Say yes more

WORDS Dave Cornthwaite

“I have never seen anything like this before,” said the lady, leaning out of her motorhome and rubbing her eyes. We’re in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain and while she’s enjoying her air con, I’ve been travelling east on nothing but a skateboard. Twentyfour days down, 132 to go.

Skateboarding across Australia, a touch over 5800km, changed my life.

A year earlier I’d found myself stuck in a dead-end job with nothing but a Playstation and a cat to keep me company. A rather comical realisation that said cat was somehow living a far more enriched life than her lazy owner spurred me into life, and it wasn’t long before I’d committed to a new habit which I hoped would take me along a new path.

At the start, I had no idea that that path would be quite as long as the breadth of Australia, but as it turned out, the many roads between Perth and Brisbane were just the start. That record-breaking traverse evolved into a project called Expedition1000, a long-term endeavour to take on 25 journeys, each at least 1600km in distance and each using a different form of non-motorised transport.

For years, I lived out of a bag, slowly ticking off different expeditions and at the same time developing a love for sharing
stories; on stage and online.

With a camera in hand, I kayaked the Murray, stand-up paddleboarded the Mississippi, sailed the Pacific and rode a sail bike along the length of Chile’s Atacama Desert, among other self-propelled ventures for which I hadn’t trained for whatsoever.

There was a beauty in jumping in to the deep end without any noticeable skill or ability, beyond a courageous love for saying yes.

This example was most literal in August 2012 as I leapt from a pontoon in South Dakota, revelling in the confused faces of those present as they slowly realised that, in fact, I wasn’t much of a swimmer. But take new occupations slowly and eventually the lessons are learned, strength built and progress made. Fifty-eight days later, I pulled myself out of the water at St Louis, Missouri, a 1611km swim under my belt.

“Say yes more.” Three simple words I’d adopted at the start of this mission, and an attitude that generally saw me carry a smile into new conversations and ideas that always seemed to turn out OK. The kindness of strangers is never more evident than when you’re vulnerable but smiling, in the midst of a journey with nowhere immediate to rest your head, and I hoped at some point I’d be in a position to pay forward the generosity I’d experienced during my travels.

In June 2015, almost a decade on from that fateful decision to try skateboarding for the first time, I stared at the number of followers on my Facebook page and realised I didn’t know many of them. Thus began a fledgling idea to see if I could turn my online audience into real people.

I did it by inviting them camping.

Nineteen people turned up underneath that train station clock in London, a small cluster of rucksacks amid a crowd of suits. We took a train out of town, got to know each other around a campfire on a hillside, then slept under the stars before returning to London bright and early, just in time for work. Each a little smelly, yes, but now with 18 new friends.

For a decade, I’d been a one man band, flitting from continent to continent, making a living however I could, whether as a motivational speaker, a filmmaker, photographer or writer. Now though, there was a natural pull towards finding a community who understood – rather than questioned – my motives behind leading a fairly non-conventional life.

The next week, I posted another invite to come camping, and 25 turned up. The following week, 29 gathered in a woodland. All professionals who had left their desks at 5pm, bound for the great outdoors. These were the people I wanted to spend my time with, the folks who would say “yes” to camping with strangers near London, who would bring treats to share around and share stories that would inspire their new friends to continue trying fresh hobbies.

I'd found myself in a dead-end job with nothing but a Playstation and a cat to keep me company.
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Before long, there were hundreds of people in this new community, which we nicknamed The YesTribe. By the end of that first summer, more than 1000 people shared an online home on Facebook and regularly split off to get together in real life, often in the countryside away from the noise and stress of the city. Many headed off on adventures abroad then returned with tans and wide eyes. People started businesses and charities they’d been dreaming about for years, supported by a network of new friends who wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by motivated, inspiring humans.

That October, we held our first Yestival, with 40 speakers from the world of adventure and science agreeing to share their stories for free before joining the throng around the campfire or queuing for dinner. Everyone else in that field then realised the speakers were really quite normal and that they had simply had an idea one day which they’d acted upon. And then the natural question was, “OK, what can I do?”

A couple of months later, I headed off on a new adventure – a 1610km walk through the Middle East on what I hoped would become my twelfth journey over 1600km. For the first time though, I fell short. After 240km through the West Bank and across the Jordan Valley, two stress fractures in my left leg made continuing impossible, so I headed home just in time for Christmas.

A few days later, I decided to pop along to a YesTribe New Years’ Eve celebration, and it was there that I met Em. We clicked immediately, started dating later that month and before too long had moved in together on a houseboat in London. Of course, she knew I was likely to disappear for months on end and she seemed perfectly fine with that, but after a while we got to talking about doing a trip together and before we knew it, found ourselves in Germany on a tandem bicycle which was commonly referred to as ‘the divorce bike’.

For much of that journey we followed the cycle route alongside the Danube River, and as we approached our end goal in Hungary, I was filled with certainty. There’s not much you can hide from a partner when you spend weeks on end on a bike or in a tent, so as we approached Budapest, I got down on one knee and proposed. Gladly, she said yes.

With all of this in mind, it may come as no surprise that our honeymoon, which begins in the autumn of 2018 shortly after our wedding, won’t be typical. We’ve decided to celebrate this new life together by creating something new, an ongoing journey in parts to different corners of the globe, working with destinations or venturing off the beaten track to encourage non-conventional travellers not only to travel with a light footprint and an openness to the basic pleasures of curiosity, but to see their everyday life back home as an adventure.

I feel comfortable writing this down knowing it will be published only once we’ve begun our adventuremoon, because right now Em has absolutely no idea where we’re going. After building a driftwood cabin on a Mississippi River island and scuba diving in the Philippines, we’ll be heading to Australia, without a skateboard in sight. A few days and nights on The Ghan will sandwich visits to the west and east coast, and after that the world is our oyster.

We’ll work as we go, writing and making films and giving talks to schools, businesses and festivals, and will continue to run SayYesMore remotely, with a little help from a team of 25 volunteers who keep the YesTribe running in London and also in more than 20 other locations around the world. And who knows, maybe we’ll find the perfect non-motorised way to travel 1600km at some point.

This time, I’ll let Em pick.