Meet a traveller: William Mackesy, chronicler of the world's greatest walks
He’s an ‘asthmatic with dodgy knees’ who may never complete his quixotic quest. But shortness of breath and creaking of joints won’t stop William Mackesy, the creator of Walkopedia, from trying.
What started life as a question that popped into his head during a trek has grown into a decade-long attempt to define the world’s 100 greatest walks – and perhaps the most comprehensive online resource for hikers.
We asked him to explain what makes a walk truly great, why exploring on foot is such a special way to travel, and where he would go for a final stretch of the legs on the eve of an apocalypse.
Where was your last trip?
Corsica in mid-May. A week crossing the island east to west on part of the Mare a Mare Nord route, with some amazing gorges and promontories thrown in. Wonderful maquis vegetation in full flower, and snow still so deep on the high ground we had to abandon a side walk along a ridge on the famous GR20.
Where is your next trip?
What is your first travel-related memory?
The wonder of seeing the vast whiteness of what I was told was Greenland from a plane at the age of six.
What prompted you to create Walkopedia?
Short answer – one of the great errors of the internet age: starting a website because you have thought of a neat name for a website. Longer answer – I started musing one evening on a trek in Bhutan about what were the world’s best walks, and from that how to rate great walks, and the idea for a website listing them grew from that.
Can you explain how Walkopedia rates walks?
We have tried to reflect what makes a walk ‘great’, so you know you have seen or experienced something extraordinary. There are thousands of beautiful walks around the world, so beauty can only be a starting point. It is some special charisma, often combined with a natural wonder or literary or historical association, which propels a walk into the highest ranks. We, therefore, give marks for beauty, natural interest, human interest and charisma, with negative marks for pleasure-reducers like severe altitude.
Reconciling people’s different interests is, of course, impossible: places with great historical or spiritual reverberations, such as Mt Kailash in Tibet, the Inca Trail or the Camino de Santiago, may excite some, whereas natural wonders (the high Himalayas, Kilimanjaro or the Grand Canyon) or utter isolation (the Tian Shan, Tasmania or the Rockies) may be what are important for others. Some will disagree with the detail, but this appears to be the best and most balanced system available.
How many of the Top 100 walks have you completed so far?
A strange thing is that the total goes down in some years: I am still researching great walks – Walkopedia is intended to be definitive – and when I find a new Top 100 walk, it pushes number 100 off the bottom. So, it is 56 right now, but it may be 55 by year end even though I will be tackling two more Top 100-ers this year... dispiriting. I am a 58-year-old asthmatic with dodgy knees, so I don’t fancy my chances of finishing the Top 100. But it is wonderful trying.
What is so special about walking as a form of travel?
Go back to the Greek philosophers, who did their thinking and debating peripatetically. It is the clearing of life’s white noise through the repetitive, almost meditative, process of a long walk. You can achieve an interior stillness, and a lot of gentle thinking time, when you are a long way away from the busy world and your phone. And, of course, walking is what we evolved to do, and the most natural way to keep fit.
It’s also the joy of walking in exceptional places. Friends never feel closer than when sharing a wonderful view or discussing a satisfying day. A wonderful Leonard Cohen quote in an interview with Michael Harris for The Walrus sums it up perfectly: ‘I had an experience of total freedom. I was sitting at a cafe … and suddenly I became, although the feeling had grown by imperceptible degrees, suddenly I became aware that I felt magnificent, triumphant, free, open, warm, affectionate to everyone and everyone around me. Nothing changed, but I could see clearly what everyone was doing without any sort of judgement and loving what everyone was doing. And I almost hugged myself with pleasure, just of breathing and being with friends.’
Do you have any habits or rituals before or during a trip?
I now go to my physio for a service before a demanding trip, and with luck not after.
Most challenging experience during a walk?
Walking the Mt Kailash kora (sacred circumambulation) in Tibet. The high pass is 18,500ft, which is just too high to be any fun. That said, despite being heavily marked down for this, it is still by our reckoning the world’s best walk.
Most memorable view from a mountaintop?
Mt Meru in Tanzania: a huge horseshoe of cliffs around a collapsed crater so big that the growing ash cone at the centre, which would itself be a Munro in Scotland, looks diminutive. The views at dawn, across the crater and a blanket of glistening cloud to Kilimanjaro silhouetted against the bright early sky some 70km away, are unforgettable.
The most memorable sight was a Buddha’s Halo (also known as a Brocken spectre) from a minor peak in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. This is when you have clouds below you and low-ish sun behind, so that your shadow on the clouds is surrounded by a halo. If you are also in very thin mist, the halo can take on rainbow hues, a ‘glory’. They get their name from a sacred mountain in western China, where pilgrims are said to have thrown themselves into the void in a religious ecstasy at the sight. Truly amazing.
The funniest incident while walking?
This must have been in the Buddhist pilgrimage mountain of Emei Shan in southwest China. You are warned about monkeys, which roam the upper forests like post-modern Robin Hoods. They beg for food, consider a brisk body search part of a morning's work, and sometimes make off with possessions. A primate encounter is an integral part of every pilgrim’s journey and both feeding and baiting are common. As a result, they can easily turn nasty, and a steady approach is advised, accompanied by hands clapped and extended to demonstrate that they are empty. I didn’t have a problem with these marauding brigands but, as I came round a corner, I met a group of young walkers, led by a bumptious man in unreasonably smart clothes. As I approached, he clapped and extended supplicatory hands towards me. His friends chortled. Smart-arse. A few years later, I could have hit them with a witty Mandarin retort, but all I could do was slink onward, a foreigner put in his place.
Best book on walking as a travel experience?
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush – Eric Newby. And J.G. Links’ Venice for Pleasure for charming and delightful strolling.
Favourite city or country or region?
What’s your biggest travel fail (ie, a decision that didn’t turn out as planned)?
A trek near Mae Hong Son in the dodgy Myanmar border area in northwest Thailand. We were walking out to overnight in a hill-tribe village. Our guide got lost. It turned out one of our group was a recovering addict and fragile in various ways, which really showed when we got stuck on a narrow path across a forested cliff, when she froze and I had to crawl backwards in front of her, placing her feet step by step. We spent the night on a small col, with almost no food and having run out of water. I had a half bottle of whisky, which on empty and dehydrated stomachs had us singing into the darkness. Our guide, a moonlighting policeman, kept spinning the chamber of his revolver nervously!
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the Earth in one week! Which walk would you rush to complete/do again?
Not an excessively tough one – the emphasis would be on quality time. The Overland Track in Tasmania, or Alta Via in the Dolomites, or the Lake District end of the UK’s Coast to Coast. With my wife, Ali, and a group of hand-picked friends who hadn’t been told we were all about to die.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Take a good head torch and don’t forget your passport!