It was Confucius who observed that every epic journey begins with a single step. For Ed Gillespie and his girlfriend Fiona King, the first strides of their unique odyssey took them from their flat in Brixton Hill, south London, down to the No 59 bus stop more than a year ago.
From there the couple rumbled their way through the capital's rush-hour traffic a couple of miles north to Waterloo station before boarding the next train to Portsmouth harbour.
But they did not stop there. In fact, their journey was only completed yesterday – 381 days after it started – when, after travelling on a dizzying combination of trains, buses, cargo ships and the occasional camel, the pair returned to the same Brixton flat having successfully circumnavigated the world's top tourist spots without recourse to boarding an aeroplane. Spending just £30 a day each, they completed their trip producing just 1.5 tons of CO2 – a tenth of what it would have been had they flown.
Gillespie, a former marine biologist turned environmental consultant, had long dreamt of a big trip abroad. Perhaps mindful of the Chinese aphorism, he hoped it would offer a blueprint and inspiration for every traveller looking to set out on the hard road to low-carbon adventure.
His big idea was to promote the virtues of slow travel – part of a growing global movement embracing everything from slow food to slow design – antidotes to the increasingly frantic pace of modern life and the grim environmental consequences of the ever-rising tempo of existence.
Gillespie believes that for many, commitment to the green cause is too often bound up in the politics of the hair shirt – a conviction which persuaded him in 2001 to found Futerra, an ethical communications agency specialising in climate change and corporate responsibility. "Our raison d'être is making sustainable development so desirable that it becomes normal – to offer a vision of a green lifestyle that is much more aspirational, rather than all doom and gloom. We try to offer some more positive alternatives," he says.
Conceding that he has taken more than his fair share of international flights over the years while working in Jamaica, Australia and the South Pacific, Gillespie gave up flying on holiday five years ago. But like so many whose experiences have led them towards a greater appreciation of the fragility of the world they are helping threaten, he still harboured the dream to travel. It was time to come up with a way of squaring convictions with aspirations. The solution he hit on was to go ahead with the trip while minimising the carbon footprint it created.
Aviation, at the centre of mounting concern recently over its contribution to global warming, was clearly out. Critics say it is the fastest growing source of carbon in the atmosphere and green politics has increasingly focused on ways of persuading the industry to curb its emissions – either through carbon trading or punitive taxation schemes – while convincing individuals to choose less polluting forms of transport.
Yet finding an alternative to air travel is not always easy, especially when evidence suggests that shipping, too, is a major contributor to global warming.
"The hard bit is working out how you get across the seas," he said. "We decided to go by cargo ship so we had to identify some routes that were possible." Salvation came in the form of Hamish Jamieson, a New Zealand-based travel agent who specialises in booking his eco-conscious clients berths on the world's huge fleet of freighter vessels and bulk container ships. His company, Freighter Travel, offers prospective passengers the opportunity to "sail with us and feel good".
Yet for Gillespie, 35, and King, 29, the first experience of life on the ocean waves was not a happy one. The passenger ferry that was to take them on their first leg, from the south coast to Spain, was hit by a huge storm in the Bay of Biscay, with force-10 winds sending 25ft waves crashing over the ship's side.
After 72 hours of extreme sea-sickness, and repeated reassurances from the captain that the ship was strong enough to withstand the violent weather, they put into Bilbao a day late, a little green around the gills and starting to feel a little better disposed towards plane travel. "In a ship you are in the middle of the weather, you can't go round it or over it like you can in aeroplane. You can be stuck in it for days," Gillespie said.
Having made a belated landfall, it was time to try out the Continent's rail system, something that for many independent travellers presents an impenetrable maze of foreign languages and bureaucracy. The solution came through another pioneering source – themaninseat61.com – a hobby website set up by career railwayman Mark Smith and named after his favourite first-class berth on the Eurostar.
The ethos behind the site is to give people the courage to navigate through the international rail system and inspire those looking for environmentally sound ways to travel. For Gillespie and King, InterRail tickets in hand and Europe bursting into spring around them, the possibilities of slow travel became apparent.
"Any idiot can get on a plane and bunny-hop around the world, but travelling by train is a much more meditative experience, Gillespie said. "As a slow tourist, the whole history, culture, landscape – even the food – unfurls gradually around you as you bumble around the world."
There was, of course, the odd hiccup – anyone who wants to travel to Moscow by train from Warsaw must make sure they have a transit visa to get them through Belarus, or face going the long way round through the Baltic states. And the view from the window of the Trans-Siberia railway can prove a little repetitive with the endless barren tundra enlivened only by the sight of the occasional drunk lying by the side of the track.
The great Russian railway splits in three after Lake Baikal, where ice-fishing and vodka-drinking amid the austere majesty of the steppes provided the unexpected highlight of the trip. Opting for the Trans-Mongolia branch – the other two lines continue to either the Pacific coast or China – the slow travellers wound their way through the Gobi desert and the ruins of Genghis Khan's Mongol Empire.
China, where it is said 10 million people are travelling by rail at anyone time, came next, followed by a side trip by ferry to Japan to experience the famous 300kmh bullet train. Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand rolled by in a blur of buses, trains and ferries. Yes there were difficulties on the way. There was Cambodia's celebrated "arse-buster road" said to be kept in a poor state of repair under the encouragement of a local airline keen to persuade travellers to fly, while care had to be taken to "avoid Thailand's battalions of gap year 19-year-olds on pills like the plague".
But the steady pace of life on the road offered regular solace. "We never got bored with the packing and unpacking. There is an elegance to living out of one bag. But you look around and see the material stuff and you do yearn for it again," Gillespie mused yesterday.
His and King's first encounter with a cargo ship came at Singapore in the hulking form of a 213-metre, 30,000-ton container vessel. Its Russian crew boasted it was the "Lamborghini of the seas" – its 24-knot top speed and mountainous bow-wave making it an impregnable target for the Strait of Mallaca's feared pirate fleets. Watching Indonesia's volcanic islands drift by, the occasional whale and the abundant marine life of Australia's Great Barrier Reef soon reaffirmed the couple's belief in sea travel. Different ships offered different experiences. A French crew brought culinary relief on a four-day voyage between Australia and New Zealand, while 16 days' cruising across the Pacific on board an unloved Chinese-built, German-run rust-bucket offered the perfect opportunity to learn enough Spanish to cope with central America.
On some ships there were passengers, on others they were the only ones. The last leg of the journey aboard a Costa Rican boat with 6,500 tons of fruit on board saw the vessel roll sickeningly in the five-metre swell for the entire 13 days it took to cross the Atlantic.
Returning to Dover yesterday morning, the couple could look back on a year remarkably free of the kind of horror stories that fast travel so often seems to bring. Apart from an egg hurled in Nicaragua, the occasional mild stomach upset, being refused entry into the United States and two unpleasant encounters with bed bugs, the experience was almost bewilderingly benign. The slow pace of travel had brought out the best of things, they believe.
Now Gillespie hopes we are on the verge of a slow travel revolution. "The question is, how do we wrestle with the challenge of time?" he ponders. "What compels us to take a snatched holiday? Do we need to rethink the way we take our trips in a carbon constrained world? I am not anti-flying but people need to consider where they will spend their carbon in future – on one fast short-haul flight or on one, long, slow international trip by sea? There is no doubt that flying has revolutionised the way we travel and has made the world accessible, but while for past generations it was a luxury, today we see it as a right not a privilege. I'm not sure that is entirely healthy. For me this was not a holiday but a mission to challenge those assumptions."
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