Interview with Alastair Humphreys
Interview Words : Tom Hawker | 01 August 2019

Facing fear with Alastair Humphreys, the ultimate micro-adventurer

Having busked through Spain with a violin he can barely play for his latest book, the micro-adventure pioneer talks about the fear factor and balancing his family life and his travels...

Did you have any apprehensions about being quite so honest in your new book, My Midsummer Morning?  

(Alastair Humphreys)

(Alastair Humphreys)

It is very different from normal travel books, so yeah, I had a lot of hesitations. Actually, when I first wrote it, I wrote it like a normal travel book, but I felt that to tell the story properly there was more to it than just, ‘here’s some really crap busking in Spain’.

And I’ve noticed over time that more and more people get in touch with me to say, ‘I’d love to go on adventures, but I can’t because [of x, y, or z].’

These barriers get in the way of so many people’s adventure plans and they seem so widespread that I felt it might be helpful to write everything and see what happens. But I was very nervous about publishing the book for those reasons. 

 

Was there an awkward conversation with your wife about putting all of this out there?

(Alastair Humphreys)

(Alastair Humphreys)

Yeah, of course. I had to get her blessing for it, and in the end, she was willing for me to do it. She was like, ‘OK, this is clearly an important thing, go for it.’ It is not the easiest thing to air domestic dirty laundry [in] public, but it’s got a happy ending. 

Is it hard to balance the perception of who you are as an adventurer or traveller online and your day to day reality?

Trying to be all things is the curse of the modern person really and certainly [when it comes to] parenting. I think that more and more families [are in a position where] both parents are working and want to be good at their career, but also want to be good and present parents.

My job is what most people call going on brilliant holidays, which is a great job, but it can be hard to reconcile going on ‘holiday’ and being at home to put the washing out. 

Is it a drawback to be recognised on your adventures when you’re trying to rough it, as you were in Spain, and people are offering you a cosy bed for the night?

(Alastair Humphreys)

(Alastair Humphreys)

Yeah, it’s a very strange thing. On a lot of the travels that I’ve done, when I cycled around the world for example, one of the great joys of the whole experience would be the serendipity of random things happening and strangers inviting you in, rather than following an itinerary and a schedule.

When I got recognised in Spain, that really jarred with me because it was not what I wanted at all. I just wanted to be a random guy, not someone who people recognise as the adventurer from the internet.

I guess that can be the risk of blogging your way through an adventure. Do you think next time you will leave the blogging behind and go fully incognito? 

Well, with the Spain trip I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it until a few weeks before. My initial plan was that I would do the trip purely for myself, which I think is the best reason to go travelling. But at the last minute I thought, ‘Come on, this is a great joy to share and I must also remember it is my job. So, how can I share a story without spoiling the experience?

I think this is the real conundrum of the modern-day traveller. The compromise that I settled on was to do daily updates, but not to engage – not to read any comments or messages, just put out my story. In that sense, it is just like writing a postcard. I write my postcard, stick it out there and then get right back on with the experience. If I did a similar trip, I would do exactly the same thing.

 

Your journey was slow and tough and there were disasters. Do you worry as the journey and story unfolds that nothing catastrophic will happen?

Alaistar missed out on the tapas and wine while busking through Spain (Shutterstock)

Alaistar missed out on the tapas and wine while busking through Spain (Shutterstock)

Yes, I mean, the part of my life that I love the most is being a writer, and therefore the narrative of what’s happening is always quite high up in my mind.

I was very conscious on the trip that as wonderful as the experience was, if nothing bad happened, it would make it a terribly boring book. And actually, it serves me well on other trips, so when I cycled around the world that was often truly miserable.

I’d often have a gallows humour of, ‘Oh well, it will be good for the book, it will make a good story.’ It’s a wonderful experience once the initial terror of the thing has worn off.

Does worrying about your writing impact on how you travel? 

So, I was aware whilst doing the trip that I wanted to write about it. I was also aware that not much had happened, therefore, it was unlikely to be a 'touching the void' thriller.

But, I’m not sure whether the way I behave on trips is because of where I want the adventure to go or because of the way I want the books to be.

There’s probably a bit of overlap, but I try to allow spontaneous things to happen, to put myself in situations where I will meet strangers and eat weird food and have unusual experiences. I think all of those things are a recipe for a good adventure and for improving your book sales.

 

Do you reckon busking is a good way of experiencing a destination?

