Smashed shipping containers spilling bright green melons across the deck. Grotesquely twisted steel gantries. A jagged hole in the ship’s hull, just above the waterline. These images stuck in my mind. “I thought it was our last moment of life.”
The news report was quoting a woman who’d been aboard MV Horncliff when it was struck by three huge freak waves off the Isles of Scilly. The ferocity of the Force-10 storm it had encountered at the mouth of the English Channel was unprecedented – the ship reeling in a 14m swell, repeatedly lashed by the monstrous waves.
Sitting aboard the Horncliff’s sister vessel, the Horncap, it was hard for me to erase mentally the reports I’d read of this event a few weeks previously. As we had edged out of the harbour in Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, it was with some trepidation of the next fortnight’s voyage across a restless Atlantic Ocean back home to Dover.
My girlfriend, Fiona, and I were on the final leg of a global circumnavigation of the world without flying. We’d been travelling for just over a year, covering more than 64 000km and passing through 31 countries.
Forsaking planes, we’d set out to rediscover the joy of travelling through the world, not just over it. We’d wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the globe in an aluminium sausage. By staying grounded, we’d hoped, like the Taoists, to find that the journey is actually the reward.
And now, just days from reaching home, we were rolling gently in the eerily, oily calm waters of the Sargasso Sea sitting atop 10 000 tons of bananas and pineapples, ruminating on our adventures.
The number of those of us who might be described as “slow travellers”, the great overland – and ocean – journeying folk among whom we counted ourselves, has plummeted. War and political upheaval in Afghanistan and the Middle East has effectively ended the hippie trail east. Increased concerns about security and the end of casual labour at sea has done the same for informal cargo-ship voyages.
Our flightless trip around the world felt like a dying gasp from a disappearing way of travel, as people buzz and bounce around the planet on ever-cheaper, faster planes. My parents had met while working on ocean liners, so in some ways it felt like flightless travel was in my blood.
Flying makes the world seem small. But let’s face it, it’s not. It’s a 40 000km journey around the equator. That’s a bit more than a stroll in the park. When you bump across every last dusty kilometre of land from London to Singapore, toss on the crest of each briny wave of the Timor, Tasman and Pacific seas and oceans, rattle through Central America and blow back across the brooding Atlantic to Britain, the world feels like a mighty big place. Slow travel resizes the world in a way that represents reality, not perception.
Rapid, affordable aviation has opened up the planet, meaning it’s possible for anyone to twang themselves to the other side of the globe in about 24 hours. In some ways, this connectivity has been great: creating the sense of a global village, fostering cultural understanding, opening our eyes to the great diversity of the human family and the wonders of the world and enhancing international tourism and business markets.
But it’s also worth noting what we’ve lost: the sense of scale, the challenge of travel, the wonderful appreciation of gentle change that overland journeys involve, the slow shifts that reveal the planet and its people’s rich and varied delights.
Travel certainly has the potential to bring people together, as many great writers such as Mark Twain have noted in the past: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Yet how much of modern travel enables such deeper connections and understandings to emerge?
In some ways, the swift, almost brutal discombobulating experience of flight serves to reinforce perceived barriers and divides, confronting us joltingly and jarringly with our differences.
But flightless travel eases us more smoothly across and through those elements that might separate us, from topography to the way we talk. It’s grounded gradualism that reveals far more about what connects us.
Mahatma Gandhi once advised that “there is more to life than increasing its speed”.
The ongoing human obsession with moving ever faster raises questions about our experience of travel. I’ve always loved the notion that when flying you see almost nothing, driving you see something, cycling most things and walking everything.
We have witnessed around two centuries of unimpeded acceleration since Stephenson’s pioneering railway engine, Rocket, took to the tracks in 1829.
Almost constant innovation ever since, from coal to diesel to high-octane aviation fuel, through steam, combustion and jet engines, brought us to the pinnacle of supersonic passenger travel: Concorde.
However, following its retirement in 2003, we experienced a moment unheard of in more than 170 years – human travel just got slower.
