2018 and the art of being S.M.A.R.T.

I was thinking about what I want to try to achieve in 2018 when I came across some good advice that really resonated with me. If I have failed to reach my goals in the past, it’s nearly always been because I haven’t made sure they were S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound. So that shall be my credo for 2018: be smart about what tasks I set myself.

The fundamentals haven’t changed: I want to develop as a person, intellectually and physically, by testing my limits, working diligently and hard towards certain goals, and I want to travel to see the world and broaden my horizons, ensuring that by the end of the year I can look back and see progress and time well spent.

So: smart intellectual challenges – the ones I’ve worked on for a couple of years now still remain the same: I want to read more non-fiction, get better at piano, French, and chess. That’s not very specific, tho, so measuring progress will be key; I need targets I can quantify. One book per month. One new piece of music learnt every two months. One hundred French words per month. And as for chess… well, getting a rating of 1400 before the end of the year would be an easily measurable goal, if not necessarily that easily attainable. (I’m hovering around the 1300-mark as I’m writing this…). Plus I will note down every half hour spent on each activity, thus keeping a tally for accountability purposes.

So I’ve got all of those down to an A.R.T. Physical challenges are a little different, mainly because of the uncertainty I’m living with at the moment, so for 2018, I have decided to change tack a little. For my first challenge in January I will do a runstreak. Running every day will hopefully allow me to rebuild what was damaged in the accident in November. If that goes to plan, Paris marathon in April will be another milestone on the road to recovery, and if that goes well I’ll sign up for either another ultra marathon, or a full length Ironman. Or both.

Alas, there are too many unknowns at this stage for me to know if I will be able to run such distances again, but if I can, then a total of 1500k each of running and biking seem attainable goals overall. At least I know I can bike, so if running is out then I’m doubling that number for biking (and only watching Netflix while on the stationary bike will kill two birds with one stone – limiting my Netflix binging AND encouraging more time in the saddle!).

Weights have never been anything but a complement to my other workouts – now more so than ever as I try to strengthen my weak leg – but again, if I find I don’t recover my running capacity, I will focus more on getting strong/building muscle. Having always been skinny it would be interesting to see if I could actually muscle up.

As for swimming, I want to learn how to crawl properly! At present I can hardly do one length in the pool, and even though I managed the Ironman 70.3 anyway it would be nice to shave off five or ten minutes from that time, so learning how to crawl at least a kilometre is another challenge.

I will be working more in 2018 than I have for a decade, which will hopefully have the dual effect of giving me the opportunity to take on more interesting work on the job, and allowing me a bigger travel budget, as, happily, my children have said they want to travel more with me, so that will affect what trips I take this year.

2018 promises an Arab spring once more, as I’m going back to Morocco in January and have another trip to Egypt in February (with the kids). I have a week of holidays in March that I don’t know what to do with yet – downhill skiing would be nice, but again it’s dependent on me making a complete recovery. I want to go back to Spain and get a fully-fledged paragliding pilot’s licence. Hiking in Iceland would be lovely, the last part of Bergslagsleden still beckons, and I want to do at least one journey further afield – maybe watching the great sardine run in South Africa? Or taking the kids to the US? There’s no shortage of possibilities.

Other challenges: I wouldn’t mind doing more for the environment. This could involve installing geothermal heating in the house, keeping hens for eggs, joining a wind power collective or other changes. One thing I do know I want to try is becoming a vegetarian. At least for a month.

Not eating any sugar in any shape or form may be another challenge, and limiting my social media intake to half an hour per day wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

And of course I want to continue building my blog, writing about my experiences for the joy of writing, but also as a living testament to what I do with my life when I don’t have my kids. Hopefully my readership will continue to grow, but that is less important. If I can inspire only two people, that is more than enough for me.

Here’s to a future!

P.S. All this goes out the window if I were to get my dream job, of course… 😄


Swedish Yuletide

I’m headed back to Ultima Thule to celebrate the holidays. Of course, Christmas in Sweden has very little to do with celebrating mass, or Christ. Sweden is to all intents and purposes as heathen as it was before it was christened, and Yule (the Swedish word for the holiday is Jul) was always about appeasing the gods and assorted spirits and sprites that influence life in the cold darkness of winter – something which still goes on, regardless of what the church dictates.

