When I began Grand Adventures, I had a good hunch that you could do a decent trip for £1000. I was delighted then when Nic Conner got in touch to tell me that he had already done just that. I was eager to ask him some questions…
Alastair: I read somewhere the starting hypothesis of your adventure was, “how far could two normal boys from the UK get with only £1000?” What happened next?
Nic: Well, we only came up with the idea of going about six weeks before we left. I was having a phone call with my mate where we both said, “I’m bored. I’m fed up.” He said, “Look, we’ve been chatting for a year about doing something. Let’s just do it. Let’s get a date. When’s the first time we can hand our notices in and just go?”
We realised with our paychecks it wasn’t going to be too much of a budget we were going to be leaving on, so we thought, “Right. Let’s work with this and make it a challenge.” We had some grand illusions of probably spending a year, and it would probably be easier than we thought it was, but yeah, that was it. That was in March, and we set off from June 15.
Alastair: Six weeks from the idea to “go”?
Alastair: I like that. What were you doing beforehand?
Nic: I was working for the Big Issue. That’s what I do now, work with the homeless. My friend, John, was a professional athlete, but now he’s doing some personal training and stuff like that. And he was actually really inspired to do something, actually from your website. He went to a talk you did about microadventures, and he came back itching to do something. I think like a year later, we finally decided to go.
Alastair: Cool. Was he much fitter than you?
Nic: Oh, without doubt. This guy’s been skiing for Britain since the age of eight. He’s an athlete in all senses of the word.
Alastair: He’s a super-fit guy. Where are you on the spectrum?
Nic: I like my sport, but I wouldn’t call myself athletic. I certainly carry a bit more weight than him. That’s it. I’m not an athlete.
Alastair: OK, just a normal person.
Nic: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I have love handles, I like drinking beer, I quite like a burger now and then. I wouldn’t say I have a nutritionist or am out 5am every morning training.
Alastair: OK. So you had an idea. But why did you decide to do this?
Nic: I mean it’s a question of “why not?” really. I think it was an early mid-life crisis. We’re both 25, both wondering, “What are we doing with ourselves?” I say I am not fit, but I’ve always wanted to be an adventurer, you know? As a child, you always have those dreams of doing crazy stuff. So I’ve always wanted to do something. And it’s always so much easier talking about it or daydreaming. It was time to just do it. I want to do something, so let’s do something. Let’s do it.
Alastair: That’s very good to hear. You wanted to see how far you could get for £1000, which is the perfect, perfect case study for my Adventure1000 idea. So it was brilliant to hear of your adventure. How did the trip unfold? How did the reality compare to your preconceptions beforehand?
Nic: I think one preconception which came true was once I got out of Western Europe, it was so much cheaper. I was surprised by the amounts of generosity from others. And I want to say how hard it was, but I really have to say how easy it was if I’m honest, because that was the reality. I actually thought it would be much harder than it was. Food, especially when you got west, it was very cheap. We lived by quite a regimented, quite a structured way of spending, particularly with food.
Yeah, it wasn’t hard, you know. I would sleep in my tent, which was pretty easy, pretty much all the way, never had a day of hassle. So that’s accommodation. I had solar panels to charge my iPod, so I wasn’t using electricity.
I had the same diet pretty much the whole way through. It was cheap, but good. I’d have porridge in the morning; I’d mix in the coffee to save on the fuel. Again, fuel cost me one Euro every 10 days or so. I’d have pasta and beans every lunchtime and a loaf of bread for dinner. I probably would spend £10 every 15 days, plus fuel and food, at most.
Nic: Yeah. I mean it’s surprisingly cheap, I’d say. Surprisingly easier than I thought.
Alastair: You paint a very rosy picture of the ease of life on the road, once you’ve actually gone out the front door. One of the main concerns people have of going on their first big adventure is the safety side of things? How did you cope with that?
Nic: I’m trying to think now of any dodgy moments I had, but there really weren’t.
Alastair: Well that’s pretty common, I think, to everyone I speak to who’s done stuff, but equally, everyone I talk to who hasn’t done stuff but wants to, worries about the danger side of things.
