Living on the edge – Record breaking Welsh adventurer Ash Dykes
Most of us dream of a life filled with adventure, but a handful of us actually go out into the world and find it. Record breaking Welsh explorer Ash Dykes is one of those men. At the tender age of 26 he’s packed as many thrill filled trips in as ten people might in a lifetime. He’s braved some of the most extreme environments the planet has to offer, facing life-threatening danger on the way. His greatest achievements to date include becoming the first person to walk solo and unsupported across the harsh terrain of Mongolia in 2014, dodging deadly grey wolves on his way.
In 2016 Ash smashed another first when taking 155 days to traverse the length of Madagascar, all 1,600 miles of it. He also climbed the highest 8 mountains on the island during his endeavour despite contracting the deadliest strain of malaria and nearly dying just one month into his adventure. Read his amazing story.
The MALESTROM: What got you into adventuring?
Ash Dykes: I think it was initially the curiosity of what was out there, and partially being sick of the UK. I was studying a BTEC in outdoor education, and it was at that point I realised I’d learn far more through experience than being sat in a classroom. When I first went travelling I was very much on the beaten track. I was venturing round China, which was great, but I had the same stories, photos and experiences as everyone else, I wanted something a bit wilder, more adventurous. It started off as a joke at first with my friend, lets find the cheapest and nastiest bikes we can, cause we were on such a low budget, and cycle Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. We ended up doing it – it was my first away from home adventure and I’d say it was the catalyst for everything I’ve done up to this date. It was reckless, it was dangerous, the bikes cost ten pounds; we had a non-waterproof tent. We didn’t have a pump or puncture repair kit, I had a little bell and a basket on the front, they were crazy bikes. We were chased by dogs, hit by mopeds, even had to dodge lorries.
TM: So you learned a lot about survival just from that trip?
AD: Yeah, well I was learning the hard way. I was making mistakes but that’s what developed me, I tried never to make the same mistake twice.
TM: Tell us about your record-breaking 1,600 mile walk from the South to North of Madagascar?
AD: That was just incredible. It was spurred on by my solo and unsupported walk across Mongolia. That was amazing as well, but I thought it would be great to walk across a country where I’d constantly be coming across locals and learning about their way of life, how they survive in often harsh and remote locations. That’s when Madagascar came to mind. So I started doing lots of research and found out about a man named Gilles who’s pretty much the face of adventure out there I contacted him and he became my logistics manager for the trip. Gilles told me people had walked the island before along the coast but there’s nothing to suggest anyone had tackled the mountainous ridge that lies central East of the island and covers almost the entire length. He set me a challenge and from that point I was hooked. So I was like right lets attempt that and while I’m doing it I’ll try and take on the eight highest mountains on the way. From there I started to train, search for sponsors. It was all low budget, I had local sponsors. It would be a five-month expedition of 1,600 miles and I’d be trekking from desert to tropical dry forest to tropical rain forests, savannas, the jungle up North and of course the highest mountains, it took 155 days. On the way I also partnered with the Lemur Conservation Network who are an organisation that work on the ground trying to protect all the natural habitat and wildlife, so I thought if I can help promote and spread awareness of all the great work being done then it’s not just about me and my endeavour it’s about Madagascar as a whole. Nearly 80% of all plant life and wildlife is found nowhere else in the world. It’s a beautiful place.
TM: It looks beautiful but it also sounds like it was hostile in places. How did you prepare for that?
AD: I did face some big dangers while I was out there, crocodile infested waters being one. There were a lot of river crossings. So I had to plan carefully on how to cross. I either had to build a raft out of natural resources or if there were locals around I’d ask them where they crossed. I’d also try and cross where there were rapids, as crocodiles don’t tend to rest in those areas. There was also the mosquitoes, I contracted the deadliest strain of malaria, the doctor said I was hours from slipping into a coma. It was scary; they say it normally takes you within 24 hours. I was just hanging in there after five days because I believe my anti-malaria pills were still trying to fight it. That’s what gave me those extra few days, which was very lucky.
TM: Was that the scariest moment you faced on the trip?
AD: It was either that or I would say there was a section up North where we were crossing in the Mountains, we had to get across a really big river. It had crocodiles in, it was night-time, it was cyclone season and at this point I had a photographer with me and her porter. So me and my local guy had to really look after them. Although it was probably too dangerous to be crossing the river we had to get to the other side and we almost lost our photographer. She was hanging in the grip of me and my guide dangling, her head was going under. We couldn’t even hear her screaming because of the roar of the water. Our head torches were blinding each other in our eyes, that’s where the adrenaline kicked in and we realised if we let go of her now she’s gone for sure. Especially as she had on a rucksack and was properly strapped in, that would have dragged her to the bottom. I’d say that was scariest because it wasn’t my life anymore it was someone else’s and I’d promised to look after her.
