Wednesday, 30 December 2009


Plastiki, a 60ft catamaran made from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles is due to set sail from San Francisco to Sydney, early in 2010. The object of the four month voyage is to highlight the Eastern Garbage Patch, a vast floating island of washed up, toxic marine pollution in the centre of the Pacific Ocean. This area, six times the size of the UK, is where currents converge and marine debris - 90% of it plastic - gathers.

The idea is the brainchild of David de Rothschild, founder of Adventure Ecology, and was inspired by Thor Heyerdahl's famed 1947 journey from Peru to Fiji on the balsa raft Kon-Tiki. Plastiki was conceived after the British explorer read a 2006 United Nations study estimating that 46,000 pieces of plastic are floating on every square mile of ocean. When he reaches Sydney, de Rothschild plans to recycle the vessel.

The project is also a showcase for the technology that can be created by recycling.The yacht has solar panels, a composting lavatory, a hydroponic garden to grow food and two exercise bicycles to power communication systems. Read an interview with de Rothschild here and see a video about the making of Plastiki here.

Knut Haugland and the Kon-Tiki voyage

Knut Haugland, the last of the six crewment who crossed the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki balsawood raft in 1947 has died aged 92. Led by Norwegian anthropologist, Thor Heyerdahl, the expedition aimed to prove the theory that people from South America could have crossed the Pacific on such craft to settle in the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl came to this conclusion after recognising similar carvings in both locations and observing the steady westwards drift of clouds and ocean currents. Expert opinion stated that the expedition would fail, but after sailing over 4,000 miles, the raft made it from the coast of Peru to the Tuamotu Islands of French Polynesia.

Haugland's role aboard the Kon-Tiki was that of radio operator, keeping the outside world aware of the raft's stately progress during the long drift westwards on the currents off South America. Read more about his action-packed life here.

The expedition caught the popular postwar imagination and set a new benchmark for modern adventurers. In the wake of the Kon-Tiki's success there were numerous recreations of historical voyages. There was Tim Severin's Brendan Voyage, in which he sailed a leather-clad boat across the Atlantic, Hawaii's Hokule'a in which surfing legend Eddie Aikau died, and there was even the Guardian sponsored Vinland voyage. Led by journalist JRL Anderson, this retraced the 4000 mile route supposedly taken by Leif Eriksson from Greenland to an area near modern day Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, at the turn of the first millennium.

Interest in the Kon-Tiki really took off with the publication of the Heyerdahl's book of the voyage and an Oscar-winning film in 1950. The actual completion of the trip saw little more than a few news reports appearing in the Guardian, such as the following from August 12 1947.

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Friday, 25 December 2009

Christmas day, Bredwardine

Just a bit of snow and sunshine in Herefordshire today, but explorers and adventurers have found themselves in some outlandish places on Christmas Day, without the usual home comforts. Away at Christmas, a new book of contemporary diary extracts chronicles their experiences.

For example, in 1768, the British explorer Captain James Cook set sail from Portsmouth in the barque HMS Endeavour. He had been commissioned by King George III and the
Royal Society to observe the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. On this his first voyage of discovery in the South Seas he was accompanied by the botanist Joseph Banks, who wrote on Christmas Day:

"All good Christians that is to say all good hands get abominably drunk so that at night there was scarce a sober man in the ship, wind thank God very moderate or the Lord knows what would have become of us."

Or, in 1835 Sir John Ross (1777-1856) a Scottish rear admiral and Arctic explorer whose description of Christmas - quite rightly - focused almost exclusively on his stomach.

"Christmas Day was made a holiday in all senses. In the cabin dinner, the only fact worth remarking was a round of beef which had been in the stores for eight yearsand which,with some veal and cooked vegetables, was as good as the day on which it was cooked.

I know not whether the preservation of this meat, thus secured, be interminable or not; but what we brought home is now, in 1835, as good as when it went out from the hands of the maker, of whatever be his designation, the Gastronome for eternity in short, in 1827. If it can be kept so long without the slightest alteration, without even the diminution of flavour in such things as hare soupand purée of carrots, why may it not endure for ever, supposing that the vessels themselves be perdurable?"

