In less than a week’s time, Olie Hunter Smart will embark on a 2600 mile trek down the length of India, following in the footsteps of one of history’s most influential figures – Mahatma Gandhi. I talked to Olie about his preparations and expectations for the journey, as well as his most recent adventure – a source-to-sea kayak expedition along the length of the Amazon River.
Olie, tell me about your India expedition. What gave you the idea to follow in the footsteps of Gandhi?
In April I am going to set off to walk the length of India, a 2,600 mile journey. It all started having read about Gandhi’s Salt March, a 240-mile march from his home in Ahmedabad to Dandi on the shores of the Indian Ocean in protest of the British salt tax. Britain imposed a tax on salt to force Indians to buy it from British companies, but given the climate and their need for salt in their diet, Gandhi decided to hold one of his peaceful protests by walking to the ocean to make it himself.
Having learnt about this, I wanted to retrace the steps of this historical journey, something that could be done in a few weeks. As I researched, I learned that 2017 would be the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain, so I knew this was the year to do it. I looked at other parts of India where Gandhi had a significant impact, and the route started to fall into place – Gandhi’s footsteps as it were. It’s now evolved further into a journey focused on Independence, allowing me to start near the Line of Control, the still-disputed border between India and Pakistan as a result of Partition that took place in 1947, and continue until I reach Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the sub-continent where Gandhi’s ashes were thrown into the sea.
As I travel I want to speak to people about their views on this subject, particularly those who remember the British rule and experienced Partition. They’ll be 85 or 90 now, so this really is the last big anniversary that they will celebrate. I want to capture some of these stories before they are lost forever.
So the main goal is to educate?
Yes. This is such an important historical event in British history that not many people know much about, and given it led to the downfall of the British Empire it’s something we should. A big ambition of mine is to source some lesson plans around this topic that will be freely available on my website. This will allow schools to get involved and follow the journey. I’ll also hold live classroom chats while I’m out there to allow classes from around the world to ask me questions about my experiences and what I’ve been able to find out.
And it’s still very much a relevant issue isn’t it, considering everything that’s happening with Britain leaving the EU?
Absolutely. With Britain leaving the EU we’re going to need to look at our own trade agreements and partnerships. We should be looking to our commonwealth relationships and leverage those – it’s a missed opportunity if we don’t.
When you do a huge challenge like this, many people aren’t prepared for the mental struggle. They’ll anticipate the physical challenges but not things like the routine, the monotony and the loneliness. Do you feel you’re more prepared for this as a result of your Amazon expedition?
I think the routine is something that you just slip into in order to keep going. There’s not much that changes day in, day out, so you don’t really need to prepare for that.
The monotony and the loneliness are different. They are things that you can’t really prepare for. In the Amazon, I found kayaking to be very cathartic – you’re doing the same movement for 10 or 11 hours a day. There were times when Tarran – my expedition partner – and I wanted to talk to one another but there were also times we wanted some alone time. If those times were different it was incredibly tough. Just me and my thoughts interspersed with the same music, audio books or podcast series that I’d listened to before. A couple of those days back to back and I felt quite lonely.
One way I found to prepare myself for the isolation was to slowly extract myself from social media. Nowadays we’re so connected and you know what everyone else is doing all the time. On an expedition, you don’t want to know, you don’t need to know. I would make a social post, review comments from the last post and then log off again. It was easier that way.
I guess having another person on board helps with the isolation, but you also have the clashes and the conflicts?
Yes, you do. You have someone else that speaks your language that you can rely on. On an expedition you have to be able to trust that person to do the right thing if something goes wrong. You want to know that they’ll do everything in their power to help get you out of that situation. At times, particularly after the time we were shot at, we were brought much closer together. But there were other times when we were forced apart – frustration and anger. As you’re getting physically and mentally tired you start getting pissed off at the smallest thing. “Why did you do that? You spilt half a cup of oats!” etc. In reality it seems stupid but those things do get to you.
Did you ever think of giving up?
I went through some incredibly tough days and a couple times I did think about giving up. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. One of the hardest was the day my cousin was getting married. My whole family were there and I knew exactly where they’d be at each part of the day. I was really struggling with the weight, my feet hurt and my stomach was churning. It took me five takes to film a one-minute video for them because I kept on crying. Mentally I found that very difficult. When I finally got the message sent, I got a reply saying they were all crying at the video. However, once we hit the jungle there was no way I was going home.
What are the challenges that you’ll face in India?
My plan for India is to pretty much do the journey solo. I’m going to have a guide for the mountain stage, as they’ll know the trails to cross and where we can stay, but the rest will be just me. Physically I think I’ll be fine, but I want to see how I cope mentally. Of course there are a lot of people in India, and many speak English, which is an advantage, so I’m hoping it’s not going to be too much of a problem, but I’ve never done a solo expedition.
One challenge will be to stay on track – I quite easily get distracted by things. I’m a bit like the moth in A Bug’s Life that keeps heading towards the shiny blue light of the bug zapper. I will see something that fascinates me – a person I meet, a festival in 3 days time, etc. The vibrancy, colour, smells and people in India will be amazing. So I’ll need to ensure I move on and stay focused on my end goal.
Another challenge that I am finding quite tough at the moment is the setbacks. There are certain parts of the route that are physically impossible at certain times of the year. This has meant that I’ve had to change my plans slightly, which is frustrating when I had planned on finishing the journey on Independence Day. I’m also sleeping pretty badly as I’ve got so much on my mind. I’ve also got a list as long as my arm of things to do and achieve with this expedition, and only so much time to do them in. It’s draining!
What are you most looking forward to about this trek?
I’m really looking forward to getting started in the Himalayas. The landscape will be spectacular and totally different to anything I’ve experienced before. I’m also really looking forward to meeting all the incredible people on my journey. Their fascinating stories, friendliness and love of life will be intoxicating alongside the colour, vibrancy, food and celebrations. It’s going to be an unbelievable experience.