Peter This week we’re exploring the extremes of travel as opposed to traditional organised holidays. Unquestionably, Tom Morgan is our most eccentric and daredevil traveller to date. Tom is founder of The Adventurists, a company that organises…well, yes, you’ve guessed it…adventures. But these are not by anyone’s standards, everyday adventures. Far from it.
Felice It all started with the Mongol Rally, a journey by car across 10,000 miles of Asia. It’s not a race that has a winner, but instead getting lost, breaking down and the resulting chaos is the main part of it. Then there’s also the Mongol Derby on horseback and the Gaucho Derby in North and South America.
Peter The Rickshaw Run in India, the Monkey Run on miniature motorbikes in Morocco and Peru…and a whole lot more. Interestingly, although the company is based in Britain, the majority of participants in these events are Americans who pay up to 14,000 US$ to take part. Each of them also has to raise a set amount for the Cool Climate Change charity.
Peter Action Packed Travel’s, Louise Hall, caught up with Tom at his home on the Welsh borders while he was preparing for his next adventure.
Louise Tom, welcome to our podcast. Globe trotting mayhem, making the world a less boring place. How did it start?
Tom I think it probably started while I was at art school, which really makes no sense at all because it wasn’t very fine art. And I was studying sculpture, which doesn’t help at all to clarify why, but I made the Morgan Institute of Adventure Research, which invited people to come and take part in things like the Mongol Rally and set themselves on fire and other relatively stupid things. Myself and a friend tried to drive to Mongolia in a really, really bad car and with no preparation or planning, and failed miserably but have had a great time.
I thought it was fun and made a website and invited everyone to join, and I assumed that thousands of people would instantly flock to the calling and only six teams joined us. Then it grew quite rapidly from that point. We finally realised that just writing that down as an email address was irritating, so we changed it to The Adventurists, which is much better.
Louise What’s the biggest event you run? Is it the Mongol Rally?
Tom Yes, that’s the biggest in terms of number of people taking part at one time, that’s about a thousand people. It takes between three weeks to eight weeks altogether if you get really lost, depends on how lost you get, but it’s up to about ten thousand miles.
Louise The concept of these adventures is pretty alternative. How does that differ from a normal car rally?
Tom You can be really prepared and have all the tools and all the parts and all the food you need in your car, but what’s the what’s the point? You won’t interact with anyone on the whole. The point of it is to go out and interact with the world, get lost and stuck and engage with people and places. So, yes, it’s a fundamental part of it.
Louise Surely, courting disaster like this through lack of preparation can put you in danger and even survival can become an issue?
Tom I think there’s a moment in any disaster where pure survival becomes all you think about, and then there’s others where it’s the adventure. But I think for us, we’re the adventurists, I think it’s a process. It’s not really even particularly a location. I think you could have more adventure in your local Tesco than you could doing a guided trek up Kilimanjaro, for example. I think it’s about a process of approaching things with an inquisitiveness rather than over-planning that I think is important.
If you go out to the world and you think, ‘OK, I want to go see the Taj Mahal, etc, etc,’ or some other tourist site, like the Pyramids, then you have in your head a kind of expectation of what that is from various documentaries or photographs online. Broadly speaking, those documentaries and photographs will be taken from the best angles, at the best time of day, and your real world experience is going to be less good than your imagination.
I think also by having a sort of ‘things that I’m going to do or see’ objectives, changes your experience of travel into this kind of commoditised process of ticking boxes and reduces experiences to just things to have done and that takes the fun away from it.
I think you could have a lot more fun if you stumbled around in India with no particular goal, and you came across a very small temple that you didn’t know existed or know anything about it, and you met the locals there and you understood a bit more what was going on about it, but it was totally unexpected – then you could go into some over-polished site. I think it’s that process. Frankly, you can have a more interesting time finding a toilet than you can going to the Taj Mahal.
Things like Instagram have done us a huge disservice – Instagram and mobile phones are the two things that have, broadly speaking, destroyed people’s experience of travel. Firstly, everyone is posting pictures of themselves staring into the sunset in exotic locations and living for a future reward as opposed to ‘in the moment’. It destroys your enjoyment of the moment and I think the whole thing is horrible – Instagram – and things like mobile phones which know where you are, really make it hard to get lost.
I remember because we’ve been doing this before the advent of smartphones…well, not quite, but before they were very prevalent, and I remember the first adventure went on with the smartphone, which had Google Maps on. It was rubbish, completely rubbish, because I couldn’t get lost. Because if it’s there, you have to be kind of obstinately like:
‘Ok I’m not going to use the map.’ So it just completely destroys it because you can’t get lost in the same way and then you’re not requiring to go to talk to people and engage. The best bits are where it all goes horribly wrong, not where you get to finish line. What’s the point of doing that?
