Why walk the world for 22 years – Karl Bushby
We’ve had some truly unbelievable adventurers join us since the first Armchair Adventure Festival back in April. It’s been the perfect way to keep us all entertained during the various lockdowns throughout 2020 and now in to 2021. So many stories have blown us away but if we had to choose one which we were truly mesmerised by it would be that of Karl Bushby who set off in 1998 to walk an unbroken path from Argentina back to his home in Hull, UK. 23 years later and he is still going. At the November festival he teased us with just a glimpse of what it must have been like walking through the Darien Gap and over the Pack Ice from Alaska to Russia.
Karl will be joining us once more at the Armchair Adventure Bootcamp where he will be going into more depth on extreme environments and the things you need to consider if you’re dreaming of ever adventuring to some of the world’s most extreme environments. You can learn more about Bootcamp here, there really is no one with a better adventure cv to run this class. Below, you can read the piece Karl very kindly put together for us for the last festival. It explains why he chose to take on the longest walk in history…
Karl walking across The States in 2013
Perhaps the most common question I am asked is, why? Why spend 22 years (as of November 1st 2020) walking, or trying to walk, around the world? Well, not technically around the world, call it the longest point to point. The timely response is simply, “it’s a challenge based endeavour”. Truth is, I could probably squeeze another book out of that story alone, because it’s not just about me, its a story of us, why are we (a minority, granted) inexplicably driven to travel?
So, rather than a highly condensed synopsis of the last 22 years, and 37,000 kilometres, I thought I would try my hand at explaining the story of how I ended up over 30,000 miles and 25 years from home, on a journey that began on the 1st of November 1998. Perhaps I will touch on the ‘we’ aspect of the story to wrap up, because the things that motivate me won’t be too different from those that motivate others, like feeling that inexorable tug in a given direction. However, for that we will need to take a look back to who I was prior to stepping onto the start line, oh so long ago. I’m not a writer, in fact I will do just about anything to avoid having to spend time in an introspective exercise examination of one’s life, but let’s have a crack at this anyhow.
At 15 years old, badly dyslexic, with no educational qualifications to speak of, and coming from a military family, I was dropping down a well-defined funnel, options were limited. By 16 I carried a gun, having joined the Junior Parachute Regiment in1986, willing to be the best I could be. The only thing that mattered to me at this time was dying on a battlefield, in foreign lands, with my boots on, having been the best solider I could have been. You know; Queen, country, the flag, the brothers next to you. I had no idea what I was being paid, and I had little interest. I’ve never done anything for money. I suspect, in part, this is less some grand humanistic principle and more a learned coping mechanism; the cards life dealt me.
Beaten into something better
In the late 80s the Parachute Regiment, and its training depot in Aldershot, was less British army and more a cult of war. We had taken esprit de corps to its ultimate place in time and space. For recruits, Abu Ghraib was where you might have gone on vacation. Times were different then. It would typically take 24 weeks to break down a snotty nosed civilian kid and then rebuild him into a paratrooper. Someone not only capable of surviving the horror of a modern battlefield, but positively thriving on it. It’s a hell of a process and very much an art form, one that always impressed me. My destiny was seemingly carved in stone, Parachute Regiment, Pathfinders and ultimately, special forces; roughly following in father’s footsteps.
However, there was a problem with this plan. My first ever reports from junior Parachute Regiment set the pace, reading; “…one of the keenest young soldiers we have, however, this man has no fitness.” Fitness was almost everything to the Parachute Regiment, an elite fighting unit designed to operate behind enemy lines on its feet with no support. They were right, at 16, I had the physical appearance of a 9 year-old, and was comparable physically, lacking the ability to carry the kind of weight expected and needed.
There was a reason the regiment’s selection process had an approximately 90% failure rate. The regiment has an intense physical selection process known as ‘P Company’, the toughest selection process outside of special forces, mid-way through basic training. Its gate keepers were ruthless and unforgiving. Few make it as far as P Company, much less to the other side. You go into this meat grinder, and if you are made of the right stuff, 24 weeks later, you come out a different man.
