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Our Souls Travel At 3kph: Nick Hunt On Travel Writing And Epiphanies

Walking from London to Istanbul let travel writer Nick Hunt link together hidden pieces of our world, and led him to the conclusion that journeys on foot can show us so much more than we might expect.

Travel writer Hunt has published three books about walking in various parts of Europe: Outlandish, Where the Wild Winds Are, and Walking the Woods and the Water.

He joined Jim Mora on Sunday Morning to discuss what travelling does to our souls.

In a recent essay published in Noēma Magazine, Hunt explored traditional ideas of pilgrimage through three stages, which he classified as initiation, departure and return. He said the latter is the most neglected, yet the most important.

Ironically, he admits to having a bad sense of direction: "I've got no intuitive sense of direction at all ... I think maybe that's one reason why I like walking, even though I do get lost a lot.

"The experience of walking into a city is so different from getting a bus or a train because you know where you came from and you have a sense of how the outskirts of the city connect to the centre. I find it deeply confusing when you're suddenly kind of parachuted into the middle of somewhere - you've got no idea how to get out, or how to imagine getting out.

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"So I think I have my feet on the ground more when I've walked it.

"I kind of navigate by asking ... I think it's a way of meeting people. If you're travelling, if you're in an unknown place, it gives you a point of contact with people even if the practical information they give doesn't help you at all."


On turning 30, Hunt realised that a long-held dream of walking across Europe to Istanbul wouldn't happen unless he settled on a start date and began to make it happen.

His wanderlust was inspired by reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water, telling of the same journey on foot to Istanbul, but made between 1933 and 1934.

"He was 18 when he set out, which was the same age I was when I read the books that he wrote... It just always seemed like a fairytale, someone stepping out leaving their home and just doing something as simple as walking with a vague destination in mind.

"The idea completely gripped me, I was fascinated by whether that would even be possible in the modern age - would people show the same levels of hospitality? Would it be possible to walk between towns that might now be connected by a motorway or covered in industrial estate? So it was really an attempt to see if such a walk would be possible."

The journey

"It was a very old-fashioned romantic idea I guess, of just setting out with a pack on your back and seeing where the road leads you. That kind of intention felt like it probably belonged to a different age, some kind of more innocent age that was now lost.

"And what I found was that it's perfectly possible - it's different in character, but the adventure is still there, and the hospitality's still there, and the paths are still there if you can find them."

Hunt says at every single border he was warned not to cross, because the people on the other side were untrustworthy or it would be dangerous, but was frequently met with great kindness and hospitality.

"So I kind of learned to take [those warnings] with a pinch of salt."

In an age of infinite information at our finger-tips, Hunt says he has aimed to foster mystery and discovery as much as possible along the way by not researching his destinations.

"I wanted to be surprised by what I found and not have too many preconceptions of what it would be like."

His writing recounts both pain and joy along his journeys, grappling with injury, monotony and boredom, but also moments of the sublime. And he now believes the revelations and epiphanies one might seek don't always happen as the journey unfolds, but sometimes come much later.

Epiphanies on the return

Returning to the previously familiar neighbourhoods in London that he had left from was "deeply disorientating and strange", Hunt says. Previously well-trod routes were now unrecognisable.

"I came to understand this later ... the difference for me is that one journey took seven and a half months and the return took four hours. So I missed that entire last stage of a pilgrimage, when you're meant to be integrating some of the knowledge and experiences that you've had back into your ordinary life."

It led him to explore the importance of the return.

"I was very struck by the idea that [with] a pilgrimage the real destination isn't Rome or Jerusalem or Mecca or Istanbul, the destination is your own front door, and the place you think you're reaching is actually the exact half-way point, because you have to come back again and you have to pick up your life from where you left it and try to integrate the things you learned back into normality.

"So I think by flying home after that journey I missed a very important stage."

"The [revelations] don't necessarily come at the destination you've spent days, weeks or months dreaming of reaching and thinking 'yes, that's it - I'll get there and then it will all make sense'.

"And often it doesn't, and there's a paradoxical disappointment I've often found at arrival."

Hunt references Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta's saying: "travelling gives you home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land."

And once unpacked, Hunt says the change in perspective gave him a richer view: "Looking back I saw that I had arrived at multiple destinations multiple times, meeting people, seeing things, stopping here, stopping there, stopping under a tree, sitting by a river.

"It became in retrospect a journey of a million destinations, rather than just one at the end of it."

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