(By Correne Coetzer) His fellow countryman and polar mate, Eric Philips, described John (Jon) Muir as “One of the most versatile adventurers on the face of the planet.” Among his adventures and explorations over 30 years, he pioneered a new route to the South Pole, skied from 50km off Cape Arktichevsky (Russia) to the North Pole, climbed Everest without Sherpas, traveled over 5000km in a sea kayaked, crossed Australia without resupplies or external support, and more.
Also a veteran desert explorer, Muir's next expedition is again into the deserts. This time traversing the Western Deserts of Australia, the Gibson and the Little Sandy, alone and without outside assitance. He will be traversing the deserts from East to West. "I’ll be starting in the central Australian ranges and walking 900km to the desert’s western margin,” John told Exweb in an interview. This expedition will take place during Australia’s coolest months, June, July, August, and will take approximately 50 days.
John tells about the changes in adventure over 30 years (in particular on Everest), the tribal groups of the Western Deserts, the water situation and dangers in the deserts, his trailer, and he shares his 5 favorite gear items.
Explorersweb: You have done skiing to the Poles, mountain climbing, kayaking trekking, which is your favorite and why?
John Muir: My favorite adventures are those that take me not on, ‘the path less travelled', but on, ‘the path never travelled'. I’m not really interested in following a line of frozen turds to a Pole and always got a lot more satisfaction on the new routes. I climbed both on the cliffs and in the mountains of the world. It seems very few people are interested in traversing deserts and so I have the field to myself.
Explorersweb: Your adventure/explorer career spans over 30 years. How did adventure change? What do you like and dislike about the changes?
John: My experiences on Everest are a good example of the way adventure has changed. The changes I saw from my first expeditions on the mountains in the early 80’s to my last in the mid 90’s were extraordinary.
In the 80’s there were few people on the mountain. Those who were there were willing to attempt challenging climbs. From the West ridge in 84 we could see teams on the North ridge, the North face, the SW face, the South pillar and the South Col. The teams were made up of climbers (not adventure tourists) that we personally knew or knew of. When we met up with the other teams there was always a very strong spirit of co-operation and friendship.
In the 90’s everyone was concentrated on the 2 normal routes. The growing attitude could be summed up thus: ‘I’m only interested in getting me to the top. I don’t care about anyone else.’ Most of the ‘climbers’ really had no idea of how to climb a mountain but could follow a trench in the snow and could haul themselves up a fixed rope on a high altitude hill walk, such as the normal routes on Everest.
Some people think that despite the growth in adventure tourism there’s still just as many people out there doing, ‘real climbing,’ but they would be mistaken.
Australian mountaineers climbed more new routes in the 80’s than were climbed in all the years before and since. The trend is away from hard core adventure in favor of mass tourism. Any sub-culture is a microcosm of mainstream culture - we are increasingly frightened by the unknown and drawn to, ‘the road more travelled.’
That’s why there’s nobody out in the deserts.
Explorersweb: You now plan to attempt another desert expedition. Do you like the heat? How do you handle the heat? Are there certain hours that you would take shelter? What do you wear? Footware?
John: The heat of the desert is a much more challenging environment in which to do hard physical labor. Prior to my first forays into the desert I always maintained that I couldn’t handle the heat. I just had to make a mental shift and tell myself that I could handle the heat. It’s all in the mental approach, but I do have some strategies that help me.
I set off on my day’s march as soon as it is light enough to walk and usually finish in early afternoon just before the heat reaches its peak. Occasionally I will do a final hours march at the end of the day, or walk in the moonlight.
I wear loose flowing, lightweight, white, long sleeved pants and shirt and a broad brimmed hat to protect my head. These days I wear high cut Asolo leather boots and gaiters to protect against snakebite and to stop the sand getting into my boots.
Explorersweb: Your five favourite gear items?
John: My top five bits of gear for desert traversing are my Sea to Summit insect net, gaiters and ultra light weight tarpaulin. I love my hat! My cart, which I call my, ‘Arid Zone Cruiser,’ I develop a very special attachment to.
Explorersweb: Water is so essential for survival. How much would you carry on your trailer at a time? Where do you fill up? What containers are you using?
John: I budget between 4-5 litres of water per day for my desert traverses, depending on latitude.
The biggest water load I have ever hauled is 160 litres. I use a combination of hard containers and soft bladders depending on lots of variables.
Explorersweb: How do you know that there is for sure water at the sources that you want to fill up?
John: Water is so heavy that for a long desert traverse you can’t carry all of it. On a long unsupported desert traverse you must link up natural water sources. These water sources determine your route but are not always reliable. No-one can reliably tell you before you start if these water holes and soaks have water in them. So here lies one of the cruxes of unsupported desert traverses.
There’s lots of clues but it’s not black and white. You need to view rainfall maps of your route before you start. You need to know where the marked water is but also be able to read the animal tracks and behavior and local geography that will lead you to currently available water.
There’s a complicated tapestry of information that you need to be able to interpret to find water in the desert and this takes years of experience. It’s not for the faint hearted you have to listen to your inner voice, read the landscape and play your cards right, and even then you might not find water.
I’ve found that these big desert traverses have forced me to draw on all of my collective experience from my lifetime of adventure. They are in a different league from anything else I’ve done on every level.
Explorersweb: Tell us about the nomads of the Gibson and the Little Sandy Deserts please. Who were/are they? How did they live there in the past and are they still living there today?
John: A number of tribal groups lived in the Western Desert prior to European colonization. They sustained themselves in small family groups living a very nomadic lifestyle. Their movements were dependent upon rainfall. They would retreat back to permanent water sources during drought conditions (this could be a soak 4 meters underground reached by a narrow tunnel.) They gathered a variety of seasonal seeds, nuts, fruits, greens and tubers and also hunted game, small and large marsupials, reptiles, insects and birds.
I see evidence of the traditional owners occupation of the desert every day on my unsupported traverses. Lots of ancient campgrounds littered with stone implements. Often it feels like the people have just dropped their tools and are out hunting or gathering just over the next sand hill. These places have potentially been utilized for 50,000 years and they are full of presence. There is no question that most of these camps I come across have not been revisited since the stone age people left the land.
The current aboriginal people tend to live in small communities around the fringes of the desert country. Traditionally sourced desert foods are not a major part of the aboriginal diet today.
Explorersweb: What are the risks and the dangers of these deserts?
John: Last year there several cases of death in the Australian deserts within 24 hours of the vehicles breaking down. This is the obvious risk, death by heat exhaustion and thirst. To cross these deserts on foot you have to be extremely well prepared and understand both yourself and the landscape.
Explorersweb: How do you keep your mind busy and sane in 50 days in those circumstances?
John: Keeping my mind sane in the clutter and nonsense of the 21st century lifestyle is the difficulty for me. By comparison the desert is simple and pure and endlessly fascinating.
There's a lot to occupy my mind on the long walk in the desert. I’m constantly focused on a successful outcome, i.e. survival. I’m occupied with route finding and looking for game and water. Mostly my mind is very anchored to my every day needs. Sometimes though, as I walk, I do get to dream about life, the universe and everything.
Explorersweb: Tell us about your trailer please. How did you improve it over the years?
John: My desert cruiser, like all things, is a compromise. There is no perfect piece of equipment. There is such a diversity of terrain and vegetation in the different deserts that require different design features. I’ve built many radically different designs over the past 20 years but couldn’t say, ‘this one is the best.‘ There is no such thing.
For this particular trip I’m going for a high clearance design to travel over the dense and prickly spinifex, a tall, clumping, resinous plant that predominates in the Western deserts.
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