When I walked the Amazon I was 33. For some reason, in Peru, when I told people this they would say, “Oh – the age of Christ when he died on the cross.” I would snap back, somewhat intolerantly, “Yes – a great age to die.”
Actually it was a great age to live.
Back in my early 30s I was single and had no kids. This made me independent and free to make choices without having to consider anybody else in the world.
That felt indulgently good – like a hot bath with a good book and a glass of dark wine. Combine that with a new confidence that was now germinating out of life experience that I just didn’t have in my 20s, and I had a powerful combination and the makings for the most exciting decade of my life.
On my 30th birthday I wasn’t an explorer. I wouldn’t have had the balls to call myself one even if it were true.
I turned 30 in the role of a country manager of gap year expeditions in Argentine Patagonia. I would bang on about the cool trips that we led but the truth, more often than not, was that I was sitting in front of a computer organising stuff for other people.
Day to day I dealt with complaints about food and the sustainability of the environmental projects that we were supporting. I became restless – this surely wasn’t the culmination of a life of adventure was it?
I had an internal dialogue that went something like this:
Voice A: “I should be happy now; I’m free of the discipline and seriousness of the Army; I’m in charge of a little team in Argentina and we’re doing meaningful work.”
Voice B: “I don’t really care about condors; reporting to my boss is just frustrating; I want to just tear up this mundane life and scream, “BOLLOCKS!” at the top of my voice! I want some danger.”
That last bit seemed odd but it was true. I started “acting up”. I almost got fired for sending a p*ss-taking email to all the other country managers around the world, pretending to be my boss and mimicking his erratic ALL CAPS writing style and his unreasonable requests. I began drinking more than I had been and staying out later in the hope of finding excitement – somewhere.
It was as if I was glibly playing around with a self-destruct button out of boredom. I felt like there had to be a more exciting life but I wasn’t self aware enough back then to understand what I needed.
A decade for adventure
The catalyst was two events that I will not describe here. Events that disgraced me. Events that made people talk about me in concerned whispers. Shameful events that had aftermaths that made me want to crawl into a hole and die.
But out of the ashes of despair came an idea to escape. To flee the judgemental stares and the condescending advice. To go somewhere where no-one would find me. To put myself almost deliberately in harms way for a very long time. I decided to try and walk the entire length of the Amazon River.
As I mentioned I was 33 at the start. By the time I finished I was 35. And, from a personal development perspective, those were the two most valuable years of my life. Did I do it for personal development? Did I f*ck. This was my two-fingered salute at the world, “Sod you with your boring lives, I’m going to do something bloody dangerous and I don’t give a sh*t what you say.”
I don’t swear needlessly anymore but it reflects an Ed that I want to paint large. So many of us walk around with this burden of needing to conform, to fit in, to tow the bloody line. For me it was only by petulantly taking all of my toys and throwing them into the fire that I realised that some people aren’t meant to conform.
Hard as it was, I eventually thrived in my new world.
For the first time ever, I was doing things just for me, so began to recognise my own character for the first time. By casting myself into a massive adventure I was actually learning who I was. By this I’m not talking about going to Goa, taking acid, and “finding myself” whilst hallucinating that I’m actually a goat. I was learning what I stood for, what I agreed with (and what I didn’t), and what I wanted in life.
There is an odd misconception in Britain (and further afield) that you should have learned your lessons and be grown up by the time you are, say, 28.
But, in today’s crazy uber-connected world, with tons of conflicting information continuously streamed into our frazzled heads that doesn’t always happen. As the incredible book A Road Less Travelled opens, “Life is difficult.”
A decade for self-discovery
My recommendation to anyone in their 30s to whom this is even slightly resonating with? Press self-destruct.
The crutches in your life that you think are keeping you safe are actually the chains that are imprisoning your true self. Do you grin widely at life and feel life energy cursing through your veins? Do you get overwhelmed with joy and feel like the luckiest person to be alive? If not, I suggest that you may be drowning under layers and layers of societal “shoulds”.
I should really keep this job as the salary is good and its quite close to home.
I should be happy with this girlfriend as she ticks all the boxes and my dad likes her.
I should try and lose weight so that I look more attractive.
I should stay at home as Mum’s not going to be around forever.
Honestly, this is the decade to cut these cords. To allow yourself to fall apart in order to put yourself back together in a unique and amazing way that is just you. Is that scary? Fantastic – so it should be. Take the road less safe every time and hold your own hand through it.
You’re old enough and (excuse me) ugly enough to walk your walk now.
Your 30s are your opportunity to travel, to adventure and to grow into yourself. To an extent the boring stuff (mortgages, pensions, marriage etc.) can wait for now. And so it should until you’ve started to put yourself first.
I’ll finish by noting that, despite what you may think from reading the above, I’m not an anarchist. In fact, I’m now 42 and live in a conventional house with a mortgage, a wife, and a kid. I still go on adventures (and so does my wife) but I believe that the reason I’m happy and at peace is because my 30s wasn’t at all conventional.
Not even slightly.
Three adventures to cut the cord with
Camp out in the rainforests of Borneo
Bed down in a unique jungle longhouse in the remote interiors of Borneo. Drift off to a chorus of nocturnal wildlife, hang out with orangutans in their natural environment and spy pygmy elephants and crocodiles on a river safari. Plus, rainforest foraging and adventure caving in Mulu National Park.
Climb to 5,000 metres in Nepal
Head off-radar in the Nepalese highlands, uncovering a hidden world of hanging bridges, gilded stupas and fluttering prayer flags. Leave the hiking groups of the Everest trail far behind as you climb up through an untouched world of rhododendron-covered slopes and dramatic river ravines. Hit off the 5,000 metre badge of honour with the mind-blowing viewpoint at Farak Ri.
Stretch your limits in Chile
Find out what you’re really made of with a challenging day-long trek through Torres del Paine National Park, in Chilean Patagonia. Knock back sundowners in the lunar-like landscape of Atacama Desert, sail between glaciers on an RIB boat and go white-water rafting through the rapids of Petrohue River. Wild times ahead.
Images: Flash Pack, Ed Stafford