Last month, at the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore weekend in London, I was quietly sipping on a cup of Early Grey on the Sunday morning, nursing a small hangover, when I was introduced to a chap called Andy Campbell. Well blow me down, I nearly choked on my tea when Andy told me what he was setting off to do in 2012.
Feeling that this wondrous news should be shared with as many people as possible, I tracked him down for a bit of a Q&A about what his forthcoming odyssey holds in store.
***Warning: please place any drinks safely on the table before reading the below.***
Hello Andy, so, tell me, in a nutshell, what you’re embarking on in 2012?
I’m setting off from the UK to travel 30,000 miles around the world in a wheelchair and raise £1m for charity. The world isn’t really designed for wheelchairs though so I’ll be using whatever arm-powered transport I need to keep going and complete a continuous route from the UK to China and then from Alaska to Chile.
Holy Moly, that’s one hell of a mission. Was there a definable Eureka moment when you suddenly thought, ‘By Jove! That’s it! I’m going to go around the world!’?
It’s always been in the back of my mind. I think everyone dreams about travelling around the world some day and I was no different, but ironically It wasn’t until after I became paralysed that I had the freedom to think about it seriously. I’d joined the Army straight from school which gave me a huge taste for adventure but I’d never had the chance to go out and really explore the world on my own terms. So when I was medically discharged following my injury I decided to take a year out and have a look around. Somehow, what was meant to be just a year turned into eight years of adventures and travels that have given me the experience and knowledge to make going around the world in a wheelchair attainable. Last spring, just as I was getting ready to commit to the idea of going around the world I hurt my shoulder skiing and couldn’t even push a wheelchair at times. I thought that was the end of the dream and that my shoulder would never be up to the challenge, but as I went through rehab and slowly recovered, I began dreaming again. The day after scans showed my shoulder was fully recovered I went out and did ten miles in the wheelchair for the first time in months. Before I’d gone five miles I knew I was going to go around the world.
Run me though some of the specialist kit you will be using on the trip.
There’s a huge amount of specialist kit I’ll be using on the trip where a normal wheelchair just won’t cut it. I’ve got a special all-terrain wheelchair that I affectionately call ‘the tank’ because it rolls over just about anything and is fitted with massive mountain bike wheels and off-road tires. Then there’s my handcycle, which is specially built with two gearsets and allows me to get really low gear ratios for tackling steep climbs and muddy terrain off-road. I’m also spending a good amount of time on the water so my kayak is another vital piece of kit. It’s a normal18ft sea kayak I’ve had fitted with a custom outrigger for stability and load carrying, I call it my Hawaii Five-0 boat. On top of all that I’ll be taking gear I need to paraglide, ski, rock-climb and even kite-buggy.
How the blazes do you train for this sort of odyssey?
It’s difficult! Obviously it’s a massive physical challenge which means lots of training and miles in the wheelchair, handcycle and kayak. I live in Scotland so there’s no shortage of Forestry Trails and hills to give me a good work out and I’ve been dragging an old tire behind the wheelchair to add resistance, which gets some funny looks! But it’s also really challenging technically and mentally, I’ll have to constantly adapt to the terrain and conditions along the route without ever being able to just get up and walk around things that aren’t navigable in a wheelchair or handcycle. So I’m spending a lot of time inventing and practising techniques with rope systems that will get me out of tight spots. I’m planning on paragliding throughout the expedition whenever the weather’s suitable, but reliable weather forecasts won’t be easy to find in the middle of nowhere, so I’m studying meteorology too.
Which bit of the journey keeps you awake at night?
All of it! I spend so much time concentrating on individual sections and stages, mentally zoomed in to an area I know is going to be tough, so it’s easy to forget the sheer scale of the complete trip. I’ll zoom out and see the stage I’ve just been focusing so much time on is almost a speck on the absurdly long line marking my route and it blows my mind. Seeing that line marking my route continually stretching further and further no matter how far I zoom out is a recurring night panic that started when I realised even an astronaut on the International Space Station can’t look down at the earth and see my full route!
It’s going to be brutal slogging through Mongolia and I’m convinced I’ll be reduced to counting the miles covered each day in single digits if the terrain and weather conspire against me there, so physically that’s the bit that scares me the most. One of the most important aspects of the trip for me personally is maintaining the integrity of the expedition and covering those 30,000 miles as a continuous unbroken route without any gaps, so The Darien Gap between Panama and Columbia scares me too. It’s a 100 mile section of inaccessible swampland and rainforest that essentially separates Central and Southern America, and is the only part of the route I might not be able to stick to. Trying to cross it overland would be difficult for a dedicated expedition and isn’t an option, I’d like to paddle around it but logistics, bureaucracy, FARC rebels and drug cartel gunboats suggest it might not be the best idea.
What sort of support crew will you have? And are you looking for volunteers for this?
The huge amount of equipment I need to take along with me means the expedition just isn’t feasible without a two-person support crew and vehicle accompanying me along the route to carry everything. The full expedition is going to be on the road for two years which is a big commitment for anyone, so I’m opening up spaces for people to join the support crew for 3 months at a time. Applications are open to anyone with relevant knowledge and experience, details can be found at pushingthelimits.com/join-the-team.
I’ve got a UK based support crew to help with bureaucracy, logistics and ransom demands. Duncan Milligan from tourdeforceuk.com is the logistics guru who’ll track down everything from a replacement wheelchair castor in Kazakhstan to a way of evacuating the entire team from a political revolution in El Salvador. And the bureaucracy warriors at thevisamachine.com are my lifesavers when it comes to visa applications, government permissions and overcoming all border hassles, which is pretty vital when I’m travelling through 30 different countries.
In one line, what’s your message to people out there?
Finally, here’s a little video from Andy……