The examples are legion: So for instance the tomte, a gnome that embodied the spirit of the homestead, had to be fed and given gifts, to ensure that the animals lived and stores weren’t depleted. Later on, of course, the tomte was mixed up with St Nicklaus, and Coca-cola added its own taint to the figure, thus ensuring Santa was born, but Swedish kids still leave out porridge or cakes and milk for the tomte the night before Christmas, in what is essentially a last ditch attempt at bribery.

He knows if you've been bad...

We have also, famously, incorporated St Lucia in our traditional celebrations. Why an Italian saint who was burned alive would become part of heathen feasts might seem less than obvious, but when you consider that we have been sacrificing people and animals around the time of the winter solstice to bring back the light since before the Viking era, and lighting fires and singing to scare away the darkness, it’s perhaps easier to see the allure of this sacrificial lamb and her demise. Traditions tend to get lost in the mist of time, however, so the gruesome fact that children dress up in white shrouds and have lit candles in their hands and hair as a token funeral pyre is utterly lost on most modern Swedes in any event.

Speaking of lambs: the aforementioned tomte wasn’t traditionally the one who brought gifts (beyond the gift of not getting pissed off and ruining the farmstead) – that was the role of the Yule billy goat. To what extent this benevolent critter has common ancestry with Krampus, the black horned satyr/devil spawn that probably begat the Belgian Black Pete, who is the antithesis of St Nicklaus, I wouldn’t like to say, but in Sweden at least the goat was always warmly welcomed – probably because trolls were the ones in charge of abducting little children.

One Krampus, two Krampiss...

The word Yule itself is of unknown origins, but if I were to engage in guesswork, it’s probably no coincidence that the old Norse “jul” is very similar to the Swedish word “hjul”, wheel. The wheel of time always turns, and at no time is that more keenly felt, than in the midst of Nordic winter, when the longing for a new cycle of life is most desperate.

So as you can see, celebrating Yule may have a thin veneer of Christianity to it, but when we heap portion after portion of the sacrificed pig unto our plates – always mindful of it being lagom (literally “enough for everyone”) – and drink each others’ health by crying “Skål!” – a word that derives from “skull”, as the craniums of slain enemies were used as drinking vessels – we honour a heritage that goes back much, much further than any Christmas.

Good Yule, everyone!


On balance

It’s fair to say the year ended on a bum note. Things don’t always go as planned. But what of the rest of the year? Time to look back and reflect on what went according to plan, and what didn’t.

But for the butt injury, I might have had a sporting chance at reaching my distance goals for running and biking (averaging a marathon distance per week for each), but realistically that was too much. I did do that much on average when at home, but traveling got in the way, and that lowered total mileage significantly. Need to set more realistic goals, especially with next year’s runstreak requiring time every day.

I did set a new personal best on every one of the distances 1k, 5k, 10k, 21k and 42k, which was gratifying. It’s a clear sign the training pays off, after all. Two marathons – one as early as January – and even if my one attempt at an ultra didn’t end well it was still a good experience. Lesson learnt? Don’t try mountain trail running 70+ kilometres the first time you do it.

I did my first ever triathlon – an Ironman 70.3, and the result was better than I had hoped. Still not sure whether a full-length one is worth the trouble, but maybe… saying I did half-something jars my soul!

I didn’t lift weights, swim or do yoga anywhere near as much as I had planned. I did some, but found it difficult to fit it all into my routine. Will have to find another balance to make it all work. And actually learn how to swim.

So much for fitness. I didn’t read as much non-fiction as I would have liked, but what I read was good. I’ve played a lot of chess and piano, and studied French, too, but I’m still not sure how to measure progress here. I know I am progressing, but how to tell? The system of dividing up the day into half hours to ensure that things get done works, at least, so I will continue doing that. And only watching Netflix when I’m on the stationary bike will kill two birds with one stone…!

