15 famous folks, including Douglas Coupland, Martha Wainwright and Andrew Motion, recall their first ever big adventure, from busking through France to brain trauma on Kilimanjaro…
When I was 17, I hitchhiked right across France. I had some friends who had a commune in a place called Menton, down near the French-Italian border. They gave me the address and said “Come and see us in the summer.”
I jacked in my shitty job, where I sat opposite my boss, filling in forms (I was an insurance claims clerk for an insurance company), and I just hit the road.
I just bummed around. I’d get up in the morning, look at the map, and decide, “ok, I’m going to hitchhike to that place…”
This was 1975. I’d just learned to play guitar, but I didn’t take a guitar. I stayed at a lot of youth hostels, so if someone had a guitar, I could play any 3-chord Bob Dylan song, which is very handy socially, when you don’t speak the language, or I’d play Streets of London, simple things like that. It broke a lot of barriers. I had the time of my life. It was a great trip. I’m glad I did it.
I don’t know what my mother was thinking, but my first exciting travel experience was when she let me and my girlfriend go on a road trip across the United States when we were 16. This was before cell phones.
We would check in once a week. We were given a lot of freedom. Perhaps she was having a mid-life crisis and didn’t realise what she was doing.
We just chain-smoked cigarettes and went to Memphis, we went to Louisville, we went to New Orleans and we just were really completely free to do what we wanted to do. It was really an amazing experience.
We definitely had fun and met a lot of people. We were two young teenagers, so we were magnets for some crazy people. But it taught us a lot about how to take care of yourself and experience things without getting hurt.
I first went to Africa in the 1980s. My main objective was to climb Kilimanjaro. When I saw my first elephant and saw how these seemingly great creatures were so animated, so capable of exhibiting emotion and humour and play, I was so excited. From that very first time I ever saw a wild elephant, they have been one of my very favourite subjects whenever I have come to Africa. They are absolutely never boring. Until people see them for the first time in the wild, they may not understand that fact.
Going to the top of Kilimanjaro was one of the hardest things I ever did. In November 1980, when we did that, the border between Kenya and Tanzania was closed, so there was nobody in Tanzania. There were no other people on the mountain when we climbed it. There was only one porter, who wasn’t really a porter, so we carried all our own gear and we climbed that son-of-a-bitch mountain in four days, which is almost impossible to do.
We were young, we were fit, but, still, I had cerebral edema on the summit. Getting up the mountain was an adventure. We also camped in Ngorongoro crater. There was nobody down there, so we could camp there back then. A bunch of lions came roaring at night all around our tent.
My first big trip was to Vanuatu, a group of islands off the coast of Australia. I went there to learn how to dive and to do horse-riding on the beaches. Through the diving, I met a guy who owned a huge game-fishing boat and I went out with him to do game-fishing, and had an amazing lunch on the boat, but we didn’t go in the water, as there were quite a few sharks there. Food crops up in most of my travels, but that was a particularly memorable lunch, out in the middle of the water.
The diving in that area was amazing. I did one-on-one tuition. I’d go to an island on my own and ask one of the divers to come out with me. One diver taught me how to blow air bubbles in the ocean, where they rise up through the ocean, the ring getting bigger and bigger. They look amazing. We saw manta rays, sharks (which was a bit frightening), turtles and a lot more.
The first time I really went travelling was when I was searching for other Dave Gormans (for the Are You Dave Gorman? project ). It gave me a real feeling that anything was possible. I could say in the morning “I’m going to go to New York today” and go to New York, or “Let’s go to Israel. Let’s make it happen.” That’s a very exciting way to travel. The world is full of infinite possibilities. You can, if you want to, just go to an airport with a credit card and go somewhere.
I loved New York and I’ve returned to New York many times since, but that was my first time and there’s something incredibly powerful about it, because it’s a movie set. You feel so familiar with it, even though you’ve never been. New York really is that ‘New Yoik’. It delivers. I loved that.
Israel was fascinating. First, there’s that thing of going to an airport and realising you’ve gone to a separate part of the world where the police have guns and it’s slightly unsettling. But it was the man I met there and who showed us around who was amazing. He’s of a different faith to me, a different race to me, English isn’t his first language, and we had nothing in common at all. I was in my 20s and he was in his 80s. The only thing we had in common was our name, which actually is nothing. It is completely and utterly meaningless. But we were able to get on really well and had a nice meal full of laughter. We got on like a house on fire.
I like heading off into wild places that I don’t know at all and to feel I’m having a proper adventure. A template for this was in a summer holiday at school. I’d just turned 16 and I wanted to leave home. My mum had had a very bad accident and it was very grim at home.
A couple of school friends and I cooked up a plot to get away from home for a sizeable chunk of the summer holidays. I said to my father that these friends and I were going to look for the grave of Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros, off the east coast of Greece. It’s been a bit tarted up now, but in those days it was pretty wild and woolly. My father was so impressed that this was a cultural jaunt that he didn’t raise any objections to it, so we set off with 40 quid in our pockets and got the train to Athens, then took buses and hitchhiked over to the island.
We very nearly died of heatstroke trying to find Brooke’s grave. It was very difficult. I think there’s a road to it now, but there certainly wasn’t then.
It was a nutty trip, but it was extremely exciting and made us feel very heroic. That gave me an appetite for going to far-flung places and my intrepid journeys.
My first big trip was going from North Pakistan to San Francisco at the age of three, via Hong Kong and Tokyo,. It had a huge impact on me, that first adventure, because it lasted six years.