Nic: I was dirty and smelly. I think people were more scared of me than the other way around. But why would anyone hassle you? If you’re out and about on a bicycle, you’re not a threat. People might be curious, because it might be an abnormal thing, seeing someone cycle through not part of the world.
And especially, I think once you leave Western Europe, people are slightly different. Not saying they’re good or criminals, but it’s much more of a commune sort of atmosphere where you are a stranger coming in on a bicycle, so it’s not the case of a rich guy rocking up. It’s more, “Oh, look at this guy. He’s very interesting.”
But danger-wise, I think you have to have common sense. Don’t walk around with lots of blingy stuff in certain areas.
Alastair: Sure. That’s good fashion advice, anyway.
Nic: Yeah, exactly!
Alastair: You cycled the long way through Russia. And as we all know now from the papers, Russia’s the new enemy again, an “evil country” led by an evil KGB man…
Alastair: How was the reality of Russia?
Nic: Because it’s so bloody cold, people look after each other. So they’re very hard men, and they’re very macho men, and they would come up to you and wouldn’t say a word, and look me up and down and look at the bike, and sort of nod and then walk off, and you’re like, “Oh, what’s going on here?” And then a minute later, he comes out with tomatoes, peppers, and maybe a little bit of vodka, and goes, “Here. Take this.”
Alastair: My memory of Russia was the same. Quite a gruff, abrupt place, but very, lovely people.
Alastair: Had you every done a silly, bold, epic thing like this before?
Nic: No, not really. The year before I went to cycle a bit of the Ridgeway, and that was one overnight.
Alastair: (laughing) That is hardly preparation for heading off around the world!
Nic: That’s about it, though. It was quite a spur-of-the-moment thing to do.
Alastair: You had to cobble together kit and stuff like that. How did you find the process of learning what stuff you would need to go around the world?
Nic: Well, I did my kit stuff the week before. There was a big sale in Covent Garden in the outdoor shops, and I just kind of went along and thought, “Oh, that looks interesting. I’ll buy it.” I got stuff I thought might be useful, like water filters, which I actually ended up not using at all.
Alastair: So it was not such a big deal?
Nic: If I was going tomorrow, all I would take is two pairs of cycling shorts, two shorts, two T-shirts, food, a tent, and my sleeping bag. That’s all you need, really. And a lot of bike stuff.
Nic: I would have definitely bought more inner tubes.
Alastair: OK. What happened to your friend, John? He gave up in Russia, didn’t he?
Nic: He is fundamentally a 10-year-old, so the idea of getting bitten by mosquitoes and not being able to have an ice cream every time he stopped just blew his mind. We’re still really good mates. It doesn’t really matter how fit you are. It’s the mental determination. And I think he wasn’t as committed as I was. He didn’t really want to do the trip, as it were. I mean, he wanted to do the trip, but wasn’t totally committed to it. I guess he wasn’t as determined as me. I mean, he did well. He cycled to Russia and then he cycled home.
Alastair: Oh, he turned around and cycled home?
Alastair: That’s cool!
Nic: By the time it took me to get from Moscow to Tokyo, he cycled home via southern Europe, met a girl, moved in with her, and started a business with her.
Alastair: Brilliant! I bring John up here because another thing that stops people committing to adventures is this fear that it’s such a massive decision. Whereas, in fact, if you go, and then think “this is a bit rubbish”, you can just give up, or in his case, turn around.
Nic: Oh, there’s no shame in it at all.
Alastair: Were there tensions between the two of you as your ideas started to differ?
Nic: Yeah. No one spoke about it though. I think we were both trying to compromise. Nearer the end, we began to spend a lot more. There were a few more ice creams. Yeah, there was a bit of compromise between the two of us.
Alastair: Would it have been better to just do it on your own?
Nic: Yeah, in hindsight. But I’d never done this before. John was an experienced cyclist. He’d done a lot of tours. So it was great to have him around, especially in the first couple of months. But yeah, if it was tomorrow, I’d start by myself.
Alastair: There are definite pros and cons of both. And so you set off from home to see how far you could get on £1000. You rode through Europe, across Russia, and through China, eventually to South Korea and Japan. Where did your money run out?
