Micro-expeditioning in the British National Parks

The water was freezing! Tentatively I took another step, trying to find some hold with my bare feet over the slippery round pebbles. I was now wading deep into fast flowing water but the current was not that strong and, with a few more strides, I stepped on the grassy bank shaking like a leaf!

It must have been quite a comic scene: a man, half naked from the waist down, making his way across a river holding a bulky backpack over his head…

Luckily there was no one around to witness it! Not a soul on sight, total solitude, the barren landscape of the moors surrounding me on three hundred and sixty degrees…

So, why was I here, in the middle of nowhere, in a rainy day of mid –February?

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Plotting a challenge

The Idea had sprung to my mind a year or so before, while recovering from a cancer operation and the ensuing treatment. Immensely grateful for having survived, I was pondering how, somehow, “give back” so I decided to raise funds for cancer research.

I thought that fundraising required a challenge and, why not, a bit of a quest. Joining my love for nature with my desire for adventure, I decided on crossing all the UK National Parks solo and unsupported.

To mix it up a bit, I resolved to use different means of human powered travel, mostly hiking, but also biking or Kayaking, depending on the geography and terrain of each National Park. I would aim to traverse the widest part, transiting through the highest point and to keep it challenging I would not allow myself the luxury of GPS technology or other electronic gadgets, sticking instead to traditional means of navigation.

An unsupported feat, means that you have to be completely self-sufficient for the duration of your intended micro-expedition. The challenge here is to pack as light as possible, while still carrying all the essential gear and enough rations for the trip. Attaining this is a fine balance, I usually opt for minimum comfort but I can tell you one thing: by the time I finish a trip I can’t stomach any more porridge, instant mash or any kind of freeze dried food! The celebratory pizza at the end of each trail never tastes so good, especially when accompanied by a pint of ale!

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Primeval Landscapes: hiking across the moorlands of England

Departing at first light, I finally set out for my first adventure with the aim to hike sixty miles across the Exmoor National Park, half of it in open moorland: no path to follow, just the imaginary line of a compass bearing.

Right from the start, the ground underfoot appeared to be mostly wet and boggy. It took a lot of determination just to keep moving forward under the constant drizzle, each mile seemingly never ending. After a day and a half of slogging, I eventually got to the path leading to Dunkery Beacon, the highest point. What a relief to have solid ground to walk on and a well-marked trace to follow! I camped once more on the hills, waking up early to tackle another lengthy march under the rain. Just before evening I got to my final destination, exhausted but happy. I had completed my first traverse after two and half days of rambling and, surely enough, I had a few blisters to show for it!

Afterward I returned to the heath again, in other parts of the country. The moors are usually barren landscapes, with a few sparse trees disseminated here and there. Most of it is tall grass, bracken and ferns. Sometimes rocky outcrops outline the top of the tors, high against the background of endless undulating hills.

Wandering these remote areas, you can sense a distinct feeling of walking in the steps of our ancestors, their presence somehow still permeating the land. During my crossing of the Dartmoor National Park I stumbled upon ancient stone circles lost in the immensity of the landscape or remains of Bronze Age settlements, half swallowed by overgrowing vegetation. In the North York Moors National Parks, burial mounds lined the edge of the path every few miles, keeping me company all the way to the coast.

I walked for days in blissful solitude, the only sound the calls of grouses and the howling wind, the only company wild ponies and isolated flocks of sheep.

Each evening I would pitch my tiny one man tent near the top of a hill or by a stream, seat on a stone and, contemplating the surrounding, savour a much needed hot brew feeling completely at one with nature, serenity infusing my soul.

Into the mountains: traversing the Peak District and the Brecon Beacons on foot

Both National Parks entailed a five days hike each. These were truly unforgettable days amid the mountains, the weight of the rucksack seemingly increasing every time the path steepened, but the spirit always lifting at the views from the summit.

Although I was blessed with dry conditions all the way through the Peak District, the infamous British weather took his revenge during the Brecon Beacons traverse. Here, the last two days flaunted all the mighty power of a proper welsh mountains storm, a sting in the tail that I won’t forget too easily! I was soaked to the bone for the rest of the journey, even the best waterproof layers struggling to keep me dry after so long under the battering rain.
There was no view to be seen from the top of Pen Y Fan, the highest peak, just grey fog and low clouds enveloping everything.  

By the time I pitched my tent on the last night, I was almost hypothermic. Between shivers, grappling against the fierce wind, I finally managed to erect my shelter. I hurriedly took refuge inside and started a long round of hot drinks, cocooned in my slightly damp but warm sleeping bag. Slowly my body heated up again and I fell asleep to the sound of pounding rain. To complicate matters, the conditions overnight had caused streams to swell up so much that they were now too deep to be crossed. I realised in the morning that I needed to alter course and change the exit point. At last I made it to the end, battered but safe!

