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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


Wind driven

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


Horizons

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