PERHAPS it was when he overheard a small boy whispering to his mum, “Look, there’s a real-life sailor” that Nick Thorpe – dressed at the time in a sailor smock and sauntering around the port of Leith – knew he was destined for a life more adventurous than sitting at a computer keyboard everyday.
Perhaps it was when, still besmocked, he was up in the crow’s nest aboard the Sir Winston Churchill, as one of the crew of taking part in the legendary Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race in 1995, that the young Edinburgh Evening News reporter – originally from landlocked Surbiton – had a moment of clarity about his watery future.
Or perhaps it was a fear of settling down and committing to a life of domesticity in Newhaven that made him seek out adventure further afield.
Certainly, at some point, there was a spark of an idea which meant that Nick, now 43, was not going to be content just writing about other people’s risky exploits – he wanted to experience them, too.
Since that time in the mid-90s, when he sailed 400 miles from Germany to Edinburgh as a member of a rookie crew in the Tall Ships race, filing copy about their journey for this paper, he has become a full-time adventurer and award-winning writer, documenting his journeys around the world whether it be in a raft made of reeds from South America to Easter Island, on a canal boat, fishing trawler or rowing tub around the coast and lochs of Scotland, or being strapped to the wings of a plane.
Which is why he’s the obvious host for Night of Adventure, an evening dedicated to those people who do the things most of us only ever think about when we read about someone else doing them.
The gathering of daredevils, at the Vue cinema in the Omni Centre this coming Monday, will see 11 adventurers talk about their experiences. They include award-winning wildlife photographer Anna Henly, Dr Gavin Francis who spent a year among emperor penguins, Dr Andrew Murray who ran seven marathons in seven days in seven continents, and Fiona Houston, who spent a year “living” in the 18th century. The trick is that each speaker is limited to just 20 slides shown on the cinema screen and each one scrolls forward after just 20 seconds.
“The speakers may have travelled the world several times over and found themselves in some pretty hairy situations along the way, but their talks could well be their biggest challenge to date,” says Nick. “Once they begin there is no stopping or turning back. It’s fast, furious and extremely stressful. The audience must be ready to be swept from adventure to adventure with only their beer and popcorn to steady their nerves.”
Nerves are not something that seem to bother Nick, though he admits that stress has been an issue for him. So much so that his most recent book Urban Worrier: Adventures in the Lost Art of Letting Go, was inspired by a desire to find a way to live a more balanced life. So he set out to jump off a cliff.
“I’ve always been a bit of a worrier,” he says. “I remember once I thought an old girlfriend had called me a ‘warrior’. Sadly I had misheard her. She was right, I’ve always had an anxious part of me, and there was a moment when I had so much work to do that I thought ‘I can’t go on, I can’t write another word’, my willpower to just keep on going had gone.
“I thought I needed to find another way to live. It wasn’t healthy. So I took a year off to look at how other people who have chosen a different way to live, manage to do it. And, of course, I thought there might be a book in it,” he says with a laugh.
By organising commissions from newspapers for travel articles, Nick funded his way from Cornwall – where he dived off a cliff – to the deserts of New Mexico on a silent retreat; the Cotswolds for some wing walking then a hippie gathering in Sweden and scuba diving off South Africa’s coast.
But his stress hadn’t all been about work. He and his wife Ali were also in the process of adopting a child, and Nick was concerned he might fail at the biggest adventure that was coming his way.
“I think that by letting go, I was able to be a bit more forgiving and accepting of myself,” he says “I had the time of my life, but it gave me a chance to be free to really think about whether having a child was what I wanted to do. And it was.”
Which is why he’s also delighted the Night of Adventure is a fundraiser for Hope and Homes for Children, a charity which works with governments across central and eastern Europe and Africa, helping to get abandoned and orphaned children out of institutions and into loving families.
“Becoming a father has been a huge adventure,” he says. “Our son is now eight, and I find I’m totally rooted at home and in the community and in being a dad to a wee boy who needed love and attention.”
