties with spirit, but I was still trying to decide what I was supposed to do with my life – which meant I had become comfortable and dreamed of not being so. By 25 I had my own house, a long-term girlfriend, a good job and a cat, all the while living in a town which Dylan Thomas described as ‘the graveyard of ambition’. Those 22 months between stepping onto a skateboard for the first time and reaching Brisbane after crossing Australia were monumental for my soul; I knew I had something in me after that. I was riding high on a wave of positive action and knew that I could do anything I wanted.

And then I lost my way. ‘Brisbane’ had been my goal – this dot on a map that became the be-all and end-all of my first big challenge. But when I got there I realised I hadn’t considered for one moment what was next. Focus lost, I was chased by real life, and it pipped me to the post. For two years I part-considered myself an author, an adventurer, a record-breaker, but I was lying to myself – strangers will define all of us by a stand-out achievement, but when we define ourselves by just one thing we’re bored of our own future.

So I started to chase life back down the path. A late December evening in London, another 16-hour day designing websites, a realisation that I’d fallen off the Brisbane wave, I’d been holding myself back, enough was enough. I left the flat and bought a canal boat in Wiltshire with the aim of getting away, learning to paddle, and then undertaking a series of journeys on water.  A few months later I set out on a two-and-a-half thousand kilometre walk and paddle along the Murray, Australia’s most iconic river. Rejuvenated, I balanced expectation with reality – I’d been backed by some great little companies who liked my style, but it wasn’t until the end of that journey that I’d begun to live the words I’d been stringing along. I’d been alone for the best part of three months, bedding down on remote river beaches in close proximity to ‘roos and koalas and snakes. And the best bit about it: I took my laptop with me and when I needed some money I popped together a website for someone back home, all the while perched on a riverbank with a possum scampering behind me with my lunch in its cheeks.

I was determined not to hit a vacuum after the Murray but I still did, a little. By then I knew I needed a project to keep me levelled in between expeditions and slowly the idea of Expedition1000 formed, and as it did I finally realised what I really wanted to do. I love travelling slowly, acquainting myself with new places at a non-race pace, combining sport and travel to stay fit and developing a true appreciation of the challenges faced by the environments I pass through, and the challenges I face personally en-route. I wanted a test that would take me around the world, to every continent, to both poles, across each ocean, something that would give me a long-term focus that would seamlessly pass from expedition to expedition. And so Expedition1000 was born: I would undertake 25 thousand-mile journeys, each using a different form of non-motorised transport. It was perfect.

You make your own luck and you give yourself a head start where you can. Having travelled over 1000 miles by skateboard and kayak, I only had twenty-three journeys left to plan, which gave me a niggle of satisfaction. You can travel the same road by bike and skateboard and solar-powered golf buggy and the perspective of each journey will be utterly different, every interaction en-route will be affected by your mode of transport, your body and mind will face different challenges each time. Suddenly, everything became a possible way to travel, and if you can travel one mile by strange or established means, you can travel 1000 too, you just need the time and the will.

In September I was walking through London and spied a strange contraption from afar. With straight arms creeping skywards and a strange breastplate on wheels, it was like nothing I’d see before. “I think I’m going to travel 1000 miles on that,” I said to a friend, and then proceeded to find out what it was. That chance encounter meant that in the Spring of 2011, the ‘FreeCross’ and I will cross Europe from Nice to Amsterdam, from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, over the Alps and down the Rhine. Some might consider it quirky or a gimmick, but I couldn’t give a hoot! This contraption that looks like a gymnasium cross-trainer on wheels is one of the most fun devices I’ve ever ridden. With eight gears, it can pick up a pace to match a fast mountain bike, and I dare say scaling the Alps will provide a decent workout. I’ll also get a decent upper body work-out, too, when, between June and August next year, I hop back on my Stand Up Paddleboard and attempt the entire length of the Mississippi – some 2500 miles.

It’s so exciting to have five or six journeys in the planning stage, rather than just one. I also plan to ride a horse across Mongolia, paraglide through the Himalayas, cross oceans by Pedalo, rowboat and sail. Of course, there will be a place in time for walking, my bicycle, skis, windsurf board, kitesurf and dogsled – maybe even a camel. Friends have suggested I use a Pogo Stick, Space Hopper and push scooter, but there’s nothing wrong with turning a blind eye to some things.

To sum up, I’ll borrow words from a blog post I wrote last week that marked a tipping point in the way I see what I’m up to. I’m realistic in my goals. Ever since I jumped on a long skateboard in early 2006 I believed I could make a living out of adventure, but it took four years to break out of what was admittedly a largely goal-less cycle. Expeditions finish and mild depression sets in; escapism only lasts so long before reality hits, and after a while I began to wrongly associate unhappiness with being at home. I’d become accustomed to creating projects because I felt like I needed something else to yack about and slowly I started to acknowledge that humans depress themselves.

Expedition1000 has given me one heck of a focus, but more important than that I’ve found my niche. If I lie to myself (and to others) and spend more time lazy than active, I’ll fail. Excuses are not reasons. ‘Someday’ means ‘never’. I will travel because I feel the urge to, not because it will give me more slides to present to a crowd of unknowing strangers. This world of adventurers is wonderfully ridiculous. Thousands of amazing people journey for a living, all vying for recognition and respect and self-fulfillment in what is quite a brutal world if you hope to make a living from it. Questions about supported or unsupported expeditions don’t bother me and I don’t consider myself a true explorer, I just do what I do because I enjoy it – I don’t feel that I’m in competition with anyone. I have learned that if I work hard and give myself direction and all the while don’t forget the people around me, I’ll be a successful and happy chap. I’m currently collecting more stories for my future grandchildren than tangible heirlooms. And that feels just right for me.

Dave’s Official Website: www.davecornthwaite.com

Dave’s Twitter: www.twitter.com/DaveCorn

Dave’s Facebook: www.facebook.com/DaveCornthwaite