5 Things I Learnt as a Semi-Professional Adventurer


The world is a very big place, filled up with a hell of a lot of different people leading completely different lives, all with their own passions, projects and personal ambitions. For nearly six years my life-dream was shaped by an all-embracing concept, one that is as addictive as it is difficult to define; the sporting and travelled-based pseudo-philosophy of ‘adventuring’. Right from the off I grew up reading famous accounts of the great heroes of the Golden Age of exploration past, but it wasn’t until after leaving university that my own journeying began in ernest.

The first trip was an expedition to a hitherto unvisited valley in the Tian Shan mountains of South East Kyrgyzstan to report on a team of Anglo-American climbers attempting to summit unclimbed mountains there. That trip was a catalyst of what was to come. Over the course of the next half decade I went on journey after journey, adventure after adventure, writing articles and selling my stories as a freelance journalist. Across that time, I rode and lived with Eagle Hunters in Western Mongolia, rafted a frozen river (again in Mongolia), rode horses over 800 miles across the length of Eastern Kazakhstan, lived with a hunter in the high Pamir mountains of Southern Tajikistan, ran 100 miles across a desert in Uzbekistan and — late last year — ran eight back to back marathons to navigate through an uncrossed desert in Central Kazakhstan, called the ‘Steppe of Misfortune’.

In between these expeditions, I was the Editor for Sidetracked Magazine, reading endless accounts of other peoples adventures, whether that be for them running across Europe, or cycling through the Alps or — at the other end of the scale — on mammoth, long and cold Polar expeditions across Antarctica. I’ve lived and breathed ‘Adventure’, and watched it grow and grow over as more people shifted away from the traditionally separate arenas of sport and travel, to pursue this new and ambitious combination of the two. Adventure as a concept now has a lot of fans. There are now a lot of aspirant journeymen and women taking the leap into their own projects and on their own expeditions, and a lot more people are looking to make a career out of this passion also.

I feel like I’ve learned a thing or two about adventure, its strengths and weaknesses, and why – in this modern-age of near infinite choice – these journeys are more important now than ever:

In the high Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan. Photo: Matthew Traver

1. There Are No Rules

For around five years across university and immediately afterwards I was a really ardent climber and boulderer. As a journalist for the UK’s Climber Magazine I would spend every hour of the waking day reading about climbing, training for it, out on the rock, or even ambling down streets, wondering if that bridge over there could be traversed, or that corner of that building climbed whilst no one was looking. However, after one particular journey to South Africa climbing, I became disillusioned with the sport. The problem I felt was, that no matter how hard I trained, it seemed like I wasn’t particularly good at climbing. Sure I was okay, and I climbed some hard stuff in my time, but I never even got near the upper echelons of the sport, and if I had two weeks off, my fitness fell and it felt like I was back at the beginning all over again.

What lead me from climbing — and sports in general — to adventure was the subjectivity of the latter over the former. There are no rules about what is an adventure and what isn’t; no one can claim their project is better than yours, that they got the gold and you should have the silver. You come up with your own journeys — not governed by sporting rules but still utilising all the good bits of sporting prowess and fun — and then go out and do them. That’s it. It’s really that simple.

For me, the gold-standard was riding horses for 63 days across the largely waterless East Kazakh steppe; that was my challenge and my dream. Yet for others, their challenge could be hiking from Land’s End to John O’Groats, or kayaking the River Wye, or cycling across India. That’s the first amazing thing about adventuring; everyone can push themselves with their own personal challenges, tailored to their own interests, and fitness. At its best, the complete and utter lack of regulation means that a lot of adventure almost assumes the air of art; each project totally and utterly unique to its creator and respected as such.

Crossing the East Kazakh Steppe. Photo: Matthew Traver

2. Adventuring Expand Your Horizons

Adventures contributes to your wider understanding of the world around you. Many expeditions, and the stories you bring back from them, can open the eyes of listeners to what different cultures and different societies are like and how they operate. The amount of times I’m in the middle of a conversation and I discover that I know some weird titbit of information — relating to equestrian purchasing practice, ex-Soviet social etiquette, or the current state of salinity of the Aral Sea — is endless but only because of a journey that I’ve done there.

Simply put, you know a lot more about the world if you go out and actually explore it. The good thing is, this exploration doesn’t even necessarily have to take place in a foreign country; swimming down a river or wilderness camping in your local area can open your eyes to whole new worlds right on your doorstep, ones that you never even knew existed.

