Ash Dykes: Walking Across Madagascar

We meet a lot of interesting people at The Allrounder. Amazing people that do incredible things, the likes of which we can only imagine. When they tell us their stories we’re often lost for words at the sheer dedication required to complete the various challenges. The kind of hardships that make you look at them and say “hold on, you’re telling me you chose to do this?”

Ash Dykes is one of those people. An adventurer and explorer who, from the age of 19, has spent his life travelling around the world undertaking a phenomenal series of exploits. He’s cycled 700 miles across Australia, learnt how to survive in the jungle with a Burmese Hill Tribe, Trekked alone through the Alps during winter, narrowly missing a landslide, cycled Cambodia and the length of Vietnam, and he’s even trained and competed in Muay Thai against fighters in Thailand. So yeah, he’s had a pretty damn impressive life. Not bad considering he’s only 24.

In 2014 Ash became the first person ever to walk across Mongolia solo and unsupported, taking him over the Altai Mountains, Gobi Desert and Mongolian Steppe and covering 1,500 miles in 78 days. Pulling 120kg in a wheeled trailer, he faced sand storms, snow blizzards, Grey Wolves, Snakes, severe heat exhaustion and loneliness. The journey earned him the name “The Lonely Snow Leopard”.

Two years later Ash took on his next challenge which saw him become the first person to walk across Madagascar through its interior, a journey that meant travelling over eight of the highest mountains and taking him 1,600 miles in 155 days. Luckily we managed to grab hold of him before he inevitably ends up on another adventure somewhere else in the world.

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Why did you choose Madagascar?

When I was trekking across Mongolia it was just incredible, but I wasn’t coming across many locals. It’s the third most sparsely populated country in the world. So I’d go over a week without seeing locals, and when I did see them they were always so friendly; so hospitable. And I thought to myself on the next expedition, I’d like to encounter more locals. To understand their way of life, how they live, how they survive. I was just thinking of a few different areas, then Madagascar just popped into my head because I knew it would be a unique experience, with 80% of plant life and wildlife not being found anywhere else in the world. So I thought that would be a wicked place to go and explore. I also knew nothing about Madagascar, and I always love going to countries that I know nothing about.

What kind of preparation did you have to do before taking on the challenge?

I had to do quite a bit of research. I had to find someone who was local in the country. I found a logistics manager at a company called Madamax. He  helped me plan the logistics, plan the route, where to find water points and even helped me with the visa. I was obviously training a lot. I was training like a mad man. I always have done from a young age. I was a Muay Thai fighter back in Thailand, so I was just back here doing Muay Thai, training in my garden, building myself up mentally and physically for all the challenges that lay ahead. And of course when we found out that it’s a potential world first if I made it. That made things a lot bigger as well.

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Was there anything that you realised you should have put more training in for when you got to Madagascar?

There wasn’t actually. No, I went out to Madagascar with the confidence of having Mongolia behind me, but I did massively underestimate just how difficult Madagascar was.

Where there any surprising differences between Mongolia and Madagascar?

Yeah. Just how many communities there were. How many villages and tribal communities in Madagascar. In Mongolia you can potentially walk for eight solid days and not come across another human being. That’s not the case in Madagascar, unless you’re in the jungle. In the jungle up north we went six days without seeing anyone, but that’s because we were in the mountains. Other than that we’d always come across locals. Another difference is just how much the land is being used. I always remember that in Mongolia I could walk and pitch my tent up wherever I wanted, because there’s so much free land. Whereas in Madagascar you’ve got all your vegetation, plantations and rice paddy fields. So camping was always a big issue. We had to plan ahead. We could be walking for hours and not find a single place to camp sometimes.

What were the scariest things that happened during the journey?

I would say that one is where I contracted the deadliest strain of malaria. That was quite scary. I was just in a village at that point. I came down with severe hallucinations and I was completely delirious and disoriented; vomiting and diarrhoea.I needed to get myself out of there, so luckily there was local transport and I was only three hours away from the second biggest city in Madagascar. I evacuated myself to the city. The doctor came round, my temperature was at 40 degrees Celsius and my blood pressure was awful. She took a blood test and said that I’d got the worst strain of malaria and I was just hours away from potentially slipping into a coma. She dealt with it fast, gave me the right medication, and within a week I was on my way to summit the second highest mountain in the country. While still on medication. (laughs).

