Ace writer and adventurer, Alastair Humphreys talks to Family Traveller Editor, Jane Anderson, about what inspires him and why everyone should be a micro adventurer
Self-confessed incurable wanderluster, Alastair Humphreys, is on a mission to get every adult and child in the land on a micro adventure of their very own. He may have circumnavigated the globe on two wheels, crossed deserts on foot and busked across Spain with only a violin for company, but he’s come to recognize that it’s the do-able adventures such as swimming in a river or sleeping out under the stars not too far from home, that are just as valuable.
The format of his latest kid’s book, Alastair Humphreys’ Great Adventurers, winner of the Ordnance Survey Children’s Travel Book of the Year, in the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards 2019, is simple. He’s taken his 20 most inspiring explorers, and told their stories. And yet, Great Adventurers does so much more. Alongside stunning illustrations by Kevin Ward, it brings real adventure within reach of a child, giving handy tips and real goals.
His book ventures into space, oceans, deserts and jungles and keeps kids’ attention with colourful mixed media including inviting comic strip, visual kit lists, illustrated maps, recipes and cross section illustrations – most notably of the Marina Trench compared to Mount Everest, plus inspirational quotes from explorers including Humphreys himself.
It includes people like Audrey Southerland, a lady we’re told was not a tall or strong, but after her children were grown up and she had more time, spent every summer exploring the rugged coastlines of Alaska in her small inflatable kayak. Her list of 24 things to do before you are 16 is a life lesson for all parents preparing their children to enter the world. There’s no mention of passing your GCSE’s, but you should be able to do the dishes, mend your own clothes and read a map. Here here!
The book ends with a little questionnaire for children to fill out. Where will you go? Who will join you? What will you need? And how will you get there? Practical, educational and inspiring to the last.
As Humphreys, aged 42, explains, “I have written kids books before, and that came about because I originally trained to be a teacher, but thought, before I settle down, I’ll just go and cycle round the world! Cycling round the globe, aged 24, led me to doing literally hundreds of talks in schools about my adventures and I realized kids love hearing these stories, and it was a great way to secretly teach them lots of stuff without them thinking they were in a boring lesson. I wrote three books called The Boy Who Biked the World which are basically my stories about cycling round the world, with as much teaching as I could sneak into them.
“My new Great Adventurers book came about because as a kid I loved reading, but I didn’t really get into adventure reading until I was an adult student. All these explorers and adventurers never crossed my radar. I decided I wanted to share my own knowledge of adventurers with children today. So I drew up the list of men and women who had inspired me. And the benefit of this was that it wasn’t the usual list of adventurers. There’s no Captain Scott, there’s no Captain Cook.
“My list is a bit more quirky, a bit more eccentric, and more diverse. I tried to include lots of women and also to make it not all white, which is extremely hard in the world of adventure. Rick Hansen is also in there, as I felt it was important to break down some barriers and include some dude who makes it round the world in a wheelchair.
“When I was a kid I used to love reading annuals, like The Victor Book for Boys which were all gung-ho stories of war and explorers. That was my initial idea for the style of the book, but it evolved away from this with the artistry of illustrator Kevin Ward. One of the reasons I wanted to do this project is because I’m a massive control freak so I thought by going into the world of illustrated kids’ books, about which I knew nothing, would be a good exercise in trusting and working with other people.
“My personal favourites of the explorers featured in my book are the ones who actually inspired me to the life that I now live including Ranulph Fiennes, Benedict Allen and Laurie Lee. In terms of the book itself, my favourites are Felice Benuzzi, the Italian guy who escaped from prison camp to climb a mountain and then escaped back into prison! I also love the comic strips in the book, especially the one showing Ranulph Fiennes soaring off his own fingers. I had to fight quite hard for that to be included in a kid’s book! But if there’s anything a child is going to enjoy in this book, it’s seeing someone chop off his own fingers with a saw in a shed!
“Going back to my own childhood, I was more of a bookish child, than an adventurous one, with the happy advantage of growing up in a little village in the Yorkshire Dales, which meant I spent most of my childhood outside, climbing trees, playing in the river and climbing hills, far from any adult supervision. I think the environment made me very much more adventurous than if I’d grown up in a city.
