Walking the Walk

Photo credit: Alex Frood

Following someone on Instagram is quite different from finally meeting him. After a succession of text messages, we meet in the pub of the nondescript Premier Inn next to Wolverhampton station.

What an ordinary place to talk about something extraordinary! If not for the fact that he had saved himself by drinking his urine when he nearly lost his life in the treacherous gorges in Zambia, this interview would not even have happened.

Chaz Powell, Expedition Leader and campaigner for wildlife conservation from Newport, Shropshire, has just completed his extreme fund raiser for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation. The challenge? Walking solo all 1600 miles along the fourth-longest river in Africa, the Zambezi. The journey took him three months.

Contrary to his dusty, bearded photographs on Facebook and Twitter, here is a neat, clean shaven young man in a soft, white and blue outdoorsy checked shirt, trying to negotiate “normality” after months in some of the wildest and most hostile regions in south-central Africa. Elaborating this point, Chaz tells me that there were times when the people who live along the banks of the Zambezi were thrilled at the sight of a visitor like him and there were other times when people appeared extremely confused and angry. It was hard to tell which he was going to encounter. What was unforgettable was how the children especially, would panic like they “saw a ghost or a demon”. Chaz chuckles as he reveals that that was what they had genuinely thought he was half the time because most live in remote communities which have never been visited by a white man before.

With the characteristic nonchalance of seasoned adventurers, Chaz is quick to point out that not many people understand the magnitude of the undertaking. As his long arms rest on the highly polished table where we sat and his eyes gaze at the window next to us, Chaz reflects on more frustrating times when he was locked up in Mozambique after excruciatingly long hours trying to convince village elders of his benign intention of walking to the Indian Ocean. Understandably, years of civil strife did not help assuage the heightened suspicion of a lone white man trudging through these regions where hardly any foreigner would set foot.

And then there were the lurking crocodiles and inch-long termites with frightening pincers at their mouths to match their voracious appetites. Anything that could be chewed through by the termites, was dinner. During one encounter, they devoured Chaz’s sleeping mat. Hence, he slept on the ground for the rest of the trip. Talk about taking things in his stride, literally.

For many, the extreme physical and mental challenges along the walk would have sent them on the next plane home but not for Chaz. Yet, is there anything at all that gets to him? Surprisingly, it is something unrelated to physical hardship. He tells me with no hesitation, “It is the fact that many people will talk non-stop about their dreams but stop there. For me, it’s…as soon as I’ve got that ‘I wish I was doing something!’ I’ll be doing it in a couple of weeks.” Admittedly, just two weeks after returning from walking the Zambezi, he was already feeling like he should be embarking on his next adventure.

Chaz is single and has a young son in Zambia whom he sees whenever he visits the country, which is a few times a year. He is no longer with the mother. On the sort of sacrifice he had to make in order to answer his primal need for discovering especially unexplored territories, he muses, “I’ve never really had anything to give up and I don’t really hang on to too much. I guess a lot of people are materialistic…or you’ve got a family, you’re married and your partner doesn’t want you to do things …I’ve said to partners you know this is something I’ve got to do…it’s not really a compromise.”

Chaz further reveals he is not into what others typically do: build a career, raise a family and own a house (or a bigger one thereafter). He has absolutely no longing to become a home owner any time soon, and stresses he would rather have just enough money for his expeditions so as to enjoy life close to nature. But what if he really needed to settle down somewhere? To this, his watery blue eyes light up as he exclaimed, “If I really needed to, I would get a boat as a home instead!”