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National Geographic & I

I was a ropey-armed kid roaming the neighbourhood on a secondhand Schwinn Varsity when the May 1973 issue of National Geographic lobbed on our doorstep and fired my adolescent imagination with a story inside about two adventurous couples who were cycling the Alaskan Highway.

Even today, all these years later, I can still see some of those photographs in my mind’s eye – the inset shot of the four of them pedalling straight into the camera, their touring bikes loaded up for distant places; the picture of the guy straddling his bike in front of that tacky sprawl of hometown signs and mileposts somewhere up in the Yukon Territory, looking as though he were making up his mind where he might go next; that  picaresque image of the girl playing her harmonica one-handed as she spun along a stretch of wide-open Canadian highway, free as air, with life and the open road stretching out in front of her.

The Alaska Highway story was included as an accompaniment to a larger feature about the cycling boom that was sweeping America in the early Seventies, but I felt as though it had been written especially for me.  Like the rest of the America described in that feature, I was discovering the jaunty freedom of being out and about on a bicycle.

I had not long earlier taken to riding my bicycle down the old river road to the village and points beyond – to Silver Lake and Madison Boulder and to a secret fishing hole we’d discovered along the Bearcamp River, twelve miles away –  and had become captivated by the idea of setting off on much grander journeys, pedalling out beyond the bounds of my cloistered New England world to where there were real jungles and deserts, palm trees and tigers and ancient rose-red cities lost in time.

And now here in the pages of the May 1973 issue of National Geographic, and in vivid Kodachrome, was proof that not only were such journeys possible, people were actually doing them. I resolved that one day I would as well, and what’s more that I would write up my globetrotting adventures in National Geographic, too.

A lot of kids have such daydreams, I suppose, but I never let go of mine. Although it took many years and numerous detours in life and career along the way, eventually it happened. I filed my first story for National Geographic at the age of thirty-nine – a three-part series about a 10,000-mile solo cycling odyssey I’d made through the Australian outback, the story of which later appeared in book form as Cold Beer & Crocodiles, published by National Geographic Adventure Press.

It was the start of what has proved to be a long relationship with National Geographic, one which has taken me all over the world and allowed me to see and exerience things beyond even the wildest expectations of my fourteen year-old self. Although I have never written another cycling story for the magazine, I have written a good many others on subjects as varied as cheetahs on the Serengeti, the early Polynesian voyagers, the last of the Viking whalers, the discovery of a 16th century Portuguese treasure ship lost on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and the unearthing of an astonishing 5000 year-old temple on Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands. Here below is a grab bag sample of some of my contributions to National Geographic over the years:

Before Stonehenge: The Ness of Brodgar

Before Stonehenge: The Ness of Brodgar

  One long ago summer around the year 3200BC, the farmers and herdsmen on Scotland's remote Orkney islands decided to build something big. They had Stone Age technology, but their vision
was millennia ahead of their time. Their tools might have been stone age...

The Ghost Ship of Filey Bay

The Ghost Ship of Filey Bay

It was supposed to have been a straightforward salvage job, or at least as straightforward as these sorts of things are in the difficult, moody waters of the North Sea.  A trawlerman known as “Killer” Cox had snagged his net on something in about eighty feet of water...

The Diamond Shipwreck

The Diamond Shipwreck

History rarely unfolds like a fable. But consider this: A 16th century Portuguese trading vessel, carrying a fortune in gold and ivory ad bound for a famed spice port on the coast of India is blown far off course by a fierce storm while trying to round the southern...

Manor House Station to Gibson Square

Manor House Station to Gibson Square

Steve Scotland had better reason than most for thinking he knew London like the back of his hand. Not only was he a native Londoner, born and bred, but he’d spent years working as a chauffeur in the city, driving his passengers wherever they wanted to go, finding the...

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

On a sweltering afternoon in June of 1719, the Princess, a 140-ton ship out of London, was sitting at anchor off  Anomabu, a steamy West African slave port, waiting to take on a load of slaves for the plantations in the West Indies, when a strange vessel materialized...

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Dracula

Vlad the Impaler: The Real Dracula

Romanian folklore tells of a golden chalice that once upon a time sat beside a spring along the lonely road into Târgoviste, a market town which was the capital in those days of the mediaeval principality of Wallachia. This cup had been placed there by the local...