From the Mag: 21st Century Odyssey


In Issue #35 we featured Karl Bushy’s quest to walk around the world. It was a good story then, and it still holds up today. Read it below.

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BY JORDAN TAPPIS

ON NOVEMBER 1ST, 1998, WITH ONLY $800 TO HIS NAME, 29-YEAR-OLD BRITISH EX-PARATROOPER KARL BUSHBY ARRIVED IN PUNTA ARENAS, CHILE, WITH EVERYTHING HE OWNED PACKED INTO A CONVERTED GOLF CART. HIS GOAL WAS TO BE THE FIRST PERSON IN HUMAN HISTORY TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE ON FOOT. TODAY, FOURTEEN YEARS AND 17,000 MILES LATER, BUSHBY FINDS HIMSELF STATIONED IN THE SMALL FISHING VILLAGE OF MELAQUE, MEXICO, WAITING ON THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT TO GRANT HIM THE REQUISITE VISA THAT WILL ALLOW HIM TO WALK THE REMAINDER OF HIS EXPEDITION – A LANDMARK TREK THAT WILL TAKE HIM THROUGH RUSSIA, CHINA, IRAN, TURKEY AND CONTINENTAL EUROPE, BEFORE ARRIVING BACK HOME IN HULL, ENGLAND.

I FIRST CAME ACROSS KARL BUSHBY’S STORY IN 2008 AFTER A FRIEND SUGGESTED I READ THE BOOK GIANT STEPS, WHICH IS A COLLECTION OF BUSHBY’S JOURNAL ENTRIES FROM THE FIRST DECADE OF HIS EXPEDITION. THOUGH NEARLY 300 PAGES LONG, I BLAZED THROUGH THE BOOK IN A SINGLE READING. IT WAS A TALE OF ADVENTURE UNLIKE ANYTHING I HAD EVER READ. BY JOURNEY’S END BUSHBY WILL HAVE CROSSED FOUR CONTINENTS, WALKED 36,000 MILES, BEEN ON THE ROAD FOR NEARLY TWO DECADES AND BROKEN NEARLY EVERY RECORD IN LONG-DISTANCE TREKKING. A DEMONSTRATION OF COMMITMENT AND SACRIFICE THAT FORCES US TO REANALYZE OUR PERCEP­TIONS ABOUT THE LIMITATIONS OF MAN, AND WHAT OUR OWN LIVES AMOUNT TO IN COMPARISON.

A QUEST OF THIS MAGNITUDE HOWEVER, DOES NOT COME WITHOUT ITS TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS AND KARL BUSHBY HAS THE SCARS – BOTH PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL – TO PROVE IT. BUT FOR A MAN WHO HAS BEEN TOLD BY VIRTUALLY EVERYONE HE’S EVER ENCOUNTERED THAT A MISSION OF THIS SCOPE COULD NOT BE DONE, BUSHBY IS PRETERNATURALLY RESILIENT. HE IS THE KIND OF MAN WHO SAYS TO HIMSELF EVERY WAKING MOMENT, EVERY STEP HE TAKES: FAILURE IS NOT AN OPTION. I CAUGHT UP WITH KARL AS HE PREPARED TO VENTURE BACK OUT ONTO THE SIBERIAN TUNDRA.

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When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?

That depends on my mood. Most of the time the answer is something to the effect of “I’m midway through a 20-year journey around the world on foot”. But if I don’t have time for a long drawn-out conversation the answer is simply “I’m currently in between jobs”.

What inspired you to walk around the world?

What inspired me is a complex list of events and environments stretching way back into my childhood. Firstly, I’ve always had a fascination with horizons and a deep love for the natural world. Then there were the experiences I had during the 12 years I served in the British army. As a paratrooper I was exposed to a very physical environment, with a strong philosophy centered on a soldier been able to live on his feet for long distances for extended durations in harsh conditions. This ethos shaped my thinking. So when the idea emerged I quickly realized the expedition had to be done on foot. There was no bigger challenge. As I posed the question regarding the journey to others, the world’s response was a resounding NO. To them, a journey of this scale could not be done. Well, once that kind of challenge was laid on the table it was impossible for me to walk away (pardon the pun!). I became obsessed with the questions: What would it take? What would a man have to do to circumnavigate the globe on foot? What might one see? Who might one become along the way? I decided to become the first person to be able to answer those questions.

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What do you miss most when you’re out there, all alone?

At times, this expedition can be a lonely existence. When the months become years, living on the move with no fixed point or definable relationship takes its toll. You’d be surprised what things we take for granted – and when those things are gone, the effects are immeasurable. Living on sofas, in sheds, gardens and spare rooms or in a tent beside a road – it’s a difficult life to maintain year after year. Even as primitive nomadic tribes we lived and moved in groups, not as individuals. What we’re doing is most definitely not natural.