Galicia reminded Alastair of the Yorskshire Dales (Shutterstock)

Galicia reminded Alastair of the Yorskshire Dales (Shutterstock)

It was an amazing way to experience the essence of a town and its culture. You get a sense of the spirit [of the place], the people and the way the world works in different countries. I love the fact that in every country people will have to go to the shop, do their job, take the kids to school, but the nuances of how that happens is always so different. That’s the joy of travel.

Busking was a brilliant way of giving me a flavour of Spain and it forced vulnerability, which is one of the most important tools for having a good adventure. The only risk is that unless you’re good, you’re not going to have much money, so you certainly don’t get to experience the nice food and the hotels of the country you go to.

It was little bit of a shame to walk through Spain and not eat any paella or nice Spanish food. Hopefully, when I am a millionaire from selling the book, I’ll go back to Spain and gorge on some nice wine and tapas. 

So, now that you’ve done a very rough dry run of these places, would you like to go back and try the other side?

Yeah, I had never been to north-west Spain before Galicia, but I absolutely loved it! It was not how my usual memories of Spain are. It was green and often reminded me of the Yorkshire Dales. I really would love to go back with a credit card and a bicycle.

Was there a particular place that you’d really like to go back to? 

What I really liked was that I wasn’t following the tourist trail. I didn’t do the Camino de Santiago, which is in the same neck of the woods, in Galicia, but has an infrastructure. As always, what I liked about this, was the random small villages.

(Alastair Humphreys)

(Alastair Humphreys)

Tackling the fear seems to be the toughest element of this type of trip. Do you have tips for tackling fear? 

Yeah, I think that’s the hardest part of any trip: whether it’s busking, a backpacking journey, or reading Wanderlust and daring yourself to go to Africa for the first time.

I’ve been going on adventures for over 20 years now, and time and again I’m scared about beginning [the trip].

I worry about all the stuff that could happen and I doubt whether I’m up for it. I somehow persuade myself to go, everything works out fine and I’m so glad that I dared myself.

So, I think my only tip would be that experience has showed me over time that those scary beginnings are usually worth it.

If you’re not scared when you’re planning your trip, then I suggest perhaps you need to think of something a little bolder.

I think fear is an important part of a good adventure. 

You’ve done so many challenges and you tackle so many fearful elements. How do you challenge yourself for the next adventure?

Alastair Humphreys

Alastair Humphreys

What was really interesting about the Spain trip was how the fear was similar, but different. Some of my other trips like cycling through the Middle East, rowing across the Atlantic Ocean or being up a big mountain ridge, are scary for different reasons.

In Spain, I was scared of the unknown, the vulnerability and uncertainty of it, but the feeling inside you is the same. I think I’ve come to realise that I quite enjoy scaring myself and stretching myself. I also realised that adventure doesn’t have to be doing this big, macho tough guy stuff.

My trip was basically a middle-aged rambling holiday in Spain. It definitely wasn’t very epic, but I added in this element that scared me. So, I think when I’m trying to do future trips, I'll find aspects that are new to me. I think that's part of the fear, the surprise and the uncertainty that I enjoy. 

Are there any other authors that you fancy following in the footsteps of? 

Well, following in the footsteps of an author is a brilliant way to give yourself an instant hook or an adventure. Personally, I think the important part is to not try and recreate, but just use their story to create your own.

Having said that, hundreds of years ago, Celia Fiennes travelled around Britain. I really like the idea of following her footsteps, or Daniel Defoe's. I’d love to use their writing to have a look at modern Britain.

Now that you’re back at home, how are you coping with the itch to travel again?

(Alastair Humphreys)

(Alastair Humphreys)

The Spain trip helped me realise that I’ve seen so many countries in the world and while I would love to go to see another 90, I can also get a lot of adventure much closer to home.

For the first time in many years, when people say to me, ‘what next?’ - a question I hate - I don’t actually have a good answer. All my life, I have always had this list of adventures, but I don’t really have one now. I am quite happy to tootle around Britain with my little micro-adventures, so perhaps I’m getting somewhere with the itch.  

The response you’ve had to micro-adventures is extraordinary. What do you think of it?

It really is. For years I’ve been trying to stop being Mr Micro-adventure, to give it up and move on to something new in my life, but I’ve come to accept it’s really useful for lots of people who want adventures, but have real lives.

And the fact that it’s serving a useful purpose for someone is something that I embrace. I really enjoy it. 

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