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A kayak journey: paddling a course through the Norfolk Broads

Contemplating the map of the Norfolk Broads National Park, it becomes immediately apparent that water is sovereign in this area intersected by rivers, canals and flooded marshes. There couldn’t be a better way to explore it than in a kayak.

I launched into the river on a grey October day, from the extreme south of the National Park. My chosen route would allow me to explore most of the rivers Waveney, Bure and Ant, taking me all the way to the northernmost border of the Broads.

Yearning for solitude and contact with nature, I waited until the end of the busy summer season, despite the uncertainties the autumnal weather would pose. True to form it was raining, as it usually does this time of the year.

I was however equipped for the challenge. A dry suit would keep the rain and the water out even in the event of a fall in the river. My gear was carefully stored in the waterproof hatches of my vessel, accurately wrapped in dry bags. Keeping myself warm and dry would be crucial, I needed to stay fit and strong all the way to make it to the end. 

This time there would be no high point but, approximately half way through the journey I confronted the crux passage: Breydon Water, infamous for its strong tidal currents. Here, the confluence of two big rivers forms a large expanse of water which connect the broads to the open sea. I had timed the crossing to coincide with the web tide but, due to unexpected strong winds blowing in the opposite direction, I would be facing high waves in addition to the turbulent currents.

It was a matter of paddling with determination, keeping a good speed, tackling the waves at the right angle and steering through the whirlpools created by the current. Exhausted, I reached the mouth of the river Bure which I entered with relief. I had safely left behind the hardest section of the journey!

It was all plain sailing from there on. After hundred miles on the water and five days of paddling, I could add another accomplished traverse to the list.

On two wheels: mountain biking in the South Counties

The New Forest National Park seemed to be the ideal place for a bike trip, the vast network of trails and bridal ways allowing for a complete crossing, virtually without using any paved road. It was an easy decision to make, I just packed everything on a mountain bike and ventured into the woods.

The dense canopy of leaves overhead offered some repair from the heat of the summer sun. The track winded its way around the trees, toward the deep of the forest. I stopped at the bottom of the hill, where a little stream was gurgling between the ferns and refilled my water bottle. Sat on a carpet of moss, I unfolded the map and tracked my progress. Satisfied with the distance covered since morning, I decided to start looking for a place to set camp and call it a day.

I resumed pedalling early the next day, straight after decamping. Most of the tracks seemed to be gently undulated and not too challenging, including the ride to the top of the mandatory high point, Pipers Wait. I soon realised that I would finish the trip earlier than I had planned. It was barely mid-afternoon on the second day when I rolled into the village of Fowley, the end of the track. The all thing couldn’t have gone better so, later on, I opted for another bike traverse.

The intent was to tackle the awesome bike track of the South Downs Way which, with its hundred miles, crosses from West to East the entire length of the National Park that named it. I had however to deviate 20 miles off course in order to bag the highest point, before joining the trail again.

Unfortunately, the perfect riding experience wasn’t to be repeated! The first two days went quite well until, in the evening of day three, one of the tyres punctured, then the pump malfunctioned, all of which left me stranded. I resolved to set camp and consider my options in the morning. During the night I suffered from terrible stomach cramps, probably caused by bad water, even though I had used purifying tablets. I spent the night getting hurriedly out of my sleeping bag every hour or so to relieve myself.

In the morning, a passing cyclist helped me to inflate the tyre. Totally shattered, I straddled the saddle trying to find enough energy to push through the last twenty five miles or so. Slowly, I made it to the finish line, utterly depleted but happy to put another notch in the log!

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Keeping the Flow

Back at home, catching up with life, I check my online fundraising page. So far I have raised nearly three thousand five hundred pounds. I am so incredibly grateful to friends, colleagues and strangers, all chipping in to bring humanity a step closer to finding a cure for all cancers! I can’t think of a stronger motivation to keep me going.

The map of the UK is open on the table. On it, I have marked in red the locations of my micro-expeditions. I have traversed eight out of fifteen National Parks, going out at every possible opportunity. The Pembrokeshire coast, Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, Snowdonia, Northumberland, Lock Lomond and the Cairngorms are all still awaiting my passage.

These represent some of the most rugged and remote terrains in the country. I know without a doubt that there will be more sweat, toil, adversity and sore feet but I also know that it will come mixed with awe, serenity, joy and may be a little bit of pride. I can do it, I am ready for this…the anticipation alone is making me feel so alive!

Mauro is a nature lover with a passion for unconventional travel and adventure. He has spent most of his life exploring remote corners of the world, climbing mountains, paddling down rivers, venturing into forests and diving secluded coral reefs. He now lives in UK where he is undertaking his current project of traversing solo and unsupported all 15 UK National Parks either by biking, kayaking or hiking.