Karl walking in the sunset, Uzbekistan 2019
What if you spent almost 2 years in such an institution rather than just the 24 weeks, what would that do to you? Well this is where things get interesting. For some it might be hard to define just when and where, within such a narrow time frame, you became the person you are. You: your character, your abilities, pretty much everything about you, and everything in your life that comes after. That 2 years shaped me and the rest of my life. No one had spent this amount of time as a recruit before. No one had been allowed to spend this long in Depot Para Aldershot, no one had been allowed five P Company attempts. My illustrious career of pushing boundaries had started earlier than most are aware.
P Company (P-Coy), is a week-long physical selection course every recruit Paratrooper must pass to earn his Maroon beret, go on to advanced training, jump school, and finally join one of the three battalions. Approximately 130 recruits could start a recruitment cycle, and as few as 10 would finish. The vast majority would give it one shot, one crack at P-Coy. Some more than one, I had heard of a few trying three times. Beyond that, even if you wanted, you probably would not be allowed another attempt. But five…?!
Above the instructor’s office door in Junior Para Company, a banner in large bold letters simply read, “The weak shall die, the strong shall live”. We were just 16 years old, but to the staff of ex Falkland war vets (one of whom was left in the dead pile for over 12hrs until someone realized he was actually still alive, now down to just one lung), our age was irrelevant. The gate keepers were here to cull the heard and maintain the reputation and credibility of one of the world’s elite fighting units. They had gone up Mount Longdon with bayonets fixed. This wasn’t a job, this was the unimaginable, and todays lesson, and every other, was going to be a hard-hitting reality check.
Over the coming months it’s hard to know how many times I found myself waking up on a med centre table with two IVs in each arm, only to get up and go do it again. But that was the key, to get up and go do it again, and again, and again….I was the one who did not know how to quit, or maybe I was not smart enough to know when it was clearly time to quit? But for a kid willing to die on a battlefield, then why not be willing to die trying first?
I lived in the shadow of my father, not only 24 years in the army and 12 years Special forces, but an ex Paratrooper who had received top P Company recruit. My 6 feet, 3 inches hero cast a large shadow. In Sun Tzu’s, ‘Art of War’, when surrounding your enemy, it’s advisable to always leave him with an escape route. Otherwise, the cornered animal with no options, will be motivated to fight to the death. I had nowhere in life to go.
I remember in so much pain in the mornings, that I literally could not stand, let alone walk. Within the hour I would parade on the square with my rifle and 30lbs on my back, to go visit those hills again, and again and again. I left so much blood, sweat and tears on those hills, including a few front teeth, for so much of my life, it’s hard to express. A kid who looked like he was built of matchsticks trying to be a man was sometimes a pitiful sight.
It’s not just a brutal physical regime, it’s designed to be psychologically corrosive. War fighting is about performing under stress, heaps and heaps of stress: you know, that instant fear of death at any moment kind of stress. It’s hard to simulate that, but lots of ways to try. The pressure was crippling. A kid who clearly would not make it, but refused to go away, was not popular. Humiliated and chastised at every opportunity, I was the dumb fuck who just kept standing up after every punch that had knocked me sideways. It was the 80s, not only was it acceptable to punch a recruit sideways, it was the right thing to do. You get up enough times and eventually even those that don’t want you there will start to take note. They might even start to cut you some slack. And that’s where the real problems begin.
On the 5th attempt at P Company, I passed. I earned my coveted maroon beret, Or did I? By now I had found influential members of the training establishment who started to believe in me. They could see an incredibly keen and skilled young solider (two years in basic training you better believe it), yet a physically immature individual, who, with a little more time, would grow and develop. Did they give me that 5th believing that I would eventually grow into that ill-fitting uniform that hung like a bag of washing on a wire frame, or had I earned it? The difference is profound, uncertainty was the worst possible outcome.
You see, I believed in this to the core of my very being; you made the grade or you are a liability, the weak link. I was a devout member of something so pure, that to be the actual contaminant was a fate worse than death. Now I carried the mark of Cain. It shouldn’t have mattered what others thought, but I knew it, I felt it. There was no resolution, I was never sure I ever passed P Company, and because of this I felt I was re-running P Company for the rest of my life.
