Some people are good at kayaking, others hiking, skiing, even photography. Huw Kingston is good at expeditions. Big ones that last for months, even years. Now the Brit-turned-Aussie is embarking on a new kind of adventure. Politics. Our Editor Tim caught up with Huw to ask him: ‘Dude, why?’
Tim Ashelford: So Huw, politics seems like a strange choice to me. I actually saw a quote on your website about how much you dislike bureaucracy.
Yeah I’ve had a lifetime of fighting against it [bureaucracy], in small business and the rest, but sometimes you’ve got to get in there to really fight against it.
So, the adventures. You’ve done all kinds of epic, human-powered expeditions, from journeys between all of Australia’s major cities to a circumnavigation of the Mediterranean. What drove you to take on your first really big trip?
The first big trip I did… well I got into the outdoors in university in the UK, it was probably the first place I got into kayaking, climbing, walking and the rest. Then I did a year in Australia after university where I basically bummed around, I did a lot of outdoor stuff in Australia between ’86 and ’87.
Then, by chance, I learnt to ski in Australia in the season of ’86 when I was working in Charlotte Pass. I’d come from Europe but I’d never skied!
So my next ski experience was in the Himalayas 6 months later. I was doing some fairly epic ski touring there with some Aussie guys. We did some lengthy journeys there which began my love affair, firstly with the Himalayas, and then, long journeys.
I realised fairly soon after that long trips were something I very much enjoyed. Day trips, weekend trips, even week-long trips are ok, but the thing that really I enjoy as a jack of all trades and master of none in the outdoors, are the longer human-powered journeys.
Yeah I’ve seen you’ve done a lot of event planning, I assume the logistics are much more intense for trips like that.
To a large extent they are. Whether it’s 2 months, 4 months or a year, obviously you have a plan, but there’s no point planning anything to the n’th degree. Things are always going to change. You have to have that ability to plan, but be flexible. Whether it’s sickness, bureaucracy, whatever, the main thing is that you have a drive and a dream to get to the final goal, but you allow yourself to be diverted.
You might get into things that you’d never have thought of.
That year long trip I did around the Mediterranean, I had absolutely no idea when I started that I’d end up in an ocean rowing boat, which I did for 1500 kilometres across the the guts of the Mediterranean from Tunisia, which was a wonderful set of circumstances to solve a problem that I had (not being able to get into Libya from Tunisia due to the civil war, and the stuff going on in Syria).
The longer the trip, the easier it is to be flexible.
I really resonate with that idea of being flexible and almost rebelling by not planning in too much detail. I flew over to NZ last year to go on a cross country skiing trip despite never having skied and we had a blast.
I think Tim, one of the most beautiful things in the outdoors is the time when you don’t know something very well. When you start things and you’re completely naive as to what the dangers might be, and you can get yourself in a lot of trouble, but in many ways that’s the purest adventure you can have.
When I started white water paddling we’d go to the rivers in the Yorkshire Dales in flood, we’d capsize at the first rapid and lose the paddle, we’d go back to the car and get another paddle because they were all from the University kayak club anyway, and it was only after a year of endless swims and lost paddles that we met a guy on the bank of the river who said ‘aww geez guys the river’s up, this looks like a solid grade 4’. And we were like ‘what’s grade 4?’ From that moment on we started to build up a fear.
Yeah haha, not always advice you can give unfortunately, but everyone learns through mistakes. So tell me about the nanny state? Obviously NSW has continually elected someone who wants us in bed by 9pm, has the nanny state always been a philosophy of yours?
Ahh it’s a bit of a joke, not sure if you saw but I’ve sold a lot of these numberplate surrounds that say ‘NSW The Nanny State’.
Yeah I’m considering grabbing some!
I think, to prevent anarchy, you have to have a certain amount of law and control, but what bothers me from an outdoors perspective, is that we’re taking away so much from good, solid adventure. There’s a fear of failure, of getting lost, a fear of the media getting involved.
Younger people now don’t understand the personal responsibility side of things. We’re getting to the point now that if you don’t fence off a lookout, people don’t know there’s danger there. We’ve always dealt with danger, we’ve always understood fear, but legislation has impinged so much on our lives that we’re looking to blame other people for our problems, and I think it weakens our character.
