Flying camping chairs, wacky races: adventure club makes life less boring

An outfit calling itself The Adventurists is here to rescue you from safe, dull, 21st-century life — and they're coming to SA for an epic paramotoring event

04 March 2018 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel
The Mongol Rally.
The Mongol Rally.
Image: The Adventurists

If you were north of Johannesburg in October last year and happened to look up, you may have seen a strange sight - a man sitting in a camping chair, drifting through the sky attached to a column of brightly coloured helium balloons. Tom Morgan spent two days inflating the balloons. Then he strapped himself into his chair and flew for more than two hours, covering 25km. "I was somewhere between terrified and elated," he said. "But it was unbelievably cool."

As the balloons drifted towards the inversion layer of the atmosphere - where the temperature rises - his climb began to accelerate quickly. "I had to keep calm and start gradually cutting the balloons one by one to get back down to Earth." Why did he do it? Because getting lost and feeling terrified and in trouble is no longer what life is about. And that was half the joy of being alive.

Tom Morgan flew 25km in a camping chair attached to a host of helium balloons.
Tom Morgan flew 25km in a camping chair attached to a host of helium balloons.
Image: The Adventurists

"The entire surface of the Earth has been scanned by satellites and shovelled into your mobile phone tagged with twattery about which restaurant serves the best mocha-latte-frappeshite," he says.

And it's true. The world has become a rather sanitised, claustrophobically safe place. A few years ago, when you went somewhere you navigated based on your own knowledge and intuition. But today everybody blindly follows what Waze tells them. If something happened to the application, we'd be completely lost.

The author of the international bestseller Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, writes: ''Now people reach a juncture on the road, and they trust an algorithm. Maybe the junction is their career. Maybe it's the decision to get married. But they trust the algorithm rather than their own intuition."

There's something very sad about that.

Morgan is the founder of a British entity called The Adventurists, established in 2005. It's the philosophical home of a group of people he calls "a loose band of dickheads flapping about the corners of the Earth trying to create all sorts of wondrous little sticks of chaos to shove under your ergonomically designed office chairs".

WATCH | Tom Morgan flies over Joburg  in a camping chair held up by helium balloons

Tom Morgan, a British adventurer, has flown almost 2,500m above South Africa attached to 100 helium balloons with only a camping chair for support. Morgan travelled 24km while attached to the ball...

As a student of fine art Morgan used his student project grant to buy a Fiat. Then he spun the globe, and set off for the place his finger landed on: Mongolia.

Since then he's been dreaming up adventures that challenge the cloistering, over-protective sanity of our daily lives. His first one, the Mongol Rally, travels 16,000km across the mountains, desert and steppes of Europe and Asia each summer.

There's no backup, no support and no set route; just you, in a tiny 1,000cc car you bought from a scrapyard. The rules are you can take only a farcically small vehicle. A telephone box strapped to the roof of the car to hold supplies just adds to the fun of the challenge.

Morgan has ridden a 48cc motorbike - a children's toy, really - across the Sahara, through the Amazon jungle and along the dirt tracks of Romania. He's taken a vintage motorbike and slapped it down on the biggest lake on Earth. In Siberia. In mid-winter. He's sailed across oceans in a dugout canoe made from a mango tree and raced through India in a tuk-tuk - and yes, he's taken to Joburg's skies on a camping chair.


During his recce for the balloon trip, Morgan met South African Nic Petropoulos, a fellow lover of adventure and an avid paramotorist. Paramotoring is powered paragliding in which a lawnmower-like engine with a propeller is attached to the pilot's back, and the whole caboodle harnessed to a paraglider wing. To take off, you run until the wing has enough lift to set you free from Earth.

Petropoulos's enthusiasm for exploring his country using a paramotor convinced Morgan that South Africa would be the perfect playground for his next adventure, The Icarus Trophy - a near 1,600km paramotor race from Hartbeespoort Dam to Victoria Falls.

"There's no set route, but you must cross the border posts between South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia on foot. With your paramotor strapped to your back of course," says Petropoulos. A minimum number of passport stamps will need to be in your passport when you hit the finish line.