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Cycling Home From Siberia

In an age when 'solo' adventure usually means having a film crew and support team in tow, it's refreshing to come across someone who really did explore totally on their own. Back in 2004, Rob Lilwall booked a one-way plane ticket to far eastern Siberia and then start cycling home. For most of the journey it was just him and Alanis, his ten-year old steel-framed mountain bike.

Thirty thousand miles, and three and half years later he finally arrived back in London after surviving a Siberian winter, the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and war-torn Afghanistan. Cycling Home From Siberia is the tale of his adventure.

The former geography teacher's original plan was to get through Russia and then make his way back via the most interesting route he could find. He ended up taking a major detour around Australia and heading through Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran and eventually Europe. His friend, Alastair Humphreys accompanied him on the first stretch, and Lilwall would occasionally cycle with others but he was on his own when it came to carrying equipment, sorting out visas, arranging boats etc. With transport costs almost non-existent and accommodation either a tent by the roadside or staying with kindly strangers, the final cost of the - self-funded - trip was around £8,000. He also raised money for the children's charity Viva.

While it must be said that literally dozens of adventure travel books are published each year, Lilwall does have an original story to tell. Where others usually include a yarn or two about drunken scrapes with locals, he recounts visiting remote churches and joining congregations in prayer. This though can be an eye-opening stuff as it's rare to hear about persecuted Christians in China or the bullet dodging pastors in remote Papua New Guinea.

Lilwall has the odd tipple too and a story about drinking illicit wine with some teenagers in Iran provides a different view of the country. Above all he is good at creating a sense of place and maintains the momentum and excitement of life on the road through a very long trip.

The most exciting sections are when the intrepid cyclist is under pressure. In Siberia the sheer physical challenge of cycling through freezing temperatures and the race to reach the border before his visa expires, avoiding the 'rascals' in Papua New Guinea or crossing Tibetan checkpoints in the middle of the night. When cycling through Afghanistan you can almost feel Lilwall's fear. After being held at gunpoint in Russia, he quotes Humphreys as saying that when you travel solo, you are seen as a nomad. As soon as you start travelling in a pair, you begin to look like tourists - and tourists are usually the ones that get robbed.

Lilwall was constantly planning the next stages of the trip and updating his blog in internet cafes. These, he notes are to found in almost every town in the world, and that they’re all the same “full of clunky computers and pre-teenage boys playing zombie games”.

Cycling Home From Siberia is a mixture of adventure/endurance book, tale of a slightly eccentric Englishman abroad, a rite of passage, and spiritual journey, but most of all it's simply a great travel book that challenges you to get out of the armchair and onto your bike. Rob Lilwall is still using Alanis to get around London - probably the most dangerous cycling of his life.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Brockwell Lido Midwinter Swim

Saturday morning saw the annual Midwinter Swim take place at Brixton's Brockwell Lido. Over a hundred hardy (foolhardy?) South Londoners took to the freezing water, but only after the ice had been broken. Some frolicked in their bikinis while others were covered head to toe in Neoprene. I opted for the two width swim which felt fine until about 10 metres from the end when everything seemed to go into slow motion. Still, the sun was shining and the showers were hot.

Of course this was but a mere dip. With all the current talk about global temperatures rising and polar ice beginning to melt, I was reminded of Lewis Gordon Pugh's iconic swim in the Arctic. In July 2007 the former lawyer became the first person to complete a long distance swim at the Geographic North Pole, spending nearly 18 minutes in the sub-zero temperature water of a large crack in the ice. Pugh undertook the challenge to highlight the devastating effects of climate change - it was only made possible because over the past few years there has been a dramatic reduction in the extent and thickness of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Watch a video of the swim here.

Back to Christmas 2009 and the British newspapers have already started reporting on the winter dips in silly hats events that take place up and down the country. Today, the FT features some picturesque places to get your kit off, and the rest of Fleet Street will follow over the next week or so.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Exploration books of the decade

‘Tis the season for making lists. December is a time when newspapers fill their pages with end of year reviews, lists of celebrity divorces and outrageous quotes, and all the best films, books, CDs etc. This year the Guardian/Observer Research & Information team has been extra busy compiling end of the decade lists.

