One of my favorite places

My road
My road

Alone on the bend in the road, legs pedaling, breeze blowing. Adam is a few curves ahead, there are no cars around. Only the whir of my bike and soft squeak of my chain fills the silence. It’s just me. The road and me. I can stop if I want. I can go if I want. I can do whatever I want – I am alone on this road and I’m traveling. I let myself coast and bask in the moment, enjoying the silence, the warmth, the view. I slalom around imaginary obstacles, slow down, look around. And then I pedal harder, just because I like the feeling of the wind in my eyelashes.

I’m spitting out a mouthful of sea water while bobbing between big ocean swells textured with rough whitecaps. Attached by a harness to my huge purple kite that flies above me, I’m looking around for the board that just came off my feet after my last crash. Each time I sink down behind another swell land goes out of sight and all I see is water all around. This is what I’m thinking: No one can see me. No one knows where my board is. No one can help me. I got myself here, and only I can get myself out of here. So after a moment to enjoy the wildness of this small scoop of wilderness between waves, I dip my kite back down towards the horizon to fill it with wind, and squinting my eyes against the water that rushes over my face I head upwind, tacking to find my board and start the ride again.

Kitesurfing alone
Kitesurfing alone

Perched on the edge of a rock-face I look down and see the space between my foot trembling on the ledge and the treetops. I rearrange my fingers on the holds and look out at the banana field beyond and no one is there. No one can see me so no one knows that I am resting my head against the rock as I take deep breaths and try to pull myself together. The insects are sounding off like alarms for a time-bomb: a reminder that I have to move on, whether it’s going to be down or up. And no one but me knows how many long seconds pass before my arms, hands, feet and mind are inexplicably pulling me upwards again.

Sort yourself out
Sort yourself out

There is no place where I feel more alive than that place where only I can sort myself out.

Why do I do this to myself?

March 9th, climbing “Take Forever”, graded 5b, 38 meters long…

We recently took a break from biking to climb for a week near Thakhek. It had been months since I’d last jammed my feet into my too-tight climbing shoes and tied myself to the end of the rope. I dipped my hands in my chalk bag to dry off some of the nervous sweat, checked my harness to be sure I had the right number of quickdraws, and, off I went.

Up, up, up, this is going fine. Yep, I love climbing. Feels so cool up here. Look at me go, I bet I look pretty good right now. Ooh nice move there with the little knee drop, yeahhh. Clip here, clip there. Shake out the  arms, nice breeze in my hair now that I’m 20 meters up. Man, I love this feeling. Now, where is the next hold. What? There is no hold. This is meant to be a 5b. Where. Is. The. Huge. Hold. Where? Panicky downclimb to the last clip. Shake out the burning fore-arms again. Chalk up. Chalk up some more. Why is there no more chalk in this bag? Climbing in the tropics is the stupidest idea ever. Feel around the cliff again – nope, no good holds. Tentatively smear a foot over there, and a foot here, nope nope not doing that, too risky. Back down to the last clip, but I am still just holding the cliff. Why do I do this to myself? Why am I up here? This is so not cool. I was perfectly happy on the ground. Isn’t biking thousands of kilometers enough of a challenge or am I that dumb that I need to go and scare myself like this? Every time Julie, every time. I cannot possibly hold that tiny bit of rock and put my foot on that tiny slippery place and move a step further. No way. No but I can. I have done this before. It’s 5b. I can do this. You can do this. You like the burn of adrenaline in your forearms. That’s why you are here, Julie. It makes you feel alive. Now don’t do it, don’t say it. Don’t say that terrible, awful, un-undo-able word. Look up, you can, you can, you can.

“Take!”

Shoooot. It’s done, it can’t be taken back. I’ve told Adam to take in the rope and my chance for the flash (doing the climb first try without resting on the rope) is gone. Forever. I knew it before I said take. I knew that if I tried I might have made it. Or I might have slipped, but the fall would have been okay – the rope is there, the bolts are new and solid, the wall is vertical so it would have been a nice clean fall, no problem.

Two minutes later I’ve had a rest, the burning in my arms has faded a bit. I reach up again, move my foot a little, stretch a little further. And, wait, what’s this, another hold? And that little tiny bit of rock to grab is not that small really. And, ufff, grrr, gahhh! …and suddenly I’m at the next bolt.

And this is why I climb. To practice not saying “take”. Climb till you fall. Easier said than done.

To experience the indescribable feeling of that moment before an irreversible decision, an irreversible word. To feel emotions more raw than my fingertips after a full day on limestone. To discover the clarity of mind that is only accessible above the last clip. To know what it’s like not to know if you can do the next move and to know that no one but you can do anything about it.