TM: Of course. What kind of preparation and training did you have to do?
AD: The training is really important. I’ve heard a few adventurers say you train when you’re out there, but it’s not just training physically, it’s about building yourself up mentally. I always expect myself to face the worst, not because I want to, but if I expect to come across the worst at least I’ll be mentally prepared to try and tackle it. It’s probably 70% mental, 30% physical on each of these expeditions. A lot of things come into play, it’s whether you’re a fight or flight person, whether you shy away from challenges or try and face them head on. I tried to minimise the risks at all costs. With the training it’s a real mix. I train in my garden and my garage, I’ve got big bars I do a lot of callisthenics, so using more body weight and inner core strength, I believe if you have that agility, flexibility and I guess durability in general you can withstand more. It’s also facing the elements, getting outside early in the morning when it’s cold and dark when you’re not motivated, going out there anyway and pushing yourself, whether it’s a weighted jog or a cycle with a weighted rucksack, anything, trekking maybe. It’s funny people assume I do a lot of trekking but I don’t, not around Wales anyway, it’s not that side of it that I really love, it’s the survival, the discovery, coming across new things on your way. It’s the scramble trying to get to the mountains, you’ve got a machete in your hand, you’re opening up through the thick of the jungle. One bit of forest we met was so thick we had to walk back on ourselves for three days, which was so demoralising. So I’d say the strength training, good cardio and inner core base foundation are key for these trips.
TM: You need lots of calories to survive, how did you get them?
AD: There’s a population of between 22 – 24 million so we’d come across locals fairly regularly, so we did get some small portions from them. There was one point where we didn’t see anyone for a week so we had to hunt. We went after tenrecs, which are like hedgehogs. We’d come across mangos, sugar cane, and coconuts. We hunted and foraged what we could along the way. One cool thing we came across was a palm tree that if you hacked into it, it was like a tube which was edible. It was like a natural bark from it’s inner. That was pretty cool, I was like, this is why I do this, to learn survival from the locals.
TM: You mentioned about the mental aspect of things. How did you cope with the isolation?
AD: With Madagascar I already felt I’d prepared after the Mongolia trip. That was truly solo and unsupported. There was no van, no camera crew; I was in the thick of it. If I got into trouble I would need to allow at least 3 days till someone could pick me up. I went about 8 or 9 days without seeing a single soul. That was in the Gobi desert. But in Madagascar even if we didn’t see anyone else I was always there with my guide, so I had company, we could have gone months without seeing anyone else and we’d have been fine. Mongolia was 78 days completely alone. I took a little MP3 player, but it was a short play list so I got sick of the music (laughs). It was just on repeat all the time.
TM: How did you keep in touch with the world?
AD: I had a cheap bog standard satellite phone, it was text only. It still allows you to get your message across. I could send a text of a maximum 160 characters, but I had to be careful because it charges you quite a lot. It was fine when I reached a city, they had 4G, in fact most cities in Madagascar have better Internet signal than in Wales (laughs).
TM: How do you combat the fear of some of the challenges you take on?
AD: I try and look at each scenario as it comes. For example with Mongolia, I met so many people in London that were telling me they don’t believe it was physically possible and that started to get to me mentally. I started to have fears like, what if the wolves got me? Or how would I react to snow blizzards and sand storms? So I thought, I need to break this down, and I did with my logistics manager. We looked at everything we possibly could and said which is the day that I fail, which is the most difficult? Which is the most impossible? And we realised none of them were impossible, they were just going to be very challenging on certain sections, we knew the mental battle would be the toughest. I decided that’s all I could do, try and minimise the fears. They can only come one at a time, whether it be grey wolves or sand storms, they’re only going to come at individual times so I just have to learn how to handle every one as it comes. I guess they were the questions I wanted to answer by going out there, to see how I’d handle things, how I’d react to it, and I could only do that by first hand experience.
TM: Having been brought up in our culture and experiencing all these amazing places and that sense of freedom, how does it differ when you get home to Wales?
AD: When I’m out there I realise that people are just as happy. They have their family and friends, their day-to-day basics, but they don’t have their fancy cars, clothes, and houses. But they’re still as happy as anyone over here. But it is nice when you come home, you’ve been facing the extremes and a harsh environment and you get back and you have a kettle that you can just switch on by the plug. You can take a shower, it just feels crazy when you come back after 155 days of making a fire and having to constantly check on it. We just have it a lot easier. We set ourselves other challenges like driving through traffic to get to a meeting. Different challenges in their own right, it’s like two different worlds.
