How would you fare if dropped into the wilderness without a mobile phone or GPS signal, a map or even a compass to guide you? In circumstances such as these, Tristan Gooley would surely be the ultimate travel companion.
Gooley is an expert in natural navigation – that is, finding your way by reading clues in the environment. The only living person to have both flown solo and sailed single-handed across the Atlantic, he teaches people how to use the sun, moon, stars and other facets of the natural world to work out direction, and increase their appreciation of their surroundings.
We caught up with Gooley to find out more about getting lost on a volcano, keeping a body part as a souvenir of his travels, and why his wife refuses to sail in British waters.
Where was your last trip?
My last minor expedition was with our dog in the woods this morning. A more ambitious recent one was as the navigator aboard a traditional dhow off the coast of Oman. I was helping a crew of Omanis and western academics to navigate using the sun, moon, stars and planets.
Where is your next trip?
The Alps, I hope. But one of the weird things about travelling professionally is that you often have less freedom to choose your next destination than a leisure traveller does. My destinations have to make sense in terms of my work and that normally means they are planned according to the research needed for the book I’m working on. One conversation with my publisher can mean the pin gets moved to a different continent!
What is your first travel-related memory?
I’m the son of a travel agent, so I was very lucky and we did a lot of travelling when I was young. My first memory may have been singing 'She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain' in some rickety old vehicle, as we took hairpin bends around a mountain in the Philippines somewhere. And I do recall spending what seemed like nine weeks in Hong Kong airport when very young too. Turns out it was 12 hours.
Aisle or window seat?
Was always window, but now I like my kids to take turns at that seat.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I get to airports too early, about an hour before sensible people. Not sure why, but always have done and probably always will do.
Favourite city or country or region?
I’m restless and don’t like getting pinned down to a favourite, even a whole region. I love the UK, especially the wilder and coastal parts. But I also like variety, so my favourite would be alternating wild UK, with contrasting regions. Lake District, Sahara, Wales, Southeast Asia…
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Getting lost on Mt. Rinjani in Lombok for three days with a friend when we were 19. It was my own stupid fault. It’s a big mountain, not to mention an active volcano, and attempting to climb it with no map, compass, guide etc., was with hindsight a bit… daft. There are ruder ways of describing it!
How can natural navigation enrich the travel experience?
It gently forces us to notice the little things, from wildflowers to insects and clouds, but also a lot of the big things too. At the end of one of my courses, an elderly gentleman approached me and whispered: 'I’ve seen a lot of the world in my years, but I’m so glad that now I’m not going to see out this fair innings of mine without being able to work out where the sun rises!'
What is the most important (or simplest) technique you’d encourage people intrigued by natural navigation to learn?
It does all start with the sun. The sun is due south in the middle of the day, every day of the year from everywhere north of the Tropics. That includes all of the USA and all of Europe.
Have you ever had to use natural navigation to get yourself out of a potentially dangerous situation?
We finally got ourselves off the volcano in Lombok by following water downhill. There is an old saying: 'Nine times out of 10, if a river doesn’t lead to your home, then it will at least lead to somebody else’s!' Unfortunately the rivers we followed kept leading us to dangerous precipices and waterfalls.
Then we spotted two animal tracks in the distant undergrowth. They looked to us to be just a little bit too parallel. On closer inspection they turned out to be 4x4 tracks – it was the very end of a remote village track.
You’ve gained knowledge from many cultures – what is the most ingenious or unusual technique or method you’ve encountered?
The way the Penan Dayak in Borneo are able to walk for days without getting lost, just by reading the shape of the land. I have written about it in detail in my book, The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs, but in a nutshell, the shape of every valley forms a map and compass for them.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
For a few months I kept part of my heel that came off after walking too far in boots that didn’t agree with me.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
Worst: Almost every time someone has suggested going somewhere ‘because it’s cheap’, it has led to an underwhelming experience. High costs may deter us from some travel experiences, but low costs are never a good enough reason on their own to go somewhere.
Best: It’s a cliché, but perhaps the best advice I was ever given was to ‘stop and smell the flowers once in a while’. I was young and tearing around so quickly at the time that I thought it was just a very odd thing for someone to say. Now I get it. One of the few things that almost all very experienced travellers share is that they have learned to enjoy ‘the bits in between’, and not to focus solely on the next destination.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
A few years ago, I was sailing my wife back from Cowes in the Isle of Wight, for what was meant to be the return part of a wedding anniversary weekend. Unfortunately, the seas got so rough that when we arrived back in Chichester after a roller-coaster ride, Sophie said she would refuse to get on a sailing boat in British waters ever again. I had to sell the boat soon afterwards. As my sons would say, ‘epic fail’.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfill?
Naturally navigating Patagonia.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
You don’t need that… or that… or that. Travel light.
Tristan Gooley is the author of award-winning and bestselling books, including The Natural Navigator and The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs. Learn more about natural navigation at naturalnavigator.com.