Nic: I think I had 15 quid left when I got to Tokyo. The thing is, by that point, when I got to Tokyo, it wasn’t, “Yes! I finished!” I was a bit annoyed, because I went the wrong way that morning, and I was tired. So there wasn’t really a big celebration. It was kind of, “I got here.” And I just went to bed.
Alastair: I always find at my trips that when I get to the end, it is suddenly, I’m completely disinterested. I’ve lost all interest in it. Because I’ve done it, and I knew then that it was possible. So I’ve never, ever ended a trip with elation really.
Nic: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a bit of a hangover from it. It’s like, when you get home, everyone wants to talk about it, and it’s the last thing I want to think about. I was trying to think more about the future. What am I going to do, you know? I need to get a job. I need to get a flat.
Alastair: What has life held for you since you finished?
Nic: Well, it’s kind of slipped back into my old life. I got back, and a job back at the Big Issue. And then my flat-mate was moving out of my old flat, so I moved back into his room. So it really is exactly where I left off.
Alastair: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
Nic: I’ve planned about six other expeditions I want to do. I see myself as in a holding phase. I’m not laying down any plans, because I’m very keen to get away.
Alastair: You began this because it was an early mid-life crisis. I think this is a very, very common reason for going off on an adventure. Did going off, doing the trip, and then returning to your same life as before, did that to a degree, scratch the itch?
Nic: I wanted to go and do something a bit silly, and that was me going to do something a bit silly. But it has widened my eyes to other things which you can do. I definitely want to do more cycling trips. I mean, it’s definitely fixed one itch, but it might have made a rash on the other leg…
Alastair: Your next trips, will they involve the budget constraints as well? Do you like that aspect of adventure?
Nic: I apply it to my normal life every day now. But I really want to go to Western Europe with a lot of money! Nice Dutch tour, nice hotels, coffee breaks three hours at a time… (laughing)
Alastair: When I was coming towards France on my own bike trip, which was quite a tight budget too, I used to dream of being able to sit in a French café and eat croissants and drink coffee. And I promised myself that the very first café I got to in France, I would treat myself to that. I remember it so clearly to this day, after years of scrimping and saving, to treat myself in that café was just magical.
Nic: Yeah, I can imagine!
Alastair: Can you give me a few tips for living cheap on the road? How did you get from England all the way to Japan, all these extraordinary memories and stories for just £1000?
Nic: You have to be disciplined. I remember a time when I was in a cafe in Russia, I couldn’t see anything all day, because it was so rainy, and it was quite a hilly day. I was soaking wet. And I was tempted to book into a hotel. But I thought, “well I could spend that money, or I could just put my tent up”. And I’m so happy I did [go for the tent], because I would have regretted it. I went out, put my tent up, and I was fine once I dried off. So, you do have your moments of weakness, but actually, in the long run, it’s better to resist.
Don’t be silly. Don’t damage yourself, don’t not eat, but it’s surprising the amount of food you can eat for little money. I had lots of pasta, a lot of bread. I didn’t have spread on my bread. You know, you may have to give up that luxury.
Alastair: Well, one question I’ve always asked everyone on this series of interviews is how far you could get for £1000. But you of all people, I don’t need to ask that to, because you’ve actually done it. So what I will ask you is, if I was to give you £1000 now, what trip would you go do? Or is the one you did the perfect thing?
Nic: I wouldn’t change anything about it. It was the most amazing six months of my life. There were difficult bits, but those difficult bits were great, you know? They made the good bits worth it. I met some amazing people. I mean I managed to go for £1000 through people’s kindness. My bike broke so many times, but people would help me fix it. They would pay for bits for it. So just meeting people was wonderful. If I had £1000 again, yeah, I would probably do the trip again. It was brilliant.
Alastair: Maybe you could head to Cape Town.
Nic: Yeah, certainly! That would be the other route. Yeah, it’s a big world out there and I’ve only seen a little bit.
Alastair: My final question for you then is what do you wish you’d known back then that you know now?
Nic: It’s not as hard as people think. It’s just a case of doing it. That’s the hardest thing. It’s just a case of pushing my feet around and cycling. It’s not as frightening as the crazy stuff your mind makes up. Do it.
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