British Adventurer Alastair Humphreys recently returned from a month-long hike across Spain, where he followed in the footsteps of his favourite author by travelling with no money and busking with a violin every day to earn money for food.
The book he was following, Laurie Lee’s classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, extols the virtues of slow travel and simple living, so Alastair’s goal was exactly the same. Throughout the trip he slept rough and carried all of his belongings on his back – and as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge he only started learning the violin a few months ago!
Alastair sang for his supper each night and slept on hilltops or in fields, never knowing what the following day would bring. He did allow himself some modern-day luxuries though, such as ViewRanger’s 1:25,000 scale Spanish smartphone mapping, which at least meant navigation was never issue.
We caught up with him when he got home to find out how it all went…
Go on then, make us jealous. How good was the trip?
“It was absolutely brilliant – probably the most interesting and enjoyable trip I’ve done since I cycled round the world many years ago. I was following the journey of a book I really love, and was worried the whole thing may end up as a disappointment because it was set 80 years ago. But the Spanish landscape is really beautiful and the book painted the picture so well that it felt like I was walking through the pages. On previous trips to Spain I’ve spent a lot of time among rocky mountains and olive trees, but Galicia in northern Spain is very similar to the Yorkshire Dales. The villages and the hills all look like the Dales, but with sunshine! It’s a beautiful place and the food is excellent.”
How good a place is Spain to go walking?
“The hiking was fantastic. For a few days I ended up on the Camino de Santiago trail, which has many branches and tracks heading toward Santiago. That was incredibly well organised with nice hiking trails that were really well marked out. It was all very civilised. In fact, the whole trip was pretty civilised. Most of the trips I go on are proper expeditions and I’m usually quite miserable and hating it, but on this one I actually really enjoyed myself! I hiked for 27 days and the distances varied each day. I didn’t have a set end point – I just walked as far as I could in the time I had. One big difference for me on this trip was that I was trying to be a bit more relaxed about time. In the middle of the day it was usually really hot and a few times I found myself thinking, ‘It’s a really hot, this is a bit crap, what would Laurie Lee do?’ And he definitely wasn’t in for having a crap time, so I just stuck out my thumb and did a bit of hitchhiking that enabled me to meet some great characters.”
How nerve-wracking was busking for your meals?
“Playing the violin was the hardest part of the trip. I found it stressful, frightening and unnerving – and busking every day was what turned it from being a holiday into an adventure. I only knew five songs before I set off and I was still playing the same five songs at the end. I’m not musical at all so I couldn’t learn anything new – it was just a case of getting better at the tunes I already knew. My first day in Spain was the first time I’d ever played music in front of anyone apart from my music teacher, so I was absolutely sh*tting myself at the embarrassment of it and my impending starvation. It was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done, but I earned €4 and it was the most exciting money I’ve ever earned, because it suddenly made me think ‘Wow, this trip’s now possible’.”
How much money did you earn in 27 days?
“I obsessively kept track of what money I made, because when you’re that poor every penny counts. I would walk up to the till in a shop with all of the money I had in the world in my pocket, then have to count out the change to see if I could afford food. Throughout the trip I earned €120.40, which was way more than I thought I would. You can live quite well on that with plenty of bread, carrots and bananas and the odd portion of lentils. If I’d taken savings or back-up money, then I would have lost all of the nerves and stress that forced me to keep going with violin. So that’s all I spent on the whole trip, and on the final day when I walked into Madrid I asked the barman how much a beer cost. When he told me I said ‘OK, I’ll be back in a minute’, then headed outside with the violin to earn enough money to pay for it.”
How did all of your expedition kit perform?
“I set off with one pair of boxer shorts – and this is possibly too much information – but it was too hot and sweaty so I chucked them in the bin. Other than that I got my expedition kit pretty much right. I didn’t want to be carrying too much stuff, but on the other hand I didn’t want to be freezing. I had a few nights where I was wearing every single item I had and did a little bit of shivering, but I’d prefer that to be carrying a heavy jacket that I didn’t wear for the whole trip.”
How important was ViewRanger to your trip?
“I was genuinely impressed by ViewRanger and it made a very significant, positive difference to my trip. Which is very cool for an app you can download for free. I was using the Spanish version of Ordnance Survey mapping, which uses different fonts and colours, but was comparably good to OS. Nothing of course is quite as good as the OS, and I’m not just saying that through British pride, but the Spanish mapping was still really good. It had lots of random little footpaths, barns and the odd fountain that I found really useful. This was the first time I’ve ever used an app, smartphone or GPS because I’ve always been a paper lover, so I guess I’m quite old fashioned. But for one bit of the walk I downloaded a ViewRanger route that somebody else had already created – and it was brilliant!”
So are you now converted to digital mapping?
“I do still love paper maps, because I enjoy spreading them out on the floor and planning my trips before I set off. So I don’t think I could ever dismiss paper maps, but equally without ViewRanger I would have carried an enormous bundle of maps through Spain that would have been a real pain in the arse. So I’ll definitely be using ViewRanger for future trips – that’s for sure. One of the main obstacles with adventures is trying to overcome all of the hurdles that get in the way beforehand. You want to make things as simple as possible so there’s no excuse not to do it, and having all the maps immediately in your pocket saves you having to go to a book shop to buy maps. So in terms of simplicity and ease of planning, it’s a huge advantage.”
What advice would you give to someone planning a similar adventure?
“I think the trips I’ve done in recent years – from little overnight microadventures to walking through Spain with no money or cycling around the world for four years – prove there are so many different ways to find adventure. Wherever you are in your life or in the world, don’t be put off by thinking adventure is something that other people do. Don’t think you’re not fit enough, young enough or male enough. There are so many self-imposed limits people create that stop them doing things; but if you find something within your limits that you can go and do, then hopefully you’ll get the confidence and enthusiasm to try something a bit bigger next time.”
Alastair Humphreys is an adventurer, author, motviational speaker and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Discover more about his amazing adventurers at www.alastairhumphreys.com or by following him on Twitter (@Al_Humphreys) or Instagram (@al_humphreys).