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How did that affect your mind-set for the rest of the journey?

It made me more aware and more determined. A lot of people would think that would put you off mentally, but I knew that I was lucky. It was almost like a second life. Once the doctor had eradicated it completely from my system. I just needed to be aware that I needed to use my mosquito repellent, and I needed to protect myself, I needed to not rush through the country, I needed to take my time, and get through it day by day and I’d eventually get to the end. So it made me more focussed. I knew that if I messed up or did anything silly then it could be potentially fatal. So it brought me back to earth and [made me] start taking things more seriously.

Another one would be when we were up north trekking through the mountains, through the jungle in the rainy season. The locals don’t even trek around the mountains in the dry season, let alone the rainy season, and they know all the rivers very well. There was one river where we had to build a raft using natural resources to get all our luggage and ourselves across. We had a photographer come out from Belgium, which meant I had the responsibility of looking after her and her porter who was carrying her kit. We came to this big river crossing at night-time. We all formed a human chain with the help of a local that knew the river really well and knew where the shallow rocks were. So we could at least keep the river at our chest instead of going under. It was really loud, we couldn’t here anything but each other shouting over the noise of the roaring river. All we could see were head torches. The photographer just slipped and she was just hanging helplessly by mine and the guide’s hands. That was scary because I was pretty sure that she was almost gone. If she got swept away and was lucky enough not to hit rock, the river is croc infested as well, so the crocs would have got her. It was quite a scary part of the expedition.

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What about something the other side of the spectrum?

Well, there was a lot. Day one seems to stand out. I was trekking from the southern point, we were just trekking along the beach across the dunes. I just put my bags down and relaxed along with my current guide who was down south with me. We just stopped, we sat on the sand dunes and we were looking out over the Indian ocean. We could see a local fisherman spear fishing, and in the distance we could just see a humpback whale launching itself out of the Indian ocean. That was really special. Just relaxing and realising that all the logistics and planning are over and done with. Now there was just the expedition itself, and whether I succeeded or failed was down to just me to make it happen. Along with that, arriving at the middle section was a highlight, recovering from malaria, seeing the wildlife; some of the lemurs out there were just incredible.

What did it feel like when you came home after the trip?

This time round, it was a good feeling. I came home and the people who joined me at various sections of the expedition were home safe. I was home safe in one piece and it was kind of a relief, because there were so many things that could have gone wrong, and a lot of different ways that I could have arrived back to the UK. So I’m glad I arrived back in one piece. Whereas Mongolia, when I arrived back I was sort of ready for my next expedition, but that wasn’t the case with this one, I was just happy to be back, to rest, plan, train for the next and enjoy all the comforts and luxuries, especially the variety of food.

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What would you say to people who want to do something like one of your adventures?

Just by doing it. I know that sounds easier said than done, but just by setting yourself a date and going for it. You know, a lot of people assume I have a military background, but I don’t. I went straight to college after school, I didn’t even go to university. I went straight out to China, and I’ve just been learning from experience. My expeditions have slowly been getting bigger and better, and my first adventure was actually a cycle across Cambodian Vietnam. I didn’t even have a £10 bike, I didn’t even have gears, or suspension. It had a pink bell and a basket on the front. I spent two minutes on Google. I didn’t take a pump or a puncture repair kit. I went with no previous experience of cycling long distance, or even trekking that distance. So yeah, anyone who’s up for doing it, can do it. You’ve just got to dedicate yourself to it and take the first step. That’s always the hardest bit.

And lastly, what will you do next?

I’ve got three decent ideas that came to mind whilst I was trekking across Madagascar. It always seemed to push me on during the expedition. But these three are all potential world firsts, looking to be really big. But it’ll take me a year or so to plan . I can’t reveal just yet what they are, unfortunately. But yes, I’m back. I’ve got a UK theatre tour planned, I’ll be going to ten to fifteen venues around the UK. I’ve got a documentary in post production, I’m working on a book and I’m now back in training, to get my fitness back up.

So definitely no relaxing then?

No, quite the opposite.

For more information about Ash, you can heard over to his website here, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

To find out how you can get involved in your own Madagascan adventure and help the local people and wildlife of the island visit SEED Madagascar’s (formerly Azafady) website here.

Picture Credits: Suzanna Tierie