Chris Scott is considered the man in the know when it comes to adventure travel in the Sahara desert, and with over 30 expeditions under his belt since 1982, it’s no mystery as to why. Motorcycle, taxi, camel caravan, 4WD, Mercedes saloon…he’s done it all and that’s why his books are considered bibles for anyone pursuing similar adventures. Into The Wild caught up with Chris to find out what brings him back to the Sahara and what his adventures are all about…
Into The Wild: What first sparked your interest in the Sahara?
Initially it was just something to get across on my way to West Africa. But I found it rather more interesting than I expected.
Into The Wild: You’ve travelled on over 30 expeditions since 1982 what kept you coming back to such harsh conditions?
The conditions are actually not so harsh in the right season with the right gear and expectations. The trick is to learn those simple rules – that took around ten visits over as many years. Most of it was down to vehicle preparation and knowing your limits. Once I go the hang of that, returning became a matter of exploring deeper into the desert. The Sahara is the size of the USA so that will take more than a lifetime.
Into The Wild: What do you think compels you to continually return and explore the region further, what benefits do you think there are to such in-depth travel compared to more fleeting travel?
Well I certainly prefer to get to know one area well, even if that area happens to be huge. If nothing else it makes planning easier plus there’s a satisfaction in joining the dots and understanding the big picture. On early trips you’re preoccupied with simply keeping it together. With more experience you can finally relax while reaching out further.
Into The Wild: What are the physical and mental challenges you face in such an extreme environment?
Physically you must have some proclivity to roughing it, but to most motorcyclists that’s not so unusual. Mentally you need to be able to keep your head when things start to go wrong but this is an instinct most of us have: survival. We fret rightly about things going wrong but when they do we become resourceful; a mental toughness and adaptability that has little to do with physical toughness.
Into The Wild: You’ve gone from being a tourist in the Sahara to a tour leader, what’s the difference in your experience? What are the benefits of both?
I’ve mostly enjoyed joining organised tours as a way to see an area where independent travel would be too risky or complicated. The organisation, logistics and crew are important because the desert itself always delivers.
As a tour organiser I’m aware of the responsibilities to provide a great experience to the clients. You need to have confidence in your local crew (cooks, drivers, guides) and of course you need to get lucky with the group. Up to a point I make things harder on myself by never doing the same thing twice which requires a certain amount of ‘wheel reinvention’. But that keeps me on my toes.
Into The Wild: You’ve travelled in such a diverse range of vehicles, why did you choose to try a Mercedes saloon car?
Simply because it was something new. A 4WD is rather like using a hammer to crack a nut. I wanted to see if a regular car could manage the pistes. They are so much nicer to drive than a heavy, ostentatious 4x4 tank and the lower profile also has benefits.
Into The Wild: What does driving in another country offer you as an experience that you couldn’t get otherwise?
If you mean as opposed to travelling on public transport, then driving is not always the best way to go. Overlanding with vehicles presents all sorts of tedious complications with temporary importation at borders, especially in parts of Africa and Asia. Then there is the burden of looking after it and everything inside. But for places like the Sahara there’s no practical choice short of hiring local drivers – that only works if you stay in one country.
It’s when you come to crossing several countries that a car or motorcycle can have benefits in independence; getting off the backpacker tramlines linking one crowded bus station with another. Being independently mobile can really open a continent up providing you slow down and smell the roses, but not everyone is attracted to the rigours of cycling.
Into The Wild: You seem to favour travel by motorcycle even coining the term ‘adventure motorcycling’. How would you describe what that term sums up?
Really it’s just overland travel with motorcycles but we recognised in the 90s that adding the word ‘adventure’ to the title of Adventure Motorcycling Handbook (AMH) gave it a certain cachet that has caught on. In AMH I’m actually quite specific in defining an ‘adventure motorcycling zone’: Latin America, Africa and Asia. Riding elsewhere is really touring, but for most of us the above three continents take us out of our comfort zone which entails a certain amount of exposure to risk: the true definition of adventure. When things go wrong in those places they can also get complicated.
Into The Wild: You’ve recently changed your travel approach using camels instead, what instigated this change? How does your experience of the Sahara differ now you use camels and do you prefer it?
I miss the thrill of riding bikes in the desert but I’ve had my share and in Algeria tour groups of motorcycles and especially cars are now rather too conspicuous. It’s a risk I currently prefer not to take with tour groups as it only takes one ‘spotter’ to report details of your movements or location which could end in a long period as a hostage in northern Mali. Even then, I always knew I’d end up cameling in the Sahara; it’s the authentic way to travel out there and has the benefit of a much lower profile. We arrive at night and disappear into the desert next day, often going where cars can’t follow. And the experience of walking in the desert is far from boring, considering that all around is just sand rock and sky. It’s very satisfying; almost like a form of meditation.
