The night train thunders past. The vibrations shake the ground I am lying on through my small inflatable mattress. My head rests on my rucsack. From the darkness I snatch glimpses into the brightly lit carriages. As suddenly as it arrived, the train is gone. The darkness and the silence it leaves behind feel more enormous and enveloping than before. Gradually my eyes readjust to the fainter glow of the spectacular cauldron of stars above me. Slowly my ears tune in once more to the tropical sounds of night – insects chirruping, the far-off bark of a village dog. I am alone, in a field beside a railway line in India. My evening meal was rice, just rice, cooked on a tiny fire of twigs. My mosquito net is draped from a small tree. I am hot and sweating. I am sleepy after a long, hard day. Nobody on earth knows that I am here. I feel like the happiest man on earth.
I was walking the length of one of southern India’s holiest rivers, the Kaveri. The plan was simple, like all good expeditions. I would follow the course of the river from the sea to its holy source amongst the coffee and cardamom plantations in the cool hills of the Western Ghats. I was travelling light, carrying only a small pack. I had deliberately done negligible research about the route in order to make the experience as spontaneous and surprising as possible. I had no idea what I would encounter along the way. I had chosen a region of India not often frequented by tourists as experience has taught me that you have an infinitely more interesting, enjoyable and safe experience if you do this. Whilst determined to carry the very minimum of gear I also wanted to carry all that I required to allow me to be able to eat, sleep, navigate and cope even if there were no villages or people around. Everything needed to be lightweight, versatile and high quality.
Perhaps the most important item of equipment for a long walk is your footwear. Having completed the Marathon des Sables ultramarathon the year before I chose to wear trainers for my walk rather than boots. I would be travelling light and moving fast and decided that the comfort of trainers outweighed the support given by boots. I discovered the benefits of using personalised orthotic insoles in my running shoes a few years ago. They seem quite expensive at first but have totally eliminated joint pain and injury. They are worth every penny. I always get my running shoes from specialist running shops: thousands of high-impact strides each day are too important to be borne by cheap trainers.
The choice of rucsack is important. Too large and sturdy means you carry unnecessary weight; too small and you waste time with the irritation of trying to squeeze everything in. I decided to use my 24 litre pack from the Sahara marathon. It is very lightweight with useful elastic meshing on the outside for a few extra bananas or to dry your washing. At the last moment I changed my mind and instead took a larger bag. I would have space to carry several days’ food and water with me, giving me a much larger range of independence. In the end this proved to be the wrong choice: I was never more than a day away from a village on my walk, but I was not to know that beforehand. I had at least transferred the front pouch from my ultramarathon pack onto the front waist strap of the larger pack. Rather than constantly having to take the pack on and off it gave me ready access to my camera, snacks and water bottles.
My choice of clothing for the trek was based on a balance between comfort and cultural sensitivity. I took lightweight, quick-drying trousers and two office-type shirts that I bought from a charity shop for a couple of pounds. My arrival in remote villages caused sufficient amazement and hilarity without me adding to it by turning up in clothing the locals would have deemed at best comical, at worst offensive. I changed my shirt at night when I also wore a pair of flip flops and a locally bought [italics] lungi [close italics], a simple cotton garment wrapped round the waist which also doubled as my towel and pillow. With hot, dry weather virtually guaranteed I carried no waterproof or warm clothing. Such a tiny wardrobe kept the weight of my pack down. Being dirty was a small price to pay for this!
I was relaxed about where I slept on my walk. After walking 20 to 40 miles in 40 degree heat I knew I could sleep well anywhere. Some nights I slept in villages, staying with people who met me and invited me to spend the evening with their family. In small towns I stayed in the cheap lodge that you always find by the bus station. I never paid more than £2 for the night, a price well worth paying for the luxury of a bucket of cold water to pour over your head after a day on the shimmering road. One night I slept on the cool concrete floor outside a temple, another night in the starlit paddy field. Carrying a tiny Therm-a-rest mattress, a silk sleeping bag liner and a mosquito net ensured that I was armed for sleep wherever I happened to be at nightfall.
I packed a tiny 0.85 litre cooking pot that weighed just 118 grams. That, plus a plastic medicine spoon and a flint to make sparks was the total of my kitchen. I lit fires from twigs, using pages from my reading book as kindling. However in the end I hardly ever cooked my own food. It was far easier, tastier, and more sociable to eat in the numerous tiny cafes I passed. I would fill up on all-you-can eat rice meals, served on broad green banana leaves and eaten with your fingers and buy a bunch of tiny, sweet bananas to keep me going until the next village.
I filled my water bottles at village pumps and also packed a 10 litre water bag in case I needed to carry additional quantities. Iodine is becoming frowned upon as a water-purifying chemical for health reasons, though I have used it happily, in small bursts, on my travels for 15 years now. It is reliable, a tiny bottle lasts for weeks, and you can buy additional supplies in any village chemist across the developing world for pennies. A less controversial purifying option would be a filter, though these are expensive, much heavier, and can clog and stop working with very dirty water. Whatever option you choose, anything is preferable to relying on expensive bottled water and the terrible rubbish problem created by the plastic bottles.
I had originally planned to film the expedition. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that I could not afford a decent video camera and that I did not have the skill or technical know-how to do the project justice, I decided that filming the journey would compromise much of its spirit of pure and simple adventure. I always strive when I am in poor countries (and the India I experienced was light years away from the parts of urban India that are currently booming) to try to minimise the obvious disparities in material wealth that exist between me and the people I meet along the way. Flashing a movie camera around was unlikely to help me with this. So I decided to focus on creating audio slideshows instead, using a compact audio recorder to capture sounds from my journey. Using the very simple Soundslides computer software I was able to combine these sound clips with photographs to create, in minutes, simple but powerful stories from my journey without compromising any of the spirit of adventure of the walk itself.
The Kaveri river – my river – led me through varied scenery and scenarios. It was beautiful and it was hard work. I met kind and interesting people. I danced at a festival where men walked with spikes through their faces and ladies twirled with jars of fire on their heads. But I broke no world records nor discovered anything new to mankind. I simply had an adventure. I bought a plane ticket for £300, changed just £200 into Rupees and flew to India carrying only hand luggage. A simple adventure. And as the train raced by through the tropical night air I felt so grateful to be sleeping in a field in Tamil Nadu, self sufficient and carrying on my own back all the essential kit I needed for a classic adventure on foot.
This article first appeared in Geographical magazine.