What Makes A True Adventure?

Travel writer Tim Moore on the over-ambitious expedition

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Quite a long time ago, I wrote to Sir Ranulph Fiennes asking if he might be willing to offer an endorsement for my first travel book. I thought the fabled polar pioneer would appreciate the account of a journey retracing the Arctic exploits of Lord Dufferin, an indefatigable Victorian flag-planter. I’ll never know how much of my manuscript Sir Ranulph read, except that it was enough for him to despatch this succinct verdict, delivered tactfully to my editor: “I would not trust this man to organise an expedition to Sainsbury’s.”

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In fairness, it was no worse than my whiny incompetence deserved. All the same it hurt. The motive for the trip was to impress my Icelandic in-laws: in riding across their nation’s fearsome interior (on a bicycle), I had succeeded on the one leg of his journey where Dufferin (on a horse) had failed, thereby surely proving myself of sterner stuff than they’d imagined. I’d pitched it to them as a quest fit for an honorary Viking. Now a proper frost-bearded hard man had put me straight.

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What exactly was an adventure? I had to consider the concept afresh. A voyage into the unpredictable and unknown, striding that overlap between exhilaration and terror. Going somewhere you didn’t need to go, then doing things you probably shouldn’t when you got there.

Conquering the Icelandic interior – a windswept wilderness almost the size of England – should have qualified on all counts. Don’t look where you’re going in the English countryside and you tread in a cowpat; in Iceland, you disappear down a crevasse. Get lost in the English countryside and you miss last orders; in Iceland, you freeze to death up a mountain.

It hadn’t cut the frozen mustard with Sir Ranulph, so I resigned myself to a less demanding, less noble travel career: the pursuit of misadventure. In the years ahead, I pushed a donkey across Spain, recreated the Iron Age with a Lucozade-swigging blacksmith in a Forest of Dean roundhouse and was threatened on a Thai beach by a drunk Norwegian folk singer, unhinged by my request to relive the distant night in Dublin when he’d scored nul points in the Eurovision Song Contest.

More of the same seemed on the cards last summer when I retraced the 1914 Giro d’Italia, the toughest bike race ever – only eight of the 81 starters finished. To ensure I’d have no realistic chance of emulating them, I chose a 1914 bike with wooden wheels and wine corks for brakes. Pushing 50, I figured on lasting a week before rusty bike and body fell apart in unison. My editor said he’d be happy with a fortnight.

The drawn-out miracle that ensued should offer hope to anyone who ever sets off on an over-ambitious journey, the ill-prepared, the hapless, the frankly past it. When after five weeks I wobbled up to an abandoned velodrome in Milan with the full 3,162km under my warped wheels, an old man ducked out of his bike workshop in the basement to hail me with words I had given up on ever hearing. Their glorious warmth melted Sir Ranulph’s frosty indictment. “My friend,” he croaked in broken English, “you are really a hero.”

I’m not convinced I’ve yet to prove the old saying that everyone has one good book in them. But I can now confirm every traveller has at least one great adventure.

Originally published in Esquire's Big Black Book. Download the digital edition here.

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