Explorer Ash Dykes has had more close shaves than a cutthroat razor. As he gears up for an insane 4,000-mile solo trek across China’s Yangtze River, the Welshman reveals his scariest moments to date.
While many people spend their early twenties finding themselves, Ash Dykes went out and found the world.
A self-taught explorer with no military background, it’s testament to the Welshman's can-do attitude that he's gone a long way in a relatively short amount of time. By the age of 25 he not only became the first person to walk solo and unsupported across Mongolia, but also the first to traverse Madagascar via its eight highest peaks.
Currently in China preparing for a year-long trip that would see him become the only person to ever walk the entire length of China’s Yangtze River, solo – a fiendish journey stretching some 4,000-miles and taking roughly a year to complete – Ash is fully aware of the potential dangers that await:
“There’s the wildlife, such as wolves, and even Asian giant hornets," he says. "They get a sting on you and it sets off a pheromone and the rest of them come target you, and it only takes a few of those stings to kill you, and they get over 50 adult kills a year. I’ve got to walk over eight million steps without coming near them. There are rapids and fast-flowing tributaries I will be crossing on the Yangtze river – they’re very big and dangerous. There are also mountains I've got to contend with, too."
Fortunately, it's not his first rodeo. Here, Ash reveals five times he's come close to death in the name of adventure, and the lessons he's learned along the way:
1. Contracting Malaria in Madagascar
"In 2016, I became the first person to walk 1,600 miles between north and south Madagascar. Halfway into my seven-month trip, however, it almost ended in tragedy when I contracted a deadly strain of malaria. I’d been taking anti-malaria tablets, but I think food poisoning from a bad eel left my immune system particularly susceptible, while some big insect bites [pictured above] probably didn't help my cause either. I was dizzy, sweaty and struggling to the point I could barely move. Luckily, I was helped out of the jungle and into the nearest city. The doctor in the hospital told me that if I’d arrived any later I’d have slipped into a coma, or worse. After seven days rest I was good to carry on my journey."
Lesson learned: Read the signs
"When you’re pushing your body in new climates it’s easy to brush things off. But one minor illness or sick feeling could be something far greater. Now I know to read the signs and question if fatigue and hot spells could be something else."
2. Crossing croc-infested water
"Malaria was bad, but my most frightening moment in Madagascar came when my team got stuck in croc-infested water during a nighttime river crossing (a huge incoming storm meant we would have had to wait days if we didn't cross there and then). Our guide, who walked ahead of us on a series of large stones on the riverbed, warned us that, if we missed one of the rocks that kept our heads above water, we’d be taken by the river and swept away. That's almost what happened to Susanna, my photographer, who lost her footing and slipped under the water. First her head-torch disappeared and then we could hear her thrashing underwater, fighting the currents. Every time she came up for air she was screaming. The adrenaline kicked in for everyone. We formed a human chain, gripping on for dear life and fumbled around until one of the team and I had hold of her arm. We all made it across in one piece, though, if one of us had let go, it would have probably been the end of her."
Lesson learned: Trust is everything
"I’ve undertaken trips both solo and supported. Both have their advantages, but I will say the plus side of a group is knowing that somebody else has your back. Trust and loyalty go a long way when everyone’s lives are entwined. It was powerful to see this put into practice."
3. Dehydration in the Gobi Desert
"In late 2014, I became the first recorded person to complete a solo, unsupported walk across Mongolia. Trekking 1,500 miles across the Altai Mountains, the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian Steppe, I pulled a 120kg sled for 78 days. I’d gone to extra lengths to ensure I had enough water with me but, in my final few weeks, I went through the entire supply and began slipping into heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which can often prove fatal in those conditions. Suddenly it was like pulling a concrete block through hell – 40-plus degrees, no shelter, no breeze, wild visions and relentless headaches. You just want to sleep.
"My next water source was four walking days in the desert. I only had a bit of water left, which was hot. I had to really ration that last bit of water. It was weird, and my brain was a state. I felt a presence and was hallucinating that there was somebody else there as I was trying to push on.
"I experienced something similarly weird in Vietnam once, when I’d cycled for 38 hours straight and was massively sleep deprived, but this was way worse, like a full-on out-of-body experience. I remember thinking that, if I don’t get up and keep pushing on, I could quite easily die in the desert."