Travels and challenges, then? I certainly travelled a lot, and two themes emerged: island hopping around Africa, covering Pemba, Mallorca, and Madeira (following on from Malta), and hiking in the alps in France, Bavaria and Sweden (ok, so we don’t have alps, but parts of Bergslagsleden were really hilly!). Add to that the two(!) trips to Andalusia – once to see Alhambra, and once to learn how to paraglide – and a nice long weekend in Paris, and you have what I would deem a pretty good year of wanders. More of that, please.

Challenges? I went on a paleo diet with good results, I learnt how to fly – or at least fall really slowly – and camped in a tent for the first time in 35 years. And at work I got to try new things, like writing a movie script and leading a think tank, so that was very pleasant, too (and never mind that I applied for my dream job – it’s good to dream, as well!). Less pleasant was the aforementioned injury which left me incapable of running and in a lot of pain, but that only meant that I had one last challenge to overcome this year: rehabilitating myself and getting back on my feet.

Lest I forget, the year has brought some wonderful new people into my life, as eclectic a bunch of characters as one can hope for: an Argentinian telenovela starlet in Tanzania, a Scottish philosopher in Spain, my own personal stalker, a Phillipina philanthropist, a Swedish ultrarunner in Amsterdam… in fact, if I were to write a book about them all it would probably seem outlandish, which brings me to my last point: this blog.

I’ve continued to write throughout the year, about everything and anything, from great tits to particle accelerators, and my readership is steadily increasing (visitors up 25% (to 2800+) and views up 50% (to 5500+) at the time of writing), something for which I’m immensely grateful! It’s humbling to foist your words on people and have them not only actually read them but also come back for more. So thank you, dear reader. I hope you have enjoyed the ride this far.

It’s been a good year, on balance.



I still haven’t run since the accident in Spain three weeks ago, but rehab is progressing and I remain optimistic. I really, really want to get back out there and start running again!

And then today a couple of ultra runners I follow on Facebook (Paceonearth) posted about a challenge that would suit me really well: doing a runstreak through the entire month of January. I signed up immediately!

If you’re not familiar with the concept, it means running for at least a mile and twenty minutes per day. Incredibly, there are people who have done this for decades, never missing a day. One half of the couple behind the initiative (Ellen) has done it for over four years, and shows no signs of stopping – even going out for a shuffling run the day after completing the UTMB!

Anyway, the idea is for people to sign up for this and find motivation in others doing the same, so if you want to join up, you can do so here. Let’s beat the elements, fatigue, laziness, and accomplish something together!

2018 – a year of running?

Moving pictures

I write this blog because I enjoy it, and hopefully it can be entertaining for others to read as well, but it’s meant more than that. Last year I got a job in communications principally because people at work had read it and liked what they saw. Gratifying, to say the least!

So I’ve been conducting interviews and writing about what goes on in my work place, but this autumn I got to do something really special: I was put in charge of writing a movie script for an infomercial – a task both daunting and exciting, as I’ve never done anything like that before.

The brief was to sell my organisation as the go-to-place for big conferences and similar events. And while it might be a little too American-action-movie-trailer-y for some*, I really like how it turned out. Hope you do, too:

As you may have noticed, I ended up doing the voice-over narration as well, which was fun. That inspired me to do a commercial of a rather dissimilar nature – for my application to go on the Fjällräven Polar expedition**. It’s a different beast altogether, but I think it is rather sweet. Here it is:

So in one month I’ve done two whole movies (and never mind that they’re two minutes each)! Writer/director/narrator/animator would look good on a business card, wouldn’t it?

Joking aside, I don’t know that movie making will be a regular feature in the future, but voice acting I could see myself doing more of. The reviews are in, and they range from “sexier than Morgan Freeman” to “laglag malawal”, which is foreign speak for “underwear-droppingly good” (or so I’m told), so maybe there’s a sideline to be had in that department? 😄 A dear friend has already said she would scout the market for me.

Maybe I should add that to my list of challenges for next year…?

* On the other hand, my kids lobbied hard for Deadpool to have a cameo – just goes to show you can’t please everyone.

** If you’re reading this before 14 December there’s still time to vote – what are you waiting for??

Shedding a tear

Well, it’s hard to believe it, but 2017 is almost over. I said I’d take on a challenge or go on a trip per month this year, and I had some ideas about what I’d do for December, but alas, events have overtaken me.

