The route master: Natural navigation

Without a satnav, Google maps or even a compass, Tristan Gooley finds his way using clues from the natural world. He shows Tim Walker how it's done
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Put your iPhone back in your pocket, switch off your sat nav and stow away your A to Z. On a clear evening, Tristan Gooley can point you towards your destination (though only, he would emphasise, to within one degree) using nothing but the stars to guide him.

Gooley says he may be the world's sole living professional practitioner of an ancient discipline: natural navigation. In his new book, The Natural Navigator, he imparts the lessons that he has been teaching himself for 10 years, and has taught others, at his natural navigation school in Sussex, for the past two: how to find north by studying the puddles on a country path or the moss on a tree trunk; how to get home by following clouds, or crowds, or flocks of geese; how to use the wisdom of the Bedouin or the Pacific Islanders to make your way back to where you parked the car.

Gooley is already unique in being the only living person to have both flown and sailed solo across the Atlantic. During the trips – both completed in 2007 – he had the benefit of the best modern navigational devices.

Yet, he says, "That didn't stop me appreciating where the sun was rising, or where Orion was in the night sky. When I took off from Canada I knew I could expect the sun to rise in the north-east at that time of year, so seeing the glow over the white of Greenland was immensely comforting. I had at least six different instruments – compasses, GPS, radio navigation aids – but the thing that made the experience most exciting was feeling connected to the world beyond the cockpit window."

The author decided to turn his passions loose on the public after a conversation with a friend and fellow pilot. "He flies for British Airways, and I asked him where the sun rises. He said, 'In the east.' So I replied, 'Alright, tell me everything you know about where the sun rises.' And he said: 'I just did.' I found it strange that a professional navigator felt so removed from natural navigation. That made me feel evangelical about the subject, so I decided I had to set up the school – even if nobody came!"

Natural navigation isn't solely a rural skill, and Gooley has agreed to meet me at The Independent's headquarters in London's Kensington, to show me just how easily the art can enhance an urban walk, too. Planned, gridded cities like Milton Keynes or Canberra are tediously simple to find your way around, he explains, but London is a web of former villages, a perfect maze of misdirection for the natural navigator to overcome.

His first lesson is in finding the nearest Tube station. Especially at peak hours, the Underground breathes commuters in and out like lungs; all I need do is follow the herd.

A multidisciplinary art, natural navigation requires that I collate various different pieces of information to work out which direction I'm facing. It's a Holmesian process of deduction: clouds frequently move with the prevailing south-west wind; satellite dishes in the UK tend to point south-south-east towards the Astra satellite, which transmits Sky TV; the south-facing side of a street is likely to enjoy more direct sunlight, and therefore to have wider pavements and a higher retail presence. Kensington High Street, I confirm, runs east to west.

We move on to St Mary Abbots church at the bottom of Kensington Church Street. "The older and more dominant a building is," Gooley explains, "the more reliable a guide it is for the natural navigator." Sure enough, the building's north-facing walls – those less exposed to warm sunlight – are moss-covered and moist. Because the church was built before it could be hemmed in by the smaller buildings around it, its steeple is at the east end, as religious convention dictates.

In Hyde Park, the natural signposts become a little more, well... natural. More often than not, Gooley tells me, the south side of a tree will be bigger, with more branches curled towards the sun. A flock of geese passes overhead in formation, and he tells me that medieval monks sailed to Iceland by tracking the flight paths of migrating Brent geese. In the Pacific Islands, fishermen can follow the birds back to land at dusk. Closer to home in west London you can find the North End Road food market by the cries of the gulls that pick on its daily leftovers.

Our trek takes in a monument in Kensington Gardens to the great navigator John Hanning Speke, the first European to reach the source of the Nile at Lake Victoria. By the mid-19th century, European explorers were already slaves to their instruments; natural navigation was to them a thing of the past. Speke describes in his journal how he showed the workings of a compass to some awed local people in East Africa.

Perhaps thanks to his adventuring past, Gooley says that his natural navigation lessons are often wrongly confused with survival skills. "If you found yourself in a sticky situation, the information in the book would be very useful. But for all the times a walk ends in a survival situation, there are a million or more that turn out rather nice. That's where my interest lies. I want to enrich people's experiences, not just enable them.

"What I love about my subject is that it touches on lots of different areas, from survivalism to ancient history. One day I'll be talking to a botanist about different types of lichen, the next I'm emailing an astronomical society."

Sure enough, the book takes in Shackleton and Shakespeare, Inuits in the Arctic and Touaregs in the Libyan Sahara. "The question, 'Where am I looking?' can be answered in one word – south," he says, "or in a 5,000-word dissertation including everything from the ancient Greek astro-nomers to arboriculture."

Ideally, he says, his pupils would find themselves making good time on a walk to meet a friend, say, and duck off down an unfamiliar side street "to get that slight excitement of being a bit lost and finding your way again. You'll connect with an area in a way that you wouldn't otherwise. We all tend to repeat the same journeys over and over again; if I can help people to see their journeys in a new light, that would be great."

Gooley himself is a veteran of the scenic route. His airborne Atlantic crossing may have been brief, but his solo sailing trip took him 26 days, at the end of which he made landfall at St Lucia. Again, he was surrounded by instruments, but it was the power of nature that moved him most.

"Sometimes, during my course, I make up a pot of leaves, grass, honey, cloves and mixed spices," he says. "I get people to waft it a couple of feet below their noses. When you've been deprived of the scent of land for weeks, had only marine smells for company, and you get a waft of that rich, tropical earth – it's pretty emotional."

'The Natural Navigator' ( www.naturalnavigator.com) is published by Virgin Books (£14.99). To order a copy at the special price of £13.49 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Comments