27th Oct 2018
In February 2015 Australian Huw Kingston arrived in Malta in a rowing boat from Tunisia. He was 10 months into a human powered journey around the Mediterranean. He was back in Malta in late June to speak at the Royal Malta Yacht Club in a very successful evening jointly presented with the Australian High Commission. Here he answers a few questions SPINNAKER MAGAZINE put to him
17 countries, 13,000km by sea kayak, rowboat, foot and bike in twelve months, starting and ending in Gallipoli, Turkey. What made you decide on such an arduous route?
The original ‘Why circumnavigate the Mediterranean?’ is lost in a haze of red wine. I think it had to do with after having done 25,000km around Australia, a continent containing a single country, it was time to do a long journey, a sea perhaps, offering numerous countries and cultures.
As to the actual route; my original idea was to sea kayak the whole way. This would have taken more than a year and, much as I like sea kayaking, I couldn’t get excited about sitting down for so long. So the idea then became to sea kayak all the way but also climb the highest peak in each country as a means of stretching the legs. The journey then started pushing out to some 2 years at which point my lovely wife said ‘Oi!’
What really give my idea the fillip it needed was the realisation that the Anzac Centenary was occurring in 2015. This gave it a real Australian connection and I started to wonder could I get around the Mediterranean in exactly 12 months starting and finishing at Gallipoli. Anzac Day to Anzac Day? In parallel I realised that I could do this journey using a combination of human powered means – sea kayaking, walking, mountain biking and ski touring. Interestingly enough, even without the Anzac link, as the route of my journey emerged it became apparent that working with the seasons, Turkey in April was the best place to start and finish a circumnavigation. The first 3 months and 3000km by sea kayak through Greece and the Balkans would lead me into summer, the only time I could then complete my 3 month trek across the European Alps. I would then end up in North Africa in winter, a place you wouldn’t want to be going through in the middle of summer. Malta was never on my original plan!
What were the preparations involved for such a journey?
A combination of the madness of preparing for 15 months away from home and my business, renovating our house and preparing for the journey left little time for training of any sort. And anyway, 2 months before I left Australia I put my back out and could hardly walk let alone train. When I kayaked away from the beach in Gallipoli, I’d been in a kayak twice in the previous 6 months. All this said, to be honest what was I to train for? Sure I could have trained for paddling but then, after 3 months, my unused legs were still going to complain when I told them it was time to start walking across the Alps. It was a long journey; I had plenty of time to get fit on the journey itself.
Past experience has given me a good guide as to how far I will get whether on foot, bike, kayak or ski and how much rest/weather delays will be required on average. So I had an outline schedule but knew from the outset that political situations, major weather events and possible injury could and would change things. I was continually juggling the schedule, trying to see ahead; lying in my sleeping bag going through all the permutations and possibilities. One of my biggest challenges was to juggle the endless offers of hospitality with the rhythm and schedule of the journey, a journey that was as much about the people as the places. If I accepted them all then my one year in the Mediterranean, could so easily have become two years!
Any plans that went haywire, which needed some major changes to continue proceeding with the journey?
Throughout my journey plans were changing and I need to maintain flexibility in route and mode of travel. When I started planning my journey in earnest, in 2012, there was some optimism that the Arab Spring that had started sweeping North Africa and the Middle East in 2011, might lead to making life easier to travel through countries such as Libya and Syria. The reality of course is that things became much, much worse; a tragedy of immense proportion and one that touched my journey on a number of occasions. A tragedy that had led to my Save the Children fundraising for the children of Syria.
So even when I left Australia I knew my route would change, knew I had to find a solution to get around Libya and other countries that were no go zones. I pondered solutions in the early months of my journey but was struggling to find any that was human powered. Then just by chance, in the early months of my journey, I ran into Marin Medak a young Slovenian adventurer. By an extraordinary set of circumstances and coincidences the solution to my Libya problem became an ocean rowboat that I bought from West Africa and that Marin Medak, and I rowed from Tunisia across the guts of the Mediterranean to Turkey. I’d actually never rowed in my life before. This was how I found myself in Malta,
Any hair raising moments?
From large waves breaking across the rowboat in a winter storm to battling torrential rains and thunderstorms in the Alps to vicious winds coming from nowhere to whip up the sea whilst in the sea kayak some way from shore were all part and parcel of the journey. As were more human interactions – being chased by some Tunisian men who I hadn’t realised had seen me stop for a pee on side of the road off my bike, being arrested on a Turkish military island and being escorted by Police for 2 weeks across Algeria down the nastiest, busiest, most polluted motorways with trucks close to sideswiping me numerous times.
On such journeys, loneliness is bound to set in at certain points, making you want to throw the proverbial towel? How do you keep the motivation?
Compared to many of my earlier expeditions, my year around the Mediterranean was full of people. Aside from being in a rowing boat in the middle of the sea, it is hard to be away from people for any great length of time on the shores of that sea. Indeed when I began my journey I did wonder whether I would tire of all that humanity but in the end I embraced it totally. Of course I did spend a lot of time alone too but loneliness does not of course require solitude. However, perhaps surprisingly, it is fair to say that at no point during my journey did I want to throw in the towel, did I want it to end. There was too much nourishing me all the way – physically, the land and seascapes, the people and cultures.
What lessons were learnt from your latest adventure?
I guess my Mediterranean journey reaffirmed a number of things that I’d learned over many years of long journeys. Firstly that my creaking and abused joints could still propel me around the place for such a long period without squealing ‘Stop’. But seriously it showed me the importance of flexibility in long journeys and as always the number one thing – just getting to the start line and everything will flow from there. My year travelling through 17 countries also reaffirmed to me that in a mad world that has always been thus, the vast, vast majority of people are great people, good people, kind people.
Each adventure, each part of the journey is memorable, leaving an indelible mark on however some moments are more memorable than others – care to share any specific ones?
A question that is always asked but that, in a journey of so much variety, length and wonderful moments, a question that I always refuse to answer!
Husband, stepfather, grandfather…..being away from your loved ones is tough….how do you and they cope with your lengthy absences from home?
My beautiful wife Wendy has supported me over many long journeys of three to four months – but this, a whole year, was guaranteed to be so much harder. Paradoxically, and perhaps in a selfish way, the love we have gives me the strength to complete such journeys. I often ponder how much more difficult it might be for me not having someone at home, not having a person I love to go home to. I was also leaving behind five gorgeous grandkids too, all under 10 at the time. It was hard to not see them for over a year, to watch them change and grow in that year. The realisation that this journey was my choice, my dream, not something forced upon families split by closed borders, conflicts or refugee tragedies, made the separation a little easier.
Wendy understandably made some changes in her own life at home to fill the space left by my being away – new interests and activities. I think, when I returned home, it was a little more difficult than both of us expected for the first few months, both readjusting.
What is next for Huw Kingston?
If by next you mean what is the next long journey, then I’m currently planning a traverse from north to south across Australia, following only the blue lines on the map – creeks, rivers, lakes – upstream, downstream, with water in them or dry. A walking and kayak journey although the amount of kayaking through the deserts may be rather limited!