Imagine this: it is dawn and completely silent. The only person you can see is a man in a reed coracle casting his fishing net. As it hits the water the net breaks the mirror-smooth reflection of sunrise’s glowing pink clouds. You are far from the nearest town, a long way from anywhere, on the banks of the sacred Kaveri River in southern India.
Or imagine this: it is noon and noisy. Your crampons crunch as they grip the cold glacier. A bitter wind bites your face and you turn your back on it, hunkering deeper into your mountain jacket. You stare down the ice cap, far down to the magnificent desolation of Iceland‘s highland plateau. Nobody on Earth knows where you are.
And finally: it’s dark and you’re feeling the pleasure of solitude and self-sufficient isolation. But you are not alone. Far from it. You watch a streaming torrent of headlights rushing past, a never-ending flow of red and white lights streaking through the night. Once again nobody knows where you are, but this time you wouldn’t take much finding: you’re walking alongside the M25 just miles from central London.
Walking is not cool. It’s not sexy or hardcore. It’s what old people do, people with big beards, trousers tucked into socks, slurping from a thermos of tea. And yet walking has led me to some of the most remote, beautiful, exciting, challenging and unusual places I have ever been to. Some very cool places indeed. I have walked across India from coast to coast. I followed the Kaveri River from the mouth in Tamil Nadu up to its source -a holy temple- high in the Western Ghats and then continued down to a deserted palm beach on the coast of northern Kerala.
On another occasion I walked halfway across Iceland, lugging equipment and a month’s food in a 40kg pack. From the cold northern coast I climbed high into the centre of the country, up and over a remote glacier, and on to the source of the Pjorsa, Iceland’s longest river. I could not have reached that spot by road: only walking can get you to the heart of a wilderness. I stopped walking at that point for in my bag I carried a packraft, a small inflatable raft that I used to negotiate the river downstream to the country’s southern coast.
And I also walked a lap of the M25. Yes, the M25. The road to hell that encircles London. I walked a lap of it to test my hypothesis that you can find adventure everywhere, so long as you are willing to look for it, push yourself and travel with curiosity and an open mind. I walked for 12 hours a day, cross-country, through January snows, camping wild beneath a plastic tarpaulin. What unfolded was an extremely interesting, arduous experience. I call these little trips microadventures: adventures deliberately and provocatively small and mundane designed to illustrate that you don’t need a lot of time, money or expensive equipment to set yourself a difficult, rewarding challenge.
There are three aspects I enjoy about walking: it is slow, it is simple, and it is miserable. Slow is good. Slowing down from the frantic busy-ness of our daily lives. Recalibrating our minds to think that 10 or 20 miles covered in a whole day is a decent effort, and more satisfying than just a quick twenty minute car ride. Walking is the speed that most humans moved for most of the history of mankind. It is the pace of Roman Legionnaires. Last year I walked a good chunk of the Fosse Way, Britain’s longest Roman Road, purely as an excuse to draw a straight line between two arbitrary points and go out to discover what lay along that line.
I like pain and a bit of suffering too, though I fully acknowledge that most people do not. Persevering despite sore feet and aching shoulders is very rewarding. But you can always walk at your own pace and to your own drum: you don’t need any skill or expertise and you compete only against yourself and the path before you.
Simplicity is what I like most about walking. My trek across India was a treasured adventure that will remain in my memory for ever. Yet it cost just £500, of which £300 was spent on the plane ticket. I travelled only with hand luggage, carrying two sets of clothes, a thin sleeping bag and a camera in an old rucksack I’ve had since school. That’s all you need. There really are no excuses or inhibiting factors in going for a walk.
Perseverance, patience and a pair of good hiking boots can get you to any spot on the planet. Don’t dismiss walking merely as slow and boring. Your feet can carry you to extraordinarily remote and beautiful places, such as the glacier I crossed in Iceland having walked there from the coast. Staring down into black crevasses, terrifying to contemplate was definitely not boring walking.
The final aspect of walking I will advocate is how easy it is to get started. A 30 minute walk round the park at lunch time won’t burn as many calories as a 30 minute run, but it burns a lot more than no exercise at all does. You can do it in your work clothes. It clears your head, helps you relax, unwind and make plans. A few more 30 minute walks and you can step it up, little by little, until you’re ready to take on challenges like the women’s Cancer Moonwalk marathon, the Oxfam 60 mile Trailwalker, or whatever challenge you’re inspired to attempt. The longest journey starts with a single step, runs the old proverb. With walking this is quite literally true and there is no excuse or barrier not to begin today.
This piece originally featured in Healthy For Men magazine.