Who pays for everything?

14 years ago, I left with $800 in one hand and faith in the other. I had no sponsors or backers. After a few months the money ran out and I was forced to find novel ways to make ends meet. I was forced to cross the Andes, through the arid Patagonian deserts and into the green fertile lands of southern Chile just to find food. For months I would forage on all the good stuff growing in hedgerows and farmlands and even live off trash left by road traffic and road maintenance crews. As long as I could maintain 20 miles a day I was on track. Around this time I began to receive support from family back home. It began with my mother having a whip-round at the packing factory where she worked, then wire me the cash once I arrived at a waypoint. By the time I had South America out of the way we built a website and people began chipping in. Beyond that, the many strangers I encountered along the way helped me immensely. A number of individuals took me in, provided a roof over my head, fed me and nursed me back to health when I was sick. That is the reason why, when asked, I refer to this journey in terms of ‘we’, rather than ‘I’. This expedition simply could not be done without the myriad supporters I’ve encountered along the way.

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Do you kill your own food?

Generally speaking no, but its surprising what one will do when one gets truly hungry. On a few occasions I have been driven to somewhat desperate measures and fancied the possibility of poaching livestock. On one desperate occasion I hunted a cow with a machete. I have used homemade bow and arrows to hunt sheep. Many colorful and embarrassing failed attempts. Too many to list.

What is the biggest challenge you›ve faced along the way?

Early in planning we identified three main gaps, these were the geophysical holes in our route. If you trace a route on a map from the bottom of South America all the way up the Americas over Alaska, into Russia and back to the UK, you will notice some obvious problems for a man on foot. In some instances oceans, as is the case of the Bering Strait and English Channel. A lesser-known challenge is the Darien Gap – a 200-mile long swath between Colombia and Panama. On paper, the Darien gap was technically easier than the other gaps, but it turned out to be one of the scariest and most physically demanding moments in the entire expedition. In the Darien gap, the thick jungle terrain overwhelmed me. Most of the time it was virtually impossible to maintain a sense of direction. If I turned around or bent down even for a brief instant, I would have no idea what direction I had come from or where was going in. I would spend days on end bushwhacking with a machete only to find that at the end of the day I only managed to progress two or three miles. On top of that there is the very bloody decades long conflict between the revolutionary gorillas (FARC) and the government forces (AUC). When you travel through the Darien gap, you’re going through one of the most dangerous war zones on earth.

But if the Darien gap was the most physically demanding section of the expedition, it was the Bering Strait crossing that proved to be the most satisfying. Nobody thought it could be done. Only one Russian team had managed to cross the Strait and that was from Russia to the United States. No one had ever managed to go the other way, even though many trekkers had tried and failed. After much training we became the first ever successful US to Russia crossing of the Bering Strait.

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Have you ever considered giving up?

No.

Why on foot?

It is a much greater challenge. There is no better way to experience an environment than to be on the ground. Burned by its sun, cut by its thorns, scuffed by dirt and helped by its people – this is how you get to know a place. It takes about a half hour to zip by in a car what would take me a day to walk.

Any notable trysts along the way?

I have met some amazing people along the way, made countless friends. My bootstrap existence lead to the evolution of the ‘town occupation’ plan. Waypoints (towns, cities and villages) are always important ports of call for travelers, providing time to rest, wash, eat, etc. Town occupation typically begins by socializing in a local bar or restaurant. This is not always easy considering I typically have very little money (though in some parts of the world I’ve been able to have a night out on a dollar). The plan is simple; find a bar, order a drink and post up. Eventually, more often than not, the locals will start asking questions and the night would end with a new friend and a place to sleep. Also – needless to say, this odyssey is a boy’s adventure tale, and no boy’s adventure tale is complete without the accompaniment of a girl or two. From time to time relationships would happen and they were more than welcome. I even ended up falling in love with a girl in Colombia who would change my life. But the next morning I would be back on the road. In time you accumulate a lot of ghosts, memories from the road, both good and bad.

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What’s the first thing you’ll do then you get back to London?

Unknown. Too far down the road to contemplate. It’s impossible for me to hypothesize what might be available, what opportunities might present themselves down the road or ill fates that might befall me? I learned early on to keep the focus short, don’t try and look too far down the road. Step by step.

What do you listen to on your iPod when you’re on the road?

A whole host of stuff from rock to classical, popular science audio books and podcasts to sci-fi audio books. A lot depends on the mood, but I have enough to cover a wide spectrum.

What is the most brutal patch of earth you’ve encountered along the way?

Each environment I’ve encountered has its own challenges; from overwhelming mosquitoes, subarctic temperatures, brown bears, polar bears, speeding cars, bandits and starvation, to the ongoing feeling of being trapped inside a giant treadmill. This odyssey isn’t a forgiving one.

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