I HAVE been on two pretty major expeditions.

The first was between 2004 and 2007, when I spent three years cycling 50,000km (mostly alone) from the North Eastern Siberian Gulag city of Magadan back to my home in London — via Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Tibet and Afghanistan.

The second was in 2011 and 2012, when I walked 5,000km from Mongolia back to my new home in Hong Kong — via a wintery Gobi Desert, a crumbling section of the Great Wall and the frozen Yellow River.


The big why

One of the most common questions I am asked about both my expeditions is: Why?

Why leave behind a comfortable life at home?

Why deliberately set out on an expedition which, to quote Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton’s apocryphal newspaper advertisement recruiting people for an Antarctic expedition, will consist of “low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful”? (He allegedly received over 5,000 applications for the job.)

Someone once said that those who ask such a question just “don’t understand”, but actually I think it is a really good question, and one I often ask myself.

My oft-times expedition partner Al Humphreys points out that different adventurers have given very different answers to this question.

George Mallory, perhaps the first man to climb Everest (though we don’t know if he made it to the top before he died) said he was trying to climb the world’s tallest mountain “because it’s there”.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the Guinness Records’ Greatest Living Explorer, said he keeps going on adventures to pay the bills.

Robert Swan, the first man to reach both poles on foot, meanwhile, apparently said it was “to impress girls at parties”.

While many women enjoy adventure, it seems to hold a particularly powerful appeal for men. Indeed, upon hearing about my expeditions, the first thing that women say is usually “Gosh, how does your wife feel?”, whereas men’s reaction usually consists of “I wish I could do that!”


What I love about adventures

For me, an initial reason I go on big adventures is because I like taking on a huge challenge.

Secondly, I love the idea of cycling or hiking all day through valleys or deserts or plains and seeing what they are really like (rather than surveying them on Google Earth, intriguing as that may be), and then camping on the side of mountains in the snow under the stars.

Thirdly, I relish the unpredictability of adventures — that I don’t know what will happen, or who I will encounter, or how I will be able to respond to these situations.

I usually find that I encounter lots of interesting and kind people, which is brilliant too.

But although it is easy to talk about these alluring aspects of an expedition, it is important to remember that, in reality, they are often very hard — with great periods of pain (blistered feet, sore muscles), boredom (lots of time on one’s own), and fear (facing the prospect of danger and even death).

These tough aspects, in some senses, mean that while I am on an expedition, I often find myself looking forward to getting home again.

However, the challenging, tough times do make me stop taking for granted the many things that make “home” such a good place to be, when I eventually make it back there.


Attitudes matter

On expeditions, I have also learnt a lot about the importance of attitude.

I have never been a particular sporty person (I was not in the top sports teams at school), a particularly academic person (I was never top of the class), nor a particularly brave person (I still get frightened of things very easily).

But I have found that what I call my “attitudes of adventure” have really helped me to take on challenges far greater than I thought possible —arduous expeditions, writing books, making speeches, or running a fundraising office for a charity. 

My “attitudes of adventure”, which apply equally well to career success, include:


1) Embracing change: Recognising that the only constant in life is change, and hence the need to muster my creativity and find ways through, round and over unexpected obstacles;


2) Resisting the fear of failure: Moving boldly towards decision and action even when the negative voice in my head or the pessimist in the office insists that it is too hard, or too risky; 


3) Practising self-care: Taking proper care of myself, to sustain good judgment and avoid spiralling morale and burnout, and to increase resiliency;


4) Being clear about my goals: Writing goals out, and breaking them into the short, medium and long-term; and


5) Practising self-discipline: Remembering that my self-discipline must start with the small tasks, which make a significant difference in overall progress, especially by circumventing future problems.


Underlying all these attitudes is the more foundational attitude of simply remembering that life itself is an adventure and a privilege.

It may be full of tests and obstacles, scary times and even boring times, but pressing onwards through these is a big part of what makes the experience of human life so interesting and fulfilling and extraordinary.


Article by Rob Lilwall, a National Geographic TV adventurer, travel writer and motivational speaker.