To discover your pioneering spirit you must feel the fear and do it anyway.
A few years ago, I received an unexpected call from Crispin, an affable friend and fellow entrepreneur. I hadn’t spoken to him for a while so was surprised when he skipped the pleasantries and got straight down to business. He asked me if I could take a month off to travel across the Sahara. He explained that a team member had dropped out at short notice and that the expedition was due to depart imminently. He needed to know if I was in. I asked if it was going to be hot. He sounded a little perplexed and replied ‘Of course. Very’. Looking back I probably should have asked more than the one inane question but strangely without hesitation I agreed and hung up.
Life is full of bitter-sweet surprises. The problem is in this case I had no way of knowing if this little surprise was going to turn out to be the experience of a lifetime or the journey from hell. The endeavor I had just agreed to be part of had never been attempted before so all manner of potential threats to my personal safety awaited my imminent arrival. The Sahara is after all one of the most inhospitable places on earth.
My mind was fixated on other matters such as how great it would be to grab some mid winter sun (hence the inane question) while the majority of my friends were being drenched and buffeted. I then pictured the holy grail of status updates…
Simon Montford is at: Sahara
Simon Montford updated his status: ‘40 degrees – now that’s what I’m talkin’ about baby! — at Sahara
Simon Montford added a new photo: ‘Me on top of a sand dune. Lol’
Simon Montford: tagged himself in a photo
Simon Montford: changed his Profile picture
Making my friends green with envy was well worth the risk… Superb! Queue dastardly Dr Evil laughter.
My musings were interrupted by the sudden realization that there would be no signal in the desert. Oops. Oh well I thought with a shrug as I turned my mind to more pressing issues such as the extensive list of outdoor gear and equipment I needed to purchase. In addition, I needed to sort out my travel documentation and of course get the obligatory barrage of dreaded inoculations. I felt exhausted just thinking about it.
I was also expected to attend an intensive off-road driving course and become proficient at first-aid. I was to be the team’s medic. People’s lives were going to be in my hands. Yikes!
The driving school, which was to provide a crash course in off-road driving, forgive the pun, was located in the grounds of Eastnor Castle where Land Rover’s proving grounds can be found. I wasn’t the only one reporting for duty that day. Although we were to be a team of six only three of my adrenalin-seeking compatriots were due to attend the course that day. The other two members of the team comprising of Lieutenant Kit Constable Maxwell and Dr Raymond didn’t require off-road schooling as they were both highly proficient ex-military desert explorers.
First to arrive was my buddy Crispin who, in addition to having a successful heath food business, could strip apart and reassemble a Land Rover with his eyes closed. A pretty damn fine chap to have on board when something mechanical goes awry! Next was Nick, a retired lawyer. At this point I’d prefer not to enter into too much detail about him other than to say he was a fine fellow who sadly and regrettably is no longer with us. The reason I say regrettably is explained in more detail within my footnote (below).
Next to join the fray was record-breaking land speed legend Richard Noble OBE. It’s not every day you get to meet someone who’s formidable achievements put them in a category reserved only for those who have what it takes to confront and overcome seemingly impossible challenges so it was an honor and privilege to meet and get to know him. He will be doing a talk on 22nd Jan 2013.
The afternoon was a blast! The Land Rovers had been capable of negotiating the most mind-bogglingly testing terrain but what scared the hell out of me was the realization that I was totally out of my depth. Muddy hills in Herefordshire with an instructor by my side was one thing. Descending semi-vertical dunes with a heavy life-dependent load, thousands of miles from civilization is quite another. Throughout the day the instructor had forcefully reminded us that under no circumstances should we panic and hit the breaks when driving down very steep dunes. Doing so would cause the rear end to let go and the car to almost certainly roll down the side of an object as high as a tall building! The thought of being trapped in the middle of nowhere in a heap of twisted metal filled me with a sudden sense of dread.
The survival course did nothing to calm my fears. The instructor started the session by asking us to estimate our chances of survival. He calmly offered up a macabre menu of options that included illness, carjacking, snake bite, starvation and dehydration. According to the statistics, if we were to die the most likely cause of death, by a clear margin, would be road accident. We were advised to bring body bags so that casualties could be placed on the roof and repatriated! Next most likely cause of death was dehydration. A frequent mistake made by desert travelers is that they spend many days moving further and further down a long dune corridor only to find a cul-de-sac. On board water supplies run dry before they are able to find a way out! If this were to happen we would all perish! Apparently dehydration is a slow and painful way to go.