“Everyone has their dreams of what they’d like to be when they grow up. I was a bit late with mine as I had them at university! And my dream was to be a writer. I felt was unrealistic as I lacked the imagination to be a fiction author. Slightly less ridiculous I felt, was to be an adventurer! So I set off to cycle around the world, partly because I wanted a massive adventure, but also because I wanted to have something to write about that was exciting.
“Quite a few of the adventurers in my book inspired me towards that lifestyle but specifically, Wilfred Thesiger who crossed the Empty Quarter by camel. His writing led me to cross the desert. And Dervla Murphy, the Irish cyclist, inspired me to do some big bike trips.
“My best adventure was cycling round the world, aged 24, just after I’d finished my PGCE to become a teacher. It wasn’t the best because it was my biggest journey, but because it was my first big adventure. And the first big adventure in your life molds you and everything else fits into the impression it made.
“But it was Laurie Lee who crossed Spain busking with his violin and wrote As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, my all-time favourite travel book, that was my latest inspiration. I did loosely the same thing recently, and I have a book coming out about that in May called My Midsummer Morning. The problem about trying to write a book about your favourite ever book, is that by definition, your own attempt can’t be as good as the original. So I had to make it different, rather than imitate it.
“Writing a book can add value to an adventure. Instead of being a very selfish, personal fulfillment, if you come back and tell a good story, you can entertain, inform and inspire other people.
“When I come back from an adventure, sadly I never really enjoy a sense of achievement. Whenever I finish a trip, I think, well it obviously wasn’t hard enough. And then time passes, and you forget how miserable the trip was, and you start planning something stupid again!
“The curiosity and the drive to prove yourself to other people and to yourself, can lead to increased levels of risk, and are essentially like becoming a drug addict. And that is the chief reason my last big trip was playing my violin through Spain, rather than trying to do something that was physically big and crazy. I realize that I’d got slightly numbed to the thrill of traditional, physical adventure. And actually, the prospect of standing up in a village square and playing my violin in front of 10 people was far more terrifying to me than paddling down a big river. My perspective on adventure has altered so much.
“These days I’m much more interested in micro adventures, which is about trying to find local, wilderness adventure close to where you live and within the constraints of your own busy, real life. I’m trying to encourage more people to go and sleep on hills and swim in rivers.
“At the top of the epic scale of my micro adventures, was walking a snowy lap of the M25 in a week. Although it was a bit of a daft thing to do, the realization was that it still felt like an adventure. The boxes of physical challenge, exploring new places and meeting interesting characters were all ticked. All of the stuff I found cycling round the world, I found in a week trudging around suburbia. It had a profound impact on the way I approach travelling.
“And when it comes to children going on adventures, it’s not kids who need advice, it’s adults. I think kids love climbing hills, and sleeping under the stars, and the problem lies with us adults who have become so boring and we overthink everything and worry about all the things that might go wrong, rather than thinking about how good it will be when we get out there with our kids. Us adults need to behave more like our children, and then we’ll all be more adventurous.
“Instead of getting bogged down by the 9 to 5, I now encourage people to embrace the 5 to 9. We have 16 hours of freedom to head out of the office, jump on a train out of town, go sleep on a hill for a night, wake up at sunrise, jump back on the train and be at your desk for 9am the next morning.
“I’m always urging wild, reckless behaviour with children. I don’t think any modern day parent needs any cautioning towards health and safety obedience. I’m always encouraging kids to climb more trees, fall out of more trees, do more stupid stuff and spend more time outdoors. I think all of those things should start as early as possible. The best way to encourage kids to be active, curious and risk taking outdoors is to lead by example, and for us parents to do it ourselves.
Winner: Alastair Humphreys’ Great Adventures, Alastair Humphreys, illustrated by Kevin Ward (Big Picture Press, Bonnier)
Destination: Planet Earth, Jo Nelson, illustrated by Tom Clohosy Cole (Wide Eye Editions, Quarto)
Explorers on Witch Mountain, Alex Bell, illustrated by Tomislav Tomic (Faber & Faber)
Atlas of Adventures: Wonders of the World, Ben Handicott, illustrated by Lucy Letherland (Wide Eye Editions, Quarto)
Journeys, Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Leo Hartas, Chris Chalik, Jon Davis and David Shephard (360 Degrees, Little Tiger Group)
Maps of the United Kingdom, Rachel Dixon and Illustrated by Livi Gosling (Wide Eye Editions, Quarto)