This is the first installment of my Journalism Thesis which I wrote about 10 international adventurers, it is all previoulsy unpublished work so I would love to hear what you think of it!
“Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”
Tim Severin has been hailed as the ‘greatest living explorer of the twentieth century’. He has sailed a leather boat across the Atlantic, captained an Arab sailing ship from Muscat to China, sailed the Pacific on a bamboo raft, and embarked on the Marco Polo expedition riding a motorbike from Venice to China.
Sitting with Severin in his peaceful West Cork home, it is hard to picture the man in front of me sailing the Pacific in search of Moby Dick or Robinson Crusoe. Far from a big, husky, man with a beard, a slender, 68 year old sits before me, with a Cravat wrapped around his neck and a thick fleece to protect him from the chill of Irish springtime.
“Right, sit down there and let’s get this done. It’s like going to the dentist!” he exclaims with a putting-you-at-your-ease smile.
Born in Assam, India, Severin was sent to boarding school in England at the tender age of six and was awarded a place studying Geography at Oxford when he was just sixteen.
During the second summer holidays at Oxford, the Geography students were made do a special thesis. Rather than doing a ‘boring project’ like most people, Severin tells me he persuaded his lecturers to allow him to retrace the route of Marco Polo on a motorbike, accompanied by two colleagues, one of whom was Stanley Johnson (father of Lord Mayor of London, Boris Johnson).
Severin retells the route the trio took, travelling from Oxford to Venice then all the way across Turkey where their bikes began to fall apart. The trio rode across Iran (then called Persia) and Afghanistan with ease but were unable to enter western China due to the political situation in the country at the time.
“At that stage we were down to one motorbike; All three of us riding on the one bike! It was very uncomfortable,” he laughs.
“I didn’t have a motorcycle license and had never ridden a bike before! Only two of us could actually afford to put money into the kitty for the trip. We put in the equivalent of €130 each which had do an entire 3 person project which lasted 4 months travelling across 2 continents.”
The Marco Polo expedition, apart from feeding Severin’s hunger for adventure, taught him a lot about the importance of thorough research and preparation. He did over two years of research before he even considered embarking on his next journey, ‘The Brendan Voyage’.
Severin says ‘The Brendan Voyage’ was his first major expedition, entailing him sailing a leather currach across the Atlantic in the wake of Brendan the Navigator, to investigate the myth that the Irish landed in the New World ever before Columbus.
The boat was built using only techniques and materials available in the sixth-century A.D comprising of forty-nine ox hides stitched together in a patchwork and stretched over a wooden frame. This leather skin was only a quarter of an inch thick yet Severin and his crew sailed it from Brandon Creek in Dingle all the way across the Atlantic to Newfoundland.
“It was a calculated risk. As with all the projects, I have spent a lot of time researching. It was my first major expedition so I looked into it very carefully. They are research projects not adventure projects,” he says.
On these Voyages you can be out at sea for weeks at a time, having to live with rats and cockroaches, delirious from lack of sleep, and with the threat of thirst and hunger. For Severin, however, it was the might of the Atlantic Ocean that scared him the most.
“The most frightening time is always at night during very bad weather with big waves rolling down on you out of the darkness. You can’t see them but you can hear them,” he whispers.
“You hear this roaring noise coming at you and it’s like an express train. Everything is moving around you and it’s like skiing out of control.
“Then everything would become silent for a few minutes then suddenly it would start all over again. This would go on for hours. It was terrifying,” he remembers.
On these hazardous journeys, Severin and his crew had no choice but to keep going.
“You are out there, just the four of you, and you rely on the expertise of whoever is at the helm at the time. They will do their best as their life and the lives of the rest of the crew are in their hands.”
Far from high budget adventures that we hear about today, Severin worked on an extremely tight budget and says that on all of his voyages everyone looks after themselves. “I would be mortified to have to call for help from other people”, he says.
