Around the world without the planes

Slow traveller and author Ed Gillespie discovers the joy of slow travel on a 45,000 mile flight-free journey around the world

Just over a decade ago I gave up flying to my holiday destinations, and ever since people have looked upon this decision with horror, as if giving up flying was the ultimate foolhardy sacrifice; a self-flagellating gesture of penance in which the personal loss would far outweigh the environmental gains. I set out to prove the contrary in rather extreme fashion: in 2007 I circumnavigated the globe without going anywhere near an airport.

By forsaking planes, and their associated destructive carbon emissions, I hoped to rediscover the joy of travelling through the world, not just over it. I wanted to experience the intimate transition of landscape, culture, people and language, soak up the sights, sounds and smells of the journey and not just bunny-hop around the planet in an aluminium sausage. By staying grounded I hoped to find the journey itself to be my reward.

My 13-month trip took in 31 countries and covered over 45,000 miles. The wonderful land and seascapes remain in my mind, like a continuous visual memory of each incremental step. The icy white expanses of the vast, and frozen, Lake Baikal in Siberia, through which I dangled a fishing line to catch, cook and eat the freshest fish I’ve ever tasted. Or rumbling through the sands of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, vultures circling above the bleached bones of skeletons dotted across the harsh and arid surroundings.

Flying makes the world seem small. But let’s face it, it’s not. When you bump across every last dusty mile of land from London to Singapore, sail the crest of each briny wave of the Timor, Tasman and Pacific seas and oceans, rattle through Central America and finally blow back across the Atlantic to England, the world feels like a mighty big place. Slow travel resizes the world in a way that represents reality, not perception.

That sense of scale, the wonderful appreciation of gentle change that overland journeys involve, the slow shifts that reveal the planet and its people’s rich and varied delights, were the joys of my voyage.

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It wasn’t always easy though. My trip included numerous border incidents. I ‘enjoyed’ a last minute overnight bypass of Belarus, for example. I was arrested by Chinese guards crossing in from Mongolia – “and now for formalities” announced the very sweet, but heavily armed officer. But the highlight was an accusation of drug smuggling while entering Japan, due to some ill-advised photography in an unlikely marijuana field beside the Great Wall of China.

But that was also what the trip was all about: putting the adventure back into travel. The joy (and sometimes pain) of travel, I realised, often occurs in the gaps of the conventionally appealing. By reducing travel to transit we deny joyful accidental discoveries. Overland travel embraces the impromptu and unforeseen, and there lies a fund of unanticipated knowledge and experiences.

In the steamy tropical jungles of Central America I scaled live volcanoes, skipping recklessly across the thin rocky skins of the craters, a fiery demise simmering just below. I explored lost Mayan civilisations, communed with a Costa Rican sloth, explored tombs full of mummies and saw that most questionable of sports, Mexican Lucha Libre wrestling, up close and firsthand. Not to mention crossing the vast oceans of the Atlantic and Pacific on cargo ships, a unique insight into how global trade is conducted, the isolation of the sea and how to sing karaoke with the crew.

Because as much as anything the trip was about the people I met en route. From grizzled merchant seamen through tattooed pop-star ex-pats, to the curious characters with whom I shared train journeys the world over – swapping food, drink, stories and experiences. It is these memories that linger longest and matter most.

I know my journey won’t change the world. But what it, and the book I’ve written about it, hopefully will do is start a conversation about the meaning, purpose and sustainability of travel in an age of climate change. We might find that by staying grounded we have only the false Gods of cost and convenience to lose and the real wealth of the world to gain. And by doing so we may also feel ourselves better connected to each other and our one and only, lonely planet.

Positive Travel is edited by Aaron Millar. He writes about adventure travel, and personal development through exploring the world, at