Dave Cornthwaite is a handsome adventurer, author, film-maker and much more besides. He looks a bit like me. I asked him a few questions about his life:
Dave: I started off with a skateboard from John O’Groats to Lands End, which was a mere warm up for my skateboarding across Australia jaunt, which took me five months.
Then I kayaked the Murray River for two and a half months, tandem bicycled from Vancouver to Vegas with no experience on a tandem whatsoever. Or indeed, traveling with an Australian. I stand-up-paddle-boarded the Mississippi, sailed the Pacific, rode a bike car from Memphis to Miami and swam a thousand miles. There’s a few more, but it’s getting boring. [links here]
Alastair: Crossing Australia was your first massive one. What I have noticed is that right from the start you did that with a support van and a crew of people along with you. I think most people on their first trip just go off on their own and do it. But you like doing collaborative stuff. Is that fair?
Dave: I think half of the trips I’ve done have been either solo or with just one other person. I’ve done two trips with support teams. The first one, the skateboard, had three vans. I still don’t have a driver’s license at the age of 34, but I bought my first three vehicles when I was 26!
I don’t think I’m ever going to do a thousand-mile expedition with a big team anymore. It can be quite problematic, especially when you don’t have a budget to get really experienced people in. So I’m going to keep it small or solo from now on.
Alastair: Really? Oh that’s interesting. I’ve never done anything with a support crew, and I think that’s partly because I am an anti-social introvert, partly because I’m tight, and partly because I’m disorganised.
Dave: I think I echo all of your fine abilities there. Sometimes I’m overcome with this need to give people their first step into an expedition, and sometimes being with them during that trip enables them to take that first step a little more easily.
But then you realise once you’re in the middle of a big river or in a remote desert in Australia that, if it’s their first time away, especially to a remote part of the world, about 50% of people have a tendency to just fall apart, especially in tense circumstances. When you’ve skateboarded or swum 40 or 50 miles that day you really don’t have the energy to deal with it, and things drastically go downhill. We’ll leave it at that.
Alastair: Fair enough! (laughing) I want to talk about your Expedition1000, which is 25 human-powered journeys of a thousand miles. The point being that 25 times 1000 is the distance around the equator. It’s kind of a journey around the world through all these different means. Is that a good summary?
Dave: Yeah, that’s not bad at all. You’ve done your research.
Alastair: Thank you. I think it’s a brilliant idea and, from the moment I heard of it, I was quite jealous. Because firstly, it’s really difficult as a professional adventurer to keep a series of things building up. I think that’s what’s really good about that, it’s such a long going project. But are you enjoying that, or is it a curse?
Dave: No, I love it. I think I’ve always struggled to commit to things. When I came up with this project I knew it was going to last ten to fifteen years. I needed it, I’d done a big skateboard journey and then hated the idea of spending another few months dodging big vehicles on the road, so I decided to do a kayak trip.
Then after that I realised I wanted to make adventure a career. Well, I wanted to give it a go. So how do you start mingling most varieties of transports in? I came up with Expedition1000 as a conclusion to that. Every trip is so different, and I don’t in any way feel obliged to do a trip. I’ve still got 15 left, but I’m not in any hurry to tick them off. I think if I ever became in a hurry then I’d start seeing it as a curse.
Alastair: I spoke earlier to Graham Hughes who was the first guy to go to ever country in the world overland, which took him four years to do. The first year he did about 130 countries. The next year he did about 50 countries, and then it took him the next two years to do 17 countries, partly because this mission did start to feel a little bit like a curse, and also because he had the nightmare countries to finish off at the end.
Dave: I think that always has to be borne in mind. I really don’t think I’ll ever get bored of this. It’s in many ways given me a focus and identity, which I don’t think I could dismiss out of hand.
Alastair: I think what I really like about Expedition1000 is that it’s journeys with a purpose. Each one taken on their own is just some slightly random adventure like all of us do, but when you tie them together it becomes not pointless but meaningful.
Dave: Yes, absolutely. I think some of the individual trips have had their own purpose, whether it’s a fundraising mission or maybe a world record as it was right from the beginning with the skateboard. It’s lovely that they can all just tie into this greater project as it were. So I could go off and do an adventure just because I feel like going and having a bit of a camp and paddle.
Alastair: Or a camp paddle.
Dave: Or a camp paddle, you know. I’m on the lookout for a partner for a camp paddle. Maybe you’d like to join me?