As some of you may know, I have an old injury in my left leg, which leaves me with a structural imbalance. It’s always been a fear that this would someday get even worse, and, well, one forceful step was all it took: As I was running down a hill in Spain last month I heard something tear in my groin, while a flash of intense pain shot up through my buttock.

I was hardly able to stand afterwards, let alone walk or run. I managed to do the rest of the paragliding course, literally limping across the finishing line, but the damage was done, so now I have to undo it as best I can. This will have to be my challenge for December then: Operation Shed A Tear.

I signed up with a physiotherapist, which is a misnomer. She gets very physical, that much is true. Therapeutic? If you’re a masochist, perhaps.

Now, it would be wrong to say she gets Medieval on my ass. More Chilean – under Pinochet. There’s horse liniment, a plunger(!), electrodes hooked up to a car battery, duct tape, needles. All these things go onto or into my ass. And groin. Then there’s exercises. Core exercises, balance, stretching – all those things you should do all the time, but never do (at least I don’t). Plus biking, as much as I can take. And drinking lots of water to keep the cells nice and supple.

I haven’t run for two weeks (the scales know this already!) but I seem to be working out as hard as ever. Hopefully I’ll be back on track (again quite literally) before the end of the month. That’s the goal. It’s already taken blood and sweat. If it can alleviate the tears? We’ll see. Paris marathon in April is still on, as far as I’m concerned.

Fjällräven Polar

Recently I wrote about my dream job. Well, today I signed up for a dream trip. Or applied, at least. You see, the clever marketing folk over at Fjällräven have an annual event they organise, where anyone thus inclined can try to get picked to go on a polar expedition. It’s a cunning way to get people to do your advertising for you, of course – much like I’m doing right now – but it is an extraordinary adventure, too.

The lucky ones get to travel through 300 kilometres of arctic wilderness using dog sleds – not only riding along, you understand, but learning how to handle the dogs and the sled, sleeping out under the stars, equipped with the very best Fjällräven has to offer.

Some might view this as sheer hell, of course. I see it as a fantastic way to fulfil my ambitions of challenging myself, experiencing extraordinary nature and meeting people and learning about things I would otherwise never encounter.

There is a snag, tho. They pick the participants based on their popularity, so if you want me to go to Hell/have the time of my life, you can help. Vote for me here. Then copy the link and send it to all the people you know and blackmail them into voting, too, and you might just get to see me do my finest eskimo impression. So you see, there is something Inuit for you, too…!

Spanish Fly

I’m about to throw myself off a mountain. 

It’s at times like this you question your life choices. It’s a beautiful day, and I’ve got everything to live for. Why would I do this?

Leonardo da Vinci knew. “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” Astonishingly ahead of his time as always, he wrote that 300 years before man actually “tasted flight”. As for me personally, it was as recently as three months ago in a tandem flight in the alps of Bavaria, and so for my November challenge I have signed up for an Elementary Pilot paragliding course. 

There’s eight of us on the course: four firemen from Wales, two ex-army Englishmen, a somewhat elderly Scottish academic and myself under the tutelage of two laid-back but incredibly professional para-bums: Ross and Jack from FlySpain

We’re ferried from Malaga to a quaint mountain-side village in Andalusia. This is archetypical Spanish countryside: weatherworn men and women in black knitwear in front of whitewashed houses, rolling fields, olive groves and oak trees under which Ferdinand the bull and his friends still graze. Algodonales looks much the same as it probably has since the time of the Moors (the neighbouring village of Zahara still lies beneath the ruins of a Moorish castle), but the main draw here is the hilly landscape, clear blue skies and warm sun, which provides paragliders with ideal flying conditions.

Ross and Jack have us starting off learning to handle our equipment on a dried-out lake, as flat as can be, and then we move on to a little hill (60 metres or so) in the middle of plowed fields, where we progress to mini-flights, practicing take-off and landing under relatively safe conditions. 

