Ed Gillespie’s adventure offers an important alternative view to the self-interested, selfish mindset of many of my own travel experiences. His book, Only Planet, is an enjoyable travel tale and a sobering reminder of the damage we are causing our planet.
What did you do?
I went around the world without flying, taking anything but a plane to circumnavigate the globe; buses, trains, cargo ships and the odd belligerent camel! It was a 381 day, 33 country, 45,000 mile trip. I intended to rediscover the romance and adventure of overland travel when you move slowly through the world, enjoying the transition of landscape, culture, people, language and cuisine rather than just soaring over it at 35,000 feet. It was about the journey being the reward, seeing the world without destroying it in a planet-stewing slew of carbon emissions and celebrating that which connects us, the values, hopes and aspirations as human beings on our one and only planet.
What were a couple of highlights?
Crossing the Pacific by cargo ship from New Zealand to Mexico, a 16 day voyage across the world’s biggest ocean – a true traverse of our blue planet. It was glorious lazy days of sunshine, blue skies and gently rolling waves, flying fish skittering alongside the huge ship we were on. It was insightful and instructive hanging out with the crew, learning about life at sea and global marine trade via shipping. It was also an extraordinary sense of isolation and freedom being thousands of miles from land, both lonely and liberating.
Adventuring in the wilds of Mongolia. Exploring the bleak expanses of the Gobi desert, living in yurts, eating dried camel meat, scrambling up giant sand dunes, ascending frozen waterfalls and solid icy riverbeds, fossicking for ancient dinosaur remains. All with the unlimited opportunity of a country with virtually no roads where you’re not just off the beaten track…you’re off the track completely! A timeless, magical place that feels more or less untouched by modernity in many ways.
Why did you do it?
I wanted to get away from work on a truly escapist adventure. I needed a break to recharge and reconnect with myself and my environmental work – seeing and visiting some of the amazing places I was trying to save. It was a chance to ground myself, change perspectives, open my eye and breath deeply of this wonderful, wild and crazy planet.
What were you doing before?
I’d been running the specialist sustainability communications agency Futerra that I co-founded seven years previously. It had been, like any start-up business, phenomenally hard and relentless work, but after seven years – the ‘itch’! – we’d pretty much got it to a stage where I could leave without it imploding. And it’s always a healthy and sobering experience and a timely reminder that we can go away and realise that none of us are indispensable! Another good reason for taking the plunge and going on an adventure!
What impact did this adventure have on your life?
It was pretty profound. It had a huge affect on my temperament and disposition. The frenetic, frantic nature of London life and the business of creative communications was exhausting and high tempo. But the relaxed rhythm of slow travel soon dissipated that mania. I became much more at ease, more level-headed and probably easier to work with (my business partner certainly said so!). But apart from mellowing me it also changed my world view, reinforcing our common purpose, sense and solidarity as people and our need for stewardship and responsibility to conserve that which sustains all of us.
I found aspects of your book profoundly sad and depressing (the bit about declining tuna stocks in Japan for example). How did you feel when you came home?
I think stories like that of the bluefin tuna are very moving and sad and yes the memories of those experiences do linger and yet I also encountered people that gave me enormous hope and optimism. I think it’s essential to hold onto those too, and use the challenges of our weaker nature to inspire us to greater action. The alternative is resignation. This is one reason why I love your microadventure work so much – we can escape, be wild, be challenged, recharge without having to generate tonnes of carbon to have an adventure on the other side of the world.
The world is big, time is short. Why should someone embrace ‘slow travel’?
That is the fundamental question! If we all adopt the ‘I must see, or have a right to experience’ the world at any price or cost to the planet then we perpetuate a rather self-interested, selfish mindset. This is a moral dilemma in my view. We can’t plead ignorance of the impacts we have. For me it’s about balance. Time is all we have and perhaps we need to try and make more time to enjoy, explore and experience more of the world in a more relaxed and laid-back and lower impact fashion? There is a particular and powerful irony in the ‘last chance to see’ approach of a world unravelling due to challenges like climate change. I do think it’s a personal decision and choice, however, I am not attempting to guilt-trip or preach to people, but equally we should all engage with eyes wide open. I think it’s about what you gain from slow travel – the mystery, the continuous visual memory of your journey, the unexpected, unplanned adventures in unpredictable places rather than what you lose from giving up flying – eating food off a plastic tray, deep vein thrombosis etc!
You travelled a long way and through a lot of countries. Did you feel rushed at all?
Yes it was a little ‘pacey’ at times. We were moving on every 2-3 days on average which can seem rushed. But it’s also strangely meditative. You get into the motion of movement with a steady tempo and obviously we spent longer at places that moved us, were amazing or that we stumbled upon.
It’s a great idea to list all the books you read at the back of your book. What was your favourite?
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. It is one of the truly great epic tales I think with a brilliant plot and a fantastically crafted denouement.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known before your trip?
That the journey really IS the reward! I suspected this might be the case. But along the way destinations become much, much less important. Arriving in places became less exciting, even stressful on occasion. What was transformative was the movement. As the well worn cliché goes, sometimes it really is better to travel than to arrive. I think it was Robert Louis Stephenson who said ‘The Great Affair is to move!’
Any tips on getting a boat across an ocean? Lots of people ask me about this.
Get a good agent! Hamish at www.freightertravel.co.nz was my guru and helped us book all our oceanic crossings on cargo ships.
Apart from the environmental benefits, did you actually enjoy the cargo ships?
Yes. They were amazing! A real respite on the sometimes relentless travel of the trip. The escapism of the open sea. The unique conversations and cultural insights – karaoke, table tennis! – of spending time with the crew. Seeing extraordinary live volcanoes, barrier reefs, breaching whales and dolphins. It sure beats a cruise ship with crap cabaret and 5000 other passengers!
Is there anything online other than The Man In Seat 61 that would be helpful for anyone dreaming of repeating your trip?
Well www.loco2.com – the European rail ticketing business I’m now Chairman of is certainly handy for all European overland adventures…
Would you do it again?
YES! Like a shot! Perhaps in the other direction! Perhaps with a bit more ‘less is more’ type approach. Perhaps for a slightly shorter period of time. But do it again I most certainly, definitely would. Je ne regrette rien!
You can learn more about Futerra here, follow them on Twitter, and buy Ed’s book Only Planet 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!