Thursday, 31 May 2012

Bending mettle

Middle-aged people really are the most adventurous it seems. A survey published widely this week has established that 41 is the age when people feel most able to pursue an adventure. Reduced family commitments, increased disposable income and a growing intolerance of work and routine all combine into a perfect storm of opportunity to prove that life really does begin at 40. Sooner or later (mostly later apparently) an astonishing realisation hits you square on the nose – you need to take more out of life and, as Bob Dylan put it, "but for the sky, there are no fences facing".

Where does this long-acquired lust for adventure take the mature risk-takers? An oft-quoted route for adventure is along 'the path less traveled', but a truly remote wilderness is hard to find in a world with 7 billion people and many of the standard 'package' adventures are too sanitised and itinerised to qualify. I've been on a few however, and they do, at least, leave you wanting something more raw. Anything potentially life-threatening, though, might have to be ruled out. But not always.

Perhaps something extreme, with a good dollop of danger but within a regulated package is what draws novice adventurers to the ultimate adventure of climbing Everest. Many of this years intake will have seen more than they bargained for as they carefully stepped around the frozen, dead bodies of fellow climbers (10 this year). The picture in this report: Everest is shocking if you imagine yourself at the back of the line, slowly slushing towards an 8,000m death-zone. It's not my idea of adventure. It doesn't even look like climbing. It's certainly foolish.

Nevertheless, a need for adventure is an instinct that, once recognised, demands resolution for good or ill. Middle age brings the experience, the life-skills and the desire to put ourselves up for judgement. It bends our mettle.

“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
Chris McCandless

PS: Some astonishing statistics are quoted in the survey conducted by Discovery Channel: 42% of people claim never to have attempted an adventurous activity and 14% of 18-24-year-olds thought virtual world gaming was an adventurous activity. I'd claim that gap years are wasted on the young.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Climbing the walls

What did pioneering explorers and travellers do before the days of travel insurance? Did Mungo Park have an extensive medical insurance package in place before venturing down the dark river? Did Colonel H. Fawcett have a provision for emergency evacuation negotiated should he get lost? And how  did George Orwell find cover before travelling to Catalonia to fight the fascists? Most of the famous explorers were, of course, contracted on grand ventures rather than merely holidaying. Most had wealthy employers or sponsors on a promise to oversee their responsibilities back home. However, being from a different era, they would have accepted that in the event of catastrophe, help was far away and would probably come too late. Not all globe-trotters had powerful backers though – missionaries, mercenaries, nurses and prospectors have walked through new worlds without a guarantee of getting home. They too would have had family that were worried for their safety.

Today's insurance companies have done good business from a modern travellers need to be utterly safe, secure and protected against all the ill winds of chance and circumstance. Access to instant medical care anywhere in the world is demanded. Sensibly perhaps, we try and insulate ourselves from the repercussions of risk and danger, often picking a calmer road after weighing up all the possible scenarios and unlikely outcomes of an exciting diversion. Visions of cold, hunger and disease seem logical to consider but it's all too easy to build them up into actual glimpses of a real event instead of a nervous daydream. Our worries and concerns eventually give themselves an almost physical substance that we must guard against lest they creep up in the dark. An initially innocent doubt is magnified into a wall of fear and so we seek a guarantee of well-being before venturing out.

Or do I have this the wrong way around? Is it the case instead that travel insurance allows working class people the freedom to travel the globe with peace of mind? Something that was denied to earlier generations who had neither the means or sponsorship available to people like Shackleton, Speke and Nanssen et al. I don't know which is true. Maybe I was born too late. I only know that I'd be quite prepared to travel to any part of the world without travel insurance and self-assess any sort of activity based on my own standards of risk versus reward without having to consult small-print. I'm happy to trust my own judgement with full acceptance of any consequences arising. I'm a big, big fan of self-reliance and I'd relish the opportunity. But of course, my peace of mind would be shattered – not out of concern for impending catastrophes – but with worries about those who were worried about me and any financial implications that may fall on them despite my wishes.

So, as an inter-continental, multi-year, touring cyclist I find myself in the position of many other such travellers. Which is one of reluctantly searching through the very, very slim pickings of companies that are prepared to offer insurance. In two months I've found one expensive possibility accompanied by an exhaustive list of terms and conditions which I refuse to be handcuffed by. A comprehensive policy, covering every possible illness or disablement is out of the question but I'm hoping that I can, at least, find some simple cover that can allay a loved one's worst fears.