My whole life was to become obsessed with fitness, or rather, my struggle with fitness. It dominated every waking hour of my life. In the battalion you would be tested and assessed every month, I would always just make the grade, always managing to hang by a bleeding fingernail. Some days it would not be enough, I would fail, and then fight back, just managing the tick in a box that would allow me to remain as a member of this remarkable family.
The years pass. It turns out you don’t do two years in Depot Para and emerge unscathed. There are scars. There are anxiety disorders, social problems, and therapy. Your behavioural specialist will talk you through what you pretty much already knew, you just needed to hear someone else say it out loud. You needed the confirmation, to work out the kinks.
Every day before parade, you look in the mirror and give the uniform one last look over; perfection, nothing less. Then fit the beret…and there it was, that feeling, you take a long hard look at yourself with that beret, and the blood boils. Anger, guilt, shame… whatever it was, I loathed it. Every time, every single time, how crazy was that. Something was deeply wrong, the itch you can’t reach can be a maddening thing with enough time.
Time moves on, life happens. You deploy, you bury friends, you marry, you have a son, you divorce, you get rank, you get on with it. However, it’s the 90s and the world is a terribly peaceful place, the odd skirmish in Northern Ireland notwithstanding. Paratroopers are kept in cages, fed raw meat just in case they might ever be needed; open the cage in case of intense warfare. In the meantime we just became security guards, this isn’t how it was supposed to be. Frustration and dissolution abound, the ranks dwindle, the numbers drop so low that the 3rd Battalion Parachute Regiment (3 Para) was almost combat inefficient. There was no war, no battlefield to martyr oneself, clearly special forces was probably not going to be my thing. I was not fitting in well with the battalion, I was an outlier, uncomfortable in my own skin, always rubbing up against members of the battalion who still questioned my legitimacy. My mind wonders afar, I was developing a strange love affair with maps, world maps.
Holy shit…there it is
The Battalion was waiting to jump into Scotland, the weather was not cooperating, the C-130s where stuck on the tarmac not going anywhere. We were trucked to accommodation where we sat and waited for days for a break in the weather, with time to kill. I had a road atlas of the US, I don’t remember from where. I spent time with a calculator working out how long it would take me to walk from the east coast of the US to the west coast. That’s the first time I remember drawing lines on a map. I cannot remember when that was, but it must have been mid 90s, post-divorce. That progressed into a number of bigger options, and ultimately a possible route the length of the Americas. The Americas were the most interesting route, north-south from northern Canada to the bottom of South America. I began talking about these long-distance fantasies with friends for the first time. Not that anyone was paying any attention, but it was getting serious. The more I looked, the more I saw. I had flirted with various different routes around the world. A few years walking here and there, nothing special, nothing worth leaving a career for. The Americas where a 6 to 7 year-long journey that was very appealing, but still. I had found a book ‘The Longest Walk’ about a Brit George Meegan, who had walked from the southern tip of Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. Loved the book, the adventure was burned into my mind.
Then things went to a whole new level of crazy. At this point I was working with the Battalion’s Intelligence section. In the office I had a world map on the wall above my desk. I received a birthday card from my father. On the inside of the card was a long form letter that among other things talked about how a couple of special forces guys (SAS) had once talked about the possibility of walking from London to New York using the Bering land bridge from Asia to America. What was the Bering land bridge, I thought? This was the first time I had been exposed to this. I look up at the map…”well shit, look at that”, the sudden realisation of what might be possible was like putting my tongue on a car battery. Turns out they are talking about the Bering Straits. Connecting Asia to the Americas meant the whole world was in play. Excited, I grabbed a sharpie and drew a line from London out across Europe, Asia, over those straits…but why would you stop at New York? You have the whole Americas; the line continued all the way down to the bottom of South America. Holy shit, there it is. That’s what I had been looking for. You know it when you see it, you feel it, the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. A single moment that changes everything. The world turns, after that there really was no going back. However, there is no Bering land bridge. The Bering Strait is just 57 miles of Arctic sea ice and open ocean between Alaska and Siberia, doable?
