The World According to Phil Harwood

Phil Harwood, the first person to paddle the Congo River from its source to the sea, explains his travel habits and why he'd like to be a victorious Viking

4 mins

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Jungle. It's full of life, there’s always something happening and you never know what might be lurking in the shadows... a bit like me.

First travel experience?

The hustle and bustle of Bangkok where on my first day I saw a dead body being towed along by the neck from behind a boat, a huge fish being filleted while still alive and a beggar with half his face missing.

Favourite journey?

Driving from London to Cape Town with some close friends, trying to get far off the beaten track. Endless adventures, shenanigans and mischief to be had, and interesting people to meet, along with memorable nights sleeping out under the stars around the campfire.

Top five places worldwide?

The breathtakingly beautiful mountains of northern Pakistan; smack bang in the middle of Borneo far from the logging tracks; Alaska in the autumn dripping with colour; the solitude of the Sahara desert; and the west coast of Scotland when it's not raining.

Special place to stay?

The enchanting village Karimabad high up on the Karakoram highway in northern Pakistan – beauty personified. The healthiest climate I’ve ever known. Breathing in the mountain air high up in the hills is better than sex!

Three items you always pack?

Bush knife sharpened to hell; a small pot of betadine paint (iodine) for minor wounds; and a small tin of anchovies for when the going gets tough.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Passport stamp you'd most like to have?

Middle Earth... from the land of the Hobbits!

Is there a person you met while travelling who reaffirmed your faith in humanity? Anyone who made you lose it?

Valatay, one of four brothers I hired as bodyguards of a particularly dangerous stretch of the Congo River. Locals would often ask them why they hadn’t cut my throat yet, and if they didn’t want to do it, to tell them where we were camping and they would do it for them and they could share the money. Valatay and his brothers were desperately poor, but oozed humanity and goodness, and he in particular didn’t have a bad bone in his body.

Also on the Congo River I was chased for half an hour by eight angry tribesmen in two dugout canoes, screaming for money, and they eventually caught me up. Picking up my machete I stood up, turned to face them and morphed into a raging madman, screaming obscenities like a lunatic. Suffice to say they ‘bottled it’ and didn’t get what they wanted.

Guilty travel pleasure?

A micro travel pillow with a soft cotton covering. It’s amazing how something so small can give me so much comfort in the harshest of environments.

Window or aisle?

Always window… as uninspiring as flying often is, occasionally you get some awesome views. And you're further away from all the screaming babies.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

A southern Irish redheaded beauty, who is as tough as old boots, and the more challenging it gets, the more she likes it. And she would have to love bald-headed men with big noses.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

While my group were visiting the Okavango Delta in Botswana, I cooked a gastronomic delight of chicken kiev from scratch in our trusty oil drum oven, over the campfire. Worst meal has to be barbecued fruit bat in the Congo... it was a little too well done.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Iran was a revelation. Without doubt the friendliest and most civilised people I have ever come across, especially in Esfahan with the delightful sioseh (teahouse) bridge full of people chatting about philosophy late into the night.

Most disappointing is the UAE. It could be an incredible country, but the young people are ‘born into retirement’ and don’t know what it is to struggle, resulting in a sometimes obscene level of spending. I once saw a gold plated Rolls Royce being driven by a teenager.

Where do you NOT want to go?

Las Vegas... I’d rather boil my own head.

Who/what inspired you to travel? Any travel heroes?

Looking at maps and wondering how I could get into remote areas has always fascinated me. Wilfred Thesiger and Ranulph Fiennes are my travel heroes.

What do you listen to on the road? Any song take you back to a particular time or place?

I like to listen to music from the country I’m visiting. I’m currently working out in the UAE and believe it or not, I like to listen to the ‘call to prayer’. I’m an atheist but when it’s sung by somebody with a great voice it’s pretty damn cool... and very relaxing.

What do you read ?

Bernard Cornwall, epic adventure stories... Papillon being my favourite.

What's the most impressive / useful phrase you know in a foreign language?

An old Arabic saying “Yad waheeda la tusaafq” which literally means “One hand alone does not clap”. As I’m currently teaching the Emirate Military about leadership and teamwork through adventurous training, it comes in handy when the group are not helping each other on a team task.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Catching tropical diseases.

Snowbound in a tent in Antarctica, how would you entertain your companions?

With endless lateral thinking problems that I’ve picked up over the years.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

In Kathmandu when I’d just finished running an overland expedition from London. I’d also fallen madly in love with a girl in my group called Charlie, and we all went out for a night on the town. It was a silly hat party, and I wore a Charles Dickens type top hat and she wore Mickey Mouse ears. I remember singing endless Christmas carols, throwing my scarf in a fire and pulling Charlie along on a rickshaw… happy days.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

The smell of the sea evokes the need to journey to foreign lands.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

When the Vikings roamed our seas. Providing of course I was the best damn swordsman in the land so I wouldn't be hacked to death. Then when I became tired of battle, I’d travel the world having plenty of insane adventures and end up in Japan learning the art of the Samurai, before settling down with a beautiful wife and having loads of kids.

If you could combine three cities to make your perfect metropolis, what would they be?

Kathmandu because of its medieval streets among a million other things, Peshawar because of its wild-west type atmosphere and old men carrying guns, and London because of my love for British pubs.

The Telegraph Adventure Travel ShowIn 2008 Phil Harwood was the first person in the world to paddle the length of the Congo River from its source to the sea (covering a mighty 4,700km).

Phil will be speaking at The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show at Olympia London, 28-29 January 2012. Wanderlust will also be there, offering half-day travel photography workshops. For more details visit the official website at

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