My Perfect Adventure: Jason Lewis

The first man to circumnavigate the globe by human power alone tells us about the time he joined a rock band in London, what he admires about Uruguay’s vegetarian president, and why he can’t travel without a chopping board

Jason Lewis.     Photo: Kenny Brown

"Travel helps develop more of a global perspective, elevating us out of our valley and exposing us to different ideas."

In 2007, Jason Lewis became the first man to circumnavigate the globe by human power only—no motors or sails. Traveling more than 46,000 miles on pedal boats, rollerblades, kayaks, bikes, and his own two feet, the adventurer from Yorkshire set off from London in 1994 at the age of 26 and returned from his odyssey 13 years later.

Lewis, who traveled for the first several years with his college friend Steve Smith, shared some stories about his trip with Outside recently. In his own words, a few memorable moments include:

⇢ Dodging gun-toting Cuban pirates in the Caribbean. When the unmarked vessel came alongside, Steve and I stood up in the hatchway. We were both naked. The pirates took one look at us and took off.

⇢ While biking across Sudan in 140-degree heat, much like riding in an oven, I ran into actor Ewan McGregor in the middle of the desert.

⇢ Both my legs were broken by an 82-year-old drunk driver with cataracts who left me for dead by the side of the road in Colorado.

⇢ Surviving an attack by a 17-foot saltwater crocodile north of Queensland.

⇢ Coming within days of dying before being diagnosed (by satellite phone) with septicemia while crossing the Pacific.

⇢ Being released from jail in Abu Simbel, Egypt. Crossing from Sudan illegally in a kayak, I was apprehended by border security and interrogated for 48 hours straight.

⇢ Giving free talks to over 900 schools in 37 countries, to promote world citizenship, and raising thousands of dollars for humanitarian causes, in particular orphanages.

Lewis, now 45, lives today in Pueblo, Colorado, the same place where he was run over by the drunk driver in 1995 and stayed for nine months of rehab before continuing west. He has given up the nomadic life—at least for the time being—so he can finish writing The Expedition, a trilogy of books about his around-the-world adventure. In this interview, he tells us about the time he joined a rock band in London and played gigs in a Viking helmet and kilt, what he admires about Uruguay’s vegetarian president, why he can’t travel without a chopping board, and who he would reconnect with on a perfect day.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
As a teenager I didn’t get along well with my father, especially when he took me sailing, which I hated. Not because of the sea, but because I had authority issues back then, and sailing apparently involved rules and a chain of command and someone barking orders at you.

My dad died in 2011, but I wish I could go back in time as an adult and spend a day with him on his 22-foot boat Ravello, exploring the south coast of England. Weighing anchor at first light, we’d shadow Chesil Beach in Dorset, energized by the bracing southwesterly and salt spray smacking in our faces. We’d hove to in the lee of Portland Bill for his favorite lunch of egg mayonnaise sandwiches, chips, Mars Bar, and shared can of ginger ale, then press on through the afternoon in search of a sheltered cove to spend the night. With the sunlight fading, we’d row ashore in the tender to barbeque freshly caught mackerel on the beach.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go?
Antarctica. For me one of the most rewarding aspects of travel is plunging into environments that challenge my sense of place. Going to sea for the first time was like this. I remember being completely out of my depth, stripped of familiar coping skills, forced to question much of what I thought I knew about the world and myself. Gradually, I began to adapt to this new universe, until after a month I was as comfortable on water as on land.

I imagine the Great White Continent would offer a similar reality check. Any environment shift—be it desert, mountain, ocean, or polar—that transports a person out of their comfort zone and forces them closer to the edge, has to be healthy, in my opinion. The important thing is to shift out of neutral once in a while and shake things up a bit. Surprise yourself!

My partner Tammie and I have also talked about traveling to Uruguay in South America to meet the country’s president, José Mujica. He’s the only politician on the planet, it seems, who doesn’t fiddle his expenses or lie through his teeth. A champion of sustainable development, he’s vegetarian, drives a decrepit VW Beetle, donates 90 percent of his monthly salary to charity, and lives on a ramshackle farm with his wife and three-legged dog (he shunned the presidential residence). We want to talk this guy into running the rest of the world.

