The first in our series of interviews with people who make adventure possible, by leading and supporting expeditions and competitions
Dave Lucas, 40, has spent more than 20 years as a mountaineer and adventurer – during that time he has spent some 70 months of his life visiting around 90 countries, guiding climbs and leading expeditions and TV production crews. Here he describes a trip he led to Sierra Leone in November 2017 for Secret Compass, guiding a party of seven people on pack rafts down the Moa River over five days.
First some Form. How did you get into adventure?
There wasn’t an exact moment when I decided that I wanted to be an adventurer, but I guess it was always inside of me. There’s a tape recording of me one Christmas aged about five saying the words “Dad, let’s just go round the world”. I have always wanted to know what was around the corner.
I think if you go out looking for a job in adventure, then you’re missing the point. It should be the work that finds you. I believe that if you do what you love in life, then eventually someone will pay you to do it because of all the experience you have amassed. You have to commit to it and stick by your guns and with dedication it will come about. For years I was working in bars and sleeping on friends’ floors in order to fund my travels, and it’s only in the last eight or ten years that I have made a reasonable living out of it. Now my experience makes me useful to companies like Secret Compass and I work for them as a guide.
It has been a fantastic time. One of my favourite moments was in 2001 on the Hot Rock Global Challenge, which travelled the length of the six continents in search of unclimbed rock and new routes. In Ethiopia we made a first successful ascent of Mt Wehni, a vertical column of rock with a summit of about 80m by 120m. In the 1600s it was used as a prison for rebellious princes by an Emperor who did not want to be overthrown. The stairs which once led to the summit have all fallen away and it was a good climb of 300 metres. Once we had squeezed past the ancient wooden door it was a scramble to the top, where there were ruined buildings to explore, including a church with ancient Amharic inscriptions. Despite the rumours of treasure – and one claimed the Ark of the Covenant was up there - we didn’t find any.
Why this, why now?
I have been guiding and leading for Secret Compass for four years now and this was one of their planned trips. It was their third descent of the Moa River. There were seven of us in all, including a former member of the RAF who was discharged for medical reasons and a member of the Sierra Leone military. We covered around 125 kilometres in all over 5 ½ days. It was extremely humid and around 35 degrees by day, and the temperature didn’t get much cooler at night.
The river varied between 300 metres across down to fast moving braids just a couple of metres wide. We camped on the river-bank each night. We simply looked for a suitable spot in the jungle as the day came to an end.
How important is the physical side?
Everyone was pretty fit, but a high level of physical fitness is not what is required for a trip like this. In fact if you could find the right people, you could take them off the street, give them some instruction, and they might be able to do it. What really counts is mental resilience because the jungle holds you in its grasp and doesn’t let go. There is absolutely no respite and you have to be willing to cope with that.
What sort of preparation was there ?
There was loads of ground work, which included a vast page risk assessment, covering every detail of physical and medical safety, so there was lots of What if? What if? Then there are the medical and communications and the incident response plans - that way, if something happens, you’re prepared as well as possible. It was a very remote area, so every bridge, track and trail-head was marked on my map and in my head.
Once we were on the ground there was quite a bit to tell people about the environment – the snakes, spiders, malaria etc. And of course the instruction needed on how to paddle a pack raft. These were interesting. They look quite delicate, but actually they survive well. Of course we had repair kits with us along with emergency medical and communications equipment, and food.
The Moa River Descent, day by day
On a pack raft you move – very roughly – at the same speed as walking – which meant that we covered about 25km per day. Of course we had to stop to recce many of the rapids. And then some were too large to run, which meant we had to portage around them, sometimes cutting a trail through the jungle to do so. We would stop for lunch on a beach, and then each afternoon, around 4 or 4.30 we would begin to look for a good spot to camp, on a beach or some rocks. We would stop and cut our way into the river-side growth until we had cleared enough room so sling our hammocks between the trees.
Day 1 was a paddle to the town of Daru, about 25km of relatively calm water, with no rapids above class 1, which enabled people to get comfortable with the equipment. The jungle came down to the banks of the river both sides and often it was a tunnel of greenery. Some of it was primary jungle, but there were sections of thicker secondary growth. It seemed impenetrable anyway, and we rarely saw anyone, but interestingly, as soon as we stopped, people would appear, fishermen, or sometimes cocoa or a coffee farmers. We asked any fishermen we met what they could tell us about the conditions of the river further down.