The only time, in all of his dozen or so expeditions, that he had to call for help, was on the China Voyage, where he sailed the Pacific on a bamboo raft to test the theory that ancient Chinese mariners could have reached the Americas. Severin and crew knew they were in trouble when the bamboo raft began to slowly sink right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
For most people this would be a cause for panic, but Severin remained level headed and calmly requested assistance.
“I managed to get a message to a maritime museum in the United States and asked if there was a merchant ship in the area could they pick us up”, he says.
On that particular voyage, Severin and crew experienced quite a lot of bewilderment from off shore fishermen. “The Japanese were utterly baffled why my team and I should be on a bamboo raft off the coast of Japan. They just couldn’t get their heads around it. Nobody good grasp what we were doing or why,” he laughs.
At a time when the media has gone crazy for ‘Adventure challenges’, Severin is in a category of his own.
“My projects have been to investigate things not challenge them. Nobody has ever tried to copy any of my voyages. I don’t think anyone else will ever do it ‘just for the challenge’. They would be very unwise to do so!!”
Unlike most children, Severin never wanted to be a fireman or a doctor. He simply wanted to explore. “I just wanted to travel and do interesting things. End of story,” he says.
His grandmother had the biggest influence on him, teaching him that you should just ‘get things done’ rather than thinking about doing them and instilled a desire to travel in him from a young age.
“She used to tell me that being in rather exotic and difficult situations such as in the tea gardens of wild, north western India was rather normal and in fact quite interesting.”
At the age of 68, Severin still manages to keep himself occupied and to find the child within. He is busy writing his series of children’s fiction, ‘The Adventures of Hector Lynch, Pirate’, of which the next book, ‘Sea Robber’ is set to be released this May.
There is no end in sight to “The Adventures of Tim Severin, Explorer extraordinaire”.
Tim Butcher and Tim Severin may share the same Christian name but they have very different motivation for exploration. While Severin investigates mythical voyages of the past, Butcher decided to retrace the steps of Henry Morton Stanley’s 1870 expedition and cross along the mighty River Congo.
Butcher is no novice to Africa, having worked as war correspondent and Africa Bureau Chief for the Daily Telegraph. He is now the Middle East Correspondent and is talking to me from his office in Jerusalem.
I ask him what motivated him to take a break from reporting to explore the depths of darkest Africa.
“People told me it couldn’t be done and I wanted to prove them wrong,” he says. “It was a combination of vanity, professional curiosity and wanting to understand Africa.”
Butcher followed Stanley’s original route across the Congo. Modern technology allowed him to cover the same distance as Stanley in less than one sixth of the time. While Stanley walked, Butcher had a motorbike.
“Stanley also messed around by the river covering less than 2 miles a day at times, trekking through deep equatorial forests which was absolutely insane,” recalls Butcher.
However, while Stanley had a crew of explorers, Butcher decided to set out into the heart of darkness totally alone. He immersed himself into a country that has been largely forgotten about, a place ruined by war and unrest for the past 50 years.
From health risks such as dengue fever, Aids and malaria to encountering groups of lawless men carrying Kalashnikovs, Butcher encountered challenges at every stage. Yet what affected him the worst was the way in which the war had ripped the spirit out of the people.
“In most African villages the children run up to you shouting and laughing, full of hope. In Congo the war has beaten the sparkle out of their eyes. One child thought nothing of bringing me to this horrific place full of dead bodies; It was awful,” he remembers.
One of the scariest moments of the expedition came when Butcher had to spend days in a canoe with four total strangers. “For all I knew they could have turned a corner and finished me off but I had no choice but to trust them. I was bloody lucky really.”
Once he was in the canoe he could no longer worry as his safety was out of his hands. All the worry and anxiety that had built up throughout the journey simply drifted away.
“I had to sit back and float down the river. It’s not like you can call up the UN to be rescued. It’s just far too remote. No helicopter has ever been out there”.
“The one thing I learned from that trip was not to listen to people who say ‘It can’t be done.’ Go out there and prove them wrong.”