A man, his wheelchair and a mountain
Interview Words : The World According To ... | 23 January

The World According to Andy Campbell, disabled adventurer

Preparing to go 30,000 miles around the world in a wheelchair gives you a different perspective on the planet

Mountain/desert/jungle/ocean which are you?

Mountain, without a doubt. There’s something hugely satisfying and clarifying about looking down on the world from a mountain top that makes it special, especially from a wheelchair.

First travel experience?

As a child: Summer holidays in a caravan and exploring farmer’s fields until my parents reported me missing to the police.

As an adult: Being sent to Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of British peacekeeping forces during the war.

As a paraplegic: The top of a small hill outside my hospital ward I’d been staring at everyday for six months before finally having the strength to push myself there in a wheelchair.

Favourite journey?

Through the Spiti Valley in the Himalayas to the Kee Gompa Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at over 13,000ft. The monastery itself is an amazing patchwork of buildings built atop each other for almost 1000 years and where the current Dalai Lama intends to retire, which as destinations go is quite a recommendation. But the journey there is something special and just being in the Himalayas was like a pilgrimage in itself for me.

Top five places worldwide?

Haines, Alaska – heliskiing; Olu Deniz, Turkey – paragliding; Simonstown, South Africa – scuba diving; Shimla, India – curry; Knoydart, Scotland – for a quiet beer.

Special place to stay?

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, warm and cosy under a tarp listening to nothing but the rain while planning a route by head-torch.

Three items you always pack?

Camera, head-torch, puncture repair kit.

Passport stamp you're proudest of?

A work visa for the USA that meant I was able to go and work as a ski guide in Utah.

Passport stamp most like to have?

Argentina. It’s the final country on my 30,000 miles around the world in a wheelchair route, so if I get that stamp I’ll have made it.

Guilty travel pleasure?

T-shirts. The cheesier the better, especially if they’re related to some slightly eccentric or tacky food place. I have more t-shirts than I should reasonably own, it’s become a problem of storage.

Window or aisle?

The whole aisle! It doesn’t happen often but when it does there’s nothing better than lucking-out and having it all to yourself on a long flight, and feeling like the king of economy.

Who is your ideal travelling companion?

Sir Ranulph Fiennes. A perfect mixture of experience, inspiration and rebelliousness that makes anything possible. He has that indefatigable British eccentricness and attitude that makes the most insane thing in the world seem like a perfectly obvious course of action.

Best meal on the road? Worst?

Best: Panipuri. They’re small, round and hollow fried crisps filled with a mixture of water, spices, onion, tomato, chickpeas and pretty much anything else you want and sold from streetcarts in India. You just throw the whole thing in your mouth and have all these different flavours explode at once – amazing.

Worst: Dried mopane worms. Big caterpillars mostly from southern Africa that, when dried and eaten as a snack, are full of protein but taste like dried wood or chewing dried tea leaves. They completely absorb any moisture in your mouth and seem to tattoo your tongue with the taste for days.

Most surprising place? Most disappointing?

Most surprising: The Great Barrier Reef. You see all the photos and footage from there, with thousands upon thousands of fish swimming around brightly coloured coral, and expect they somehow set it up a little or just picked the best bits. Then your head goes under the water and you’re seeing it all for yourself. It’s more amazing than you can ever expect and takes you completely by surprise. No photos or footage can prepare you for it.

Most disappointing: I don’t think I’ve been anywhere that’s truly disappointed me at all.

Anywhere you don’t want to go?

Ilha de Queimada Grande, Brazil. A small uninhabited island off the coast of Brazil that’s literally covered in hundreds of thousands of Golden Lancehead Vipers. They’ve evolved on the island with no predators at all so there’s up to five of these really crazy snakes for every square meter of land, and they’re not scared of anything.

If all that wasn’t bad enough, their venom is also five times more potent and fast acting than any other pit-viper. Oh yeah, and they don’t let go of something once they’ve bitten it. I just can’t imagine being on that island and not getting bitten before I finished my first Indiana Jones or Snakes On A Plane pun.

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

Since becoming paralysed I’m basically inspired to explore and travel by places rather than people. The further I get from wheelchair ramps and concrete the more unrestrained I feel; I realise just how much of the world there is to see and I just want to keep going. The world’s just so full of all these wonderful places and adventures that I can’t imagine ever being content with what you’ve seen or where you’ve been.

I have so many travel heroes, essentially anyone that heads out the door with that sense of adventure and desire, but one that stands out as an inspiration is definitely Rick Hansen. He’s a Canadian paraplegic that set off from Vancouver in 1985 to push his wheelchair around the world, he spent two years pushing that wheelchair 24,000 miles before he made it back home.