Louise How many of these adventures do you run each year?
Tom Well, this year none, but normally about just under 30.
Louise How many people will you take each year?
Tom They’re not all crazy big as the Mongol Rally so it’s probably between three and four thousand people a year.
Louise Are they all races? Are they competitive, is that the idea behind them?
Tom No, not at all. The Mongol Rally, for example, isn’t. Some of them are: the Mongol Derby, the horse race, and the Gaucho Derby, and the new one we’re doing in the States are competitive. The yacht race is competitive. It depends on the event. Sometimes it’s more about getting lost and stuck, and the competitive element, apart from being totally illegal on public roads, doesn’t really add much.
Louise What’s been the biggest headache to put together?
Tom We used to run one in South America called the Mototaxi Junket, which are this terrible, terrible three-wheeled machines, like a rubbish tuk-tuk. They take a motorbike, a fairly underpowered one, and cut the back wheel off and weld a chair onto the back with two wheels, and they are terrible. We started organising that in Peru and we had an agreement with Honda who make the best of them out there.
Then just one day before they were due…they’ve made them all, we’d paid them, we were ‘great, happy days.’ People were arriving in the country and then Honda decided to pull the plug because there was a major news article and the director at Honda Peru said they didn’t want to be involved with such wallies as us. We had to find enough motor taxis, and the only company that made them, had enough of them, was based in Iquitos, which is the biggest town in the world with no roads going to it.
So we had to put them on the back of a raft and float them up the Amazon, at which point the rainy season came early and a two-day journey became a five-day journey. Then when we finally got to land, the axle on the truck snapped in half in the middle of the rainforest. Anyway, there were a whole litany of disasters involving helicopter crashes and it was a total nightmare. We got there about two weeks late.
Louise More recently, there’s been your personal balloon escapade. I think it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do. Let me get this straight – you tied a bunch of party helium balloons to a chair and rose thousands of feet in the sky over South Africa and lived to tell the tale? What’s this all about?
Tom Yes, so there’s a thing called the Gordon Bennett Cup. Gordon Bennett, being a big hero of mine, invented a ballooning race, which is absolute genius: a gas ballooning race, in about 1910. You basically have one fill of gas, helium or hydrogen, and then you all take off from the same place, and the person who gets the furthest in any given direction is declared the winner.
There’s something wonderfully simple about that, and I think ballooning is just inherently adventurous because you don’t have that level of control so you’re engaging in an adventure, whatever happens. Other people have tied themselves to party balloons before and I just thought it would make a great race. So we went out to do a test run for a race – originally it was supposed to be myself and a buddy and we were going to race each other.
Louise How high did you reach in that balloon cluster?
Tom I think it was eight thousand foot.
Tom You could definitely have gone higher, but there’s air space, so we had to stay a certain height. These are just party balloons off the Internet; they’re not exactly structural. There’s a certain point above which we wondered whether they would burst. So we filled some up more than others so that if the heat from the sun made them expand and burst, we would have an early warning descend before falling much faster to the ground.
Louise How big were the balloons?
Tom We did an experiment in the UK with tethered balloons and we tried the biggest because you get the greatest lift for a given number of balloons. They were eight foot, but they were total pain in the bum; they were so nifty they would tear themselves in half. So we were down to four-foot balloons, four-and-a-half foot – something like that seemed to work quite well. Different colours, strangely, burst differently.
Louise You have to see that to believe it – it is going to be in the Show Notes. How many balloons did you have? Is it a hundred?
Tom Yes, it was one hundred in the end, and some of those were smaller ones for control balloons. To go up, I had a barrel of two water butts, camping water butts tied to the chair, that had water in, and a tap – so I just let some of the water out and change that for ascending. Then you could release a balloon or pop a balloon to go down.
Louise Totally insane. How did you feel up there? Like a bird looking down? Were you not terrified?
Tom Yes, I was terrified. Hot-air-ballooning, you’re quite actively involved in flying to a certain degree because you’re constantly heating and it is very noisy, whereas this just completely still and silent. We obviously are travelling with the winds, doing about 47 kilometres an hour, but you wouldn’t know – it’s completely still and silent. It’s very strange and cool and terrifying all at the same time. It’s a good combination.
Louise Going at that speed, how do you come into landing?