Nick’s first really big adventure though started back at the turn of the Millennium. “I was working as a travel writer and was in Bolivia when I overheard a conversation about this mad reed boat journey, and I just knew that I wanted to do it. Society has become so tame, and to me that felt like a one-off chance to get back to a different age, getting away from e-mails and modern communication. I really believe doing that can help you grow.
“Of course, Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition from 1947 was a real inspiration for that adventure. He’s the god of experimental rafting. We even got to meet him, about a year before he died, and he gave our expedition the thumbs up.”
On his return Nick wrote Eight Men and a Duck about the experience, and then the next adventure – and book Adrift in Caledonia – beckoned. “I had been in Scotland for ten years and as an English person still didn’t really feel totally part of it.
“I think the reticent English thing to keep your head down and not offend ... that’s seen in Scotland as being aloof. I thought I needed to go out and see Scotland, to be a rover and cadge a lift on boats all the way. I started behaving differently ... being more open, talking to strangers. You have to really if you want to get anywhere.
“I’ve always been obsessed with boats, perhaps because I’m originally from a totally landlocked part of the country. When we went to the Western Isles for holidays when I was young it was magical, there was nothing like it in Surbiton. Working on the Evening News gave me a chance to get involved with the Tall Ships and I jumped at the chance to be on board. Perhaps that is when it all started. Whatever it was, that adventure changed me and now I feel that this is really my home.”
Now he says he’s keeping his adventures closer to home. “Going out with my canoe at Newhaven harbour is about as far as it gets – but I love kayaking out to Cramond island, where it’s so peaceful and quiet. I suppose I’m a mid-life adventurer now.”
• Night of Adventure is on from 6.30pm, September 2 at Vue Cinema. Tickets are £15 from www.nightofadventure.co.uk
Anna Henly’s focus is on wonders of science and nature
Anna Henly says she inherited her passion for discovery from her parents, who loved nature and adventure. Since the age of nine – when she got her first camera – she’s tried to combine all three.
So after a mechanical engineering degree, she has gone on to become an award-winning photographer, journeying to some of the remotest places in the world to capture the best shots. In 2007, she won an award in the BBC wildlife photographer of the year competition thanks to a picture of an Arctic fox, but as well as wildlife, she spends weeks working offshore for oil companies taking photos of rigs and installations.
She has hung out of helicopters and snapped under water to get her image. She is working for the new Queensferry Crossing contractors. Her talent is to capture and contrast the power of man-made industry with the fragility of nature.
Doctor Gavin found fame in chilling with penguins
WHEN former Sick Kids doctor Gavin Francis left Edinburgh for a 14-month job as the base-camp doctor at Halley, an isolated British research station on the Caird Coast of Antarctica, he knew he was about to face his life’s biggest challenge.
The station he was heading for was so remote, it is said to be easier to evacuate a casualty from the International Space Station than to bring someone out of Halley in winter.
But his stint not only gave him a new skill set, it was also a rare opportunity to live among emperor penguins. For there were times he felt too claustrophobic among the 14-man crew, so he camped with the penguins as they incubated their eggs. He’s since written a book about his experiences called Empire Antarctica – which was shortlisted for the 2013 RSL Ondaatje Prize.
Government health guru talks the talk and runs the walk
DR Andrew Murray is a physician, a runner, an author, the Scottish Government’s physical activity guru ... but to most he’s the bloke from Edinburgh who ran 2659 miles from John O’Groats to the Sahara.
Not content with that adventure, he’s since raced in some of the world’s most spectacular locations: the North Pole, the Himalayas and through jungles, completing seven ultra marathons in seven continents on seven consecutive days in November 2012.
Most recently, he ran up Kilimanjaro in an attempt to discover what it is that Kenyan athletes have got that Scottish athletes need if they want to achieve success. But it is promoting exercise for health – especially to children – which really drives him. Which is why he’s happy his adventures in running have given him a position within the Scottish Government to influence their policies on getting people active. “Thirty minutes of walking (or any exercise) is better than any preventative medicine, and it’s safe,” he says. “Sixty minutes physical activity a day is the single best present you can give a child.”