Into The Wild: What difficulties have you faced in the Sahara, from complicated political strife to dangerous snakes and scorpions, there seem to have been a few?
Initially any difficulties stemmed from my own inexperience, stupidity or ill-prepared vehicles. Once or twice I made the mistake of going too early or too late in the cool season when travel, especially on a motorcycle, becomes rather desperate. In all my years I’ve barely seen snakes and scorpions – they’re more active in the summer. As for political strife, so far I’ve been lucky. A lot of it is about knowing where not to go.
Into The Wild: How do you prepare for an expedition?
At the top of it all is a good plan that inspires and motivates me; in the Sahara venues for such an enterprise are not hard to find. If a vehicle is used, its condition and level or equipment are paramount, just as a camel is to a nomad. But I’ve learned over the years about what’s important and what’s just bling. ‘The more you know the less you need’ is another term I’ve coined in my books. Once you have the plan and the means to execute it, all you then need is an open mind and flexibility to face the possibility of if all going wrong. With adventure travel flexibility is the key.
Into The Wild: How does a Saharan way of life differ to life in the West?
Well obviously the true desert dwellers (as opposed to those who have migrated to towns) are among the world’s poorest people. But as with many nomadic groups, their belief in pursuing an unsedentary life is at the heart of who they are. With fifteen types of toothpaste to choose from, we tend to romanticise this simple, unfettered life, or certainly admire those who stick at it. The fact is though, it’s a hard life made harder by the way the world has developed. Other than that, in most Saharan countries what we call human rights or even basic opportunities are rather lean which is chiefly what brought about the long-overdue Arab Spring.
Into The Wild: Have you always been a keen explorer or is it an interest developed later in life?
I suppose I always was but that’s not so unique. With the technology and resources we now have it’s easier than ever to take yourself to outlandish places.
Into The Wild: What has been your proudest achievement?
I’m rather pleased by some of my books: Sahara Overland II, Overlanders Handbook which came out last year and the sixth edition of AMH which will be out shortly. As with most books, they’re actually a lot of work for little financial reward, but I have a lot of fun penning a definitive guidebook to a region or a way of travel.
Into The Wild: We have a lot of young travellers volunteering at Frontier; do you have any advice for them or anyone who would like to travel and explore?
If it’s in your nature then get stuck in and explore the opportunities you’re lucky to have before settling down. I tried volunteering in my early 20s but was not successful. Years later I came across some American Peace Corps Volunteers in Mauritania. Bizarrely they were impressed that I’d ridden all the way there from Algeria but I was far more impressed with what they were doing.
Into The Wild: How can travel enrich people’s lives, what do you view as its benefits?
I recall Parkinson on his 1970s TV chat show suggesting to a guest that travel doesn’t broaden the mind, it narrows it, or words to that effect. Even as a witless teenager that observation struck me as odd.
Its benefits are indubitable, a first-hand comprehension of the world that cannot be realised on television or the web. It doesn’t mean your life experience is incomplete without having gone abroad. To me the lesson from my earliest trips into the Sahara was of how privileged we few are to travel as we do. I’ve since learned that that youthful quest for adventure is just as strong in a young guy from West Africa, setting off to see what’s beyond.
Into The Wild: You took part in updating the Trailblazers Guide to Britain’s longest Long Distance Footpath illustrating exploration doesn’t always have to take place in far-flung places. Would you encourage people to explore the environment around them and what tips can your offer anyone interested in exploration and adventure travel?
Start small – absolutely; it’s the same thrill or planning and execution. Lately I’ve taken to exploring Scotland with a packraft – a portable but robust 3-kilo mini raft that allows you to set off across the highlands, crossing lochs or following rivers to link up walking and paddling routes as wild as your imagination.
For a tip I’d say resist the temptation to equip yourself with expensive new gear. Buy used, cheap or even make it yourself until you know what counts.
Into The Wild: The talk pre-empts the expanded 6th edition of your Adventure Motorcycling Handbook due in late 2012. How have you revised your experiences? How has your experience of travel and the Sahara changed over the years?
Well the new AMH is full of mine and contributors’ experiences to help others take on the same thing. The book is revised only in that it’s more comprehensive than ever, as useful to take with as read beforehand.
My experience of travel has lately become less motorised. In recent years I’ve cycled in the Hindu Kush and the Himalaya, as well as kayaked and packrafted elsewhere, all very satisfying forms of human-powered travel. Partly it’s all a response to the deteriorating security situation in the Sahara where tourism has collapsed. The good years may be over out there but the world’s as big a it ever was.
Questions by Maria Sowter
If reading about Chris' adventures has whet your appetitie to get out there and experience some for yourself, why not check out the adventure travel opportunities available with Frontier. With options including gaining your PADI dive certificate on a marine conservation project, to group tours around South & Central America or South East Asia, to earning your TEFL qualification on a teaching placement, there's bound to be something for you!