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

My music collection is as vast and eclectic as it is embarrassing. Digital music makes it too easy to stockpile tracks and albums. I’m like a musical hoarder and never get around to deleting things or organising soundtracks. I just throw everything on my iPod and leave it on shuffle, so something really obscure or embarrassing pops up all the time.

Someone once told me I had the musical taste of a 16-year-old girl after the shuffle threw up some Britney followed by Katy Perry followed by Avril Lavigne. But it’ll just as easily throw out stuff by The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, or The Who. It’s a kind of musical Russian roulette.

So I have a bizarre soundtrack for my life that never really matches my surroundings or activity but creates great memories. NWA’s Straigt outta Compton reminds me of quietly sipping tea in Morocco. Walk like an Egyptian by The Bangles takes me back to Bosnia and if I close my eyes while listening to God save the Queen by The Sex Pistols I can almost smell the bushmeat market in SOWETO. The Story, by Brandi Carlile always make me sentimental and makes me want to go out to fight through some epic journey. If things are particularly tough or hard and I’m struggling or feeling down then there is very little that can’t be cured by some rousing tunes from military brass bands.

What do you read?

I don’t think I’ve read a fictional book in years, at the moment I’m reading The Man Who Cycled the Americas by Mark Beaumont. I’m taking a course in meteorology as part of my preparations for the around the world trip, so if I get time to read at the moment I usually have my head stuck in textbooks.

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

I’m constantly amazed and grateful for the kindness of strangers wherever I go. Being in a wheelchair always makes people less intimidated to approach me and say hello or just ask questions. People are often so enthusiastic or curious about what I’m doing that I’m quite often surrounded by crowds of people all trying to help at once. I’ve been carried up thousands of steps, hauled up mountains and helped in so many ways by complete strangers, for no other reason than they wanted to help. My faith in humanity is always bolstered by the people I meet.

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

I can ask “Is this a minefield?” in five languages. Thankfully not needed in most travels, and possibly redundant depending on when you use it, but one for the back pocket.

What is your worst habit as a traveller?

Ignoring all good advice, including my own, and eating almost any street-food.

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

I’ll entertain and/or troll them with the story that I was once asked this question and make them guess what my answer was. The resulting suggestions would better anything I’d think of myself.

When and where in your travels have you been happiest?

That moment when I suddenly realised where I was. It happens a lot, but never where it’s expected or planned. At some point along the way I’ll be pre-occupied with some apparently vital detail, complaining to myself or gasping for breath and wondering why I’m torturing myself when I’ll look up and be smacked in the face with the amazement of where I am. It’s that moment when you realise how amazing the world really is.

The most memorable example for me is the first time I got back on top of a mountain after being paralysed. I’d been in hospital for seven months, dreaming of being back out in the world but having no idea how I’d make it possible without the use of my legs. I discovered a charity that taught disabled people to ski sitting down and immediately booked myself on a course in Sweden. I was so eager to get back outdoors that I forged my doctor’s signature on the permission form and probably took on the challenge before I was strong enough. I spent a week in Sweden completely exhausted and frustrated at falling over and crashing on the beginner's slope, not appreciating where I was or what I was doing.

Eventually I got to the stage where the instructor was happy enough to take me on the chairlift to the summit, where I continued to be exhausted and frustrated all the way down. It wasn’t until the end of the day, when I got off the lift at the top once again, resigned to another half hour of frustration at not being able to control my body in the way I wanted, that the clouds broke to give me the kind of view I thought I’d never see again. It was just overwhelming and immediately took my breath away, then my iPod randomly decided it would be a perfect time for some Britney.

What smell most says 'travel' to you?

The tempting but unrecognisable smell of some local dish being cooked somewhere. Food is such a fun aspect of travelling for me, I can’t resist trying everything and anything wherever I go. I’m always completely ravenous when I land somewhere so it’s always the smell of something cooking that beats the jet-lag away and reminds me I’m somewhere new.

Given a choice, which era would you travel in?

It’s easy to romanticise about times gone by, travelling into the unknown on some epic journey of discovery involving a slow sea voyage, caravans and pith helmets but I don’t think there’s much wrong with travelling right now. Anyone reading this right now can probably get up and be at an airport within an hour. With nothing more than a passport, credit card and smartphone you can go literally anywhere in the world with no planning or reservations, if anyone says the age of adventure is dead then they’re crazy.

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

Chamonix, France; Cairns, Australia; and Keswick, England. I’m not really a city person so a metropolis is probably the last thing I’d want to create. The thing that makes me prefer one city over another is its location more than anything else, so I’d merge these all together to create a perfect playground outside the city itself.

 

The Telegraph Adventure Travel ShowAndy Campbell will be speaking about his incredible adventures at The Telegraph Adventure Travel Show at Olympia London, 28-29 January 2012. 

For more information about his inspirational achievements, visit his website, Pushing The Limits.

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