March 10th, climbing “Driving School”, graded 6b, 20 meters long…

There is more to it though. It’s to prove to myself that I can do the final three exposed moves above my last bolt on a 20 meter climb that has used every last bit of my strength because even with nothing left in my arms, I will NOT say take again. I WILL do this. Grabbing, clawing, fingers slipping, gasping, screaming, arms burning, I haul myself over the ledge. I don’t say take, I don’t downclimb. And I am finally, sweatily, ecstatically at the top of my first 6b ever. 

The view is amazing. The rappel down is glorious.

And more than the need to push myself, this is why I climb. Because it feels so good up there.

Climbing tick list for Thakhek, Laos
Climbing tick list for Thakhek, Laos

On traveling and writing

I’ve now been traveling for nearly five months and yet I still haven’t figured out how to convey what I’m experiencing in words or pictures on this blog. But now I’m sitting by the lazy green Mekong river in Laos with a nutella sandwich, cold passionfruit juice and an afternoon’s break from my bike so there’s no good excuse not to just write. So here goes…

Since there are several reasons why I’m out traveling there are several ways I might write about it. This blog started as a way for me to write freely about conservation so I’m trying to find a meaningful (and practical considering poor internet connections) way of writing about this adventure in a way that keeps it connected to conservation.

“All adventure is a vessel for getting to the more important things in life.” – Alastair Humphreys, 2011

What are the important things in life to me at this moment? The environmental lessons that don’t make their way to my desk in Europe. The human connections that happen only when you are miles and miles from ‘civilisation’, sanity and the safety of the known. The nature of your own edge. The nature of nature’s edge – and society’s. The serenity and satisfaction of reaching an ‘ah-HA!’ moment at the most unexpected points in your life.

Even if I’m not working in conservation right now I’m living slowly and sustainably, and I’m getting closer to discovering a way to lead a life that brings conservation and outdoor adventures together.

Bike touring
Bike touring

Two inspirational women who recently cycled for ten months visiting transboundary protected areas (national parks that straddle national boundaries) summed up what I’m trying to say just perfectly:

“There are places you can get to by road, and there are places you can only get to by being on the road, a state of mind you can carry, with concerted effort, to almost any context.” – Cycling Silk, 2011

The seed for my own expedition or adventure was planted about a year ago in the second half of my masters when I got to attend a few talks by expedition leaders (including Sir Ranulph Fiennes). The craving was only further fuelled by the extreme sports videos I would watch online while putting off the essays I should have been writing. I wasn’t interested in being a backpacker or in moving ‘to the field’ for a gritty but noble conservation job. I wanted to do something physically demanding outdoors. I wanted to learn about the world and myself through the total sensory experience of life outdoors every day. I didn’t know it then, but I do now: I needed to be on the road in every possible sense.

Being on the road is both a lifestyle and a state of mind. The route we are drawing on the map with our bikes is a transect through time, through my life and others’, and through social and environmental landscapes. It’s just one of many possibilities, but whatever path I’m on is the way it is and a chance for me to learn something along the way.

To give you a taste of Laos, here are a few observations in the time I’ve been sitting here writing:

{A woman in a typical conical woven hat guides a small canoe over the river carving a rippling V into its smooth surface.}
{A man fires up a longtail boat below the deck I’m sitting on and the whap-whap-whap cuts through the thick, hot air, disrupting the near silence.}
{A monkey in a cage at the hotel across the sandy lane starts whooping out a high pitched warning cry as tourists walk by laughing.}

Get a yellow card

You can’t learn or improve

Julie showing off a chocolatey backroll

unless you push your limits a little.

I’ve played soccer since I was eight years old and I’ve always been too nice on the field. When I was eleven years old my dad’s coaching advice was: get a yellow card. He didn’t want me to be mean or unsportsman-like, he just wanted me to play hard and stop being such a wimp. I was so proud of myself when I finally got the guts to gently nudge another girl with my shoulder.

For the last two months I’ve been learning to kitesurf in Hua Hin, Thailand. It involves learning to control a huge kite to pull me through the water without crashing it down on other swimmers, sweeping tourists off the beach, slamming it into other kites, or landing it in a thorny tree. Luckily none of these things have happened (yet), but nonetheless part of the learning process is getting dangerously close.

If there were kitesurfing referees I would definitely have been yellow carded a few times by now.

Once I could control the kite I then faced the challenge of generating enough power to get me up on the board but not so much that it launched me out of the foot straps. When that happened I would fly running through the air and drink a huge mouthful of seawater upon landing. There were also the attempts to return to land amongst tumbling waves, watching out for hits in the back of the head from my board when it came off my feet, and jumps that ended in epic blinding face plants.

Unfortunately all of these things have and still do happen to me. Each time it happens I think to myself: another yellow card for me, yessss!

I’m glad I submitted myself to the eye-stinging, nose burning, head throbbing pain that is inevitable if you choose to attach yourself to a giant kite you can barely control. I’m also pleased I put up with the intense frustration of being a beginner because after all that I have not only learned to kitesurf, but also learned that ‘get a yellow card’ is one of the most important lessons my dad taught me.

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