​​I say relatively, because before you get the hang of it, the wing is an unruly thing, and almost every one of us fails to take off at some point, with either canopies collapsing on top of their pilots, or people being dragged off across the field by the force of the breeze, or tumbling over when landing. (I’m lucky in that all my take-offs and landings are successful, but on the other hand I tear a muscle in my butt during one launch, which just about incapacitated me…!) We make really good progress though, working as a team, so the basic course is finished after a mere two and a half days*.

Which brings us to this moment. 

We’ve driven up the mountain for the better part of an hour, and now I’m stood here, at the edge of a launch site a good 700 metres above Algodonales, looking down at a ravine full of craggy rocks and thorny shrubs. Time to nut up or shut up. Get the take-off wrong here and you’re in a world of pain, or worse. 

Ross lays the canopy out behind me, and I try to focus on the various stances: Gay Crucified Jesus (hands out to your sides in a relaxed manner, allowing you to hold the brakes and the A-lines, letting the latter slide out as you move on to) Funky Chicken (long strides forward doubled over with your arms straight back to allow the canopy to rise above you in order to achieve lift-off, when you can happily move to) French Shrug (hands up by your ears, holding the reigns lightly, ready to steer your wing.).

Radio check. “You’ll only hear me say ‘runrunrun’ or ‘stopstopstop'”, Ross says. Hardly reassuring. Legs shaking with adrenaline. Stomach a tight knot of fear and excitement. Last equipment check, glance at the wind sock, and I’m off! I go from starting position to striding forward as best I can with my tenderised rump, only to find my left hand entangled in the lines. Fuck! I pull it out and continue – too far gone now to stop. 

I’m up in the air before I know it, sitting back in the harness as the ground falls away underneath me. The village is far, far below, the air and the sun in my face, the landscape never ending.  I round the mountain, check my bearings and fly, fly, fly. 

It feels like an eternity, but it only lasts ten minutes before the radio crackles and Jack, who has already landed, comes over the airwaves to guide me. I descend, landing neatly next to a dilapidated farm house, but in my mind I’m still up there. The adrenaline wears off, but the endorphins remain. I have tasted flight. 

We do a couple of more flights like that, gaining confidence with each one (in spite of zero wind on the very last flight, which sees me botching my perfect track record with a treetop-mowing start and ignominiously toppled landing) and then the week is over. As we return to Algodonales for the last time, a solo paraglider is riding a thermal high in the sky above the village, circling it together with a lone vulture, both of them rising effortlessly through the air. The next level beckons. 


* It’s hard work. We’re on a conveyor belt system, so once you’ve landed and bunched up your shute, you have to trundle back up the hill on foot, slipping in the furrows, making it back on top in time only for a quick drink before it’s time to suit up again. The heat, physical excercise and adrenaline all take their toll, so I’m stumbling to bed before ten most nights, after a quick trip to the local tapas bar. 

 Södermanland revisited

I came to Sweden this week hoping to continue braving Bergslagsleden, a trail I began hiking earlier this year with my brother. Alas, it wasn’t to be. His back was giving him trouble, and sleeping out in tents when temperatures drop to -4C at night was unlikely to make him better. So we decided to postpone that adventure and go hiking in Sodermanland instead. 

We poured over detailed maps, setting a route. There were a couple of restraints. We’d only do day trips, and we wouldn’t go too far from mom’s place, as we were dependent on her to get us to our starting points. 

The first day we decide to hike around Långhalsen, a lake in the vicinity that is famous for having manors and stately homes all along its shores. The reason for this is simple: the lake forms part of a chain of interconnected waterways that can take you all the way to Stockholm, and in medieval times that route was much easier to traverse than any roads on land, so naturally noble families – landed gentry – established themselves along such waters. Today, their descendants still live there, like Count Falkenberg of Lagmansö, whose ancestors have held this seat for hundreds of years. 

We set out in gloriously crisp autumnal weather – the air so clear it feels as if you could reach out across the lake and pick an apple from the count’s orchards, and the low November sun lending an aura of cold warmth to every leaf it touches. Not a single indigenous tree here has any red foliage (so I can’t fuel my autumnal addiction) but the copper and silver and gold on oak and ash and birch more than make up for it. 

