March 17, 2016

What Makes an Explorer?

Since I have returned to expedition HQ I have been busy catching up with my blog and a few writing projects that I have been working on. One that I have recently completed is a series of short guides for Real Russia – if you don’t know them, they are probably the biggest and best known specialist Trans-Siberian travel agency.

They asked me if I minded doing a short interview to help introduce myself to their readers. I found it really interesting to do this as I don’t get asked about my motivations very much. If you are interested, you can read it here.
Without wishing to sound too deep, the last few weeks have also proved to be a really good chance to take a step back and think about what I’m trying to achieve and what really I believe in – if you like, my adventure “DNA”. I think this has grown, or possibly even mutated, over the last few years and I will explain why.

When I first set out on the rails I was on a bit of a personal crusade. Finally getting away from the predictability of corporate life, to begin with my journey was one of escapism. But after a couple of years on these journeys I realised that I was getting almost as much pleasure from writing and sharing my adventures with others as from actually completing them. Did this make me a writer rather than a traveller? I like to think that writing is still a bi-product of my adventures, but they are now so inter twined that one needs the other.

As things progressed I decided I needed a way of describing to others what it was that I now did. It might seem trivial, but some people seem to judge others by their job title. Plus there were companies who wanted me to write for them. What did they expect me to be? Was I an explorer? An adventurer? A traveller? A writer? Or was it much simpler than this – was I just an escapist? I struggled with this at first. These labels can be tricky and mean quite different things to different people. Furthermore, social media these days is positively crowded with people calling themselves “explorers” and “adventurers”.

In the space of one month in 2014 I met two people with very different outlooks, both of whom shaped my thinking. The first was Sir Ran Fiennes, without doubt a man who lives up to his tag as “the world’s greatest living explorer”. There was obviously no way I felt I was going to call myself an explorer after that meeting. I haven’t been to either pole, can’t ski and I get a headache when climbing Kilimanjaro. So if I wasn’t an explorer what was I? Then I met Robert Twigger (one of my favourite authors and a source of much writing inspiration), and he said he felt he was an explorer by the fact that he fulfilled the role of bringing information back from his travels and telling others about his experiences. I do that too, all the time.

After much deliberation I ended up settling for describing myself as being an adventurer, as it feels closest to what I feel I actually do. But I still worry that this tag has issues. I recently read a great post by Tom Allen on his blog that highlights the problems with this. It’s called Debunking the myth of the modern day “adventurer”. Read it if you have time, but in summary Tom highlights how people can quickly end up spending more time marketing than exploring.

As a result of all this reflection I have also realised that I might actually have a point of difference. My adventures are challenging at times, but they are actually very accessible to most. After all, you don’t need to be a hardened polar explorer or fitter than a Sherpa to travel somewhere far away by train. Rail adventures are not really about uniqueness or massive human difficulty, but about imagination and accessibility – albeit with a need for some time, focus and determination. My audience and those I interact with are really interesting. I’m not just communicating to people enjoying reading about my journeys, but to people that I hope will choose to get out there and have adventures of their own. All I have done is helped to light the blue touch paper.

So next time at I’m at a dinner party and someone asks me what I do I shall look them in the eye and tell them that I’m a rail adventurer and be rather happy about that.

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