Where is the best place you've ever visited?
I’m usually loath to make such comparisons, but kayaking the islands of Flores and Komodo in Indonesia was pretty special. The north coast is sheltered from Indian Ocean swell, allowing for easy launching and landing. White sandy beaches abound, and the coral reefs are pristine, the marine life exceptional. We glimpsed whales, dolphins, turtles, manta rays, dusky sharks, and yellow-lipped sea kraits. Then there are the Komodo dragons. They never bothered us, but the park rangers advised us to keep a sharpened stick ready just in case.

Charming villages dot the shoreline, and the locals are always friendly—almost too friendly at times. If you set up camp near a village, you’ll have a dozen instant friends competing to pitch your tent, help light a fire, and cook your dinner. Being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, there is no sense of personal space in Indonesia. So if you’re a misanthrope, this may not be the place for you.

If you could have lunch with any athlete or adventurer, who would it be?
Probably Jack Kerouac. Although not an adventurer in the strictest sense, his travel classic On the Road sparked in me an appetite for travel. Kerouac inspired my first solo trip abroad when I was 21: traveling to the United States, buying a jalopy in Brooklyn for $350, then heading west. The engine blew in a snowstorm in Montana, and I ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way around the country. This turned out to be a blessing. I learned that the closer to the Earth you travel, and the slower the pace, the more you see and learn. This tenet of travel is one I took with me on my human-powered circumnavigation of the globe.

What's something you can't travel without?
A chopping board. As well as dicing up food, I like to have a solid, flat surface to write up my journal, and use as a makeshift chart table if I’m at sea. Having something stout to use as a hammer is also handy.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
Depends. If it’s a city, I’ll get lost. Often the best way to get to know a new town is to throw away the street map. If it’s making landfall after a long sea voyage, I’ll relish walking in nature, marveling at colors I haven’t seen in a long time—reds, yellows, and greens—inhaling the smell of damp earth, and listening to the sound of chirruping birds, buzzing insects, and rustling leaves. If it’s completing an overland journey away from civilization, I’ll book into guesthouse, order in junk food, beer, rent a bunch of movies, and just indulge myself for 48 hours.

What motivates you to travel?
To better understand the big picture and my place in it. We humans are limited by our geography. Depending on where we grow up, our cultural conditioning shapes how we view the rest of the world, and in particular people from other countries. This blinkering can make us narrow-minded, allowing undesirable attitudes and behaviors to take hold: prejudice, bigotry, intolerance of unfamiliar belief systems, social and environmental negligence, and so on.

This is where travel comes in. Travel helps develop more of a global perspective, elevating us out of our valley and exposing us to different ideas, religions, and cultural values. I remember traveling to Kenya after graduating from high school. I thought I knew everything by then, of course. What an awakening! I encountered very different people, unfamiliar plants and animals, strange sights, sounds, and smells—the aroma of African soil after rain still stands out. I soon realized I didn’t know very much at all, and England was a much smaller place when I returned.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
From the age of 16 I sang in rock bands, pursuing my dream to be a successful musician. The first outfit was called Dougal Goes to Norway. We gigged around London in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, decked out in Viking helmets, kilts, and Doc Martens. We cut a 12-inch EP, and awaited imminent stardom. Only problem was we were rubbish. I learned that hard work and persistence doesn’t necessarily pay off in the music business. You also need something called talent. Thank goodness I got out when I did. Otherwise, I’d be an aging rocker with a comb-over by now, playing dodgy covers in dodgy South London pubs.

No regrets.

When and how were you first inspired to circumnavigate the globe?
To pay for the music habit, I had a window cleaning business when my former college friend, Steve Smith, came to me in 1992 with the idea to circumnavigate the earth by human power. At the time I had no interest in becoming a professional adventurer, but the notion of using human power to circle the planet was intriguing. No expensive machinery required, no expert knowledge of sailboats. No animals to get sick and die and feel guilty about. Just the power of the human mind, body, and spirit to propel you to the ends of the earth and back again. It sounded like the ultimate human challenge, one that just had to be done. Most appealing of all, it was a journey pretty much anyone could do in theory. Even a couple of amateurs like us.

What advice would you give to an aspiring explorer?
Do it right.