I arrived in California a little kid who didn’t speak a word of English, and it began this six-year adventure as a Californian child, which ended when I moved back to Pakistan at the age of nine and I first discovered I didn’t speak a word of the language.
I was one kid when I went there and another kid when I went back. Ever since then, every travel adventure has been a smaller version of that.
I came to England when I was 22. I’d never been to England. I wanted to see the world. Kerouac is a good example of that thinking, all the Dharma Bums stuff. That was my agenda from the beginning. More than anything else, I wanted to just keep moving.
When I first came to London, I didn’t know anyone here and I knew nothing about London. I loved English music but I wouldn’t have been able to name a member of the Royal family and I didn’t know Chelsea was in London. I’m from Akron, Ohio, and it was very new to me. I saw a bus on it that said ‘Muswell Hill’ and I thought “I’ll get on that bus and get to the end of the line and stand at the station and think “Wow, maybe the Kinks stood here.”
I’m in love with England. I think London is the greatest city.
My first adventure was when I first went from my village of Plaplaya in Honduras to the city of La Ceiba. I was 14 years old.
It was on a small freight boat and the sea was very rough. It took 24 hours to get to La Ceiba. I slept on top of some soft drink boxes with a small mattress on top, and as the boat moved my intestines moved with it. It was horrible. When I got off of the boat, I walked like a drunkard. I was feeling very sick.
My first great travel adventure was also my shortest-in-terms-of distance-and-time-great-travel-adventure. When I was 13 years old, I was living in the suburbs in New York City and I took the train to Manhattan with a friend of mine. We didn’t have parents with us, so it was the first time either of us had been in Manhattan without parents.
It was 1978. The city was a crime and drugs-fuelled cesspool, and it was so exciting to be on our own at Times Square and in the Grand Central Station. Even though we had only gone for 45 minutes on the train and it was only about 30 miles away, it still felt like I was on the biggest adventure I had ever been on.
I went Eurorailing when I was 17, with £100 hidden in my sock. I didn’t even have a real passport, so I had to get an emergency passport from the post office, so my travel was a little bit limited.
I got to France, I got to Spain, I got to Italy. We went to a lot of rural places and took a lot of slow trains. We slept on luggage racks in stations. Because I had so little money, it was more about the actual physical traveling than the places that we were managed to get to.
The first time I tried to hitchhike around the world, it didn’t work out. When I was 14, my best mate was obsessed with Allen Ginsberg. We started from Muswell Hill but I ended up in a squat, which was exciting enough that I didn’t need to go anywhere else after that. It was next to The Forum in Kentish Town, so that’s a two mile walk - not very far at all.
But when I was 16 and done with school, me and my friend definitely felt that spirit of Kerouac and went on an adventure. I had a copy of The Dhammapada and a sleeping bag. We got as far as the south of France. My friend wanted to go east but I wanted to go south, so we split up. I went south and I got to to Zaragoza in Spain. I did a lot of walking around, a lot of thinking, a lot of meditating. I worked out, if you got a chorizo and a piece of cheddar for almost nothing from the food market, and with water, you could keep going forever with that. I was sleeping out by railways and stuff like that.
I remember just being so excited. You could be in the middle of absolutely nowhere and just go and sleep under a bridge or something. That feeling of freedom was amazing. I had a Walkman with Nick Cave, Elvis and Van Morrison on it.
I remember a tiny town where I attempted to smoke as many cigarettes as a Spanish old man but it can’t be done.
That was when I learnt, as every Englishman does, that Ducados are not like any other cigarette and they’re ten pesetas cheaper for a good reason.
My family didn’t really go on holidays. My brother and I worked out one time that the only time we’ve all been in one vehicle at the same time was going back and forth to the Lake Country in Quebec. But here’s where it’s different: my Dad was in the Canadian Air Force. I was born on a base. When my dad went civilian, he got this little De Havilland Beaver (single engine plane), which I’m convinced was a deathtrap. It’s a miracle I’m still alive.
At the weekend, my brother and me and the family dog would get in the plane in BC and fly to Alberta Day or to the Yukon or to the Alaska Panhandle. We went here, we went there. At the time, it was like, “Oh, whatever, we’re travelling in the plane again.” But really it was quite wonderful. It was like a dream of travel. We’d just say, “Let’s go there today” and fly there. I look back on it and that really changed the way I saw getting from A to B and the way I saw landscapes. We really saw the land on a scale you can’t get in a 747.
Oddly, I have no interest in being a pilot. My favourite thing on planes is drinking wine and getting insane amounts of work done. The first three glasses of wine and all those calories you’ve eaten go straight to your brain, so your brain’s happy. Then by three and a half glasses, it’s all crap.
My first great travel experience was to Bonaire, which is part of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean, as a teenager. My brother and I did some research and found the place most highly regarded for coral reefs, and then we began to beg our parents to go, which they finally accepted.
We spent every single day snorkelling in the ocean for eight hours. We swam with the incredible and colourful variety of sea life in wonder and awe: angelfish, barracuda, starfish, spiny urchins... It was life-altering.
The first big adventure that I can remember was when my dad took my best friend Toby and I on a canoeing holiday across Algonquin Park in Canada. We went in an old Canadian canoe and we camped for a couple of days.
I can remember every moment of it. Camping, hiding food from bears, seeing wild moose, beavers, diving for mussels, fishing, and carrying the canoes through the forest. It was amazing.