With this is in mind I've put together a list of a few of the books from the past decade that have left some sort of impression.

by Caroline Alexander
OK, so this came out at the end of 1999 but it made an impact in 2000. In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton set out on an audacious expedition to cross the Antarctic by foot. However, his ship, The Endurance, became frozen in pack ice and so Shackleton and his crew spent months drifting across the icy continent. When supplies ran low and tensions high, a small group set sail in one of the ship's lifeboats in search of rescue. After crossing 800 miles of the South Atlantic, the world's most tempestuous stretch of ocean, they finally reached the island of South Georgia. Help was near but only after Shackleton and two colleagues crossed over the island's uncharted mountains.

It is one of the 20th Century's greatest feats of endurance and while the story has been told many times, Caroline Alexander’s expert recounting of it, along with her intimate portraits of the characters, brings the events to life. It is of course Frank Hurley’s brilliant photographs, combined with her words that make this such an inspiring book.

by Joe Simpson
With the death of a close friend, Joe Simpson decides to turn his back on climbing big mountains - that is after he has done one last big one, the North Face of the Eiger. The Touching the Void author brilliantly splices his own experience with the stories and legends of the 'Mordwand', along with meditations on the deaths of friends and heroes. Above all though, he is a master at conveying the fear and exhilaration of actually climbing. At the beginning of the route you sense the joy of moving well and the thought that Simpson and his climbing partner might actually succeed.

This soon disappears when - halfway up the north face - they are hit by a thunderstorm. During the deluge, Simpson hears a strange, muffled sound: only later does he discover that this was the noise of the two climbers above him falling to their deaths. The couple retreat and perhaps for the first time he feels no sense of failure. He recognises, however, that the mountains will continue to exert their siren call: "There is about the mountain the beckoning silence of great height."

The book awakened an interest in the Eiger and on finishing it I re-read Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider. A few years later I also enjoyed John Harlin’s The Eiger Obsession, especially the sections about his father, who died while attempting the North Face Direct in 1966. For a taste of the Beckoning Silence see John Crace's digested read.

by Jim Perrin
The 'warts and all' biography of Don Whillans, one of Britain's greatest, if most controversial climbers. As Jim Perrin puts it in the introduction "This is a tale of squandered talent, and a life that was to far too great an extent soured by resentment." It was a life though that saw great achievements on rock, and, even if Whillans’s high altitude expeditions often ended in failure, friend and foe acknowledged his brilliance - as well as being a firm hand in dangerous situations.

The Villain is a great book in part because it is a history of British climbing over the past 50 years. But Perrin's meticulous research (not to mention detailed footnotes), knowledge of the subject plus sublime writing ensures that it sets new standards in biography writing.

by Nando Parrado
The story of how a team of Uruguayan rugby players survived a plane crash in the remote snowy peaks of the Andes, in October 1972, is well know. Piers Paul Read's Alive is the definitive book about the ordeal but Nando Parrado's first person account more than complements it. Even though I knew what happened and how, of course, the team survived, it was - cliche coming – very hard to put down. The tale made it into Those Who Dared in part because of the cannibalism, but more because of Parrado's amazing climb over an Andean peak to seek rescue.

by Geoff Powter
Geoff Powter, a practicising clinical psychologist, examines the lives and motivations of 11 would be heroes using previously unpublished evidence. The list includes Robert Falcon Scott, Donald Crowhurst, and John Franklin, as well as lesser known figures.

Powter points out that throughout history, literature has painted its greatest adventure heroes ‘not as invincible heroes, but as flawed souls redeemed by the hardship of their passage’. The troubled can be ‘drawn by the promise of heroics, redemption and acclaim’. Most interesting are the chapters on Aleister Crowley, the occultist and rather good climber, and Maurice Wilson, an Englishman who, in 1934 , died trying to climb Everest on his own.

by Michael Kodas
While Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air shed light on the darker side of the Everest industry, High Crimes is a fully blown expose. In Michael Kodas's view the slopes of the mountain are rife with theft and drug use while base camp is like a lawless wild-west town complete with prostitutes. High up on the mountain incompetent guides ignore dying climbers so eager are they to plant their flags on the summit.