I thought the purpose of the expedition was to scare the bejesus out of me but it turned out that Richard had already thought of a far more noble objective. He explained that against a background of today’s low risk culture, he really enjoys concocting high-risk challenges. This challenge was put into motion after an impromptu conversation between Ray, Kit and Richard at a dinner party. The three of them thought it would be fun to follow the footsteps of a raid carried out during WW2 by the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), which was a reconnaissance and raiding unit of the British Army. Commander of the German Afrika Corps admitted that the LRDG caused more damage to the Nazi regime than any other British unit of equal strength! Because the LRDG were experts in desert navigation they were assigned to other units that included the Special Air Service (SAS). The LRDG used a combination of vehicle types as needs and availability allowed but their preferred mode of transport was stripped down Chevy trucks and Willys Jeeps. Land Rovers in their infamous ‘Pink Panther’ guise, primarily used by the SAS, came a little later. These heavily modified chariots of the desert, armed to the teeth sporting their signature pink camouflage, were not introduced until the 1950s.
In 2006 our weapons of choice were two bright orange Land Rover G4 Defenders (Td5 Diesel 110 CSW) courtesy of the manufacturer (very kind). Even though we could have taken any car from the range, we decided to pick the vehicle with the fewest moving parts and no onboard electronics. I’m not going to lie, the petrol-head in me yearned to take the G4 spec Sport for a spin across the desert. What a blast that would have been!
D-day quickly arrived and after a restless night I mentally prepared myself for the journey ahead. The routine of packing the vehicles calmed my nerves before we set off on a cold and dark October evening. We were heading for the ferry terminal where we would take an overnight crossing to France before heading down to Tunisia. My journey into the unknown had begun.
I safely returned to the UK on 1st Nov 2006. The Defenders generously provided to the expedition by Land Rover behaved impeccably and it was a truly amazing experience. After covering 6200miles across France, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Algeria I was very pleased to be home! The intense heat and lack of sleep made the expedition taxing but very worthwhile. The most challenging leg of the journey was crossing the Kalansho Sand Sea in Libya. Travelling completely unassisted miles from anywhere meant that if anything had happened to us we would have been entirely on our own. The nearest fuel stop and water supply was more than 1000km away in Zeigen Wells!
So it turned out life had provided me with a good surprise; a wonderful life-changing surprise, in fact. Of course I am very grateful to Crispin for thinking to call me but I am also proud of myself for jumping at the chance at such short notice. Saying yes to something on impulse is never easy. In life, we all find it far easier to say no. Well I urge you to not let routine and fear of the unknown control your life. Be honest, when was the last time you thought of an excuse to say no which denied you an incredible life experience?
I whole-heartedly buy into Richard’s life philosophy of embracing risk against a background of today’s low risk culture. Sometimes it feels like The Health and Safety Bureau is taking over western society. Maybe now is the time to fight back and let common sense prevail by indulging our primeval instinctive urges to push boundaries even if that involves taking necessary risk.
What do you think was going through Richard’s head as he climbed into the cockpit of the ‘Thrust 2’ moments before he fired up the jet engine that sent him hurtling across he desert floor at 633mph? Without this pioneering spirit there is no way he would have become the world land speed record holder and worthy recipient of the Order of the British Empire.
I am convinced that the same pioneering spirit exists in all of us. We need people like Richard Noble OBE and Felix Baumgartner to inspire us. We too must pick our own challenges and go for it. After all repeated studies have shown that the route to happiness comes from overcoming achievable goals so get out of your comfort zone for goodness sake and do what Susan Jeffers famously wrote about in her book ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’.
View the my photo album of the Murzuq Raid on: Pinterest.com
Attend a talk by Richard Noble OBE. Get your free ticket here: InspireForTech on 22nd Jan 2012
I mentioned earlier that I would come back to Nick. Well during the trip we exchanged more than a few cross words. The truth is our personalities clashed and things were said during some of the more stressful stages that I am sure neither of us truly meant. It was nothing serious. We just got on each others’ nerves as we were often on edge and, at times, put under extreme pressure and physical discomfort. Unbeknown to us, Nick was suffering from terminal cancer. He showed no physical signs so we were none the wiser. I don’t know why he chose not to share this with us before embarking on the journey but it was his final big life experience and he knew it all along. Several months after we returned he passed away. I therefore dedicate this article to him and hope he will forgive me for criticizing his terrible cooking and taste in music. RIP Nick Robinson. Friend and fellow explorer.