"We thought it was high time to bring the adventure to where the adventurists really are," Morgan says.

A paramotorist gets ready to fly in the Icarus Trophy in Nevada, US,
A paramotorist gets ready to fly in the Icarus Trophy in Nevada, US,
Image: The Adventurists

A number of locals have signed up. Mark Perrow, a South African sprint canoeist who competed at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, is one of them.

Does he feel prepared?

"I did the Raid Gauloises Adventure race in 1997," he says. ''It was early days for adventure racing in South Africa then. We did 700km of running, hiking, mountain biking, canoeing, climbing and rafting. It took us 11 days, over which I got a grand total of 33 hours of sleep. I had tick bites, flea bites, got scabies from having to sleep in shepherd's huts. Hey, but that was along time ago."

Perrow has finished 32 Dusi Canoe Marathons, has learnt to fly microlights and has done 10 free-fall skydiving jumps.

"This aerial thing is all new to me," he says. ''But hey, you only live once and we still have four months to figure out how these things work. I flew a kite as a kid - it can't be that different."

Top South African mountain climber Alard "Big Al" Hufner has signed up, too. His day job includes aerial stunt rigging for the movie industry. "I love anything that involves ropes, harnesses and rigging," he says.

Adventurists rest under a makeshift tent on the Monkey Run in Morocco.
Adventurists rest under a makeshift tent on the Monkey Run in Morocco.
Image: The Adventurists

"This is such a different kind of adventure - we're going to be flying in the middle of frickin' nowhere. You have to land that thing at a petrol station to fill up with fuel and you have to carry everything you need to survive strapped to your back - your sleeping bag, your tent, supplies. For me, that's exciting."

What Hufner loves most about adventure is the element of uncertainty. "Maybe I'll make it. Maybe I won't."


Is it only white men who love adventure? "Chief of Adventures" with The Adventurists, Katy Willings, says no. She quit her job as a management consultant in London a few years ago to join The Adventurists full time after completing one of their challenges - the Rickshaw Run, a 3,000km rickshaw race across India.

"I discovered The Adventurists through a university mate who had entered the Rickshaw Run," she says. ''Tragically my friend died just before the race. At his funeral his mates dared me to take up his entry as a kind of penance - because he could no longer compete. I had low expectations of enjoying myself, but it was a revelation.

"The beauty of the Rickshaw Run is you're passing by people who are living their ordinary lives. Most of The Adventurists' challenges rely heavily on the kindness of strangers.

"They were quite bewildered to see a woman in a cowboy hat in a rickshaw in their village but they were fine with that. All Adventurists challenges involve begging locals for food and water, and sometimes a place to sleep."

Pushing a tuk tuk in the Himalayas for the Rickshaw Run, a 3,000km rickshaw race across India.
Pushing a tuk tuk in the Himalayas for the Rickshaw Run, a 3,000km rickshaw race across India.
Image: The Adventurists

Within months Willings was signed up for the Mongol Derby, a gruelling event that traverses Mongolia on horseback.

"We were given two weeks to ride over 1,000km. I did it in nine days. The winner got there in seven," she says. ''The whole thing threw my career into sharp relief for me. I felt as if I was literally just showing up and waiting for time to pass."

Willings says that The Adventurists exists to save the world from the horrors of modern life.

"From coffee cups that warn you they're hot, from training courses to use a ladder, from mobile phones that tell you where you are. No! The world needs to get burnt, fall off ladders and get lost," she says.

She says she believes that the concept of adventure targets men unjustifiably. "I'd encourage dads to make sure they pass on 'dad skills' to their daughters as well as to their sons - empower and enable them. And for the ones like me who didn't get that chance - we need to make resources available to learn those things later in life.

"Netball in PE is fine, but we should also learn scouting, survival and engineering skills. Aiming at a hoop is all well and good, but you'll die about 30 minutes into the apocalypse."

The Icarus Trophy starts near Hartbeespoort Dam on July 25. See