The landscape is varied agricultural land, rolling hills and the lake ever on our left, as we walk into the rising sun. It’s eerily still, the water a perfect mirror image of the opposite shore. It’s also utterly devoid of people. If it weren’t for the occasional krrp of a raven or the fleeting movement of a disappearing roe deer it would be like walking inside a water colour. 

We pass several great houses, one of them an exact copy of a manor as it would have been constructed in the early 18th century, another one – Ekenäs – the former home of one of our own ancestors, before he went and willed it to the state, the silly bugger. 

There is a Viking grave field right at the opposite end of the lake that would have been nice to stay and inspect a little closer, but by this time we have realised that we have misread the map – instead of a 16 kilometre round-trip it will likely be something like double that – so we press on, well aware that sunlight is a rare commodity here. 

We make it back 45 minutes after sundown. I had forgotten just how pitch-black it gets in Sweden at this time of the year! The pale moonlight is enough to show us the outline of the road when we’re in the open, but once in the enclosing folds of spruce and fir there is nothing you can do but trust your instincts. It’s a special experience, and the fact that we are 30+ kilometres into this first day does nothing to take away from it all – quite the contrary, especially when met by hot food and a warm shower. Or at least that’s how I feel. 

Unfortunately, my brother’s back and feet aren’t improved by this shock treatment. The next day he has to stop after an hour, as he’s limping badly. I continue on my own, but it seems everything that was good yesterday has turned bad today: the weather is a drizzly gray, and the landscape seems drained of colour. 

Worse, the area I’m hiking used to be an old mining community, and even though almost every trace of it is gone, the crofts and tenant farms I pass all look like they are inhabited by the kind of white trash you’d imagine would linger on in a ghost town – every farmyard is strewn with rusting pieces of machinery, every torp has a half-finished porch, whirlpool or similarly incongruous feature bolted on to it, old cars and broken toys litter their yards – it’s a sad sight. 

Closer to home is prettier, so next day I set out on foot from my parents’ place. As I’m on my own, I ditch the backpack and run instead. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never really did: just run down whichever path I happen to chose, discovering the land as I go. It’s lovely. I end up following a horse trail – Ridled Sormland – that we’ve touched upon on our walks, and it takes me on beautiful back roads, through forests, past lakes and a reconstructed Stone Age village (and even a small nature reserve that I never knew was right at my parents’ front door!). I go for nearly 20k before finding myself back for a late lunch. Not a bad way to go exploring!

After lunch my brother – despondent over his ordeal – decides to head back home, so all hope of continued hiking together is lost. I go with him to Stockholm and spend a couple of jolly nice days meeting friends, and go on another long run – this time around a very pretty Djurgården, which used to be royal hunting grounds, marvelling at the romantic 19th century wooden houses that dot the island, so rural in the middle of the capital – but it’s not quite the same. 

Maybe spring will be the season when we finally do the rest of the hike. Time will tell. Now all I want to do is go home be with the kids, and prepare for my last adventure this year, which won’t entail much hiking at all: learning to paraglide in Andalusia

52 places to go

So there’s this job… travel writer for the New York Times. I don’t think I can imagine a cooler assignment than travelling the globe for a year and writing about the places and people I encounter. 

But first you have to get selected, right? And with 2,500 or so applications in the first 24 hours, it won’t be easy. The brief is to write 500 words each on “What themes would you like to explore during your travels?” and “What’s the most interesting place you’ve been and why?”. I figured it was an interesting challenge in itself to answer those questions comprehensively and clearly, and since they are both themes in keeping with this blog anyway, here are my attempts – do let me know what you think!

What themes would you like to explore during your travels?

I started writing about my journeys as a way of leaving a legacy for my children – this is my small contribution to making the world a better place. And so the themes I would like to explore during my year of travels are the ones I habitually look for on my own journeys: pristine nature, exotic culture, physical challenges and unlikely encounters. 

I am a nature lover by nature. In fact I believe we all are. Nothing mankind has created can compete with the breath-taking grandiosity of the Himalayas, the intricate beauty of a coral reef, or the sheer complexity of an ordinary autumn leaf. I’m not a religious person, but natural wonders bring a sense of awe to me that naught else can. 