Karl crossing the Bering Strait, 2006
It’s so strange, I get a real kick, a positive buzz, from a good vista. Few things can stir the mind like an awe-inspiring horizon does. A few years prior, I had found myself sitting in a Hagglunds Bandvagn 206 tracked personal carrier on high ground in mid-winter, on exercise in Norway, overlooking a vast ice field running way out to a distant horizon. The most desolate expanse of white I had seen; that horizon literally gave me an adrenaline rush. This is exactly what it is to be the hound watching the rabbit run. Is this just me, or was it us, it can’t be just me?
I had felt this on exercise in Kenya at Archers post on a water tower overlooking the arid desert African plains during the most amazing sunsets. One of my favourites had been gazing out spell bound on the edge of the great Rift Valley. I was flirting with something else. I wasn’t sure what or why. Nonetheless there was a true desire to reach out and touch those distant blue faded hills, to know them, to know what there was on the edge of something else.
Eventually horizons would become my day job. Imagine that, just for a moment, imagine that. Chasing distant horizons became the reason I would wake each and every day. Chasing horizons on a sphere, now that’s job security. Back in the UK I would seek out horizons like an addict looking for that next fix. In the last years of my time in the army, the Battalion was based in Connaught barracks just behind Dover castle on the White Cliffs of Dover, Kent.
In the later years of this plan I had switched the direction of travel from the UK out to the bottom of South America into reverse. This was suggested by another SAS solider and adventurer, Bronco Lane. The experienced sage, complete with missing fingers, lost to frost bite on the summit of Everest in a desperate struggle for survival, had rightly pointed out that this whole enterprise was less a physical priority and more of a mental battle. As such he recommended reversing the route from outward bound to homeward bound for that simple reason. Every step I would take would be taking me closer to home rather than further away. In the long run this may prove vital in what was to be a mental battle of will.
Every now and then I got the opportunity to stroll over to the cliff tops next to Dover castle and gaze out across the English Channel. On a good day, you could see the 21miles and just make out continental Europe and the the shores of France. In the evenings you could see lights flickering on that distant foreign horizon. There I would ponder and try imagine one day arriving on those distant cliff tops on the other side, looking back at the White Cliffs. If I squinted I could almost conjure up the image of an individual arriving after more than 12 years of the most unimaginable journey. A faint silhouette of a man I no longer knew, could not know. I was unable to imagine what he must have lived through to get to that point in time and space. A blurred dishevelled figure looking back through the mists of time at a distant naive young Paratrooper stood upon the White Cliffs about to…? Do something insane? Do something he would regret? Something unimaginable? I would obsess over this character, I needed to know what he had lived through, what he had seen, what he had done to get to that point. I needed to know what it would take to get back to those cliffs. Was he smiling, laughing deliriously, or screaming warnings of regret? This was a curious time loop that had to be played out, the young me in uniform upon those cliffs and starring at that guy…the mysterious figure I was destined to be. I could feel the wind on my back getting stronger by the day.
Yeah, seriously…death. Why doesn’t our mortality play a more seemingly obvious role in our lives? Aware of our own mortality you would think all our decisions would be shaped by that single fact. I mean think about it, I’m sure you have occasionally. As a solider you have a special seat at the table for death. A special guest for whom you have a heightened sense of respect. As military, you have to deal with it on a more day to day practicality. Almost everything we did, all our training, was about a battle of life and death. Staying alive in an environment where everything wants to kill you, where the other guy was trained to do his upmost to kill you. The trick was to kill him first, and that’s the job. As paratroopers, we had an estimated survivability time of 60 minutes on a conventional battlefield, we all lived with this. That had a tendency to focus the mind. For some, the answer was another round of beers. For me it was so much more, the most basic meaning of life.
I had lost my religion at 19 years old on the first two-year tour in Northern Ireland. Not for the fact this cluster fuck of a conflict was simplistically packaged as a religious conflict, Catholics vs Protestants. Or the fact that during this time I had buried friends. Not just friends but the guys who slept in the bunk beds next to me. Staring at two empty army green mattresses where two friends and comrades had slept the night before… it was that close.
