Ever wondered what it’s really like on one of our expeditions? We caught up with Richard Walker, who joined Secret Compass in Madagascar, for a full debrief on his experience. He tells us all about his prep and training, what it’s like to trek through one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and his plans for his next big adventure.
What led you to booking a Secret Compass expedition? Why Madagascar?
I was reading a book by Levison Wood, a friend of mine had lent it to me while I was travelling. He mentioned that after he’d left the army he’d started Secret Compass with co-founder, Tom Bodkin. I do a lot of trekking, but I always plan it myself, and I hadn’t done any group expeditions. Doing things alone can be tricky – some places need permits and it’s not always straightforward to sort on your own. Reading about Secret Compass nudged me – I hadn’t done any big adventures in a while, just day treks around the Middle East, and wanted to do something significant.
A lot of tour companies do the same old expeditions, but I wanted something a bit different. I know a bit about kit and seeing the brands you talk about on your website and blog made me like you – we use the same stuff! I thought, ‘I’ve come to the right place’. When I first reached out, I spoke to Cat and we set up a chat. I liked that everyone gets to speak to the company first to make sure they’re on the right expedition. Afterwards, I felt like, ‘these people really get me’ – so, you had my attention!
I was originally looking at the Darien Gap expedition. It made me think of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark. The film opens in the South American jungle, and I thought it was so epic when I was a kid. But, after speaking with Cat and thinking through the details, we worked out that Madagascar had a lot more of what I was looking for. I live in Dubai, so it would have been 30 hours to get to Panama. I started reading up on Madagascar and saw what an interesting place it was – and a lot less flying to get there.
Have you always been an adventure seeker?
In my youth, I was always climbing on top of derelict buildings and loved being up high doing silly, risky things. I didn’t realise it at the time, but when I look back, I can see I was always thrill-seeking. I had a hiatus from adventure in my 20s – getting a mortgage, getting married – but I was always drawn to adventure. My brother went into the army, serving 16 years in mechanised infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hearing about all the adventurous things he was doing made me want to do more, too. I like to think I could have done it, too, if I’d made different choices, but I didn’t, so I’m trying to make up for it by doing more now.
How did you prepare for Madagascar?
I keep in reasonable shape, but I amped up the physical training before heading off. I do a lot of trekking – the great thing about Dubai is that you can travel east to the amazing Al Hajar mountain range – it’s just incredible, and that keeps me pretty fit. I hadn’t done an expedition in a long time, maybe the odd one-nighter, but nothing sustained. I decided to do the Madagascar expedition in January – I turned 49 the week after we got back. I thought I’d be the oldest person there by far, but I was one of the youngest. I had it in my head people would be in their 20s and 30s, and I didn’t want to be the slowest in the pack. So, I got into much better physical shape, taking a heavy pack out with me on hikes. I didn’t feel I needed to prepare too much mentally, I don’t have any problem with the psychology of it at all. I love being out on a trail, back to basics, with no mobile phone. I’d say that was one of the best things about the trip, the simplicity of expedition life – get up, brush teeth, eat, walk, sleep. It’s just good for the brain! We’re like computers; you spend too much time and do too much on one, you have to turn it off and reboot. The fact nobody had a phone, just a camera, was great. It’s a really positive way to build connections in the group, too.
“We got swamped by local kids, everyone wants to say hello. we taught them silly handshakes. I said to Paul, if you come back next year, I want these kids to still be doing exploding fist bumps!”
How did you feel when you got there?
Just really excited. I’ve had kids since my last big trip, so even getting on the plane was exciting. It was hard to leave my boys, but as I got to the airport, I let myself be excited – I’d been looking forward to and planning this trip for four months, buying new kit, which I love doing anyway, looking at my nutrition, and hitting my fitness goals. It just feels great when you finally get going.
Landing in Madagascar, the airport was amazing – it’s so clean and well organised. I landed in the daytime, so it was great to see the bustle of the streets straight away. One thing I’ve never seen before, which was talked about a lot on the trek, was at the market near our hotel there was a guy selling pigs’ faces, all lined up dead straight like they’re masks – pretty crazy!
I’ve got to mention the buses. Before you get to the start of the trail, there’s a pretty long bus journey. It describes it in the handbook, so it wasn’t a surprise, and it’s fun for a while, but it was challenging doing a long journey on some pretty hairy roads. Mainly it was tough was being surrounded by this incredible countryside and not being able to get out there in it! It’s always good chatting to people on long trips, you’re new and don’t know each other yet, and you just have lots to talk about.
