A Big Read, brought to you by the legendary bike travel photographer Dan Milner
From Argentina to Afghanistan, bike travel photographer Dan Milner brings you 10 years of wilderness riding distilled into 10 lessons learned.
Words and pictures: Dan Milner
There are few words out there as alluring as ‘adventure’. We look for it in our weekly rides and in our daily lives; reaching for new experiences that will inject excitement. But adventure, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What makes it an adventure rather than ‘just a ride’ depends on your metaphorical starting point: what’s your previous experience, where are your boundaries, how willing you are to embrace the unknown. Out of the three, it is the unknown factor that brings both the challenges and the rewards of adventure.
Unknowns undermine confidence and test resourcefulness and give even the toughest of Bear Grylls a run for his or her money. But these are positives. It’s not the kudos of remote locations or the magnitude of an expedition aim that define adventure, it’s how you deal with its unknowns and what that experience teaches you about yourself, others and the world beyond the familiar that is the most rewarding takeaway from adventure’s rich smorgasbord of experiences.
I’ve been dragging bikes across the globe for nearly three decades, sniffing out worthy singletrack and filling in the gaps between with cultural experiences —like a painting by numbers book for a restless adult. It’s been an immensely rewarding ‘journey’ (for want of using what is now a hackneyed term) but also a challenging one. But no matter what trips I’ve done, where the bike has taken me and what discomfort I’ve clawed through, I’m ready to admit I’m still learning. Every trip teaches me something new.
Having just turned the page on a new decade, it seems like a good moment to look back on the 2010’s and ponder the lessons their adventures have taught me.
1. Plan your expedition, not your expectations
Romps into real backcountry shouldn’t be taken lightly, and as I’ve learned there are good reasons for planning as much of the logistics and safety aspects as possible. But adventure’s myriad possible outcomes can’t be planned —that’s what makes it adventure; and that’s a good thing to keep in mind when you embark. As a photographer I’ve set off on trips with key shots already in mind, sketching out how I’ll tell the story of what’s to come, but I’ve since learned that such an approach can be frustrating. I’ve realised that adventure is about relinquishing control, seeing what happens and then embracing (and for me photographing) the story that unfolds, not the story you want to unfold. In 2017 I returned to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. It’s one of the most incredible landscapes on the planet, but the fickle Patagonian weather meant accepting defeat on many of the trails we tried to ride. We huddled behind rocks sheltering from raging winds, while the park’s stunning views were swallowed by mist. But while ambitions are compromised, every unplanned moment, whether good or bad, adds to the magic of adventure: the realisation that, for once in our over-managed lives, things are genuinely beyond our control. It’s a great way to put things in context.
2. It’s rivers, not mountains, that are the greatest leveller
Steep mountains are usually seen as any bike adventurer’s biggest challenge, and there’s no denying that crossing them can represent a very real physical undertaking, but while often overestimated, rivers should command equal respect. As Secret Compass’s Tom Bodkin (the drive behind some of our most challenging trips) points out, history is littered with examples of the ambitions of whole armies being ruined by simple rivers. The trickiness of crossing even only knee-deep but fast-flowing rivers with a bike in hand shouldn’t be underestimated —something that was hammered home during our 12-day traverse of Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor in 2013. This wild, untamed but peaceful corner of Afghanistan threw us two-dozen rivers to cross, with only two of them sporting bridges. Never mind scaling 5,000m passes, it was wading through surging snowmelt, rocks tumbling around our ankles, that became the great leveller among the group. A slip while crossing a river can have serious consequences, especially if class V rapids wait just downstream as they did in Afghanistan. Planning a route that includes serious river crossings might even mean carrying a safety rope, as we did during our 2019 circumnavigation of Russia’s Mount Elbrus.
3. Adventure is closer than you think
It’s far too easy for people like me who eek out a living from documenting exotic travelogues to bang on about adventure needing remote locations, weird food and lots of people waving AK-47s. (That’s just how we sell these stories to editors). The reality is that the UK is as good a place to find it as anywhere, if you keep adventure’s key ingredient of ‘embracing the unknown’ at the heart of your plan. Setting a challenge on unfamiliar trails or terrain and adding overnight logistics into the mix can push a ride to the fringe of your comfort zone and into the realm of adventure. In 2014 we used sea kayaks, towing our bikes on inflatable dinghies behind us, as a novel way to introduce the adventure element to Loch Morar’s shoreline trails that were already on the riding map. We had no idea if it would work —and the final nine-mile return paddle, battling a fierce headwind, was a moment for digging deep— but the riding and the two nights of wild camping were well worth the effort.
4. One person’s adventure heaven is another’s trail hell
Everybody is different, and so are their boundaries when it comes to the point when fun becomes Type-2 fun — and it’s worth remembering this as you all launch into a group adventure. Finding the balance between adventure and a good ride is a challenge in itself, as our 2015 traverse of Ethiopia’s stunningly rugged Simien mountains proved. The ride became as much a test of mental resolve as physical resilience when, after several days of laughing our way along buff flowing trails, we faced two days of brutal, baby-head rock gardens. These almost unrideable trails, including a steep, rubble-filled 1,000-metre descent, tested the group’s mental stamina, where a fall would have dire consequences, but their inclusion in our planned route delivered a bucket-list camp spot perched on the edge of a plunging rift valley. ‘No pain, no gain’ might be a suitable voxpop to apply to adventure, but in spite of the spectacular visual rewards, the trail riding to reach them sucked and tested morale. Time heals wounds of course, and every rider will look back and laugh, but at the time these trails almost induced an insurrection.