Some people are drawn to the field of adventure and exploration to make a name by claiming records, and they’ll do whatever it takes to attract media attention, even if it means cutting corners. Problem is, cutting corners undermines the efforts of others and steals from future generations. So, if you’re setting out to climb a mountain or row an ocean or tramp across an icecap, then do it right, or not at all. As well as following any rules and definitions issued by adjudicating bodies, this means abiding by an honor system. When all is said and done, there is no greater reward than the respect of your peers, and knowing in your own heart that you’ve completed a feat with integrity. That’s a record no one can ever take away from you.

That being said, if you have a burning desire to embark on an expedition, the main thing is to begin it. Commitment is half the battle. Of course, you need to approach sponsors and write proposals for equipment and funding and so on. But if you believe in your dream enough, and you forge ahead, even if there’s no money in the pot, people and opportunities will appear out of nowhere to make it happen. Goethe once said, “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” The universe has an uncanny habit of responding to such blind leaps into the abyss, rising up to meet them halfway. All you have to do is keep an open mind, an open heart, and have faith. The rest is out of your hands.

Who has been your most influential mentor?
the pedal-powered boat I spent a year of my life in while crossing the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arabian Sea. A boat isolated by thousands of square miles of open water is like a scale model of our planet isolated in space. In both cases, you can’t get resources on, and you can’t get people off. Moksha taught me how to adapt to life in a closed system, providing valuable insights into how to live more sustainably on land.

I learned how to ration my resources so I didn’t run out before the end of a voyage. I learned how to conserve water; when you have to pump a desalinator for an hour to produce just one gallon of the stuff, you really appreciate how precious freshwater is. I learned how to conserve electricity; when you don’t have access to fossil fuels, and your only means of generating power is from the wind and the sun, switching on a light or an appliance becomes a major decision. And when something breaks, you fix it, because you have to.

These were all lessons that I could apply to my life back in society, to be part of the solution to a sustainable future, not part of the problem.

Do you have a life philosophy?

Have you ever made a mistake that made you think twice about going out on another expedition?
No single event. But I would say this: If you genuinely enjoy what you’re doing, there’s less chance of something going wrong. Why? Because if you’re immersed in the present, you read your surroundings better and anticipate mishaps. Disasters can nearly always be traced back to a specific incident, without which other causative factors count for nothing. If you’re not fully engaged, thinking where else you’d like to be—at home perhaps, surrounded by family and friends, far from the godforsaken wilderness you’ve chosen to be in—there’s a higher likelihood you won’t see the curve ball that Mother Nature throws at you.

I remember thinking if I got tired of being at sea, I should probably pack it in before something bad happened. My former expedition partner made this very decision partway across the Pacific. The novelty of life aboard our 4x26-foot boat had worn thin after 53 days, so he dropped out when we reached Hawaii, leaving me to carry on alone. He drew criticism from people who thought he’d left me in the lurch, but the truth is he made absolutely the right decision. Sometimes the question is not, “Am I brave enough to continue against all odds?” but “Am I brave enough to know when to quit?”

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
Given the rapidly warming climate, escalation in extreme weather events, and decline in species biodiversity, I cannot think of a more crucial line of work than sustainable development. Figuring out ways for our species to reach ecological equilibrium is paramount if we want our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to inherit a habitable planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have made excessive demands on the earth’s natural resources, with disastrous results. The old economic model of development and hyper-consumption is woefully outdated, yet governments continue their allegiance to big business, and refuse to do anything different.

A career that tackled these issues would surely be a worthwhile one. We need a new way of thinking, a new way to measure well-being, and a new economic system that doesn’t revolve around wealth creation.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
I don’t really have a bucket list as such. Being largely nomadic the last 20 years, coordinating expeditions and then writing about them, I actually crave stability. I crave a home, somewhere to just be, not having to move on all the time; somewhere where I can store my books and maps and treasures; somewhere where Tammie and I can develop a sense of community, nurturing friendships that last for more than a few months.

The idea of embarking on a grand adventure without somewhere to come back to doesn’t appeal like it did in my 20s. I guess as we get older, our biology changes. So once we do have a base, maybe we’ll get to see Alaska, Uruguay, perhaps even Antarctica if we get there without resorting to a honking aircraft.

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