Alastair: I think one of the things you’re really good at is combining adventure with stories. Something I like about adventure in general is the massive spectrum from the grizzled hard man with beards and no Twitter account who just climb epic mountains, all the way to adventure teetering into travel. It’s a huge spectrum. And what you do fantastically is the storytelling side of it. So what makes for a good idea for an adventure?
Dave: I think a good idea for an adventure starts with just that little fizzle of chemistry in your gut, when you wake up one morning and go, “My God, this is it. You know, I just have to do it. It just feels right.” I find that if you go with your instinct 99 times out of 100 it ends up being a pretty cool thing.
Then of course for me having this lovely A to B, this simple geographical/distance goal, I get excited about that. I’m a little bit OCD and I like numbers just to round things off. So everything I do, you know, fifty ways to make fifty pounds, a thousand-mile adventures, it feels nice and it’s easy to explain as well.
Then along the way there has to be a story. I kind of like travelling in places where there are populations even if they’re small, because I think I’ve learned more from people than I ever have from books or films. The stories that everybody has to share are really worthwhile even if they don’t think so at the time.
Alastair: There’s a definite thing with a trip in terms of how easy it is to explain and whether a trip resonates with people. What I notice from myself, when I crossed Iceland a few years ago by foot and packraft, it was one of my very favourite expeditions, one of the most challenging, one of the most beautiful, and yet when I talk about it, in my talks I can just see people glaze over. It just doesn’t resonate for some reason.
Dave: Why is that do you think?
Alastair: I don’t know. Obviously it wasn’t a huge long epic like going around the world, but other short things I’ve done, I’ve talked about and people find them interesting. But no one has any interest in that at all, to the point where I don’t bother talking about it now. I skip through some pretty pictures, but don’t even mention it.
Dave: That’s such a shame, isn’t it? You and I both have been doing this for a few years and I still feel like I’m an infinity away from working out the right alchemy of telling a story. How are people more interested in you walking around the M25 than packrafting across Iceland? I don’t know. I mean, at the same time I love the M25 story.
Alastair: The M25 story is second to my going around the world story, without a doubt. All of the others ones, rowing the Atlantic, stuff like that, they don’t really care about. They like cycling around the world, I think because it took me a long time. Then they like the M25.
The M25 leads me onto this: when you’re trying to have an idea for an adventure, you need to get some sort of balance between being novel, slightly unique and interesting versus being a pointless gimmick. Do you agree?
Dave: Yeah, I think so. I also have the added struggle of balancing when I get some rest after a journey. I don’t have a home, and apart from maybe two spells when I’ve spent two months in Zanzibar and Malaga writing books in the last two years, I haven’t been anywhere for longer than a week and a half or two weeks. And that’s a rare stint, as well.
So I’m always looking for the next step, the next opportunity, whether it’s a chance to give a few talks here and there and then an opportunity will come. For example to give a talk in Germany and I’ll think “there’s no way I’m flying back to the U.K. after that”, so I’ll just do another journey. With Expedition1000, I think my doubt whether something is a relevant trip has lessened a little bit because, like you say, it fits into this larger project.
Alastair: I think that’s the really brilliant thing of it, that you’re building up a portfolio of stories. Perhaps the problem with my Iceland one is it’s just an isolated thing unlike anything I’ve done before or since. Some of your trips on their own, I think if they were on their own, would teeter over into the novelty thing, which to be honest, I wouldn’t be very interested in. So for example that bikecar you cycled: without it fitting into your Expedition1000, I don’t think that journey alone would stand up to much in terms of how interested people were in the tale.
Dave: Yeah, I think you could be right, although apart from the swim, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Alastair: And you nearly died.
Dave: Yeah, and that, but let’s not dwell on that. I think part of a beautiful way to live adventurously is to tie every opportunity and decision into a potential journey, and it doesn’t have to be 1000, it could be something a little smaller, so making the most of your time when you’re in a specific place. As much as possible, I try and avoid flying, so getting from one talk to the next and having to take on one of these big journeys, that’s just all part of the game now.
Alastair: Your trips often seem to involve you having fun with beautiful women somewhere, whereas mine seem to be just a miserable penance and a suffer fest. What am I doing wrong?
Dave: Well I don’t know. I think there’s a phase of your decision-making process which is obviously faulty!
Alastair: You are an ideal candidate to talk to for my Adventure1000 idea (which I’ve only just realised almost steals your name of Expedition1000!). Partly for the stuff we’ve been talking about, about how to come up with an idea, because I think people generally do struggle with that a little bit, unless it’s something obvious like going to climb Everest. But you are the ideal candidate for this, because you claim you used to be a massive loser!