Death is fascinating, as are the coping mechanisms humanity has built up around it, namely religion. Not from a particularly religious family, my dog tags still read ‘Catholic’, whatever that meant. I remember going to Sunday school as a child. For me at the time it was largely a social thing. Yet I had believed in the whole dog and pony show, in a mostly superficial none practicing way. In fact, during those first months in Northern Ireland, in RUC Woodburn West Belfast (police/military base), before leaving on mobile patrols I had a home-made wooden crucifix in my pocket. Two wooden sticks bound by leather boot laces. The last thing I did before the armored vehicles hard targeted out of the security force base at high speed, other that put a live round in the chamber, was reach into my pocket to ensure I had the cross with me. Yeah, I guess I was a believer.
Karl on his way to the Darien Gap, 2001
All that went south real fast when I randomly picked up a book, the other book. In this case ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ by Sir Roger Penrose. Northern Ireland sometimes meant a lot of time sitting around waiting. No sooner had I finished this book I had a dramatic falling out with religion. It’s interesting how something can so dramatically and suddenly change your world view. Not only that, but it put me on a rather confrontational footing, I went violently anti-religious. When the house of cards fell it came crashing down hard. I was left feeling humiliated, like the sucker who had been strung along his enter life. In fact, I was the sucker who had been strung along his entire life. I was pissed, and yet increasingly more intrigued by religion as a result. Bit by bit, my world views started shattering like glass and were replaced by a new-found passion for the sciences and rational thinking, I just could not get enough.
Back in Brunevel barracks Aldershot, UK, walking into the accommodation on the top floor you would have found me sitting on a chair on a table. My oddly elevated position gave me a clear line of sight over the building roof tops to the building that housed the Red Devils, the parachute regiment free fall display team. On that building was a weather vane, on a cloudy day with no well-defined shadows, common in the UK, the weather vane could be rotating left or right depending, and this was the interesting part, on my will. Due to the lack of depth perception in these lighting conditions, and with the lack of information reaching my mind, both realities were equally valid. The lack of information meant my mind was capable of shaping reality, literally, one way or the other. Creative imagination simply filled in the gaps. That weather vane was obviously spinning left, and I could switch my world view so it was obviously spinning right. There was no greater or simpler demonstration of human fallibility. For hours I watched the weather vane flip back and forth, spinning left – spinning right. For the want of missing information, the lack of knowledge, I had been deceived about the most important questions in life.
Suddenly I would spend nights debating the Battalion Padre, joined bible study groups simply to watch and listen. I became obsessed with the human condition. There were so many horizons to explore. As such, death, its meaning and perception, had been recalculated. A lot had changed, infinity reduced to radically distressingly finite time, and so everything was on the table. The meaning of life was now ours to define, mine to define. I had sentenced the gods to death and now sat on their throne, now what? Life, all this could be real short lived, or a little bit longer if you were lucky. The clock was ticking louder now, and there was a world of so many horizons yet to be seen. The whole concept of conventional life was making less and less sense. If you were given 24hrs to live what would you do? And why did we do the things we do? I was willing to take more risk now, because death was right there!
Confidence will get you a long way
Making the decision came as natural as growing old, anything conventional made no sense. The word of my plans spread, but no one really took it seriously, it was a silly preposterous fantasy. This whole process took about four years. My 12 years contract with the military was almost up and I was due to leave. The plans were drawn, maps marked up, the math fine-tuned, and I was as determined as ever to make this happen. The Army had even talked about keeping me on the payroll for the first year of the journey, and then changed their minds last minute. My last year in the army would involve another six month tour in Northern Ireland. The army in-house magazine ran the story, it was picked up by higher HQ and I found myself being sent to London for the Queen’s and prince Philip’s 50th wedding anniversary at Whitehall. Having kept that relationship with army HQ I was able to secure a seat on a military flight south to the Falklands, from where I could catch a flight to Punta Arenas, Chile.
During these, last years of planning, I had not managed to secure any support or sponsorship, this was not a surprise. I had spent most my money on equipment and was leaving with nothing more than about US$500 in my pocket. A company called Zamberlan, an Italian boot maker, had donated a pair of boots. Superfeet, makers of orthopaedic footbeds, had supplied me with two sets; none of which I would be able to eat. That was it, there was no other support.
