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An inconvenient truth: Glen Mutel

As travel gets ever simpler and cheaper, it can sometimes be fun to make life hard for yourself

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Back in the 1960s, my dad set off on a journey from England to Gibraltar, where there was a job waiting for him. As it was the days before affordable flights, he took the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander, and by the time he arrived in Northern Spain, he’d begun to suspect he’d packed rather poorly.

For reasons since lost in time, he had with him both a tent and a portable record player, stuffed into a bag, which, in his words, “weighed a bloody ton”. As he didn’t fancy carting this unwieldy bit of luggage the entire length of the country, he decided to post it to the southern town of Algeciras and see if he could beat it there. Sure enough, four days later, he arrived at his destination a full 48 hours ahead of his belongings.

There’s a lot I like about this story. I particularly like the freedom with which he made his decisions — the freedom to take a risk, to improvise, to change plans. I’d love to approach travel in this way, wondering freely from town to town in pursuit of work. But travel today involves super off-peak, seat reservations, non-flexible tickets and compulsory online check-ins. Spontaneity is hardly encouraged.

I suspect there are plenty of people from my dad’s generation with similar stories — I like to imagine episodes like this occurred all the time in the ’60s. But what I find interesting is the fact he found adventure without particularly looking for it. He was just doing what made sense at the time. He went by ferry and then overland because it was the most affordable route; he posted his luggage to make the journey more bearable. Whereas if I had work waiting for me in Gibraltar today, I’d be there in no time, courtesy of a no-frills airline. And I just can’t imagine my future grandchildren saying: “Go on granddad, tell us the story about that cheap flight you took!”

During the half-century since my dad’s journey, technology has taken a lot of the hassle out of travel, but it’s also robbed it of some of its poetry. What’s different today is that the quickest, most logical way of getting somewhere is often the cheapest. In short, we can no longer automatically equate travel with adventure.

However, all is not lost. By imposing restrictions on ourselves, we can in some way recreate the days when adventure was a by-product of necessity. It’s something I’ve managed once or twice. Four years ago, I travelled from Istanbul to my parent’s house in Norfolk using nothing but trains and ferries. I’d love to do more of this type of thing, and now, when I hear of similar feats, I’m a little envious. For example, a friend has just cycled from London to Paris. It sounded tough going, yet now I wish I’d done it.

I suppose what I’m describing is a form of Slow Travel — setting yourself conditions and eschewing the fastest option, and, by doing so, making more of your journey. And the scope is endless — my most recent fancies include walking all the way from London to the coast along the Essex Way; cycling from Dresden to Prague along the banks of the Elbe River. The key is to just do something — anything — other than fly direct from Point A to Point B.

If you look at a list of travel best-sellers from the past two decades, you’ll see plenty of examples of this type of tethered travel: from the classic (going around the world in 80 days), to the macho (sailing the length of the Congo) to the inexplicable (carrying a fridge around Ireland). These authors all made life needlessly difficult for themselves in the pursuit of a good yarn.

One thing’s for certain, I’ve got the bug. Perhaps I ought to race a bit of luggage just to get it out of my system. I need to do something, and soon, before life takes over — because I don’t want to be 60 dragging a record player around Spain. Or a fridge.

 

Published in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)