On Day 2 we left Daru and covered 22km. The biggest rapid we ran was a class 4 with a big wave train. Several people capsized, and quite a few had stories of being sucked into the green room – however hard you swim, the current will take you under, usually for four or five seconds, though it can feel a lot longer. People come up a bit shocked, but it’s a really good lesson, and part of their respect for the river.
The nights were spectacular. It is incredibly dark in the jungle. There were enormous lightning storms with flashes of light and deluges of rain hammering on your hammock tarpaulin.
Day 3 was 29 kilometres and the river flow was around 8km per hour, with plenty of class 2 and 3 rapids, which meant good speed with a lot of recces. Everyone would get out and look at the line and then we descended one at a time. We would position one man with the rope in case of someone falling in and a second person further down ready to retrieve their boat. One unexpected effect of the jungle either side of the river was that it could reflect the noise of the rapids like an echo chamber, so sometimes we would come around a corner expecting some massive falls only to find a dribble that we could run easily.
Day 4 was a fantastic day. We covered 26km on a flow of 4-5km per hour, so not an adrenalin day, but we found ourselves being carried along on braids and micro-channels through flooded islands. And Day 5 was a half day of fairly calm water that ended up on Tiwai Island, a national reserve. The story goes that it was left undisturbed in the conflict not long ago and so the animal life was unaffected.
What was the most challenging aspect of the trip?
The most challenging aspect of a trip like this is the environment, particularly managing the humidity. It’s all-enveloping and there’s no air-conditioned room to retreat to to cool off. The temperature is 30 degrees and so you are soaking wet all the time, either from the river or because you are sweating from hard work, for instance cutting firewood or a spot to sling your hammock. The only time you might be dry is in your hammock, a couple of hours after you stop moving around. Then in the morning you put on your wet clothes and start it all again.
The most enjoyable moment
This was probably on Day 4, when we came to the series of submerged islands with water half way the palm trunks. After the excitement of paddling the rapids, we found ourselves meandering gently among the palms, pushing fronds out of the way. It was incredibly calm and peaceful and everyone agreed that it was a highlight of the trip. It felt a real privilege to be there. The lightning storms were amazing - this is nature at its best and you are sharing it with just six others. Also, several people talked about how much they enjoyed meeting people in the villages that we passed by.
What is success in a trip like this and did you achieve it?
Officially the aim was to pack-raft down the Moa River, so yes it was a success. However, I feel people get wrapped up in the aim on a trip like this. Instead I look at any expedition as a proverbial Christmas cake. You may achieve the aim, of completing a descent or standing on top of a mountain, which is the icing on the cake, but it’s important not to forget cake itself. This might be meeting people in the local area, the food you eat, or a quiet moment surrounded by the jungle. Without the fruit and nut mix that makes up the cake you won’t have as fulfilling an experience. Here we achieved the 125km of paddling, the icing, but the guys also appreciated the other things and had a great time.
What did you learn?
I gained a lot of respect for the river. It is important to be well organised for any expedition, but it was especially true on this trip. You need to be meticulous with your equipment and it’s really important to look after yourself. If you don’t, then things will begin to wrong. Food will get ruined and eventually you will go down, from fungal infections and rashes. Good preparation gives the freedom to go further.
What does adventure mean to you?
Adventure to me is an exciting moment in life that can leave you enriched with new memories and stories. Views of what adventure is should not be solely focused on the goals that, traditionally, explorers have set out to achieve, for example the seven summits and the poles.
You may have set off on what would be a routine journey or task only to find yourself wading waist deep through an epic adventure. Many people think that it is time and money that limits them from experiencing their own adventures. But it is often just their imagination that holds them back. Adventures can be found everywhere and often much closer to home than one would expect.
Laurie Lee sums up a good aim for any adventurer with this quote from his book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning: "I lay in my belly, the warm earth against me, and forgot the cold dew and the wolves of the night. I felt it was for this I had come: to wake at dawn and look out on to a world for which I had no words: to start at the beginning, speechless and without plan, in a place that still had no memories for me."
Dave Lucas runs TXC, the Expedition Consultancy, which offers guiding and logistics for pioneering climbing trips, expeditions and film productions as well as advice ranging from training through to insurance. See his Linked in and Instagram profiles, and the TXC website here.