Is this the end of progress? Well hardly. In so many areas of bustling modern life, the desire to slow down just a little is not only increasingly attractive but also rewarding. Take food, for example.
The supposedly inexorable trajectory of fast food should find us all shovelling convenience fuel frantically into our faces. Yet, there is something special about a lovingly sourced and prepared home-cooked meal to be savoured in every sense of the word.
Travel is no different, and there is something inherently satisfying about a slow, sedate, sinuous and scenic train journey.
Time is all we have in life. I’d long had a desire to see the world in all its down-and-dirty glory, without contributing to the forces such as climate change that threaten it in the process.
Our trip was to be a reversion to a slower, more ruminative and reflective form of travel, the journey as a gentle seduction to be taken time over and appreciated. The trip of a lifetime. Above all else, it was about adventure.
Now, as the Horncap entered the busy shipping lanes of the Channel and we spotted Devon’s Prawle Point, our first sight of home in 13 months, all this seemed a very long way, and time ago, behind us. The skies cleared, revealing a criss-cross of contrails above. The White Cliffs of Dover were soon to shine blindingly in the bright sunshine to welcome us home.
Rucksacks repacked for what must have been at least the 100th time, we slipped down the gangway into the waiting arms of our families.
Within minutes we were on the road back to London without a customs or passport check in sight. So much for UK border security. After 381 days on the road, we were home. It felt like we’d just stepped off a cross-Channel ferry.
Our journey had changed us. Its reward was not our homecoming but a new perspective on our own lives. A fresh take on the collective challenge of billions of us living sustainably together on our one and only lonely planet. A celebration of the people and places we’d encountered and explored.
Ed Gillespie’s top five journeys
l The Copper Canyon railway: Los Mochis to Chihuahua, Mexico
Conceived to connect land-locked Kansas City with the Pacific Ocean, the Copper Canyon railway runs through the extensive system of valleys and crevasses that is almost four times bigger than its more famously grand northern neighbour. It climbs up narrow dead-end valleys, spirals up inside mountains and takes you from the steamy Baja Californian coast to emerge among the cool pines of the mountain plateau.
l Cargo Ship MV Theodor Storm: Singapore to Brisbane
Sailing through the formerly pirate-patrolled waters of the Malacca Straits on a 30 000 ton container vessel at 24 knots is a memorable experience. Down through the smoke-puffing volcanoes of Indonesia and into the Great Barrier Reef Lagoon, where whales breach around the ship. Arriving offshore, where the silicate Glasshouse mountains shimmer in the sunshine, is magical.
l New Zealand’s TranzAlpine: Christchurch to Greymouth
This railway line bisects New Zealand’s South Island, from the Canterbury plains on the east coast to the coal mines of Greymouth on the west. In doing so, it climbs up and through the snow-capped Alpine mountain range that runs down the spine of the island, taking passengers on a journey that usually takes in sunshine and snow, blue skies and blizzards, green fields and grey rocks. At Arthur’s Pass in the high Alps, the line runs through the 8km-long Otira Tunnel which, when built in 1923, was the longest in the British Empire.
l Cargo Ship Hansa Rendsburg: Auckland, New Zealand to Ensenada, Mexico
A 16-day voyage across the world’s biggest ocean via Tahiti and the weirdness of experiencing the same day twice, while crossing the International Date Line. The stunning islands of French Polynesia break the journey. There’s an incredible, humbling sense of isolation mid-Pacific.
l The Semmeringbahn through the Austrian Alps: Wiener Neustadt to Bruck an der Mur
The Semmeringbahn winds through the Austrian Alps – a feat of harmonious engineering with the beauty of its bridges, tunnels and viaducts matching the magnificent mountain scenery. Plenty of equally impressive castles and country houses are visible from the train as it crosses 16 viaducts, 14 tunnels and more than 100 carved stone bridges.
l This is an edited extract from Only Planet: a Flight-free Adventure Around the World, published earlier this year in the United Kingdom.
l Ed Gillespie is chairman of the rail-booking specialist Loco2.com, which aims to make booking a train as simple as booking a flight.