Catching up with explorer George Bullard in Epping Forest, Katie Traxton finds out about swimming the Channel, kayaking across an ocean and trekking the Arctic
George Bullard, explorer. The world may not know his name (yet), but he certainly knows the world and could, most recently, be spotted exploring our small corner of it, in the form of Epping Forest.
The question I’m most often asked when I mention Bullard is whether explorers still exist, and, if so, what it is they’re still discovering in 2021? At only 32 years of age, George is as ‘millennial’ as they come – he even has an enrapt and thriving community on Instagram (@georgebullardexplorer) – yet his adventures tell a timeless story of endurance, determination and revelation.
This world-record breaking explorer states his ‘purpose’ as ‘rewilding humans’. Not quite at one with the best of TOWIE. Or is it? Rewilding is more than a physical state, it encompasses mindfulness, self-awareness and discovery of who you are.
At a time when we’ve all been struck by lockdown lightning, the mental health pandemic is as prevalent as the world’s best-known virus, and Bullard would argue that in the sprawling green and blue of Epping Forest, we have unbound therapy on our doorsteps.
But where do we start on our journey of outdoors enlightenment?
Where it all began: swimming the Channel
“My parents gave me the confidence to say yes to challenges and adventures, which most people would have said no to because of a fear of failure or of risking too much, including their life.
“It really started with being given the opportunity at the age of 14 to join a team of six that swam across the English Channel. It was a daunting task even undertaken together. It took real gumption to take the first stroke towards France and then to stick at it for another 10 hours and 49 minutes.
“Off the back of the success of that trip, we had the confidence to go on and do other swims like it, around Barbados, around Manhattan Island, New York and around Lake Geneva, all of which we attempted before we’d left school.
“Those swims were inspired by our swimming coach who’s still a friend today. Hats off to him, he really led from the middle – there wasn’t a single training session he set that he wasn’t prepared to do himself.”
Into the unknown: trekking across the Arctic
“I left school with a belief in myself that whatever opportunity came my way I would be able to give it my best shot. However impossible an opportunity may seem at first, ‘leaving nothing in the changing room’ may sound like a glib phrase, but it’s very true. If you do fail at least you know you gave it everything you had and you can be happy with that.
“So when a guy said to me, ‘Do you want to come and break the world record for the longest fully unsupported polar journey?’ without really thinking about it, or indeed asking his name, I said ‘yes’. We set out to walk just under 1,500 miles over 113 days when I was 19-years-old. Our record in the Arctic still stands today. It was a pivotal adventure for me that carved my personality.
“My dad said that the expedition would change me and that I would come back a different human and he was absolutely right. Maybe because on Day 104 when we hadn’t seen another human being, hadn’t seen the colour green, nor sat down on a chair – we were either lying, kneeling or walking pulling 180k of kit behind us in a sledge – we ran out of food. We lived for the last nine days of the expedition off fat, butter effectively and whatever remaining scraps of oats we could find in the bottom of our sledges – what you feed the birds in winter.
“That situation is one that it’s hard to comprehend. If you extrapolate the situation at the start of the pandemic, imagine walking into a supermarket and not being able to find any food. Suddenly, your existence and survival seems in doubt. That mental and physical journey over the Arctic ice cap was pretty formative and changed my perspective on life on this planet. It made me much more grateful for every plate of food, each shower, and having a bed to sleep in.”
Join the journey: tours for travellers
“Inspired by what the outdoors has done for me, I got involved in IGO adventures (igoadventures.com), creating and coordinating unique adventure holidays with purpose. We shape original itineraries off the beaten track around the world for individuals and groups including families.
“One trip we ran was to the Azores archipelago. It blends sea sailing and kayaking with climbing and hiking the highest mountain on Portuguese soil – a volcano. Everyone also learns about and gets involved in conservation efforts to protect indigenous bird-life and monitor whale migration.
“Our vision to rewild humans isn’t about telling people what’s out there. It isn’t even about showing them the world. We want them to own their experience. It comes back to the Italian proverb: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime.’ We don’t want to give people the holiday of a lifetime in the wild, we want to introduce them to a wide world of unknowns set for discovery over the course of that lifetime.”
Mission possible: kayaking the North Sea
“The book Searching for Finland by Norman Rogers documents the arrival of a Finnman in a kayak in 1728 in Aberdeen. Three days after arriving he died. It remains a mystery how or why he came to make this epic trip.
“You can still visit his kayak today and interestingly it’s actually a traditional Greenlandic, not Finnish, kayak, carrying traditional Greenlandic hunting implements. So, inspired by his journey, a friend and I decided to retrace what we believed to be his path and spent six weeks kayaking 1,200 nautical miles from Greenland to Scotland in 2016.
“Over the last year, as we all face the challenges to what we previously knew as our daily routine, I’ve reflected a lot on what this expedition taught me. There was an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability, of being exposed with so much beyond our control.
“The two of us were alone in a 26-foot long kayak paddling towards the horizon crossing the North Atlantic Ocean with thousands of nautical miles ahead of us and no support boat. Unable to stand up, walk around or roll over or anything, we found solace and strength in always putting ourselves right back into the moment and focused on what we had to be grateful for – the kayak was still afloat, we had water, we had food and shelter.”
Sharing secrets: city camping for all the family
“With cabin fever rife from the pandemic, and all of us ready for our next adventure but bound by ongoing travel restrictions, a friend and I decided to take things into our own hands and launch City Camping (city-camping.co.uk). We wanted to bring a taste of adventure to urban environments, so that people could experience the wild in a safe and secure environment without needing to take a flight.
“Our first pop up campsite appeared in Gunnersbury Park this July, with tents for guests as well as a large wigwam-esque ‘village hall’ in the centre where everyone could gather together. Guests arrived after a day in the city, spent an evening under the stars with us, learning simple bushcraft, meditating, and making their own food on the open fire, before retiring to their tents to spend an evening under canvas. The following morning they had a quick breakfast on open barbecues then headed home or to the office.
“The response was brilliant. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see the journey of discovery people go on when they try even the simplest and smallest of new things. It reminds me how I feel when I’m in their shoes and exploring new environments. It sparks curiosity and a desire to understand more.
“City Camping was designed for all ages and for new or experienced campers. Top of my task list is planning the next destination – all suggestions are welcome (although I must say I’m secretly hoping to get to come back to Epping Forest…) Get in touch and keep an eye on what we’re up to. I’d love to meet you there.”
Katie Traxton is the founder Good Vibes Only Talent. All images from Andrew Hone, director of photography at Good Vibes Only Talent; goodvibesonlytalent.com: IG: @goodvibesonlytalent