Flightless Round the World: Interview with Ed Gillespie

Ed & FionaAt sea: Ed and Fiona on their way to Spain

Ed and Fiona are a couple from the United Kingdom on a year-long trip around the world, with one major twist: they’re doing it flightless. Passing up the convenience of flying, they’re travelling by bus, train, cargo ship, bicycle, or any other flightless mode of transport.

They’re avoiding air travel to keep their environmental footprint to a minimum, but also because they relish the journey. Rather than jetting miles above the earth’s crust, they prefer travelling slower, savouring the cultures and landscapes they encounter along the way.

TravelBlogs caught up with Ed to learn more about how and why they’re doing this trip.

First of all, tell us a bit more about yourself and Fiona.

We are in massive collective denial about what changes need to be made in our lives to reduce our own individual carbon ‘footprints’

Fi and I met six years ago during an extremely alcoholic Hogmanay (New Year celebrations in Scotland) in the Orkney Islands where we both have friends. There it is traditional to go ‘first-footing’ – visiting all your close friends and family over the first few days of the New Year, so it was actually the early hours of January the 2nd (as the celebrations continued) that we met. We’ve been together ever since!

I’m a former marine biologist, undertaking research in New Caledonia in the South Pacific and in Brisbane, Australia, who has since moved onto more general environmental campaigning. Around six and a half years ago I co-founded my company Futerra Sustainability Communications Ltd (www.futerra.co.uk) with my business partner Solitaire. Our mission is to make a more sustainable, ecological way of life so desirable it becomes normal, so people aspire to be more environmentally friendly. We try to excite and inspire our clients and their audiences and we now have offices in both London and New York and a team of 25 fantastic and dedicated ‘Futerrans’. Changing the world one client at a time!

Fi also works in communications, principally in the charitable and governmental sectors and one of her last jobs was with the British National Space Centre (yes, we do have one!). We have no plans to twang ourselves into space with Richard Branson however!

Why did you decide to take a year off from work to do this trip?

Futerra is extremely demanding on my time when I’m at home as anyone who runs their own small business can no doubt relate to – especially as there isn’t much of a dividing line between my personal and professional life. We started Futerra because we wanted to change the way that sustainability is perceived, it’s more than a day-job, it’s a personal passion so I’m never ‘off duty’ as it were. As a result after nearly six years of intensive activity I was concerned about ‘burning out’ and wanted an opportunity to refresh my perspectives, get some reflection time in and recharge my batteries.

The travel dream has been there for a long time for both Fi and I. Fi lived in New Zealand for a short time when she was 18 and has wanted to travel more ever since. I have spent several years living and working abroad, beginning with a year as a volunteer teacher in Jamaica 17 years ago which whetted my appetite for more diverse and challenging cultural experiences, and we both wanted to travel the world again. I wanted a proper sabbatical, not just a short break and Fi and I had both saved for over four years for the trip so we wanted to make it worth our while.

Also because of our method of travel (avoiding flying) and our aim for a global circumnavigation we needed 12-13 months to ensure the trip was to live up to the ‘slow travel’ ethos and not be too rushed. We certainly didn’t want to go round the world in 80 days!

Why did you decide not to fly? Are you principally opposed to flying?

I get asked this question A LOT! I’m not opposed to flying in principle, and am less anti-flying and more pro the alternatives. I have done a lot of flying myself in the past and there is no doubt that the increased accessibility of flight has probably been a good thing in terms of global understanding. However, the threat of climate change is what really scares me and we are in massive collective denial about what changes need to be made in our lives to reduce our own individual carbon ‘footprints’. Flying is very carbon intensive – a trip from London to Paris for example by plane releases ten times more carbon than taking the train.

We are all flying more, even when there are good land/sea alternatives, largely because it is cheaper but we are wreaking climate havoc as a result! The growth in aviation in the UK threatens to cancel out all the carbon savings we make from energy efficiency and use of renewable energy – taking us right back to square one in the battle against climate change. So something has to give!

Yes flying is more convenient, in the same way that a McDonald’s burger may be quicker, cheaper and more convenient than going to a market buying fresh produce and cooking a meal yourself at home.

I made a personal decision not to fly on holiday about four years ago, since then I’ve had to take one flight to China for a five week working visit (ironically on a major climate change project!). It certainly hasn’t stopped me travelling, I’ve been all over Europe my train and ferry and there is something very satisfying about slow travel, it’s more contemplative, relaxing and the journey is the reward not just an essential sufferance to get you to your destination.