I think when we’ve got so many people going on expeditions and there’s live footage and they’re streaming them, producing so much content, we have a good opportunity to show that people need to look after themselves.
We do, but the other side of that is that, well I’m 55, and I’m probably the last of the generation who was able to have relatively pure adventure. Back 20-30 years ago, you wouldn’t contact anyone for weeks on end. If you have an accident or whatever, you’re on your own.
Now we have the ability to live stream, or push a button to say ‘come and get me’, or have a GPS right in front of us. Apart from the tech getting into our heads when we’re in the outdoors, it does remove an element of adventure. ‘I’m on my own and enjoying the environment’ – I think that was quite an important part of the adventure experience.
We can tell the story of personal responsibility all the time now, but we’re not connecting the same way as we used to with the great outdoors.
You could say that connection is more important than ever with climate change, ocean plastic, extinctions and the rest. Issues that you’re quite involved with. Do you think that came from all of your expeditions? Connecting with the outdoors and seeing how it’s changed?
In parts Tim. I’ve been fortunate to see and experience some absolutely incredible parts of the world. And you see some of those places being trashed, whether externally, like an amazing pristine coastline getting covered in plastic from somewhere else, or places where people are going, like Everest Base Camp – overtourism is rife.
I don’t think you can just walk away from that. Not without trying to put something back in to fix the problems that we create.
I can kind of understand why you’re going into politics now, to get change at that top level.
I’ve been interested in the political process before but I’d never considered standing for a government. For me, to a large degree, we’re standing on the abyss here. We’ve messed around for 10 years in Australia, flipping and flopping on policy, and we’ve known about global warming for 30 years.
This is it Tim, you know, if we don’t take action… I look at my 5 beautiful grandkids, for the sake of my grandkids, if I can use 3 months, the length of an expedition, to take a stand, and by some miracle get myself into the madhouse of Canberra, I’ll take that honour and use it to do something.
But also regardless of the environment, to look at the games being played in Canberra as a taxpayer, it’s quite disheartening. It felt like now was the time to stand up, and many independents are doing the same.
So what actually brought you to Australia? To settle down here?
Well when I came over in the mid-80s I had a ball. I went back to the UK and started working in the outdoor equipment industry and then my partner and I, pretty casually, decided to come over and check Australia out.
I applied and Australia accepted me. I actually snuck in as an economist – an occupation that was on the skills list – although I’ve never worked as one in my life.
But one of the big decisions I had to make [going into politics] was to renounce my British citizenship, thanks to section 44 of the Australian Constitution. We have a British Head of State but you can’t have a British citizenship and stand for parliament.
I don’t think the law makes any sense.
I could have stood in the recent NSW election with two passports no worries, but not for the Federal Election. So that was a big call.
Do you reckon, as a proud Aussie citizen, there’s anything that stands out about Australia, when compared to other countries?
Australia is fairly unique, it’s the only country in the world that’s also a continent. It’s an incredible privilege, it’s an incredible responsibility too.
I originally did my City2City expeditions after dreaming up a route that skied all of Australia’s skiable snow in one hit, from Baw Baw in Victoria to Kiandra at the northern end of Kosci.
I came up with the idea while hiking the Budawangs, and by the time I walked out of the bush it’d morphed into a trip from Flinders St Station in Melbourne to the stairs of the Sydney Opera House, using bikes, kayaks, whatever.
Three-quarters of the way from Melbourne to Sydney I thought ‘Phwoar, this is a brilliant way to see my adopted country’, and it grew into 7 journeys and 25000km following the most interesting and challenging human-powered routes between Australia’s cities.
To do that within one country, one continent, well it’s fairly diverse. Paddling the Kimberley coast, hiking the deserts or skiing the high country, it was a pretty incredible way to stay grounded and get to know the country.
I think it also helped show me the threats to this place.
I think that’s interesting. We Are Explorers is mostly for Australians, and by Australians, and the aim is to tell people that we have this amazing place and inspire people to explore their own backyard. And we reckon that’s the key to helping connect Australians to nature and build their custodianship of the land and oceans.
Huw Kingston is campaigning as an Independent for the electorate of Hume in the upcoming Federal Election. If this is where your vote’s going, we reckon you should watch his campaign video below and check out his website.
Having A Chinwag