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The Slow Travel Philosophy: An Interview with Adventurer Dave Cornthwaite

Adventurer, author and filmmaker Dave Cornthwaite – best known for taking on 25 journeys of over 1,000 miles using non-motorised transport – on his inspiration and the importance of slow travel.

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What’s been your most exciting or rewarding adventure to date?

It’s a tough one to answer but paddleboarding for three months down the length of the Mississippi River was the most formative adventure. I always look back fondly on that journey. It wasn’t easy but it taught me so much about myself and what I’m capable of, as well as getting me comfortable with harsh conditions.

Having embraced many different modes of non-motorised transport, is paddle-boarding the one you enjoy most?

I think so. in terms of natural efficiency, being a good workout for the body and mind, and just being a beautiful, simple way to travel, it’s hard to beat stand-up paddleboarding. The concept of Expedition1000 is to do 25 different journeys of 1000 miles or more, each using a different form of non-motorised transport, of which I’ve done 11 so far, but another project I’ve just started is the Origin25 SUP [stand-up paddleboard] series, with 25 journeys, each of just over 100 miles. Each journey takes less than two weeks, so it’s a really relatable project for anybody – whatever their work schedule – and keeps the paddleboard love going.

Will it be a challenge to come up with a different way to travel on each of the Expedition1000 journeys?

You’d think so, but actually, ever since I founded the project in 2010, a week hasn’t gone by without someone sending an email about a new mode of non-motorised transport, so now I have a list of over 80 viable ways to travel 1000 miles. The real challenge is selecting 25 of those.

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What’s the strangest suggestion you’ve had up until now?

There have been a lot of weird ones [laughs] – everything from a Kalamazoo, which is a pump cart that runs on a railway track, to a pogo stick or space hopper, which everyone suggests, and which I’m absolutely not going to do. My friend broke the world record distance on a space hopper last year and it was just over four miles. There’s another great way to travel called an Aquaskipper, but I don’t think I’ll travel 1000 miles on that. It’s really hard work.

How does non-motorised transport enhance the travel experience for you?

For me, it’s really important to travel slowly and to be responsible for the distance I go. I like being able to see everything down to the insects running across the road in front of me. I like to stop to talk to people, smell the air and feel everything around me as I move along. Not only do you get that beautiful physical challenge and the feeling that you’ve really achieved something, but it’s also eco-friendly and great for the mind as you overcome all the challenges of the journey. Travelling slowly is the absolute essence of adventure for me.

Does this make a difference to how much you connect with the people in each place too?

Yes, it makes a huge difference. There’s a natural inclination to engage with and help somebody when they’re putting themselves in the face of a really big challenge. It’s much harder to paddle across a country than it is to drive, so it inspires more people, you’re more likely to make friends and you’re more likely to be offered kindnesses. On every single trip I’ve done my faith in humanity has been refreshed. I think there’s an innateness in humans to want to explore and push our limits, so when they meet someone who’s doing that, they think: ‘This person is completely normal, yet they’re doing something I’ve always wanted to do.’ That takes them one step closer to doing it themselves.

How do you decide on your next adventure?

There’s always an element of spontaneity for me, and I like going to places where I’m going to meet people, to mix travelling through the wild and beating off ocean currents with having the time to connect with people. I don’t do super remote journeys because it would remove that element for me. I’ve only visited about 110 countries so far, so I’m not even halfway through, and while I’m not trying to tick off countries, it’s always nice to experience something new. I haven’t really explored Asia yet, so I’m looking into some potential river trips there, as well as down the Amazon in South America.

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Mountain gorilla trekking in Uganda. Image by Jacada Travel’s James.

Where have you been most impressed by the scenery you’ve travelled through?

Colombia was one of the most beautiful places I’ve been. I spend a bit of time in Bogota and Medellin, then travelled down to Cartagena and moved around the coast. I saw a real variety of urban areas and places right out in the country. Uganda slots into the same bracket, where I spent time in pretty much every corner of the country, from Elgon in the east to the mountains in the west where the gorillas hang out, right down on the border by Rwanda. Then of course, the Nile runs through Uganda. It’s such a rich and beautiful country. I love the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, which is 44,000 square kilometres of total flatness with barely any trees or shrubbery. It’s really impressive for its rawness. And, something similar – although it definitely wasn’t flat – is the Atacama Desert in Chile. I travelled across that on a Whike [a pedal powered tricycle with a sail], and as the driest hot desert in the world, it was a real challenge to cross.

What do you think is the greatest benefit of travel?

I think the idea that every experience you have makes you grow as a person is emphasised by travel. We like doing it because we go to new places, experience new things and step away from the life that we’re familiar with. I think it’s really healthy to get out and experience new things, because it improves us and we evolve. That’s the essence of good travel. For me, travelling with a purpose is important, and I love the idea of travelling simply, waking up by a river or by the ocean, and just feeling totally content.

Have you been inspired by any other adventurers or any of the great explorers?

Everyone offers some inspiration, but for me, it was more that back when I started, I didn’t inspire myself and I wanted more knowledge of the world. I’ve never had any idols in the adventure world but it’s hard not to admire anyone that’s pushing the boundaries and doing something that other people aren’t.

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The Atacama Desert: An iconic Chile travel experience to include in adventurous South America tours.

Is there a travel writer whose work you find inspirational?

I really enjoy books by Bill Bryson. He’s been all over the world and he’s such a source of knowledge. You actually know he cares about the places he travels and that he listens when he’s told something. I just love that splice of humour, travel and an overwhelming array of facts about a place.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to take on an adventurous trip?

The best advice I give is to not just listen to what other people tell you about a place, but to go and explore it. If you’re going to paddle down a river, usually the people who are telling you not to, are the ones who have never paddled down that river themselves. Just go and experience it for yourself.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’ve just come back from a couple of trips so I’m working on a book and editing a film. I’ve also just launched Project Origin. The idea is to show how powerful adventure can be by building a global community in which I help 200 people each year to get to the start line of their first big adventure. In return, they each raise a minimum of £500 towards the project, which will be used to plant one million trees. We’re going to see a lot of new forests in a few years.

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Find out more about Dave Cornthwaite’s projects, books and latest adventures at www.davecornthwaite.com

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