THE TRIBE, THE RAINFOREST AND ME
an interview with anthropologist Camille Oloa Biloa
My decision to walk the Nile and the preparation that followed began years ago. Whilst studying history at Uni I lost myself in expedition literature, memoirs of the great explorers of Africa and in the map rooms at the Royal Geographic Society. I researched everything possible – routes, climates, time of year, political situations, kit, communications and sponsorship.
Then eventually in late 2013, it was happening. The day came to set off and to simply keep walking until I’d reached my goal of walking the Nile. After that, the rhythm of the adventure overtook everything else and all I had to do was get up and head north every day: 4,000 miles north. At least, that was the plan!
For anyone with plans to execute a multi-day expedition or multi-month adventure, you’ll need to prepare. Here are my tips to help you along your way.
I think it’s important to realise that few adventures (in fact probably no adventures whatsoever) are fun 100% of the time. Before I left, I thought 80% would be dreadful and 20% interesting. What I found was probably closer to 50:50. Half of it was miserable …but the other half was really interesting and good fun.
On a journey like Walking the Nile, where you’ve got so many different landscapes and different cultures, every day is fascinating. All the little adventures are what spurred me on and gave me the motivation to wake up each day and walk 20 miles.
Kit choice is highly subjective and each of you will have your own tastes, size, shape and probably your favourite brands too. No matter who you are or where you’re going – jungle, desert or mountain – a good pair of supportive boots that fits the shape of your foot is of paramount importance.
If you’re headed to hot climates and wet, jungle environments, look for the most breathable boots you can find. Always ensure your boots are well worn in before travelling. The biggest way to ruin your trip is to have feet covered in blisters. I often wear Alt-Berg boots – they do jungle and desert versions.
Reject the impulse to take everything with you. You’ll be amazed at how versatile you and your kit will become – especially when there’s no other option around. Spare clothing becomes your towel, a fleece becomes your pillow and two pairs of pants and socks (wash and wear) are enough (one at a push if your destination is warm enough for things to dry overnight).
Salt crystals created by sweat in your socks can begin to rub your feet causing blisters so, although the aim is to travel light, don’t scrimp on taking care of the kit you have, and remember to wash or rinse things out thoroughly as often as you can.
Multi-day treks are marathons, not sprints. Start slowly, acclimatise, and gradually build up your tolerance to your environment. Let your body get used to its new exertions, its new diet, its new surroundings and even your new kit. For advice on training for multi-day trekking expeditions, especially where you will be carrying a significant amount of kit and equipment yourself, check out Secret Compass’s 12-week suggested training programme online .
My advice to you is the same as I adhered to: pace yourself. You’ll be walking in an unfamiliar climate, over new terrain, probably with a different diet and potentially at altitude. If alone, you may also have to acclimatise to being with your own company and thoughts. Take it easy, walk at a slow pace and build your strength up. At first each day seems interminable. Your shoes might rub, your rucksack straps niggle, your stove might be hard to light in the conditions. But before you know it, the wrinkles iron themselves out. Your boots are more supple, you’ve adjusted your bag to perfection and learnt that knack of lighting the stove even in a hurricane. Routine sets in.
Savour each day and don’t get fixated on journey’s end. You will miss the little things; the individual people, incidents, tastes, experiences and moments that made the expedition worth undertaking in the first place. If I’d fixated on meeting the Mediterranean in Egypt every morning when I woke up, I don’t think I’d have made it out of Rwanda! But walking 20 miles a day? Walking another country border to border? Making another successful river crossing?
Give yourself small, achievable goals and celebrate as you reach each one. Back in 2010 when Tom and I started our adventure company our motto was (and remains) to ‘achieve the extraordinary in the world’s wildest places’. This doesn’t have to be done in one hit – a lot of small and seemingly innocuous achievements can soon add up to one major achievement, as the Walking the Nile and Walking the Himalayas expeditions have proven.
Food and water are key to maintaining your strength, especially when you’ve got a gruelling schedule to keep. Ensure you are well hydrated and eat regularly. If you start feeling low on energy or light-headed, it is because you are working too hard and have not got this balance right.
On your own training weekends, experiment with different types of snacks. You don’t want to have an energy lull but neither do you want to carry so much food that you need to eat more calories in order to carry all the food! Healthy snacks such as fruit, nuts and cereal bars eaten on a regular basis trickle-feed energy to your body.
In Africa I mainly ate fruit, such as bananas, nuts and the inevitable pack of cardboard-like biscuits found in every improvised shop! Research will help you to plan ahead and judge how much food and water to carry or buy along the way in local villages or communities. If heading into a sparse or remote region, get your ration packs or stock up in the last village, ready to cover this stint.
Secret Compass takes Expedition Foods ration packs (see right) on remote expeditions where carrying in supplies or sourcing food locally is not an option.
If you know there’ll be plenty of fresh water, just carry a few litres plus a purifier or a pump filter. Don’t get caught out on the water front as we did in the Sahara due to incorrect local advice…turns out that well wasn’t quite where they remembered it.
Looking back on that incident, we were just hours away from potential catastrophe but thankfully some local shepherds directed us to a trusted water source before things got truly dire. Let’s not even mention the time in the States when I had to filter the muddy water of the Colorado through my socks as we’d run out of fresh water. Could have been worse…at least they were my socks!
Your level of planning will depend on your aim. You may feel comfortable drifting along and taking each day as it comes, or you may want a detailed route plan. Either way, it’s imperative you know:
While walking the Nile I was out there alone for long periods of time, sometimes accompanied by a guide (like Boston) plus a skeleton TV crew that joined me every now and again (though some of the filming for the four-part Channel 4 TV series was done by me using a hand-held camera). But despite this solitude and the magnitude of the expedition, every day I sent my grid location back to the Ops Room at Secret Compass so they knew where I was.
Leave your name and dates in log books where provided in huts and at trail heads so people know when to expect – and where to start looking if things don’t go to plan. Knowing that someone somewhere knew where I’d been and where I was heading was a comfort. Even if for the peace of mind of those you leave behind, a regular check-in arrangement isn’t a bad idea at all.
There are some relatively cost-effective GPS tracking solutions which I used effectively on the Nile expedition. For example:
Alternatively you can hire SatPhones for the duration of your trek – just make sure that the country you’re heading into permits their use.
My best bit of advice, and I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve heard this or said this to yourself, is just to go for it. You don’t know what you can do until you try. Whatever it is you’ve got planned – whether joining a team expedition to Namibia or planning to cross a desert, country or continent on foot – you’re likely to surprise yourself.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, 20 years from now, what are you going to regret? The things you haven’t done. So don’t put things off, go and take those risks, because some are worth taking. Whatever happens, you’ll come away with some amazing stories and experiences.
In 2014 Levison Wood became the first person to walk the length of the Nile and in 2015 completed a multi-month trek across the Himalayas. This advice originally appeared on the Cotswold Outdoor community blog.
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See you on a team soon…