High Crimes is by far the most depressing book I've ever read about mountaineering. I didn‘t particularly enjoy it, but acknowledge that Kodas’s account acts as a counterbalance to many of the triumphalist tomes of the genre.

by Nicholas Murray
Whether they were going for fame, adventure, religious reasons, or to sample foreign brothels, countless travellers used the British Empire as the reason for exploring the globe. Drawing on their own unique and colourful accounts, Nicholas Murray presents the world as seen through Victorian eyes.

All the big names of the era - Livingstone, Stanley, Burton etc - are included but it's the lesser known figures who make this book such a delight. It also includes a number of female explorers. A highly entertaining read that provided a number of suggestions for Those Who Dared.

I also enjoyed Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. Finally, Ronald Turnbull’s The Book of the Bivvy, a pocket-sized guide that could possibly stand you in good stead if ever forced to survive in the open. Oh, and, as I’ve mentioned before, The Fall is a fine novel.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Historical map collection

Serious cartographers will already be familiar with the David Rumsey Map Collection but for the first time since its launch in 1999, the website has been completely redesigned and updated. The historical collection has over 21,000 maps and images online, 200 of which can be viewed in a browser-based version of Google Earth. Users can also enter the site via a Second Life Portal, and a demonstration can be seen here.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Decade of adventure

Despite the fact that even the world's most remote spot has been discovered, there are still plenty of challenges left for the modern day explorer - at least if the past decade is anything to go by. The Noughties: a decade of adventure, in Saturday's Daily Telegraph, lists everything from the first ascent of Ama Dablam's north-west ridge by two young British alpinists, to Jason Lewis who pedalled across the Pacific Ocean. It's a very good list although including Cheryl Cole's climb up Kilimanjaro seems a little strange.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Eddie Would Go

With waves of up to 50ft heading for Hawaii, surfing conditions have been deemed good enough for the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau. This is a surfing contest that only takes place when the waves at Waimea Bay remain at a sustained 20ft-plus (measured Hawaiian-style from the back of the wave, or 40ft from crest to trough.) It was last held in 2004. See Andy Martin's piece in the Independent.

Since the event was founded 25 years ago- in honour Eddie Aikau, a Hawaiian lifeguard who disappeared in 1978 while trying to rescue passengers on a capsized canoe - it has been held only seven times. Eddie Would Go tells the story.

Fred Botterill

Botterill’s Slab, high on Scafell in the Englsih Lake District, was one of the first rock climbing routes in the UK to be graded Very Severe (see previous post). Created in 1903 by Leeds climber, Fred Botterill, this week’s Footless Crow reproduces an account of the first ascent, taken from the Yorkshire Rambers Club Journal 1903/04.

It was while climbing on The Napes crag's Eagle's Nest Ridge, another test piece of the day, that Botterill was involved in an accident that saw the lead climber, Thomas Rennison, fall to his death. Following this, Botterill gradually withdrew from the crags.

The Manchester Guardian reported the inquest into the accident and it makes fascinating reading to see just how unprotected climbers were in the early days of the sport. Much more about this in The Guardian Book of Mountains.

Manchester Guardian, September 28 1909:

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Thursday, 10 December 2009

Missionary memoirs

One of the books that I'm reading at the moment is Cyling Home From Siberia, Rob Lilwall's tale of his epic 30,000 mile cycle ride back to the UK via Siberia, Japan, Australia and Europe. There'll be more on the book in a future postingbut I was interested by some comments he makes about Christianity in China, while cycling down the eastern side of the country.

Prior to communism (1949), China was a popular destination for Western missionaries. This was something that became apparent as I started sifting through the Guardian/Observer archives for
Those Who Dared. Books by missionaries recounting their attempts at converting the heathens of the world were regularly reviewed, at least in the early part of the 20th Century.