Lesson learned: Visualisation is key
"I actually started hiding under my trailer for five minutes at a time to escape the sun. That’s the most I could have rested for and, during this time, I looked into the distance. I was in too much pain to visualise the next stop, but I could visualise 100m, I could see 100m. I’d rest for five mins and then I would strap up and walk 200m if I was lucky. Although it was slow and painful, I was making progress, I was getting closer. By staying disciplined I just about made it to that community where I had shelter and water."
4. Held up at gunpoint by a rogue militia
"In my first two weeks in Madagascar, in 2016, I was out walking with my guide when we attracted the attention of an army officer at an outpost. He had an AK-47 slung around his shoulder and he swayed from side to side; it was obvious he’d drank too much. He demanded my passport and money, and this situation went on for about 15 minutes as we tried to talk our way out of it. Meanwhile, he had his AK' in both hands but his strap would keep slipping off and he’d catch the gun by the trigger, and it’d be pointing at my guide. We’d sway out of the way because we didn’t know if the safety was on. Being threatened at gunpoint miles from home was especially trying but we had help. Two sober army guys came over after a while, realised what their colleague was doing and sorted the situation out for us. It was a mentally testing time."
Lesson learned: You can’t plan for everything
"My early days of adventuring were pretty reckless. I would cycle across countries on £10 bicycles – no gears, no suspension, no pump, no repair kit – and generally wing it. Normally the danger was posed by my environment. But this was the first time things spiralled completely out of my control. No matter how much you look into the challenges and obstacles, there’s always something that pops up that you weren’t expecting."
5. Narrowly missing an avalanche in the Alps
"To prepare for my Mongolia trip, I walked the length of Wales in the dead of Winter, and then took a quick trip over to the Alps, solo. My first mistake was not taking a satellite device – no one really knew where I was, as I hiked from Austria to Germany over the border of the Alps. A few days previously, an avalanche in the same area had caused a few deaths, so I knew the ground was quite unsettled.
"At one point I was looking up from the bottom of a dry waterfall and knew I wanted to climb it. So there I am, carrying a 15kg rucksack, and about a quarter of the way up I felt something in my gut telling me, ‘Don’t do it, don’t go any further’. Normally I'd ignore it but because of the recent avalanche and being days away from my big trip, I slowly went back down. After the first five steps downwards, there was a mini landslide right where I would have been climbing. It wasn’t a big landslide but the rocks were big enough to break my skull or knock me out for sure. It sent a chill right up my spine, knowing that, if I’d been climbing at the time, I wouldn't have stayed on the rock face for long."
Lesson learned: Trust your gut
"There have been a lot of different scenarios I have managed to get myself out of, but this one might not have been luck. A sports brand once tested me for something called Peak Performance. They mostly tested track athletes but they'd started testing extreme athletes and adventurers on decision-making, and on reaction time. My report found that I was more likely to take a risk, but – crucially in my case – I was also more likely to counteract this by acting fast and adapting in the best way possible."
Ash’s adventure tips...
Make yourself comfortable
"A few years ago I briefly lived with a Burmese tribe, who were surrounded by poisonous caterpillars, frogs and snakes, on a daily basis. Whereas most people would wear hiking boots, they wore sandals and flip flops, and I wondered why they were doing that, but they told me it’s better in the long run. If you’re walking though lots of different crossings and rivers, your boots are going to be constantly wet, which is going to be bad for your feet. Whereas with sandals, there’s no faffing around taking your socks off, crossing the river and drying yourself off. I adopted their laidback attitude – they’re at one with nature, the jungle is their home and it’s full of allies and I try to utilise that."
Aloe vera stops chaffing
"I owe my sister a lot for this one. I used to suffer from really bad chaffing on big treks but she suggested aloe vera cream, and I haven't had a problem since. It’s good for everything. I’d also suggest taking lip balm on any big treks. It's super easy to store, affordable and stops your lips blistering."
And tape for your feet helps
"Yep, it does. The second you start feeling those rubs, get the tape around it, as it deals with it effectively. You can never have enough tape on a big adventure."
Self-belief goes a long way
"If I could look in the eyes of my 19-year-old self, I would probably tell him, ‘You are far more capable than you think.' That’s not just a message to myself, that’s a message to all of us. There are seeds of doubt set in our subconscious, and we don’t pursue things because of this. Mongolia was the perfect example: I was scared about facing dehydration or the snow blizzards or sandstorms. I had nightmares about being surrounded by wolves. I was even told by the locals that I was going to be eaten alive. I found that all of the doubts in my mind made it far worse than when I was actually out there. Don't let doubt stop you doing more."