The world’s highest petroglyphs at Bazar-Dara, Tajikistan. Photo: Matthew Traver

3. Personal Journeys Are Empowering

Everybody seeks their own story, their own passions, in life, and we all look to be a little bit different from our fellow humans. After all, that’s the very nature of how we define ourselves as individuals. What I’ve learnt over the past six years is that adventures create within us some of the most unique stories out there, ones that mix real, physical and limit-pushing human endeavour with a rich tale of other cultures, societies and unknown geographies. First experiencing a taste of this uniqueness, the ability to claim what few others had attempted before you, was a transformative process for my younger self.

My change from being a relatively shy and socially inept secondary school-goer — with no discernible credits to his name other than a slight stutter when he was nervous — into a confident person, public speaker, and presenter was all down to adventure (although I still stumble over my words when I’m out of my depth). It was my expeditions which equipped me with so many vital skills in life; a vast toolkit by which to not only get by in the world, but to also conduct myself in the most upstanding and decent way that I could manage to too. Adventures empowered me to live the life I hoped to live.

Arguing in the Kyzylkum Desert, Uzbekistan. Photo: Matthew Traver

4. Be Careful About Social Media

The high ramparts of daring-do are frequently walked by those after recognition, and egos having long presided over the world of exploration and high-profile expeditions. They are part of the bread and butter of exploring, and a key explainer for what drives people to attempt what has never before been attempted. History is littered with examples.

However, today’s proliferation of career-specific ‘adventurers’ has younger roots and is, in many ways, linked to the new all-pervading ubiquity of mass social media. In our brave new world where everyone is a publisher as well as a consumer, adventure provides a perfect platform to generate unique content, to garnish recognition and to keep afloat of the rising sea of selfies and voracious socialites. The problem is that a lot of people are pushing out all sorts of trips or stunts that are perhaps not necessarily unique, adventurous, or that interesting, even to themselves. But because there is an expectation to provide endless reams of content, quantity often takes precedent over quality in these situations, and the exciting nature of the projects suffer as a result.

There is a real danger that adventures are now turning from being an inward-facing, philosophical and almost solitary pursuit into an outwards-focused affirmation-seeking exercise of one’s own worth. If you’re after an adventure — whatever that term may mean for you —I’d really suggest try experimenting with the idea first, social media and self-publication last.

The author (right) sick as a dog during his 100 mile run across the Red Sands Desert, Uzbekistan. Photo Matthew Traver

5. Adventure — Like Alcohol — Is Best Enjoyed In Moderation

Too much of a good thing can be a problem and adventure — like with anything — isn’t exempt from this rule. From 2009 onwards, I lived a life in the single-minded pursuit of expeditions and exploration across Central Asia. I was always planning the next trip, training for them, writing letters to potential sponsors, filling out grant applications, penning articles about the trips, or in the field with the ‘away on expedition’ auto-reply turned on on my emails. Across the course of those five and bit years I earned a salary equivalent to what a recent graduate could make in their first twelve months. I lost contact with a lot of friends along the way too, caused massive relationship strains, and I never ever had enough money at the end of each month to even enjoy the most economy-sized of basic luxuries, such as cinemas or pub visits.

Adventures are meant to be fun, and empowering and I do passionately hold that they make you a better person, but don’t think for an instant that a viable career in the industry will just fall into your lap after one trip. Very few people make it as a ‘professional adventurer’ and the market is getting more and more saturated by the day as many attempt to hike down this exact path. Granted, a few do succeed, but the graft is long and very hard, and you have to be really bull-minded and PR-savvy to stay the course. Adventure is great, it’s dangerous, self-bettering and life-affirming all at the same time. However it is not, and likely will never be, an easy remedy to the extensional, post-consumerist angst of thinking you’re better than the 9–5 workday. Bleak as that sounds, it doesn’t mean, if you really try, that you can’t succeed. There are no limits for the dedicated and the committed, especially in something as overarching and malleable as the adventure space.

Conclusion

To me, adventure is a way of telling a different story about who you are and what you find important. It’s about living in a world removed from the uniformity of experience that is presented to us all as ‘just life’ and trying to create new paths and reasons for living. Adventure is great, it’s raw and it made me a better person than I had been before it all started in my life. As with anything popular, the concept has and will continue to have its share problems and there’ll always be pitfalls that go alongside riding one passion too obsessively. But regardless, I still strongly believe that everyone should go on an adventure at least once in their life.

You’d be amazed at how it changes you.

Jamie

In between managing adventurers and athletes for a content marketing agency in London, Jamie is editing his first book on his expeditions, which is due out in October 2015. He’s still got a few more trips planned, but in the meantime has taken up — of all things — pole vaulting. If you’d like to know more, please visit www.jamiebunchuk.com or follow him on Twitter at @Bunchuk.

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