Tom With your eyes closed. Actually I just waited, for the speed increases with altitude so I was only doing that speed up high and then as it comes down to the ground, a bit of waiting and planning and knowing what the weather’s going to do, roughly, and then a bit of luck. In the end it was a very, very gentle touchdown. A couple of times I bounced off the ground and I couldn’t get down. It’s often warmer at the ground, so I’d come down and hit warm air and bounce back up again. Got there in the end. The other thing is obviously to avoid electricity pylons.
Louise How did you manage that coming down process?
Tom Release enough balloons to start coming down and then just wait and it’s relatively slow and controlled. I actually think it’s a pretty safe form of flight. It’s not like you’re in an airplane where one wing can snap off and you fall like a rock. You have to have a fairly traumatic event for all of them to burst at once.
The goal would be to have a similar thing where you start with a given amount of lift above your own body weight and what you’re carrying, and then the person who gets the furthest and manages to get themselves back is the winner. To get the furthest, you would have probably thrown all of your supplies and perhaps your clothes overboard to get that extra few meters – and then you’ll be running back through with Savannah naked.
Louise Another of your flying events involves para-motors, which are what they say they are: it’s like having a lawnmower attached to your back…and a parachute. Tell us the story behind the Icarus Trophy?
Tom Yes, a friend of mine, Gilo Cardozo, runs a company that makes them in Dorset. I just hadn’t paid much attention to it and then I realised it was a really accessible form of flying. You don’t need a license, the plane doesn’t require registration, it’s not cheap but it can be cheap if you buy secondhand equipment. Then I looked around at what people were doing with it. To me, it seemed a bit boring – lots of flying around in circles and competitions for who could be the most fuel-efficient and things like that.
I think they’re such a great tool for getting into trouble and having an adventure, because you can take off and land anywhere and fill them up in a petrol station. Yes, we launched the Icarus Trophy and we did it in the States because it’s massive and cool and there’s a bigger community of pilots over there. They did a thousand miles by para-motor, which was the first time people have done long distance racing, and it was great fun. I learned to fly for the race. They are amazing things.
Louise They cover a good distance for even one fuel tank?
Tom Yes, they can do. There’s a lot of variables – so there’s your body weights, there’s that engine efficiency, the efficiency of your wing, the direction of the wind. You can get sort of a couple of hundred K on a good day, on a good tank, if you have good fortune and a tailwind, but you’re more likely to be getting one hundred or so. You can certainly cover the miles.
Louise What’s next? What plans do you have for the future?
Tom We have lots of new plans. At the moment we are launching our own adventure machines that we’ll be releasing. One of them is a flat-pack biplane, which I want to fly across the Pacific, to order online a bit like IKEA and then make it. It’s going to be a disaster but we’ll have fun making that disaster.
Louise What else is in the pipeline?
Tom So we are just about to launch Properly Adventurer, a machine thing. We’re going to be launching that with our own version of a monkey bike, which is the ultimate adventure machine. So we’ve made it more of an adventure machine and made it a lot cooler and it flies as well, which is handy to have a flying monkey bike. We’ve got in development an electric monkey bike; we’re just trying to work on getting the range up to something quite ridiculous, which would be quite cool.
Louise Hold on, rewind…you said that it also flies?
Tom Oh, yes. You strap a power motor onto it and it takes off. Then it will also have….hopefully the next round will be strapping the boat like a kind of inflatable tube so it can become a boat. So it’s the ultimate adventure machine monkey bike.
Louise Have you had any Guinness World Records attempts?
Tom We held the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest horse race.
Louise How far is the race?
Tom It’s a thousand kilometres and you change horse. We based it on Genghis Khan‘s ancient postal system. So we rebuilt that across the Mongolian Steppe every summer and you change horse every 40 km, so the horses are always fine and the riders are always knackered. We’ve split that off into a separate company because we’re launching a whole World Series of horse races called the Equestrianists.
We’ve got one in Argentina and we’re basically looking around the world for the kind of places where humans and horses and history will all mingle together to make interesting cultures and often horse breeds. That’s now a separate company which is specialising in the World Equestrian Series. There’s not that many wild places left in the world, for roads and car parks and shops are everywhere. I think we need to protect some of these places otherwise there’ll be nowhere left for adventures.
Louise Where can people find out more about the adventures you offer?
Tom We are on the web, of course, on theadventurists.com and the Equestrian Stockholm – that’s the best place, or the hideous social media platforms, we’re on all of those, much to our shame.
Louise Tom, thank you very much for appearing on the show and we wish you the best of luck with your future adventures worldwide.
Tom Thanks for having me on.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected].
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