What about fundraising for charity? Ultimately, this was a challenge based scenario, that was the primary mission. I first came up against this question at a Royal Geography Society Expedition building conference, London. Remembering at this time I was there to learn the ropes, I had no idea what I was doing or what an expedition was or looked like. Unbeknown to most, I had not had any previous interest in explorers or exploration. I did not know their names or exploits, no idea who Shackleton was. I had read one book, ‘Mind over Matter’, Ranulph Fienne’s and Mike Shroud’s epic crossing of Antarctica. That had left a lasting impact, but that was it? For me it was not about exploration and its noble history etc., it was about life, and what that meant.
During this conference, a lot of prospecting expeditions where present and I was picking up on the buzz surrounding charitable fund raising. Ultimately it left me feeling uncomfortable, it seemed ethically ambiguous at best. On one hand, sure, the opportunity to help a cause was noble enough, however the feeling was less interest in these causes and felt like it was more about actually using them to get the money you needed to go have your jolly. This did not sit right with me and it all felt a little disingenuous. As a result, I steered clear of the whole topic. Maybe I just did not get it? I kept my options open, one day I might find my cause. I believed if this thing was going to be funded it would be on the merits of the journey and I imagined it would be commercial support, not fundraising from individuals, that did not seem right either.
Alone was not a concept I was familiar with, I was Army. I had lived with the entire nation state as my support network, this would be a whole new kind of alone. In conversations with father, we had come to the conclusion that, if I could make it through Latin America (and I was confident I could), by the time I hit the border with the US, everything would change; that was the plan. Back of a beer mat? Why no sir, this was the back of a postage stamp.
Just do what I could, just keep moving forward and the rest will take care of itself. I had been conditioned well, as such had a sense of invincibility, I was bullet proof. It turns out self-confidence will get you a long long way. We knew times where going to get tough, the money was not going to last, however, again, with that blinding light of confidence. I am sometimes asked ‘if I had not been in the Army would I have still done this?’ I don’t think so. I had no confidence before I clawed my way into 3 Para. Now I knew my physical and mental boundaries in precise detail because I had been forced to go there time and time again. This I could do, I could literally take on the world. Also, I had trained with 3 Para in all manner of environments, I had met the Arctic, the jungles, the deserts, I had the basics under my belt. This would reinforce that sense of confidence.
It got the name ‘Goliath Expedition’ after a friend’s mother happened to mention, “it’s a bit of a Goliath” during a conversation; the name stuck. The journey’s objectives were very simple; get from the bottom of the Americas back to England, unassisted by any form of transport. That became rule number one. The idea was to make this a continuous effort, and so rule number two was that I cannot return home until I have walked back to the UK. It all seemed very simple at the time, two simple rules, how complicated could it get?
By the numbers
Doing the math was tricky, the longer the route, the greater the error bars, and this was a ridiculously long route. As such, the numbers fell around 30,000 miles to 36,000 miles. It depended on a lot of fine grain details. I used route corridors, or clusters of routes, rather than a single focused route. Flexibility was going to be important. Every time I would measure a route, I would get a different number, such was the time distance involved. About 25 countries (again flexible), seven mountain ranges, a few deserts, one semi-frozen ocean etc.
What about time? Pure math gave you some ridiculous number like the whole world in a few years. You add in sleep, down time, rest, some politics, sickness and slowly you come up with a more realistic number. The route was naturally broken down into two main parts: the Americas and Asia/Europe; they were basically the same length. I then broke the continents into stages. I calculated the Americas, and so Eurasia, would take six years each, so 12 years in total. This however, had to take into account the fact that we really had no idea how the Bering Straits section was going to play out. I had expected trouble, so this was the big unknown. It was more than likely going to take more than 12 years. South America was broken into two phases over two years, I would arrive on each waypoint, not close to the estimated time, but to the day, and then eventually Fairbanks Alaska on year six as the prophets had foretold. I got the timing right. Well, at least until Alaska.
There were three ‘Gaps’, as we referred to them, that would physically link all these continents. The first was the little kn