Forget about the modern misery memoir - these tales make seriously depressing reading. Take With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple (1902), the 'pathetic story' of Susie Carson Rijnhart and her missionary husband in Tibet. On the long road a journey to Llasa, their child died, transport beasts broke down, they were abandoned by guides and finally Mr Rijnhart was murdered by robbers. At least it resulted in a book that, as the reviewer put it, was 'above the average of missionary narratives'.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Swimming across the Hellespont

I came across Robson Green's Wild Swimming Adventure on ITV, last night. It could have done with a little more of Robson actually swimming, rather than waffling on about it, and the filler stuff about how well he fills his trunks should have been cut.

However, all was forgiven with the final swim in Snowdonia's Llynn LLydaw, the coldest lake in Britain. Anyone who's tried a bit of open water swimming will know exactly how the Geordie actor felt as he staggered out of the water after covering a kilometre 'bareback' in the freezing water.

Next week's episode includes a swim across the Gulf of Corryvreckan with the assistance of
SwimTrek's Simon Murie. In fact SwimTrek have just emailed to say that next year sees the bicentennial of Lord Byron's swim across the Hellespont (now called the Dardanelles), the fabled strait which connects the Aegean Sea in the north-east to the Propontis (Sea of Marmora), and divides Europe from Asia.

Following the swim, on May 3 1810, Byron wrote, Written After Swimming from Sestos to Abydos. My favourite verse is:

For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I've done a feat to-day

There was little about the swim in the Observer (the Guardian started publishing in 1821), but 11 years later, it published a letter from Byron where he defended himself against the accusation that he swam the easiest route across the Hellespont. Apparently Leander, the lover from Greek mythology who swam the strait to meet his mistress Hero, did it both ways, with and against the tide. Some people are never satisfied.

Observer, April 30 1821:
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Monday, 7 December 2009

Ornulf Opdahl: Mood Paintings of the North

Few landscape painters seem to be able to combine both the brooding menace and attraction of mountains on the same canvas. One who does is Ornulf Opdahl whose paintings of the Sunmore mountains and fjords of the western coast of Norway, despite being full of dark skies and barren landscapes, look very inviting. That said, even when he uses light, such as the sun illuminating the side of a mountain, it feels like a momentary break in bleak weather, while any evidence of human activity is dwarfed by the natural world around it.

For a glimpse of this world visit Ornulf Opdahl: Mood Paintings of the North, a major exhibition at London’s Kings Place.

One painting in particular that caught my eye was The Mountain Ramoen 2009. Interested to know more about the peak, also known as Jonshornet, I discovered that the first known ascent was made by the British climber Geoffrey Hastings in 1889 - although he did find a cairn on the summit. Hastings features in Norway: The Northern Playground (1904), by the alpinist Cecil Slingsby, one of the first guides to mountaineering in the country. And, thanks to the Internet Archive, it can be read here.

Sir Edmund Hillary

While Sir Edmund Hillary will always be known as the conqueror of Everest (along with Tenzing Norgay), his achievements post June 1953 were arguably more impressive. He not only climbed 10 other peaks in the Himalaya, went to the North and South Poles, but his charity work in Nepal - of which he was most proud of - greatly improved the welfare of the Sherpa people.

Hillary raised money to develop schools and hospitals as well as being one of the first to start talking about protecting the environment around Everest. See Frank Brown's article in the Financial Times where he describes the former bee-keeper as "a real model for our leaders of tomorrow".

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The discovery of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu

Peter Harvey, one of the co-discovers of the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system in south Wales, died recently aged 88. Meaning the 'Cave of the Black Spring', it is the deepest and third longest in the UK. This magnificent network of passages was first revealed to Harvey, and fellow caver Ian Nixon, on the August bank holiday of 1946, and it was to become Britain's first underground National Nature Reserve.

There is little in the Guardian and Observer archives about the Harvey and Nixon find but there are several pieces about EA Martel's discovery of Gaping Ghyll in 1895, as well as a book review of Norbert Casteret's My Caves, by George Orwell.