Where do explorers explore in lockdown?
“Explorer” isn’t something you see on too many CVs these days. But the description certainly applies to 32-year-old George Bullard whose résumé is packed with tales of derring do including kayaking from Greenland to Scotland and trekking in Antarctica.
Last year George was heading onto the Arctic Ocean to study drifting winter pack ice.
Until he couldn’t because of the Covid 19 pandemic.
So, what does an explorer do when he can’t explore? And what are his tips for keeping ourselves motivated right now while we wait for that light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel to shine a little brighter?
I chatted to him by phone recently to find out.
George, what’s the philosophy behind your adventures?
“My mission is to re-wild humans. I think as a species we have become totally disconnected from the planet and from the outdoors, and that’s been happening for a while. I think being in the outdoors changes lives.
I’m very happy if anyone spends a single moment more outdoors, whether that’s having a lunch break outside or going for a walk once a day. I think covid has made us realise the importance of that.
Tell us about some of your trips?
At the age of 19 I broke the world record for the longest unsupported polar journey in history – 1,374 miles across Greenland – which still stands today in the Arctic. Two of us shared a tent for 113 days, we ran out of food on day 104 and lived off flapjacks and butter mixed together for the remaining 414 miles. But we made it.
I swam across the English Channel, around Barbados, around Manhattan and along Lake Zurich…with mixed success. There were some good old-fashioned failures, which are always important!
I’ve sailed across the Atlantic and the Pacific and also kayaked from Greenland to Scotland, trying to recreate the story of Inuit (or “Finmen”) who are said to have landed on the Scottish coast near Aberdeen in 1728.
I also got involved in introducing kids to the great outdoors and took a group of 60 children to the Amazon rainforest and also to the Arctic. I saw with my own eyes how people change when they’re in that environment. It provides a level playing field. It doesn’t matter what car you drive or what watch you have on your wrist, you all s**t in the same bucket. The outdoors can affect you spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally.
How have you spent lockdown?
I’ve been in Norfolk, renovating a ruin back into its former glory interspersed with lots of nice walks, bike rides, horse rides and cold-water swims too.
I was supposed to be up in northern Canada but that didn’t happen. Like many people I’m exceptionally passionate about sustainability and the impact us humans are having on the planet.
The Arctic is a pivotal barometer to the health of the planet. It acts like a refrigerator that keeps our planet cool by reflecting back a lot of the sun’s rays into the atmosphere. But we know very little about the Arctic Ocean during winter – you could argue that we know more about the surface of the moon that we do about the Arctic in winter.
I learnt something very disturbing recently; once the Ice on the Arctic ocean is gone, it is gone forever and our natural refrigerator is switched off… permanently.
So, I was going to get a boat locked into the ice on the Canadian side of the Arctic Ocean and live on board. We were going to be a fully mobile scientific research station that drifts across the entirety of the ocean in winter. So pretty unique.
I’ve had to postpone it, but I am doing everything I can to make it happen at some point. If anyone reading this wants to get in touch about funding, please do!
What’s been your most memorable journey?
The one I’m most grateful for is Antarctica in 2007. I went down to South Georgia and was totally blown away by the landscape, the history, the location, the geography, the wildlife and the remoteness. Lying next to a four-tonne elephant seal was pretty amazing. We were there looking for Shackleton’s stove which he is believed to have left on the mountain above Stromness Whaling Station. We didn’t find it but we did collect a newly discovered species of fern and document a new colony of King penguins.
Where are you looking forward to going once this pandemic shut down is over?
It’s less a specific place, more just the chance to have our unreserved freedom back. Where you’re not always questioning every move. I’m very much dreaming of that human spirit returning to being one of support and not accusation and finger pointing.
Do you have advice on how people can have their own mini adventures during lockdown?
I’m very keen that people do continue to get out and about during lockdown. I’m not suggesting people go off and do large expeditions or anything they’re not supposed to. But try and get out and do smaller things that are still possible. Leave the front door, whether for a run, a walk or a bike ride, without a plan and without a phone. Get lost and speak to people to find your way back. Talking to people has become increasingly rare but at the same time increasingly meaningful.
You’ve always seemed to me a very glass-half-full person so what are your tips on managing mental health right now?
The way I’ve managed during lockdown is to take pressure off myself, control the 'controlables', find pleasure in the smallest things and exercise gratefulness for what we have."
All photos and video (c) George Bullard.