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‘We’re Not Going To Try This, We’re Going To Do This’

Karl Bushby - Lessons On Resilience From A Walk Around The World

Karl Bushby Road
Written by:
Rebecca Stephens MBE
Rebecca Stephens MBE

In our new world order in which governments focus only on the one central issue of COVID-19 and how to release us from lockdown, our collective future is opaque. Meanwhile, we have to cope the best we can, keep the show on the road (if possible) and work towards better times. One individual, locked down in a friend’s home, appears remarkably philosophical about this enforced pause on his chosen mission in life. Karl Bushby, aged 51, is walking round the world, from Punta Arenas, up through the Americas, across Siberia, Central Asia and Europe, and, permission allowing, through the Channel Tunnel to London. He’s been at it 21 years. He’s hacked through dense jungle and swam rivers across the treacherous Darien Gap; walked across the Bering Strait (the first, with French adventurer Dimitri Kieffler, to successfully accomplish this). He’s been caught without papers and landed himself in prison (twice); and taken a minor 3,500 mile detour on foot from Los Angeles to the Russian Embassy in Washington DC to appeal a visa ban to the authorities in person. It worked. At the last point on his journey he’d just been denied another visa, into Iran. Then COVID-19 struck, one more obstacle in a long line of obstacles thrown in his path. He is in no doubt that he will complete his circumnavigation of the globe. So what might we learn from Karl about the resilience required to keep going and bounce back from this seismic shock we’re experiencing?

Vision and Values
The right mind-set is a good place to start. ‘We’re not going to try this, we’re going to do this,’ he says. His aim to walk around the world on what he calls his Goliath expedition. Why? A fascination for horizons, ‘that’s always driven me, to look out, and go there.’ Another part was to prove something to himself. Karl served in the Parachute Regiment for 11 years and in that time, ‘always just managed to stay with the pack, I never felt like I had shown my full potential,’ he says, ‘so I literally picked the longest, most gruelling challenge I could find.’ Business leaders’ objectives will be very different, but few will doubt that it is easier to drive through tough times if there is a sense of purpose and motivation from within.

Values matter as well. ‘The rules are the backbone,’ says Bushby. His were that he was only to walk or swim, no form of transport allowed; and that he wouldn’t go home until he arrived on foot. ‘It doesn’t make any sense any other way,’ he says. ‘It cements you into the deal. I couldn’t take a ride anywhere now, it would be like half my life had been a lie.’

One Day At A Time
Challenges come in very many different forms. There are the big momentous ones – the Darien Gap, Alaska in winter, the Bering Strait – and then there’s the long grinding hunger, cold, exhaustion and at times despair, battling relentless winds, mile after mile, across desert and plains, all the while pushing life support provisions in a battered home-made cart strapped together with bits of string. And then there’s the personal stuff as well. ‘There were several hanging-by-a-thread-moments,’ says Bushby, ‘a couple of breakdowns, the first in northern Chile. I had been on the ground long enough for it to feel like it was forever and yet I had barely scratched the surface. I had this huge overwhelming response to just how far we had to go – it really hit home hard. That’s when I learned not to look at the long picture, but to focus on the day to day.’

More Resilient Than We Know
There aren’t many people who would have taken on the Darien Gap, a 90-mile wide ‘no man’s land’ of dense jungle and swamp on the Columbian and Panamanian border. No roads and few paths run through it, and to compound the problem, a guerrilla war was raging. ‘Nothing but horrifying stories of bodies being pulled out of the Darien Gap, backpackers and locals alike,’ says Bushby. And yes, he was frightened. ‘One of the toughest things I’ve done, I got to the border zone and sat down in the jungle and sobbed like a child.’

‘This is where my experience in the army brought something to the table,’ he reflects, ‘I was like a church mouse [before I joined], but the regiment conditions you to believe you’re bulletproof. Without that almost delusional self-confidence I couldn’t have done this. I can’t count how many times I woke up in the med centre with an IV in each arm. I had been pushed to my limits repeatedly so I understood my limits like a science.’

