On the day Jason Lewis left London for what would be the world’s first human-powered circumnavigation of the globe, he had just £319.20 to his name. Thirteen years later, after pedalling, walking, rollerblading and kayaking 46,505 miles across 37 countries – using no wind or motorised transportation of any kind – his name was etched into the Guinness Book of World Records.
A pioneer who champions carbon-neutral travel, the Yorkshire native has spoken about protecting the environment at more than 900 schools in 37 countries. When we caught up with Lewis at his home in Pueblo, Colorado, he revealed his new plan to embark on a series of expeditions to indigenous communities around the world, where he will study and learn from their lifestyles and continue inspiring others to live sustainably.
Q: What inspired you to circumnavigate the globe?
I was 26. I had a small business cleaning windows and carpets. I felt very claustrophobic in England and I was eager to get out and see the world. The idea to circumnavigate the globe was proposed by my friend, Steve Smith, over beers at 2 am. We spent two years sending out letters to potential sponsors, but there was absolutely no interest from any companies in England. We had long hair and tattoos and weren’t the kind of people that any sensible company would want to associate with. So we borrowed £10,000 from friends and family, which was enough to pay for our boat and supplies. From the beginning, it was ‘roll the dice and let’s see how far we get’.
Q: Why did you agree to do this? Was it the allure of doing something no one had done before?
That was just a small part of it. I had done a bit of travelling and I had a real appetite to do something bigger. I wanted to step away from what society had to offer and go into the wilderness. And I wanted to do something useful. We partnered with a UK charity called the Council for Education and World Citizenship. They provided an introduction to Unesco and we visited more than 900 Unesco schools. But my main motivation was somewhat selfish – I wanted to see what I could learn about myself.
Q: What did it mean to you to travel only by human power?
To use your own self – just your mind, your body and your spirit to power yourself around the planet. This was the attractive part of the expedition. I liked the purity and the simplicity of it, and it sounded like the ultimate challenge. Plus, you didn’t have to be an expert yachtsman or mountaineer. If you could ride a bike, or put one foot in front of another, you could do this trip.
I try to conserve everything. I reuse everything. It drives my girlfriend crazy but I even reuse ziplock bags over and over again.
Q: What was your travel experience at that point?
My dad was in the army. We were posted to different countries – Germany, Somaliland, Kenya. But I spent most of my childhood in Dorset in southwest England. My dad took me camping and introduced me to the outdoors from an early age. Although he excelled in the military, he was always something of a maverick, so I take some of my sense of being a misfit, an outsider, from my dad.
After reading Jack Kerouac and Hunter S Thompson, I made my first big trip when I was 21. I flew to New York City, bought an old car and drove it as far as Montana. The car blew up in a snowstorm and I ended up hitchhiking the rest of the way across the US.
Q: In order to circumnavigate the globe using only human power, you must have been very fit.
Not at all. We were so busy before we left, I didn’t really have time to get fit. The first week was not pretty, but it got better. I wasn’t an athlete at all; neither of us were. I figured that by the time we cycled down to Portugal we’d be fit enough to pedal boat across the Atlantic.
Q: Tell us about the methods of transport you used.
I cycled from London to Portugal; pedal boated to Miami; rollerbladed to San Francisco; then we had an aborted biking leg through Central America trying to get to Peru. We kayaked across the Sea of Cortez back to San Francisco; pedal boated across to Hawaii, from where I hiked across the Big Island. The rest of the way across the Pacific to Australia was via pedal boat. I cycled across the Outback, kayaked from Singapore to Indonesia to India, and pedal boated through Africa. From there I cycled back through the Middle East to France, and used the pedal boat for the last bit across the English Channel back to London. On top of all that, there were some rivers, like the Mekong, that I had to swim across.
Q: Did you travel with your own bike, kayak, rollerblades and pedal boat, or did you pick them up when you needed them?
Everything depended on the people we met along the way. That was a hallmark of our adventure – different people stepped forward to solve logistical problems for us. We were given bikes in London; [courier company] DHL sent them across from Portugal to Miami while we were on the pedal boat. A local store in Miami gave me rollerblades; they were a homemade pair that this guy was engineering, so I was kind of like his guinea pig. We had no idea how to get the boat across the US so we docked it in a boatyard in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Then when I was in Colorado, giving a talk at a university, one of the students said we could borrow his car, and Kenny, our cameraman, used that car to tow the boat cross-country to San Francisco.
Q: What was your favourite mode of transport?
Biking is the most efficient, but kayaking is the most enjoyable. You can see the sea life and you’re really connected to the water.
Q: What was the hardest?
Walking. Walking is terrible. For the amount of effort you have to put in, you don’t get many miles out of it. And you’re carrying a pack; it’s hard on your feet.
Q: How did you plan each segment?
The route changed often depending on how the trip evolved. The ocean sections were set because you’re going on the prevailing winds and currents and trying to avoid the hurricane seasons. The land sections were more arbitrary and were dictated by the schools we wanted to visit along the way or by political barriers. For example, getting permission to kayak across Indonesia was difficult. No one had ever kayaked through Indonesia before, so the customs and immigration authorities had no idea what a kayak even was. Also, tensions were still running high at the border crossing between East and West Timor, a legacy of the 1975 invasion of East Timor by Indonesia.