5. Eating humble pie can be good
Being polite can go a long way in society; being humbled can get you a long way in adventure. Most foreign trips would go nowhere without the logistics support of locals, from guides to cooks to bus drivers: something to remember wherever you go. After all you’re always a guest in their country, no matter how many scout adventure badges are pinned on your sleeve. Pride and honour might not be so important in UK society nowadays, but they play complex cultural roles in many other places, so being willing to eat humble pie is a worthy attribute to any adventurer, allowing your hosts to keep face and feel worth, even if they are only nine years old. It was nine-year old Aibek who humbled us during a nine-day ride through Kyrgyzstan’s southern Alai Mountains in 2018. Despite his sandalled feet not reaching his stirrups, Aibek and his horse became our shuttle across a raging melt-water river and we were thankful of it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so proud as Aibek, or ever seen a bunch of athletic white guys so appreciatively humbled.
6. Complacency, not curiosity, can kill the cat
Do anything enough times and it can become unthinking second nature, and the same can go for adventure. Nobody wants to survive by the skin of their teeth —that usually means something went wrong, and I mean wrong in a bad way— but it always pays to give due consideration to what you are about to embark on, no matter how much previous experience you have.
This was driven home during an exploration of the world’s most southern trail on the Patagonian island of Navarino in 2018. With so many adventures behind me, I allowed the fact that we’d emerged from every one of them unscathed to cloud my judgement of what now lay ahead. I was complacent. But, at the mercy of schizophrenic sub-polar weather, Navarino became the place where one of our team nearly died. Not wanting to be ‘that guy’ —the bossy leader or health and safety wannabe— and despite having conceived the project, I let us set out without a workable emergency plan. We had no satellite locator beacon, and mobile phone coverage was patchy at best, and we hadn’t properly checked the GPS co-ordinates of the exit. We set off in sunshine but several hours into the death march a blizzard struck and we lost Claudio, who had been falling behind. After an unsuccessful search and with our own hypothermia setting in, we were forced to finish the route to find help —something that took a further five tiring hours. We reached civilisation at 11 pm; too late for the local police to fly a helicopter. Claudio staggered out of the wilderness next morning with second-degree hypothermia, having stayed alive by ditching his bike and the exposed trail for the shelter of the forest. I now pack a Garmin In-Reach satellite messenger for every trip.
7. Lateral thinking is the friend of adventure
As any long-term lover will attest, originality and experimentation can keep the flame burning, and the same goes for adventure. Thinking outside the box can turn a ride into a novel, surprisingly rewarding adventure. This was driven home to Hans Rey, Tibor Simai and me during our three-day ride along a 100-year old disused railway in 2014. Committing to not deviating from the tracks as they beeline across a 3,000-metre high Argentinean plateaux gave our adventure a simple focus and handed us some real challenges. Navigating its overgrown tracks and crumbling sidings and tiptoeing across ageing iron bridges devoid of maintenance and suspended high above rivers, threw at us all the elements of adventure we could ask for, packaged up in probably the most boring-sounding adventure concept I’ve ever had.
8. Map reading is still a worthy skill
Google Earth can be a great tool for scouting potential adventures from the sofa, and GPS wizardry can help keep you safer out in the wilds, but there’s no escaping the fact that old-school map reading still has its place. I learnt this when I dived into a two-day attempt to ride the route of the Lavaredo Ultra Trail running marathon in the Italian Dolomites. Lured by the visual goldmine of rugged peaks I’d shot previously while covering the race for its sponsors, The North Face, tracing its route on a bike over two days became the basis for an adventure. I scoured the GPX tracks, plotted our route and worked out overnight hut logistics, but failed to ever look at a map that showed contour lines. Then once immersed in the challenge of riding the trail, I discovered that all of our 95km long route’s 5,000 metres of ascent were impossibly steep, and hour-upon-hour of carrying lay ahead of us. We got through it over two very long days, but the rewards were hard earned indeed.
9. Bad can be a gateway to good
Adventure is about more than instant endorphin hits, but sometimes the reflective rewards of the long game can be harder to see, especially when the way is shrouded in drenching rain. Having to dig deep is unpleasant, but such moments do genuinely seem to produce deeper, more engaged experiences, as it was in North Korea in 2018. Already tagged the most ambitious trip I’ve ever done, we then realised that our aim to reach the summit of Mount Myohyang needed an overnight bivouac. Caught by the edge of a cyclone, we were forced to sleep out under a rocky overhang —the only shelter we could find. A rain-drenched night became the hardest and most uncomfortable point of our 10-day trip, but it cemented bonds between us four westerners and our two North Korean guides/fixers. This bond, forged though shared discomfort, then empowered our subsequent requests to venture beyond our pre-approved itinerary. Hard as it was, without that shared misery, those subsequent doors wouldn’t have been opened and we wouldn’t have snatched such an authentic glimpse of life inside this secretive state.
10. It is not always just about the ride
We go places to ride bikes, I get that, but adventure is about a lot more than scoring the adrenaline hit of lapping a trail. Bikes are not only amazing playthings, they can take you farther into new terrain and challenges that lend themselves to adventure. Bikes are tools to learn about you and about other people. Universally recognised as a simple transport option worldwide, bikes cut through the barriers of culture, language, religion and wealth, whether that’s at a UK trail centre or on a North Korean mountainside. And the one thing that my decades of bike adventures has taught me, again and again, is that it is not always just about the ride. Life is a fascinating journey, full of incredible interactions to be had and lessons to be learnt, and it’s worth stopping every now and then to absorb them. The bike is just the ticket to get there.
Words and pictures: Dan Milner