So the decision not to fly on this trip was two-fold. Firstly because it would be an adventure. Any idiot (no disrespect!) can get on a plane and fly around the world these days, and it can still be quite challenging undertaking extensive overland journeys and long sea voyages. Secondly because of the climate change impacts of the journey, by avoiding flying we are dramatically reducing the environmental impact of the trip.

A common reason people give for why they fly is because it’s more convenient. How inconvenient have you found it to not be able to fly?

Yes flying is more convenient, in the same way that a McDonald’s burger may be quicker, cheaper and more convenient than going to a market buying fresh produce and cooking a meal yourself at home. But arguably the latter is a far more satisfying and rewarding experience! The bigger issue is time. People feel unable to take time off and still want to have their travel cake and eat it so they more or less feel they HAVE to fly if they want to enjoy that two week break in India. One of the aims of our trip has been to encourage more people to take sabbaticals, travel less often but for longer periods and to travel more slowly without always assuming that the plane is the only option available.

Probably the only time we wished we could fly was in New Zealand when the opportunity to do a sky-dive came up. Actually, that’s a complete lie. Not being able to fly was the perfect excuse not to have to throw ourselves out of a plane!

What have been some of the advantages of not flying?

If you walk you see absolutely everything, if you cycle you see almost everything, if you drive or go by train you see most things but if you fly, apart from some admittedly impressive views at take-off and landing you don’t really get to relate to the landscape you are travelling over not through from 50,000 feet!

You don’t have to go to airports – which in my view are often the most depressing places. Though they are often architecturally interesting you have to arrive hours before departure and loiter around in crowded lounges with other tried and irritable or stressed passengers whilst running a gauntlet of commercial outlets determined to bleed money out of your sheer boredom!

You meet amazing people when you travel overland or by sea. On trains you can move about and it is much more social. The mode of transport tends to attract a different type of traveller, one whom tends to be of an entertaining, if slightly eccentric, disposition!

Of all the types of transport you’ve used, what have been the highlights?

My favourite modes of transport have to be the trains and the cargo ships. Trains often follow different routes to roads and we have travelled some of the world’s great railways during our trip. We took Die Semmeringbahn through the Austrian Alps on our way across Europe which offered breath-taking alpine scenery. We then boarded the Trans-Siberian Express, this is the ‘Daddy’ of slow travel and an absolutely brilliant experience where you can make life-long friends, sample vodka and the fare of Baboushka’s on the platforms and get an insight into the ‘big Russian soul’. It was brilliant. We also rode the Circum-Baikal railway around Lake Baikal, the oldest, deepest lake in the world, while the water was still frozen offering us stunning views across the ice sheet to the huge, craggy snow-capped mountains 60 miles away. We also trained our way through China, a fantastic cultural experience in itself and just a week ago we took the Copper Canyon railway up through northern Mexico, where the line runs along the side of precipitous valleys and through a mind-boggling 80+ tunnels and over 30+ bridges and viaducts. Simply incredible.

Cargo ships are also wonderful, if you have reasonable sea-legs! They are working vessels but they welcome passengers warmly and we have had some great fun singing drunken karaoke with Filipino merchant seamen, roasting a whole suckling pig on the back deck of a ship in the middle of the Pacific and on a French vessel we sailed on being provided with free wine at every meal! Marvellous stuff! There is something very special about the sensation of being literally 2000 miles from land in either direction when you are sailing across the Pacific. It is splendid isolation in its purist form and I would recommend it to anyone.

Your boat crossing to Spain was a pretty rough one. Have you had many other negative experiences like that, or has it been mostly smooth sailing, so to speak?

Funny how your memory works in hindsight but I even recall our Pride of Bilbao with affection now even though it was pretty hellish at the time! Our sea crossings have actually been remarkably smooth since then, though we have yet to cross the Atlantic, by far the stormiest stretch of ocean we must traverse, and that treat still awaits us on the final leg of our journey in the end of the winter storms in March. We are a little nervous!

Our biggest cock-ups and negative experiences have been during overland travel and crossing borders in particular – something you have fewer problems with when flying overhead in a plane! We didn’t realise we needed a Belarus transit visa to get from Warsaw to Moscow so had to do a last minute 36 hour haul by bus via Lithuania and Latvia to get into Russia which was thoroughly unpleasant. We also arrived on the Chinese border after our visas had expired, which was both embarrassing and a major hassle, though the Chinese border police were very kind and let us enter after paying a small fine. We did feel like idiots however.

Actually, overall the trip has been remarkably smooth so far with very few painful glitches or problems to contend with. I’d even go so far as to say I’d happily do it all again without changing anything (though I would get a Belarus transit visa next time!).

Keep track of Ed and Fiona’s latest adventures through their blog, Slow Travel.

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