TM: With the different cultures and ways of living, which way of life would you subscribe to if you had to pick one?
AD: I think it’d be a mix. In the western world it’s hard to look past the point that we are destroying the planet, and when you see it’s true beauty trekking through the jungles and seeing the abundance of wildlife and you think in ten to fifteen years time these jungles might not be here. Most of this endemic, found nowhere else in the world wildlife may not exist anymore. And you know it’s from the Western society, these rural communities have been learning our ways. It’s all about education effectively, and they’re being educated in the wrong ways.
TM: Is the conservation factor the major element that drives you to take on these challenges?
AD: I’d say at first it wasn’t, but the more I see of the world, the more I learn and experience the more I definitely want to help. Before Mongolia I obviously did the Vietnam cycle as I’ve said, learned to survive in the jungle with a Burmese Hill Tribe, I was trekking the Himalayas, and all that was for the love of adventure. All of those were quite reckless, I was told in the Himalayas I couldn’t trek without a permit because I’d be shot by the Pakistan army. They even went to the effort of showing me how to pray! So it was always for the challenge I would say. Now that I’ve started to develop and become more mature I want to link to every expedition I do some kind of angle, whether it’s for the wildlife, global warming or the good of the country. That’s what I tried to do with Mongolia and then really ramped it up for Madagascar. I was recently announced as the UK ambassador for tourism in the country, which was really special. I think it’s the younger generation who can change things, so if we can educate them then all the better.
TM: You mentioned the Burmese hill tribe just then. What was your experience with them like?
AD: That was just awesome. It was the North West of Thailand, we trekked through the jungle illegally, there was no border control, we ended up in the Burmese jungle. We came across a local tribal community that were living out in the mountainous jungle, hunting, gathering. They had little huts they had built from wood. We were learning their ways, how to make mosquito repellent from berries, how to hunt, how to gather, building our own shelter from bamboo and banana leaves. That was when I was 19, it was adventures like this that spurred me on, but it got to the point when I knew I needed to focus. That was when I went back to Thailand, I invested in myself with the little money that I had remaining and became a master scuba diving instructor for two years. But I’d also fight against the locals in Muay Thai for extra cash as well (laughs).
TM: What was that like?
AD: That was intense!
TM: Were you already trained in Muay Thai?
AD: No. I was a boxer before I went out there so I paid the price for that (laughs), jacked my leg up, it’s a completely different stance, but I learned the way of the Muay Thai and was training five days a week, every week. I was really putting in the hours, there were western camps but I was training in the camps with the locals. I went for my first stadium fight, which was just brutal. It’s where the guys come over from the mainland and the winner takes back £80-100, which is a lot in Thailand, and I was skint, and so was the Thai guy, so our hearts were really in it. We would just fight it out, with good technique of course. The first fight was really good; I won by knockout in 12 seconds (laughs), which was intense. I loved that, locals were round the ring pointing, placing bets. The bell goes and the Thai fight music comes on and you just go for it. You get a big shot of adrenaline; I saw it all as preparation for Mongolia, mental as well as physical.
TM: Where does your courage come from?
AD: I’m not sure. I’ve always had a curious mind for sure, there’s no dark hidden past that’s made me want to put myself through pain. I guess I just love the world and love the thought of exploration. I’d say my Granddad … I’ve only met him for eight weeks of my life but he still is a courageous traveller, living in India, living in Pakistan for 22 years in Karachi. He’s got some mad adventure stories, so maybe that’s passed down, I don’t know. I guess it’s a curiosity to challenge everything.
TM: You mentioned earlier about almost dying from malaria. What was it like being on the edge of death and coming back from it?
AD: For those five days I just believed I was suffering from heat exhaustion, because I had a real close call in the Gobi desert when I was close to dying, the symptoms were fairly similar to what I had with the malaria, I had a headache, I felt my organs needed oiling with water. I was delirious, I went from being strong and capable to not being able to hold a glass of water, that’s when I realised this isn’t heat stroke, this is worse than the desert. I had to act fast and get to a small village, which had local transport; they took me to the nearest city three hours away. That’s when I saw the doctor, I was still uncertain as to what I had, but she did a blood test and two minutes later she came back and said I had the deadliest strain of malaria, we need to act now. The panic in her face made me panic as well and that’s when I was like holy shit, I’ve messed up here. One month into the expedition and I’ve messed up, hopefully she can recover me, but I assumed if you get malaria that’s it, it stays in your system forever. But I was mistaken, there are four different strains, the three lower ones can remain dormant but it’s only the deadliest strain that you can completely eradicate from your system. So eight painful days later I made a full recovery and went back to that small community and had the second highest mountain to climb and then another four months of trekking (laughs). I’d lost about 12kgs so was looking a real mess, skinny with a big beard, mad!