That’s not to say that humanity’s endeavours do not mesmerise me; expressions of human ingenuity regularly have me humbled and baffled, particularly examples dating back thousands of years. The Stone Age temples on Gozo, the Incan grass bridges, and the hand-hewn Guoliang tunnel are all astonishing feats of fearless engineering carried out in an age we tend to think of as unsophisticated – to encounter such proof of our species coming together for the greater good never fails to inspire me. 

Pushing my body to its limits is for me a way of feeling even more alive. I train to be fit, in order to live long and healthily, but in doing so I have found a new way of exploring my world: whether it be by running the length of Hadrian’s Wall in a day or travelling by dog sled across the frozen wastes of Lapland, whether kayaking in the mangrove swamps of the Dominican Republic, climbing the Alps or hiking the Appalachian Trail, I have found that overcoming your own perceived limitations not only brings a sense of achievement and a heightened awareness of our surroundings, it is also a fantastic way of meeting people. 

That last piece in the puzzle is the most elusive one: you obviously cannot plan chance encounters, but you can put yourself in situations where they are more likely to occur. And so I favour travelling alone and to places outside of the more well-trodden paths, as I find people to be more willing to interact with strangers that way. Outside of our comfort zones we are sometimes, paradoxically, more open to others than we would otherwise be. Would I have met a telenovela actress in her native Argentina, or a Latvian porn star in Tallinn? Unlikely. But on a tropical island off the coast of Africa, and in a beer hall in Bavaria those meetings happened effortlessly. I learnt that the former wanted to be a psychiatrist and the latter an author of children’s books. That, too, is the wonder of discovery.

They say travelling broadens the mind. Not all people can have that experience first hand, unfortunately, but I want to take my readers on a trip every time I put pen to paper. 
What’s the most interesting place you’ve been and why?

My latest trip was to Amsterdam last weekend to run the marathon. It didn’t require a passport. Pemba did. To me it was the perfect trip, embodying everything I want when travelling: pristine nature, exotic culture, physical challenges and unlikely encounters.

Unlike its famous neighbour Zanzibar, Pemba is devoid of tourism; its obscurity one of the reasons why it’s home to the best diving in the world. 

As you descend into the blue, you arrive in a different universe. There are fire corals, like glowing lava, cream-coloured porcelain corals, orange staghorn corals, corals shaped like trees and pink fans and black chimneys and yellow bubble baths and sponges and a hundred other different shapes and sizes and hues, nearly every one of them favoured by different species of fish. Never have I dived in such perfect waters, in such a rich flora and fauna. I surface with an enormous grin on my face. 

In the mornings we go diving, after lunch we go exploring. We traverse the jungle and see silk monkeys and crested hornbills (think Rowan Atkinson in The Lion King) and flying foxes, we paddle along the coast and in mangrove forests – the trees look like giant spiders, and the volcanic rock walls are alive with hundreds of crabs, clambering along the razor-edged volcanic overhangs.

When I go running I have a continuous chorus of children calling me. They shout “bye bye” by way of greeting, and laugh and stare, obviously thinking me a very strange sight. Once we pass a group of serious-looking young girls in beautiful scarves and dresses, and I blew them a kiss. The fact that child marriage and polygamy are allowed is difficult to comprehend for a westerner, and for a moment I was worried that I might have committed a serious faux-pas, but it resulted in an explosion of giggles. Even the adults seemed pleased, much like I expect they would have if a monkey had performed a particularly good trick. It’s a strange feeling to find yourself part of a tiny minority, and quite the eye-opener.

We spend one last day on Zanzibar, in Stonetown, a place that will forever live in infamy as the biggest slave market in the world.

Having been taken across the sound to Zanzibar the traders would cull their stock, throwing the weak ones off the ships to drown rather than having to pay duties for them. The cargo would then be incarcerated in tiny, overcrowded cellars underground for a couple of days to weed out all but the strongest, who would finally be taken to the market to be inspected, bought and sold like so much cattle that their new masters could then take to all the corners of the world, for – lest we forget – this was a global commercial endeavour. It beggars belief. 

And with that sobering reentry into civilisation, plus a parting gift of torrential rain and ditto diarrhoea, Zanzibar speeds us on our long way home.