We spent the first night in an incredible lodge at the start of the trail. It was owned by a really entertaining French guy, and there were other very interesting people staying there from all over the world. It’s just great to be immersed in the environment, out of the city. I felt so ready to start the trail – I just love having a pack on my back and getting out there.
“The first day we entered the jungle was awesome. It was quite dense, but we were like kids in a playground – climbing over logs, practicing balance beams, jumping over water, slipping over, getting muddy – spirits were really high.”
How did you find the expedition?
There was another guy in our group, and it turned out we were both from similar places in the UK – I couldn’t believe I’d gone all that way and met someone from Norfolk! He was really fit, but I kept up with him, so I was pleased with my training. We scaled Pic Boby, which was challenging, but doable for everyone. Groups tend to splinter by fitness level, so I could move between them if I wanted to feel more or less challenged.
When you think of Madagascar, you think lemurs, right? Seeing them in the wild was awesome. Paul, our team leader, told us he had done trips with awful weather and they only managed a glimpse of the wildlife. But we were lucky, and on the second or third day on the trail we were quite high up. The local guides were saying they could hear lemur calls and for us to keep our eyes peeled. We saw them from a distance which was cool. But then, a few minutes later, we heard them getting near – a gang of them swarmed about 20-30 metres from us. They were springing around exactly as you would imagine lemurs to, and it was just great to witness. We trekked through some local villages which were amazing. As much as I love the remoteness of the jungle and the plains, walking through the villages was something else. We got swamped by local kids, everyone wants to say hello and we taught them silly handshakes. I said to Paul, if you come back next year I want these kids to still be doing exploding fist bumps!
The first day we entered the jungle was awesome. It was quite dense but we were like kids in a playground – climbing over logs, practicing balance beams, jumping over water, slipping over, getting muddy – everyone was loving it! Spirits were really high.
Any sights, sounds or experiences that you’ve never come across before?
In Madagascar, it was like being Leonardo DiCaprio. The people are so friendly and so curious, they want to know who you are and what you’re up to and they want to welcome you and show you their home. There’s crime in so many places now, but I never felt at risk or unwelcome. In rural areas, you’re like a film star and local people just can’t get enough of you. That was really my overriding takeaway from Madagascar. The people are amazing. You can see it in the pictures as well – it looks like such a happy time, and it really was.
What did you take away from this experience overall?
Well, I’m a celebrity now, you know! But other than my new found fame, it’s got to be new friends. I’ve done some organised trips before, and I didn’t stay in touch with anyone. I had a different mindset this time and I felt that Secret Compass attracted people I’d really get on with. I’ve met up with people since Madagascar and everyone is still in touch on Whatsapp. We genuinely all got on so well. I really want to do the Afghanistan trip next. I know it’ll be a good group, people who love adventure and get that they have to put their own tents up!
“I was just blessed with incredible opportunities and I think getting out and reminding yourself of that, or learning it for the first time, is just so important. You come home and see things with fresh eyes, and your viewpoint is just that little bit wider.”
Why do you think that adventurous travel is important?
It’s important to me so I can feel tougher than my brother! There’s always a competitive sibling edge there. A lot of people I speak to ask me where I’ve been this year and I say, Madagascar. Most are amazed and say they wouldn’t go there or do that kind of trip. It certainly gives me some bragging rights! If I’m being honest, I like knowing I’ve got the mindset to go to these places, the mentality and the physicality. That’s important to me.
Also, it gives you such a perspective on your life, especially living in Dubai, where you’re living in a bubble of shopping malls and nightclubs. Leaving here and seeing how other people live, you really don’t know how lucky you are until you do that. I’ve been to places with much worse poverty than Madagascar, but it’s still poverty. And the people just live on. I think there’s a stat that 75% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. When you walk through these remote villages and you see the children who, if they’re very lucky, are going to school, it makes you think – what kind of opportunities do they have? It’s incredibly humbling and makes you realise how very, very lucky you are. I was just blessed with incredible opportunities and I think getting out and reminding yourself of that or learning it for the first time is just so important. You come home and see things with fresh eyes, and your viewpoint is just that little bit wider.