Last night I watched the first episode of Walking the Nile, a documentary in which former Army officer and Afghanistan veteran Levison Wood walked more than 4,000 miles through Africa from the source of the Nile in Rwanda to the shores of the Mediterranean, thereby become the first person to walk the length of the world’s longest river. A fascinating journey, but he was only walking, and he was accompanied by a film crew. How hard could that be? I even glimpsed a few negative tweets beforehand, denigrating the trip for being an Ed Stafford rip-off, though to be fair, they seemed to be written by Ed Stafford sycophants. Although I appreciated that it definitely wasn’t going to be all plain sailing, I was nevertheless shocked and stunned, like the rest of the population who hadn’t been following the news when it happened, to learn that during the trip, Matt Power, an American journalist accompanying him for just a few days on the trip had collapsed and died of heat exhaustion while they were in Uganda. While the incident was handled sensitively, it was nevertheless an incredibly raw and terrifying moment, and it made me stop and reassess some of my preconceptions.
To be honest, we’re probably all a bit guilty of thinking, at least occasionally, that walking and trekking are not that dangerous or difficult – after all, it’s only a case of putting one foot in front of the other. And while trekking in places like the Antarctic is clearly fraught with the dangers of hypothermia and falling into crevasses, it’s not like climbing Everest. Even in the Antarctic, most people these days don’t die out there. And of course, there’s always backup support from rescue helicopters and so on. Climbing is of course much more risky – if you fall off a mountain you’re pretty much guaranteed to die.
I’m not a climber (yet), much though I’d love to be, and it’s very easy to dismiss trekking and even hillwalking as fairly low-risk, low-excitement. How much adrenalin can there be in walking, albeit with more exciting views than the back of the 21 bus back home? I’ve even once made the mistake asking someone “Oh, you don’t climb then, you only do trekking?” I said this not because I didn’t think they were adventurous, but because I sometimes don’t feel nearly as adventurous when I go trekking as those who jump off the edge of mountains, or scale unbelievable heights on the end of a rope, or survive temperatures of -40 for weeks on end. In response, however, I got very short shrift. “What do you mean, ONLY trekking? It’s still dangerous, it’s still incredibly hard work. You can die trekking, you know.” Or words to that effect. Before I climbed Kilimanjaro and made it to Everest Base Camp, those trips afforded unattainable heights in my mind – both literally and figuratively. Something I’d love to do but never thought I’d ever actually be able to achieve. Now I’ve done them, and even though the summit attempt of Kili was literally the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done, I’m still guilty of looking on such trips with slight disdain when others talk about doing them. Not because they’re easy in themselves, but because the fact that I’ve done them somehow means they can’t be that hard since I’m not a hardcore action figure, just a normal person who’s not even really very fit.
But back to Walking the Nile. On my recent trip mountain biking in the Namib desert, I clocked the temperature on my watch several times at 39 degrees in the shade, and of course much higher in the sun during the heat of the day. And yet as British people not used to the heat, we have a tendency to overlook its significance. Our guide warned us numerous times about the dangers of cycling (or indeed doing anything) in the heat of the day, when people moaned about having to get up before dawn in order to start cycling when it was cooler, or about not being allowed to cycle further as the sun reached its zenith. Just like the film “Out of Africa” when Karen Blixen arrives for the first time in Kenya and is admonished for shunning a proper sunhat for the sake of vanity: “People die from sunstroke here.” Matt Power was doing everything right – he was wearing a sunhat, he was drinking gallons of water, he was resting frequently, but he still died from heatstroke in only a couple of hours, long before rescue helicopters or park rangers could come to his aid. To die in a climbing accident, you pretty much have to fall off a cliff (which nevertheless is still easy to do, and can happen to the most accomplished of climbers). But to die in Africa, you don’t even have to go anywhere: just stand in the sun for too long.
A horrible tragedy, and I did wonder if they would abort the trip afterwards. But as Levison Wood said, to give up would make it even more pointless that Matt had died. At least to complete the trip would fulfil something. And while it was shocking to witness the tragedy on air, it nevertheless also serves a useful purpose, to remind us that even a walk in the park can be lethal. And so I reset my internal adventure compass, and reflect on my achievements and plans. I have no need to feel inferior just because I’m not a climber, just because I’ve never been to the North or South Pole or climbed Everest to the top, just because I’m a bit of a wuss at serious mountain biking. I could still die walking through the African desert (sorry, Mum!) or mountain biking in the Peak District. And every time I come back from a trip unscathed (or even scathed!), it’s still an achievement. I have as much right to feel the adrenalin rush as any professional adventurer. People sometimes mock my “just in case” extra jumper or bottle of water. But I’ll always take the mountains, the elements and the threats of danger seriously.