Q: How did you pick the route?
In order for it to be considered a legitimate circumnavigation, you have to hit at least one pair of antipodes – meaning two points opposite each other on the Earth’s surface. And you need to cross all lines of longitude, plus the equator at least twice, with a minimum distance covered of 21,600 nautical miles. We planned to travel east from London, but I was worried about running out of money in Siberia. So we changed the route to go west, crossing the Atlantic by pedal boat.
Q: How did you keep the expedition going from there?
It took 111 days of pedalling, and when we reached Miami I think we had about £30 to our names. If we had landed almost anywhere else, I think the expedition would have died.
We were at the mercy of people we met on the dockside. We got our sea legs and started networking. We got talks lined up at yacht clubs, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs; we put the boat on display at a boat show; we printed up t-shirts that we sold. After six months of fundraising we had enough to pay back our friends and family in the UK and could continue on the next leg to San Francisco.
Q: What were the hardest parts of the expedition?
The fundraising was much more difficult than anything else. Physically powering yourself is the easiest part. Arriving on a new continent without any money and trying to book talks and figure out how to raise money, that’s the exhausting part. You make new friends everywhere but you constantly have to say goodbye to them.
Q: Where were you most exhausted and dispirited?
I have a very grim recollection of living in the pedal boat while it was parked inside a shopping mall in Cairns, Australia. I had spent 176 days pedalling across the Pacific from San Francisco and I needed to raise money to cross Australia. A shopping centre agreed to put the boat on display, and during the day I would be there, answering people’s questions and trying to sell them a t-shirt or the chance to put their name on my boat for $20. When the mall closed at night I would hide in the toilets, and then after security left I would sneak back in and sleep in my boat.
That was a fairly dark time. I hate shopping malls. I had set out on this journey to get away from consumerism, and there I was living inside consumer hell. It seemed like the ultimate paradox, but I was willing to sell my soul, basically, to eat and raise enough money to complete the next leg of the journey.
Q: Is that how you financed the rest of the expedition, bit by bit as you went?
It was the same story throughout all 16 legs of the voyage.
When you’re from a rich country trying to raise money to cross the world, to a lot of people it seems ridiculous. I only got a major financial sponsor when we got to Singapore, 11 years into the expedition, and that was just about $15,000. But it was enough money to get me back to London. I wasn’t spending much. Cycling is cheap. For the overland segments of the trip, my budget was $5 per day.
Q: Did you miss home?
At times, I did. That was why Steve left about 4.5 years into the expedition; he needed to get back home. We spent 53 days pedal boating to Hawaii from San Francisco, and he decided that at his core, he wasn’t a traveller. He missed community, he missed his family, he missed going out for breakfast on Sunday morning.
I spent two and a half weeks pedalling but going nowhere. I was in the Doldrums in the middle of the Pacific, between Hawaii and Tarawa, and the problem was the currents. I was in this counter current where I would pedal for 16 to 17 hours and make a bit of headway, but then I’d have to sleep and I’d turn on the GPS and I’d be back where I started.
I was having conversations with alter egos that kept me company. I wasn’t hallucinating; I just needed to chat because I was so fed up and so lonely. I chatted with the Frenchman in the Monty Python skits, and other characters from TV shows or people I knew. It was just a way to generate company. It’s very hard to keep motivating yourself.
Q: Did you consider quitting at any point?
I was sick of travelling by the time I finally got back to London. I knew I’d been out there too long but I’d already invested so many years of my life in the expedition. And so many people had invested in me, people who had given $20, bought a t-shirt, helped us with our boat, whatever. I felt this groundswell of support. I had to finish, if for nothing else, for all these people.
Q: What was the biggest crisis you faced along the way?
When I was rollerblading across the States, I was hit by a car in Colorado. The driver was an 82-year-old drunk driver who also had cataracts. My backpack went right through his windshield and was on his wife’s lap, but he still tried to deny he’d hit me. He said he thought he hit an animal, so he didn’t stop. It took me nine months to recover but I finished crossing the country on my rollerblades. It was pretty painful so I had someone biking alongside me carrying my backpack. I think the action of rollerblading actually helped my legs heal.
Q: Did you have insurance to cover your medical bills?
I did not have insurance at any point during the trip. Luckily, the guy who hit me did, and that’s what covered the $110,000 worth of medical bills.
Q: Tell me about one of your favourite moments from the trip.
I had a memorable encounter with a police officer when I was rollerblading through Mississippi wearing a pair of women’s culottes. I couldn’t wear my lycra shorts as I had been bitten by fire ants around my groin area, so I looked in a thrift shop for some very baggy shorts – but the only thing they had were these knee-length women’s trousers. I was getting whistles from truck drivers until they got closer and saw my beard.
