An adventurer’s life on the Silk Roads to Shanghai

Alan Owens


Alan Owens

LIMERICK’s Maghnus Collins and Coleraine’s David Burns have just completed an epic 14,000km journey from Istanbul to Shanghai by bike, foot and raft. Alan Owens chronicles the expedition.

LIMERICK’s Maghnus Collins and Coleraine’s David Burns have just completed an epic 14,000km journey from Istanbul to Shanghai by bike, foot and raft. Alan Owens chronicles the expedition.

THE satisfaction is not in the achievement of finishing or indeed the accompanying glory, rather it is in the process and everyday experiences of the journey, the simple notion of being there and doing it.

A rugby player might call it the taking part, but Maghnus Collins, lawyer turned adventurer, sounds akin to an ancient philosopher as he seeks the words to explain the motivation behind his latest amazing expedition, a ten month, 14,000 kilometre tracing of the old Silk routes, from Istanbul to Shanghai.

The Corbally man and Coleraine’s David Burns travelled the Silk Roads to Shanghai by bike, on foot and by pack raft - the latter a treacherous 6,300km route down the world’s third largest river from source to mouth - completing the adventure mere days ago, arriving in Shanghai after kayaking a final 1600km in 40 days on flat water, paddling against a ticking clock of rapidly expiring visas.

Along the way the duo courted disaster and experienced incredible highs and lows in an endeavour that was ostensibly to raise money for Self Help Africa, some €50,000 they hope, for the aid development charity founded by Limerick man Ray Jordan.

But while the charitable aspect provides some measure of legitimacy for what they do, there is Maghnus admits, a sense of being “addicted” to life on the road, away from the travails, worries and everyday dramas of real life, the sense of having to follow the path set down by others.

“I’m sure a lot of people don’t even see the point in what we do, and that is fair enough. I will never pretend there is ever anything monumental or profound in what we do – it is just what we choose to do,” explains the former Crescent College Comprehensive student.

“What we do flies in the face, to a degree, with what you are expected to do, leave school, go to college, get a job. I suppose people might say, what are these guys doing pissing off for 10 months on a holiday? But for whatever reason, and I have found this to be true for the last four or five years, what the expeditions bring out in people is overwhelmingly positive and we encounter the positive side of so many different people that it becomes addictive and makes the whole thing worthwhile.”

When Maghnus first explained the route of his latest adventure to this reporter a little over 11 months ago, tracing his finger along a map as if it were a Sunday stroll, I would admit to a feeling - shared by his family in Limerick - of concern at the more dangerous aspects of the trip.

David and Maghnus would attempt to cycle across Turkey and Iran (about 4,500km) and then run 25 marathons in 27 days on the Tibetan Plateau, before travelling by pack raft and kayak the entire length of the Yangtze River in China, a feat never before completed by anyone, and this by two men who had merely a week of training on a river in Scotland before they left, not a minute more.

But having written about Collins and Burns as they first cycled 17,500km through Africa and back to Limerick in 2009 - raising €25,000 for Self Help on that occasion - and then subsequently running six marathons in five days in the gruelling 250km Sahara Race the following year, there was no shortage in confidence that the duo could pull this latest remarkable expedition off.

In fact, they have done all of that and more, adding a further 3,500km cycle from the southern tip of India to Kathmandu when visa problems excluded them from Pakistan, before then running 1,000km through the Himalayas at altitude of 4,000m on the Tibetan Plateau to the source of the river in China.

The latter section, on the Yangtze, caused the most concern to their family and friends, as they would travel a route so desolate that they wouldn’t see a soul for days, come into contact with bears and other wild animals while they were forced to either cautiously navigate through or walk around the more difficult rapids on the upper section of the river.

Once through that section, and not without disaster - Collins lost his pack raft and possessions on one rapid, delaying the adventure by three weeks while they re-equipped - they were faced with a flat section that was simply a slog, often in sub-zero temperatures, to finish. Maghnus would dream of home while paddling that section, fingers, hands and body so clenched into one position in the kayak that he wondered if they would ever right themselves again.

