Why we travel: Alastair Humphreys on finding great escapes in the UK

Having toured the globe — from camping in the Arctic to cycling through Kyrgyzstan — the adventurer finds that journeys of real significance are also on offer closer to home.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020,
By Alastair Humphreys
After years chasing conventional, ‘epic’ wilderness experiences around the globe it occurred to adventurer Alastair Humphreys ...

After years chasing conventional, ‘epic’ wilderness experiences around the globe it occurred to adventurer Alastair Humphreys to go and have a look outside his front door, developing a concept he calls ‘microadventures’.

Photograph by Getty Images

“This is it! This is the wild, raw universe unrolling before my eyes,” I’d shouted. Moonrise on the Atlantic in a tiny rowing boat: one of the shout-out-loud moments of astonishment I’d had on my travels. Others had included: seeing the midnight sun from my little red tent out on the Arctic ice (shaking my head in awe at the beauty of it all, and the deep privilege of being out there); and diving into the warm waters of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, my bicycle left on the beach, midway through pedalling round the planet.

“My monthly tree-climb reminds me that wildness, escape and the natural world are waiting everywhere.”

by Alastair Humphreys

And yet perhaps my biggest perspective-shift about the majestic power the natural world has on the adventurous soul came to me while sitting in the branches of an old oak tree minutes from my home. The buds of new leaves glowed lime-green in the spring sunshine. Bluebells carpeted the small wood, and the dawn chorus of birdsong rang out in jubilation after the quiet winter months. I noticed the changes from winter because I climb this tree every month, scheduled into my online calendar alongside all the meetings and tax deadlines and family commitments. This lunch-hour foray may seem scant adventure in comparison with trekking in the Himalayas or the jungle mysteries of Costa Rica. But I disagree. For my monthly tree-climb reminds me that wildness and escape and the natural world are waiting everywhere, even among the tyranny of a busy work calendar.

Adventurer, author and motivational speaker Alastair Humphreys is the author of Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes, published by William Collins.

Photograph by Alastair Humphreys

This mind-shift to champion the small and local developed through what I call ‘microadventures’. After years chasing conventional, ‘epic’ wilderness experiences around the globe, it occurred to me to go and have a look outside my front door. I started with early-morning walks — a circle around my home with a mere two-mile radius. Along the way, I discovered places I’d never seen before; I’d become an explorer. Some of the paths I knew well from my training runs, but I’d never pootled this way so slowly before. Spiderwebs jewelled with dew. The aroma of cut grass, willowherb and cow parsley. I settled down to sleep on a quiet hill, city lights in the distance and a police car speeding through the coming dawn light. All this, and then back home in time for breakfast.

My epiphany for realising that I could find inspiration and journeys of real personal significance close to home came when I challenged myself to seek adventure in the most boring, built-up place I could think of: the M25. If you can find wonder there, you can find it anywhere. A friend and I spent a winter week walking a lap of the motorway, following our noses through snow-covered fields and along a footpaths and lanes — part of a wonderful web that crisscrosses our country. It was a cold, hard journey. A fox crept close and snatched our food bag as we lay sleeping in our bivvy bags. One evening, the orange glow of London’s lights illuminated a frozen field as we crunched through the snow towards the beckoning lights of a village and, we hoped, a pub. The wind was raw, my feet hurt, my belly rumbled with the motorway traffic. I grinned at my friend, raised my arms in triumph and yelled in delight at the Moon, “This is it! This is the wild, raw universe unrolling before my eyes!”

Adventurer, author and motivational speaker Alastair Humphreys is the author of Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes, published by William Collins.

Read more tales from our Why We Travel cover story

Published in the Jul/Aug 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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