An unhappy guy with a normal job, a normal life, and then you got out of that and started doing adventures, which is brilliant, and exactly what I’m trying to promote. It could possibly have been that you paused your job and did a big trip, and then went back to your normal life feeling a little bit more fulfilled. I suspect that is what most people who dream of adventures will do. When and why did you decide to try to turn it into a job?
Dave: I’m always wary of calling it a job, because I feel like I haven’t done a job since I quit my job in April 2005. I decided to do it after my second journey, which was the kayak on the Murray. In the three-year period between finishing the skateboard and doing that kayak journey, I was absolutely determined to do anything and everything that I really liked or thought I might like.
So I just tried a lot of things. I lived super cheaply. I learned to just downsize my life and limit my outgoings, which I think is a nice lesson overall. I think it ties in perfectly with Adventure1000 in terms of saving money and showing how easy it is to live on a shoestring, not being surrounded by all of this material stuff, which just tends to empty our bank accounts anyway. And we don’t need it.
In terms of coming up with an idea, I think with your first big trip, there seems to be this need to break a record or really prove yourself, or flex your muscles a little bit. I’d really encourage people not to bother with that stuff, because I think the most interesting trips are the most genuine ones, and more and more when I hear about world record attempts I just think, “I don’t really understand”.
I was in exactly the same boat. I felt like I needed to break a world record in order to prove something to myself and to other people maybe, and almost to get attention, but I realize now that it’s the last thing that I really want to do. It really takes away from the enjoyment of the trip itself. So I think that’s the first stage: don’t worry about what other people think. Do it for yourself, it’s that old cliche.
Alastair: But if you want to make it your career or your life then you need people to pay attention…
Dave: True. So it’s striking that balance, and I think I’ve been lucky enough to just have happened upon this really weird project, which means at some point I am going to break a world record because no one has travelled that far by unicycle.
Alastair: You’ve already broken quite a few records, haven’t you?
Dave: Yeah, I have. But I think the only ones I really went for were the ones on the skateboard. After that the ones that happened that definitely weren’t part of my list of priorities. They were obviously nice, and if you are going to break a world record, then make the most of it in terms of generating attention.
I find most adventures, not all, but most that are centred around world records quite boring now, especially distance related ones, because all you need is time. If you give yourself more time then you can go further than anybody else.
Alastair: Ha, that’s true! I agree. I’m not interested in records just for the sake of them. I love journeys that are at the truly epic end of the scale, like stuff like walking the length of the Amazon. I love those sorts of things, but he did that trip not to be the world record, he did it because he wanted to just do epic shit.
Dave: Yeah, totally. I think that’s awesome, and may be epic shit should be the determinant. What’s epic? Let’s just do it.
Alastair: Otherwise just do something that you want to do.
Dave: Yeah, and I think, if you do want to make a career out of it, if it’s not kind of a little semester out from your work just to give yourself a refreshing break, then the key is you. Every single one of us is original in the way we translate our trips and come up with our ideas and meet people along the way, and the messages and the lessons we learn and then share. I think it’s absolutely essential to keep that relevance and never forget to just be yourself.
Alastair: One thing you said that was interesting, was that there are basically two ways you can live life. You can either earn enough money to live your life, or you don’t spend any money and live your life.
You’ve touched on that, that you’ve gone for the option of being location independent. But on the other side of it, how do people make money as an adventurer? I don’t mean money to get rich. I mean money to make it a viable career?
Dave: Well I don’t think anybody’s going to make money to get rich as an adventurer.
Alastair: Bear Grylls? Ben Fogle? How do you pay for your life as an adventurer?
Dave: I get by through speaking fees and book sales mostly. I’ve started to look at other options. I think a little bit more sponsorship is on the way in now and I haven’t really had a financial sponsor throughout my time. I’ve always really tried to start off with the idea of an adventure and how I can pretty much do it for free, and then work its way up.
Obviously everything costs a little bit, but the absolute key for me isn’t how you earn your money, it’s how little you spend. If I had a house and a job I definitely couldn’t afford to do what I love. That’s the compromise that I’ve chosen to make and the compromise is ongoing.
You know, I still can’t afford to have my own base and I crave having a little shed like yours, or just somewhere where I can go and think. I know where my tent lives and I know where my bag of stuff can go once I unpack it, but at the same time I’ve become really good at just making home literally for a night. I try and unpack my stuff, even if I’m in my tent I take everything out of my bag and just put it in a place, just so I feel like I’m at home.