TM: Did it change your perception of things?
AD: On a personal level I found out I was much more capable than I assumed. On another level I realised I was the lucky one who fortunately has the money to pay for those pills. As I survived that I felt as though I’d been granted another life. You hear of the Malagasy dying out there. They say a child dies of malaria every two minutes in the world. It’s the biggest killer in human history. That side of things get you thinking and I suppose it did have an impact because I partnered with Malaria No More UK who are looking to completely kill off malaria in our lifetime. The pills cost the same price as a cup of tea but of course they can’t afford them, which is crazy.
TM: The locals showed some more generosity toward you when they gave you a chicken to ward off evil spirits, tell us about that …
AD: That’s right. I got given a white cockerel which I called Gertrude. I don’t know why I gave a male chicken that name but (laughs) … he was with me for two and a half weeks, I had to keep him alive then set him free at the top of the mountain. You carry him to keep away the evil spirits of the rain forest and when you set him free you have to mix rum and honey and have a shot of that, then they say the bad spirits allow you back down the mountain. So it’s a real crazy tradition.
TM: Is drinking on the top of a mountain usually recommended?
AD: (laughs) No one would ever recommend you take a shot stood on the peak. Crazy!
TM: Going back to your Mongolia trip the locals gave you the nickname ‘the lonely snow leopard.’ How did that come about?
AD: That was three weeks into my trek over Mongolia, which was 1,500 miles in total, pulling 120 kgs for the length of the trip. Because it was completely solo and unsupported and I was just walking over the Altai Mountains, I wasn’t approached by the wolves … luckily. The locals in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar got wind of my story and it became big news there. My local logistics manager called me when I had signal after I’d broken out of the mountains and he told me the locals here have come up with a nickname for you. So I was like what’s that? And he said ‘the lonely snow leopard’. I thought that’s pretty cool, but why? He said because the wolves are keeping a respectful distance from you. I thought, oh shit, I hope you’ve not jinxed me now (laughs)! Hopefully they’ll continue to stay away.
Welcome to the jungle
TM: Did you have any idols growing up that looking back may have affected this career path?
AD: I don’t think it’s any one person, but maybe a range of different people from different industries doing things against the odds. It could be someone like Floyd Mayweather or someone who’s done something incredible and gone for it even though they were told they couldn’t do it. In the adventure industry I’d say Bear Grylls is an inspiration. In his early days when he climbed Everest after being told by the doctor he’d never walk again, that’s really cool.
TM: What wisdom have you picked up on your journeys?
AD: I guess I’ve evolved. When I left home I was 19, before that I had nowhere near the confidence that I have now. I was more stressed, I looked to fit in. I guess going away travelling I’ve become more confident, more independent. If something bad happens I’ve learned to try and deal with it fast. I’ve also become organised from these expeditions, well I like to think so anyway (laughs). Each adventure makes me more humble and I guess hungrier to progress in the industry and make my mark. Every adventure drives me and they keep getting bigger and better, this next one is a true beast of an expedition, it’ll take a minimum of 12 months to complete. I can’t announce it unfortunately, but I’m thinking wow, what do I do after that?
TM: You talked then about making your mark, what legacy would you like to leave from all the adventures?
AD: I go for the positive outlook on life, when I travel I try to focus … although there is great negativity at times, I see things that are difficult to watch, and hear things difficult to listen to, but I try and find a positive in each. I think the way things are today, especially with the news, which is full of negativity, it’s that negativity that brings fear upon us. If I listened too much to that I wouldn’t have gone on to do Mongolia, which ultimately wouldn’t have led me to do Madagascar. I guess I want to put out that positive aspect that the world is a wonderful place with so much to explore. Also with my background, I don’t come from a wealthy background, I wasn’t privately schooled, I am an everyday guy with a normal upbringing. I believe that more people can relate to me than the likes of some people in the adventure industry, who have a big wallop of money sent their way to go off and do adventures. So I want to try and inspire the next generation, the ones who come from a normal upbringing, so privately schooled or not, University degree or not, you can still go out there and achieve great things. It’s also to share the beauty of our planet and to protect it.