Few of us push ourselves to such physical limits, but many of us might be pushed to our limits mentally in this crisis. We should be encouraged that as a rule we constantly underestimate ourselves, that when needs must we can do very much more – and that each obstacle overcome makes us stronger. ‘If you want to succeed put yourself in a position where you have no choice,‘ says Bushby, ‘At that point humans really find their full potential.’

Who Dares Wins
Nobody had ever successfully crossed the Bering Strait on foot when Bushby and his companion Dimitri Kieffler pitched up in March 2006. In front of them stretched the 58-mile wide frozen sea of ice that separates Alaska from Siberia, shifting with the wind and the currents. ‘No one took us seriously,’ says Bushby, ‘and honest to god I didn’t believe we’d do it first time. I thought we’re going to bounce off this thing like a brick wall. We’ll learn a lot, reorganise and think how we’re going to do it next year.’

But at the same they were determined to give it their best shot. ‘We were equipped and definitely ready to take on the challenge,’ he says. They also dared to execute a new and very different strategy. On previous attempts people had mostly tried to stick to the ice, shifting though it was, and manoeuvre around open water. Bushby and Kieffler took a more aggressive approach, travelling in a straight line as far as it were possible, swimming long leads where they lay in their line of travel. Failure to drag their frozen bodies out of the sea, back onto the ice, would have meant death and quickly, and a day’s progress could cruelly be unwound by the ice shifting in the opposite direction. But they pushed on…and they had some luck as well. They had almost a week with no wind – unheard of! And then temperatures fell from around zero to below -30°C and they watched a carpet of sea ice crackle into formation before their eyes, ‘like Moses watching the Red Sea part’. A journey of 15 days and they stepped onto Russian soil. ‘It surprised me as much as it surprised everyone else,’ says Bushby.

On a journey that takes one around the world, there are a few geographical pinch points – two already described – but otherwise there is a degree of flexibility. Bushby has a useful metaphor when it comes to talking about travel plans. Rather than a defined route, he talks about a ‘route corridor’ in which there might be several options to arrive at the desired destination. ‘We’ve been conditioned to think a professional approach is to plan in meticulous detail,’ he says, ‘but in the real world that just doesn’t work.’ Better, he argues, to embrace flexibility from the start, to know where you’re heading, but keep the detail fuzzy. Otherwise we can psychologically hem ourselves in and be blinded to options that can lead to success. It’s difficult to imagine a time when these words could be more relevant. There are hard times ahead, but also opportunities, and those with flexible mind-sets, quick to pivot, will be the beneficiaries.

In This Together
What’s touching about Bushby’s story is the constant behind-the-scenes support from his parents, not just in spirit, but in action: letters from his mother, and generous resupply packages of clothes, tents and sleeping bags from his father. ‘It’s why I refer to this as a ’we’ thing,’ he says, ’and it’s not just my parents, it’s everybody I’ve met along the road: the people who fed me, the people who housed me; I have had people nurse me back to health. From the poorest of the poor to the wealthy, it doesn’t matter what country or culture you’re in. The entire planet has been one giant support structure. It’s been fantastic, a real revelation and reaffirming of my belief in humanity. If you watch the 24hr news cycle, the world is a terrible place to live, but it’s just not the case,’ he says, ‘Humanity is 99.99% good. In 21 years on the road I can literally count the bad guys on one hand.’

The End State
‘Once in Europe it’s party all the way home,’ he says, ‘it’s feeling disturbingly close. In the Parachute Regiment we call it ‘ground rush’. You’re parachuting and think you’ve got forever and then suddenly the ground is there – whack – before you know it. It comes up real quick. All these weird mixed emotions and feelings are getting dug up now – this thing might actually finish one day!’

Chances are that none of us are going to experience this lockdown with its multitude of challenges and emotions again. This pandemic has highlighted those who quietly get on and support our society, those who adapt quickly to a changing situation and those who have sadly succumb to its devastating forces. Being accepting of the current situation, taking stock and reflecting on the positives and negatives can help businesses plan for a post-COVID world.