The local sheriff in the city of Winona pulled me over. I thought he was going to give me a breathalyser and drugs test. But he was of Scottish ancestry and thought I was wearing a kilt, so we got to talking and became friends based on this very tenuous connection. He let me go and even gave me $20 for my next meal.
Q: What places are you determined to return to?
I fell in love with Flores and the Komodo Islands in Indonesia. The abundance and diversity of sea life was incredible. I saw an enormous manta ray breach and do a summersault just 15ft from my kayak. That was one of the enduring memories of my trip. And then you have the Komodo dragons. It’s like a land that time forgot, something from a prehistoric time.
I’d also love to go back to northern Sudan. The Nubian people have an incredible sense of hospitality. I never had to worry about where I was going to sleep at night. I’d be riding my bike along the banks of the Nile and would pass by 3,000-year-old statues, just lying there in the desert. In Egypt, you have to wrestle other tourists to see these antiquities, but in Sudan they’re just lying there.
like a real explorer."
Q: Was it liberating to have no address and few belongings for well over a decade?
It was, but time catches up with you. I’m 47 now and the idea of being fully nomadic doesn’t appeal to me as it once did. I’m looking forward to more expeditions but only if I have a base. When I came home, it was a huge anticlimax. Everything and everyone had changed while I was away. My friends had all moved on, they’d got jobs, got married, started to raise families. I felt like one of those cartoon characters who falls off a cliff but their legs keep turning.
Q: What happened next?
There was an initial flurry of publicity, as there is with these things. I got a six-figure offer for a book deal with Harper Collins, but I turned it down because they wanted a ghost writer to write it in eight weeks so the book could be out for Christmas. It didn’t feel right.
I went to California, where I had friends, and I had this long difficult period of trying to sort out my next steps. I was the first person to make a human-powered circumnavigation of the world but I had no money to show for it. I had to try to make sense of the 44 notebooks full of scribbling from the expedition. The book writing process was torturous but it allowed me to get over the demons I had when I first finished the trip. Going back into my journals and remembering what I did was what gave me a sense of self-worth. I wrote the trilogy of books myself. I couldn’t just dump it off on a ghost writer.
Q: You wrote on your blog that you believe there is still a way for adventurers to legitimately earn their keep in the 21st Century. How so?
I want us to be able to apply the lessons I learned at sea and on the road, in terms of how much we consume, and pour it into my next series of expeditions. I have six indigenous communities in mind, located in Venezuela; the Peruvian Andes; southeast Thailand; Botswana; Anuta, which is one of the Solomon Islands; and Rajasthan. These indigenous people live within their means.
For 500 years, the Bishnois in Rajasthan have been living according to the principle that if you harm the environment, you’re harming yourself. They are vegetarian, they don’t cut down trees and they plant at least one tree per year. They live in a harsh desert but they’ve taken steps to safeguard their environment.
If we can draw lessons from what these people have been doing for years, if I can bring those lessons back and share them with school children – and even take some school children on these trips – it might help us better understand what we need to be doing differently with our own lives to have a sustainable future.
Through these expeditions, there is a possibility of documenting and disseminating that knowledge before it’s lost with people in the developed world.
Q: Will you travel to these places using human power?
I will try to use modes of transport that are appropriate for each place. For the Bishnois, I will probably use camels to travel to their community. For Anuta Island, it would be a Polynesian sailing canoe.
Q: Do you preach sustainability in your daily life?
I try to. I’m trying to live as I did on my boat. The clothes I’m wearing right now, for example, have been worn to death. I’ve been a vegetarian for 15 years and a vegan for the last six months. Something like 18% of human-induced global warming is produced by the meat and dairy industry. Adopting a plant-based diet is better for the planet. I recycle and re-use everything, even little bits of cling film we use to wrap food. I wash and reuse them umpteen times. I ride my bike wherever I can.
Q: You were nomadic for 13 years. Do you believe that it’s in our DNA to wander?
I think some people are genetically predisposed to wandering but I think we’re in the distinct minority. Some of us have that need to strike out into the unknown; others have no interest whatsoever. Many of my friends couldn’t relate to me at all when I got home.
Q: Is there a line you cross if you travel for too long? Can you get to a point where you don’t function in society anymore?
Absolutely. I wrote in my book that if you go away for too long, there’s really no coming back. You can’t fit back in. The trade-off, though, is that I feel like I have this perspective of the planet.
But that nomadic trait is like a curse. It is a curse. When you’re 20, seeing the world sounds great but it doesn’t predispose you to having any stability in life. It’s a disaster if you want to start a career or a family. I’m in a relationship right now, and my girlfriend always wonders if I’m going to take off at any moment. I told her, next time, it’ll be three months, not 13 years. But I don’t know if she believes me.
Q: What is your travel philosophy now?
Try to keep things simple. You need to have a purpose. There has to be a point. I don’t want to travel just for the sake of travel. Travel shouldn’t be a thinly veiled excuse to keep your name in the headlines as an adventurer. When people read about where I’ve been and what I’ve done, I want there to be something useful for people, something they can benefit from.
Title page photo © Kumar Ale
All information correct as of March 2015.