The life of a modern-day explorer might seem an impossible dream for most of us, but Ash Dykes proves you can just decide to become one – if you follow a certain mindset…
1. Dreams Are For Fuelling At the age of 26 Ash Dyke has already set two world firsts, trekking solo across Mongolia, and walking the length of Madagascar’s interior while summiting its eight highest mountains. But he comes from a normal background. ‘I have always believed in the power of visualisation so I was visualising myself going off and travelling at age 17, but I also knew I needed to break it all down into smaller, more manageable steps.’ He followed a path of learning skills that would travel, including scuba divemaster, and made sacrifices after selling his car and cycling everywhere to save cash.
2. The Path Is Off The Beaten Track Dykes early travels were more ‘gap year’ than ‘groundbreaking’. After he and his friend reached Cambodia they were ‘sulking’ on the banks of the Mekon river after blowing most of their cash and realised they needed to take extreme measures to get off the tourist trail. ‘We shared the same stories, experiences and photos as everyone else. So, I suggested that we buy the cheapest £10-bicycles we could find and then cycle through Cambodia and the length of Vietnam, a distance of over 1,000 miles, to get off the beaten track.’ The bikes were rickety old shoppers with pink bells and baskets on the front.
The pair set off with no map, no puncture repair kits and no phones. ‘I must admit it was quite reckless but we were like, “yeah it’s up to us to find out whether we can make it by at least giving it a shot.”’ It took 16 days, but they did make it. ‘It was hot during the day and really cold and wet at night – we didn’t get much sleep, we were chased by dogs, hit by mopeds and the bikes broke 17 times. But it was our first adventure and this was the catalyst.’
3. Locals Hold The Knowledge Once their epic cycle was over Dykes moved into Thailand and used the jungles to cross into Myanmar. ‘We came across a hill tribe and we learnt how to survive in the jungle with them using hand gestures – for hungry, thirsty, even how to use berries as an insect repellent! They were teaching us how to hunt, how to gather, how to build a shelter from natural resources. It was an amazing and humbling experience because the locals are really genuine off the beaten track.’
Just because no one has found a way to do it, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done
4. You Need A Challenge That Excites You After his early experiences Dykes started to plan a ‘real’ expedition. ‘I wanted to test myself in an extreme country and to rely totally on myself to survive in terms of water and food. That was what appealed to me – maybe I wanted to put what I learned from the Burmese hill tribe to the test, or maybe I just had always been keen to be self-sufficient out in the elements?’ Dykes eyed up the journey across Mongolia, over the mountains, through the Gobi desert and across the Mongolian Steppe. ‘That’s 1500 miles – you need the curiosity and the challenge – of course I had fears but I knew I needed to overcome them in order to get out there and make it happen.’
5. Distances Can Be Broken Down When Dykes first started looking into the Mongolian solo trek he discovered it was actually a world first. It had been attempted before by a Navy man and explorer who had to be evacuated halfway through. ‘I started to feel a bit more scared and intimidated. I had never been to a desert before and I started to think: “This has been attempted and it can’t be done.” I kind of ruled it out. But it was the breaking it down that came to me – just because no one has found a way to do it, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. And rather than looking at the big tasks – the 1,500 miles – it is important to break it down into sections, to take it day by day.’
6. Things Will Get Hard By the time Dykes was halfway across the Gobi desert he had been battered by snow blizzards in the mountains and was 2500m above sea level, in freezing temperatures, fighting through relentless sand and hail storms, and failing to rehydrate. He was pulling a trailer with supplies that weighed as much as a baby elephant – 80 stone. When the storms broke the temperature soared to +40ºC with no natural shade.
‘It was my most difficult day – I was told by locals that there were wolves hunting up ahead and that I would be eaten alive. My lips were blistered and bleeding – I would go to take a slurp of my ration pack of porridge and every time I put the ration pack down there would be a trail of pus and blood leaking into the porridge.’
‘I was a lot skinnier and weaker – the only shade I could find was underneath my trailer. I was hallucinating, and becoming really delirious. I took a 45-minute break underneath my trailer and realised that if I didn’t keep pushing on then I could quite easily die out here. That was a wake up call. I allowed myself no more than five minutes resting underneath the trailer, then I would get back up, pull the trailer through the soft sand for 100-200m, if I was lucky, before resting underneath the trailer for five minutes again. Four days later I made it to a community.’
I announced it first and then started looking for funds, which I only got two weeks beforehand
7. The Only Way To Progress Is To Commit If travel is expensive then expeditions are next-level – many of us would say the cost is the main barrier to adventure. Dykes says you have to short-circuit that way of thinking. ‘With my Madagascar expedition, I announced it first and then started looking for funds, which I only got two weeks before I was due to fly out there – I was ready to go anyway and just live off the land.’ He says it’s about offering sponsors a good ROI. ’It’s a difficult industry to crack and you have got to match it up – look at the company and what their direction is, and how you can help them by using your expertise on your expedition.’
8. Experience Beats Qualifications The gap between trekking across deserts and striding along city streets is vast, and Dykes says it has skewed our attitudes to entering different environments. ‘A lot of people in this day and age are so held back, like: “I’ve never been to a jungle before I wouldn’t know what to do when I get there.” But it’s all experience, it’s throwing yourself in there, making mistakes, learning as you progress and getting better each time. Experience beats qualifications and it feeds confidence. People think: “Oh I need to be good at navigating.” Well as long as you are not reckless about it and have an understanding, then you don’t need to be an expert.’
9. Training Your Body Strengthens The Mind Adventurers clearly need to be fit, but there’s a hidden side to all of the training miles and press-ups. ‘A lot of people see how hard I train – I’m constantly exercising because when I am physically pushing myself it also helps to mentally prepare me.’ While Dykes visualises success he also imagines the worst-case scenarios to avoid them being a shock. ‘Before Mongolia I spent a good 8-10 months really trying to build myself up mentally, telling myself to expect the worst – there are going to be wolves, there are going to be the biggest, baddest snow and dust storms.’
He shouted at us to get out – there were 3-4 metre Nile crocs in that river
10. It’s About Stepping Things Up Dykes’s next expedition was to trek the length of Madagascar and summitt its eight highest mountains along the way. ‘A 1,600-mile expedition that took 155 days to complete – only 100 miles longer than Mongolia but double the duration. At times we were hacking through almost impenetrable jungle, in cyclone season.’ Dykes contracted the deadliest form of malaria, was bitten by spiders and had to pick 5-6 leeches off his body every time he got undressed. ‘Only one month into the expedition the crocodiles started to wake up from hibernation and we had a lot of river crossings. Once a local saw us as we were bathing in a pool of water, thinking that this wasn’t crocodile territory. He shouted: “Get out! There are 3-4m Nile crocodiles in this river!’”
11. The Best Is Yet To Discover When you look at the rollcall of great adventures and record-breaking feats of endurance, it’s easy to think that the world has shrunk, and that all the hardest challenges have already been done. ‘We are all massively mistaken if we think that. It’s a big world and there’s still lots to see and do, and there are certainly firsts left, that’s for sure.’ Talking of which, Dykes is set to announce another ground-breaking expedition soon – watch this space…
Ash Dykes is supported by award-winning organic meat producer The Rhug Estate in Corwen, Denbighshire
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.