Alastair: That’s interesting.
Dave: So there are different ways to get around that: spend little.
Alastair: Yes. When I cycled the length of Japan I realized that I was way out of my budget, so I just bought giant multi packs of instant noodles, and you can get free hot water from petrol stations, and I ate nothing but hot noodles for about two months.
Then I stayed with a family and randomly the lady decided she wanted to test my blood pressure. It had just gone through the roof from just eating crap carbohydrates and MSG for however long. That was exactly my philosophy; if I don’t spend any money here then I can cycle through the most expensive country in the world.
Dave: Yeah, exactly. Anybody can do it; you just have to downsize your expectations of what you actually have to spend. I started off, in 2011 I paddled the Mississippi, and I flew out there. I met somebody who was happy to offer me discounted flights, because she was a stewardess. And I got over to…
Alastair: Is there a story there?
Dave: Not today!
Alastair: OK, carry on…
Dave: I had £3000 in the bank for that journey. I ended up spending less than £450 in three months, because if you’re on a trip you just encounter the kindness of strangers. You might budget for maybe a couple of hotels. Gosh, I just ended up maybe five out of seven days being invited into people’s homes or being given lunch. It was just an amazing experience, and that seems to just be a theme in every one of my trips.
Alastair: Is that not irresponsible scrounging off people who are working hard for their money?
Dave: Well you know, I think it comes down to all of this offering of kindness, whether you’re asking designers to put together a book cover for you, or you know, design an opening to a film. If people are willing to do it, happily… They can always say no and you wouldn’t hate them for it. But if people want to give, I think that’s a lovely way to share somebody else’s adventure. I think that’s why folks do it. I never say, can I please come in and will you give me some food and a bed, and I clearly need a shower? The offer is just there, and I’ve got so many friends from my trips, just because of that initial blast of kindness.
Alastair: That was a slightly unfair question because I do the same, but you also are giving back an interesting evening and exciting stories for something that’s a bit of fun and a break from their routine. So I think it’s a fair thing, and as you say, people don’t have to do it. People like to do it.
Dave: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s just a hard thing to evaluate, especially if you haven’t been through that situation, because there is not an obvious monetary exchange. That’s the way I’m trying to live. I try to barter as much as possible. I’d rather give a skill or you know… I still struggle with the idea of my company being a fair exchange for a meal, but for some people it seems to suit.
Alastair: A small meal.
Dave: Yeah, a tiny meal, maybe a boiled egg.
Alastair: Yes. When I started a few years ago I guess I went through the transition of managing to turn my adventures into something that paid for my life, which was a lot of work. But then it was really exciting when I got to the point where I could live from it.
Then, I guess as I started to do more and more, I started to get very competitive and I started to see other adventurers who were more successful than me, doing better things than me, earning more money than me, even getting more famous than me. I started to get really swallowed up by those benchmarks of success.
Then I heard on Radio 4 someone describing himself as a “working artist”, meaning an artist who works and earns enough money to live. That was a massive epiphany for me, to realize that being a working artist, somebody who earns money from it, is enough. He’s obviously not Leonardo Da Vinci, or Michelangelo, but then if everyone compares themselves to the Da Vinci of whatever life they do, then that’s just ludicrous.
So the question at the end of all of that was, how do you find comparing yourself against other adventurers or does that not bother you?
Dave: I think, after a week of not much sleep, sometimes you see one of your contemporaries who have done really well, and you think, “man, I wonder why I haven’t got that amazing book deal. I think I’m worth it.” At the same time you are right, we are essentially just working adventurers, and I don’t make my decisions based on anything else. I think if I tried to get National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, I think I’d the capacity to do it, but at the same time…
Alastair: I’m not sure you do… (laughing)
Dave: Well, maybe not. Sometimes though I see some awards being given out and I’m like, “My God, I would like to see one of these mothers doing that swim I did.” At the same time I have no qualms at all. I think it’s really a beautiful … it’s definitely not an industry, there’s not enough money in it, but just there’s a constant supportiveness even though everybody who is essentially a working adventurer is just putting together the pieces from the odd sale here and there.
They are always helping other folks. And I’ve lost count of the amount of hours, even this week, that I’ve spent just chatting to people and advising them on how to do their first trip. It becomes just a part of it, and that’s more rewarding than any award or book deal.