“I am pretty sure that the cold got so bad that if we hadn’t been brought onto boats - on two particular nights at minus 10 - whether Burnsy would have been able to continue with his hands was debatable. Two fisherman families brought us in on those nights which was fantastic as they had nothing themselves,” he reflects.

“In terms of the lowest points, it was probably parts of the run and when I lost the boat on the river, those couple of days when it hung in the balance and we could do nothing about it and then, just the last section. I’ve never been so tired physically. For the last three weeks I couldn’t get out of bed, we had huge issues with our hands, it was just really tough at the end.

“The combination of the cycle, the run, the mental tiredness from the rapid section of the river, (meant that) a few times I just remember thinking, I have nothing left. You paddle for seven hours a day and once you get into the rhythm it is ok, but once you stop, your arms just seize up.

“Persistence and being motivated can help you for maybe an hour over a particularly tough time. The opposite is to try and forget, forget where you are, spend three hours in Kilkee, imagining your day, wander off into any thought you can think of. And you save up thoughts at night, trying not to think of things so you can use it the next day for an hour.”

The ‘why’ is something Maghnus and I have pondered on several occasions in the past and he feels better able to express the motivation having completed this journey, one that undoubtedly took its tool on both men.

It is partly about pushing his body to the most extreme, seeing how far it will go, but not in a sadomasochistic way. This is the measure of his human endurance, a primal feeling that stirs deep in his soul.

“The adventure community is insular enough and you are constantly in contact with them. At the couple of conferences we have gone to, there is sometimes the attitude that if someone asks that question, they will never understand,” he says softly.

“But when I think back, that is an absolute cop-out. If you can’t articulate it yourself you put the lack of understanding back on the person who asked rather than really address the fact that you don’t really know. I would love to be able to give a definite answer why it is worth the bad times but there are a million different answers and at any time there is a different reason for it.

“At times it is because of the positivity of people, at other times it is because I am to a degree addicted to seeing how far I can push my body. It is one of the few things that, once you go beyond a certain threshold, you know how much further you can go and I am addicted to that.

“Of course, the simplicity of the journey is unbelievable, particularly when you think that at home you have all of these relationships to deal with, family, friends, work colleagues, balancing those different relationships... The nuances are endless and usually there is no simple answer to any given thing, there is no way of knowing what is right. Whereas, doing this, 55km is a good day, 45km is a bad day, it is as simple as that, every decision is toward getting to that goal. All other worries fade, and it allows Burnsy and I to maintain a relationship where we just don’t argue because we only have a simple goal, there is no worrying about anything else.

“So I think to a degree - and there is obviously physical hardship - but sometimes it is just so much easier to be there than to be at home.”

Maghnus laughs now at the nature of the “unsupported journey” that he spoke of before he left, that his fellow adventurers will use as a term of prowess to categorise their own missions. From the support team at home, to friends and family, to the doctor in Castletroy he rang at 3am to find out why he was passing blood in his urine six days into the run, to the amazing hospitality and people they experienced along the route, notably in Iran and China, the term is simply laughable to him now.

“It was ridiculous really. It is a ridiculous term and it is only when realised how much it is thrown around in adventuring, and you look at how someone has done something, but from before we went, to when we were away, we have never been anything but supported,” he says.

“Maybe some adventurers out there truly are unsupported, but for us, the support we received from home and throughout the journey, was amazing.”

Asked if he has plans to continue in this vein, to attempt something even higher on the adventure scale, Maghnus smiles.

“As long as I can get excited enough by something that (it) grabs my imagination to do it, you never know, something could happen tomorrow that I might not be able to do...but if it was possible and if I am lucky enough to be able to, I definitely want to keep going.”

To donate and for more details see Sand2Snow Adventures. A Sand2Snow charity ball will take place in the Guinness Storehouse, Dublin on February 15, with all proceeds to go directly to Self Help Africa.