In 1998, Karl Bushby set out on one of the boldest journeys in human history. To walk every single step of the way from the foot of Patagonia back home to England. By 2006 he had walked every step of the way to Alaska. He crossed the Bering Straits on foot in winter, but after that his journey ground to a halt. Russia had denied him a visa so he entered illegally. He was banned from travelling in Russia. Karl had vowed not to return home until his journey was complete. So for the past 8 years he has been trying to overcome the bureaucrats’ decisions. When I was cycling round the world I was massively inspired by Karl’s tale. But over the last years I have come to see the tale as a more complicated one. I’m irritated that petty bureaucrats can be so pedantic as to spoil a great human feat such as this. And I’ve often wished that Karl would just give up, admit that he has been beaten bureaucracy, and return home and get on with life. It’s a tricky old business being a stubborn adventurer…!
Alastair: How are things looking for your Russian visa? Any chance they’ll overturn your ban until 2018?
Karl: well to everyone’s surprise, mine more than anyone’s, it would seem the visa ban has been rolled back and I have been given a visa. I find this troubling, the immigration lawyers and experts are confused. I have sat across the table from too many FSB agents telling me they believe I am “a reconnaissance expert” and listened to too many veiled threats to feel comfortable about a miraculous turn of fortune. Nonetheless, it’s all systems go and I am in Los Angeles preparing for a return to Russia.
Alastair: You started your journey in 1998. I ‘overtook’ you in Alaska as I cycled round the world in 2004. You’ve walked 20,000 miles – that is amazing. But your trip has not progressed for many years now due to your ban on walking through Russia [after you were evicted after entering illegally (but impressively) via the Bering Strait in 2006] I wonder now whether a “bigger” or “tougher” decision for your walk would be to concede defeat and move on to do something else with your life. What do you feel about that suggestion?
Karl: Well that’s a huge can of worms right now. It’s also something we are grappling with here in LA as we put together a documentary about the US tour to DC [when I walked to the Russian Embassy to petition for an overturn to my ban on travelling to Russia].
It’s clear to me that I am so far beyond the point of being able to stop. It would take a much stronger man than me to admit defeat, to take the wiser path.
I am at the point where this journey is hard to reconcile with. It no longer makes any sense. It has become irrational, illogical and self-destructive. 17 years ago a smart man, an SAS soldier and an experienced adventurer told me that what I was looking for was not so much a physical battle as a mental one. He advised that I turn the direction of the journey around and rather than begin in the UK and walk my way to South America, I should do the opposite. So that every foot step I take is closer to home rather than further away, and in the long run that could make all the difference. At the time I’m not sure how much that meant to me.
However, today I am left with no uncertainty of the gravity of this issue.
I struggle to believe the words coming out of my own mouth and live in perpetual self-conflict. 16 years of life on the move, from sofa to spare room to motel, from ditch to wood line, from desert sand to a dug out in the ice and snow. A world that is a shifting kaleidoscope of faces and places, of no fixed relationships, no place to call home.
I’m 45. I will be 50 before there is any chance of stability. I find that this internal pressure starts to change you in uncomfortable ways, numbs feelings, messes with your values and judgment calls. It’s hard to define, as is the slow accumulation of years. But it’s also interesting, in a macabre sense, that I am finding that frontier, learning what ‘to long’ means, what that looks like. [note from Al – I don’t know whether Karl means “to long” or “too long”. Either is poignant!]
Finally I am the explorer I always dreamed of, I am in a scary place without a map, standing in an emotional whiteout. But all this is little more than a side effect of living with the conviction that “stopping is not an option”. It stopped being brave and it stopped being clever a long time ago. And then the real horror hits home, I am only 2,000miles over the half-way point.
Alastair: Since your journey began, what have you thought about “home” – where is home? I ask this because one of the key parts of adventure for me is using it appreciate home more than I am able to when I’m in the UK.
Karl: I’m sorry, where?
Alastair: What is harder – travelling through the wilderness or travelling through big cities?
Karl: It’s not such a straight forward question. Depends where, what environment, what country and in what context etc. There are pros and cons in both. After a long haul on the open road it’s amazing to reach civilization. Then after a while in civilization you need to get back into the jungle, or onto the mountains. For the most part I would avoid the bigger cities: if you are going to get yourself in trouble those are likely places, but again, that’s largely due to the way I travel, unique to my reality.
Alastair: Who are/were your adventure heroes?
Karl: I never really had any, never followed adventures and explorers. I had read a few books and marvelled at what men used to be. Those first journeys in search of the North West passage were foremost on my mind while struggling in the north. And having struggled for years up there, having had many a close call I have never admired those men more. I don’t know how they did it. One other expedition that stood out was Ran Fiennes’ and Mike Stroud’s march across Antarctica. There is an image of these two emaciated men at the end, a photo, of something so beyond what I could imagine myself being capable of. That photo stuck with me. But as far as the great explorers go, I did not know their names or their stories. I have learned more about them on this journey than I knew before.
Alastair: What advice do you give to people dreaming of a big adventure but who feel that they don’t have the time / skills to make it happen?
Karl: I did not have the resources to do what I did, but I was armed with a deluded – almost insane – sense of self-confidence drilled into me as a paratrooper. I was bullet proof. I was, had been, pushed to my limits repeatedly over many years and I knew just what I could do. Confidence in my abilities took care of everything it seemed. I had experienced a number of environments from desert to jungle to the arctic and felt I could handle it, correction I ‘knew’ I could handle it.
And that’s the defining element, that’s what allows you to wander off on something so ridiculously overwhelming with little more than a cheeky grin.
Everyone’s story is different, everyone’s background is unique and we all bring our own [baggage] to the table. Remember one thing only, you live once. Confidence is a powerful thing. I told someone once “I have a super human power, just like the x-men…my super human power is I am too ignorant to know I can fail”.
Alastair: I always ask people this question: “if I gave you £1000 to go on any adventure, what would you choose to do?” I know you began your trip with just a few hundred quid, but if you could think of a different trip that would be great.
Karl: You give me £1,000 I’m getting on a plane to Mexico to see friends, I’m going nuts in a bar, I’m waking face down in the sand on a beach trying to work out where my clothes are. Because tomorrow I’m going back into the Arctic Circle, Siberia, and I don’t want to remember that right now. I don’t want to think about a trip anywhere. But if you are going to force my hand I’m going back to South America, because I left half myself there and I need it back. Another response might be anywhere below 30° degrees latitude.
You can follow Karl on his website and Twitter. You can buy his book, Giant Steps, here.
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.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!