Alastair: I also think an important thing for people to realise when they’re setting out to try to become professional adventurers, which I get plenty of emails about and I’m sure you do as well, is also to remember that this phrase on your website, “the cheek of selective storytelling.”
Anyone who’s doing this for a living with a website and a blog and Facebook and Twitter, well you just put up the selected good bits of your life, don’t you?
Dave: Yeah, of course. I think mainly because behind the scenes there’s a hell of a lot of work.
Alastair: Well you say that you work more hours now than you did when you had a proper job.
Dave: Yeah, easily. I don’t see it as work though. Sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle and sometimes I wish there were more hours in the day, or that I could have a bit of a rest now and then.
If you have a larger purpose, even if you don’t quite get a sense of what it is sometimes, it’s worth putting those hours in. I live an absolutely beautiful life. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I think that’s something to strive for if you don’t have that. If I wasn’t living this life, I think I’d be trying to.
Alastair: I think that’s very cool. I’ve been having this ongoing email chain discussion with a friend of mine for years now. The subject line is Jack versus Specialist, and every few months one of us bounces back something on it, which is about being a jack of all trades versus being a specialist. I’m the Jack. He’s the specialist.
In the adventure world it’s really interesting the spectrum of things you can do along that range. For example, my friend, Ben Saunders, does polar trips, difficult, elitist polar expeditions and nothing else.
You on the other hand are a jack of all trades. Why?
Dave: I think it’s a fusion of not being willing to commit a huge amount of time to any one particular aspect of my work, and therefore I probably will never be an absolute master at any one of them.
I like that combination, and the time I spend on that combination is completely down to who I am and what choices I make. So I wish that I was better at things, and I’m doing a lot more with the film making side and that is exciting stuff now and I think it’s a beautiful medium to tell a story.
I’m surrounded by people who are so much better with a camera than I am, and so much better editors, but I can fudge together a half decent story now by myself, and I’m happy with that because I can compensate for my lack of film making ability in other areas, and that combination may be gives me a unique part of this world, I don’t know.
Alastair: I’m continually trying to make myself do fewer things, but do them better. That’s the constant struggle I have. I’m quite slapdash, and I want to do lots of things, and I want to do everything myself. So I’m trying to do fewer things but do them better. So to make myself feel better I go onto your website and I see, what do I see? I thought I’d remember, but there were so many I don’t remember them. Well at first I see all your expeditions, which is great.
Dave: You’re about to bring up a really crap film or something.
Alastair: I see you have all these expeditions, things like that, then you have, “Say yes” which is your sideline, which I think makes sense. Then you have things like your Date book, and 50 ways to make 50 pounds. Is this linked to adventure, or is it just something you do that’s fun?
Dave: A bit of both, I think. The 50 ways to make 50 pounds was a result of at the end of talks, there are always a lot of questions, and usually one or two are about money. Money is one of these big hurdles that often stops people going off and doing that first trip.
So it was kind of a way to have a lot of fun and experience of different types of jobs and see how different people live and what they do from Monday to Friday, but at the same time show that there are so many different ways that we can make money. And that if you’re not enjoying the way you make money now, your primary income, then don’t think that you’re stuck with it.
There is absolutely no point in spending your life doing something that makes you miserable. So that project was just a way to tell some more stories really, but also to just show there are so many jobs out there, and 50 isn’t really even scraping the surface.
Alastair: Also if you did 20 things to earn 50 quid – one on the weekend for six months – you’ve raised your £1000 for Adventure1000!
Dave: Yeah, totally. At the end of this little project I’ll have £2500, which I’ll do something really cool with. I’m not sure what yet, but just to show that.
Alastair: Give it to me?
Dave: Yeah, I could give it to you, buddy. Maybe you could talk to the people who give you all your awards and bribe them? (laughing)
Alastair: My final question is what’s a cool adventure you could do for £1000?
Dave: Here’s something I’ve been thinking about for all of two weeks, and I’m about to go and do it. I’d fly to Oslo and get a kayak sponsored so I don’t have to pay for it, and then I’d spend about six weeks going around the Swedish coastline, all the way from the Norway/Sweden border to the Finland/Sweden border.
Alastair: Very nice.
Dave: Yeah, I think it’s going to come in around 900 pounds all in.
Alastair: And I reckon for that 100 quid you could probably buy a crap kayak on e-Bay?
Dave: Yeah, maybe.
Alastair: Or borrow one.
Dave: There are lots of ways to get stuff for free, you just have to try.
Alastair: Thank you, Dave.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
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Thank you so much!