Tom Sheppard’s 40 years of overlanding experience make him one of the world’s foremost experts on desert travel. Among the highlights, he’s tackled six solo Sahara expeditions since 2001, and he led the first coast to coast crossing of the Sahara from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, which won him an award from the Royal Geographical Society.
Sheppard’s gift for writing about complex topics with simplicity and clarity has also made him a bit of a guru. The author of the highly sought after Vehicle Dependent Expedition Guide, a book that fetched as much as $500 per copy on Ebay when it went out of print, he’s the most sought-after source of overland advice by those in the know. His more recent books— Quiet for a Tuesday and “The Nobility of Wilderness”—tell the story of his wide-ranging solo travels in Algeria, including an epic off-track army dodging adventure.
Sheppard has spent the past several years lobbying the Algerian government to create a Sahara Protected Area, preserving a unique region of the desert for future generations.
I had a chance to talk with Tom when I wrote a profile piece about him for the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Outpost magazine. I’ve decided to share the interview with you in it’s entirely. I hope you enjoy it.
Ryan: Please tell me a little about your childhood. Did it predict in any way the path that you would take later in life?
Tom Sheppard: Born and raised in India till I was 12 – which included the tag-end of WW2. My father was a tea planter in north-east Assam near the Burma frontier and the constant aerial activity sparked my eventually joining the Royal Air Force as a pilot. It may even have planted the seed of my love for the desert: I found the jungle a bit claustrophobic and gasped at the deserts of Rajasthan out of the train window as we headed for Bombay when we shipped back to UK.
Ryan: Was nature a big interest? Were you adventurous? Did you exhibit early talents?
Tom Sheppard: Some early interest in nature which has grown more rapidly in recent years so that even on country walks in the UK I am amazed and uplifted by the beauty and variety around me – the delicacy, elegance, symmetry, design, colour of wild flowers; the young leaves on the trees unfurling in spring and early summer. In the desert, of course, nature is overwhelming – the sheer scale … and the miracle of plant and animal life. I don’t think I was especially adventurous. Early talents? I was often labeled ‘artistic’ – a two-edged accolade, of course, among beer-swilling, back-slapping fighter pilots! But I guess it helped with my later pursuits taking snaps and putting books together.
Ryan: What were the turning points in your life? What was the tipping point that caused you to take up exploration so wholeheartedly? What is it about you/life experiences that made you so responsive to this kind of pursuit? Did someone help you or champion you along the way?
Tom Sheppard: The clincher, the moment from which I was permanently hooked on the desert, is touched on in Quiet for a Tuesday (QFAT) – seeing dawn break from an aircraft over Jebel Uweinat in south east Libya and the vastness of the desert emerge from the shadows beneath us (see Q.6 below also). It brought tears to my eyes. Almost surreal, such a landscape gradually appearing out of the grey beneath. Predisposition to this response? I’ve never been a gregarious person (beware, more cliché-labels looming!) but landscapes like that have double the impact if you’re on your own without the distractions and pressures of other people. And no, there was no champion/coach in the background.
Ryan: What is the major attraction for you when it comes to travel?
Tom Sheppard: Most of the normal constituents of ‘travel’ fill me with dread! Airports, the bureaucracy, crowds, jostling queues at tiny windows, flying cattle-class, insincere cabin staff, officious functionaries … I don’t have to tell you, I’m sure! Nor is it ‘the people and the food and the beaches and the …. etc’. Travel, for me, only has any ‘attraction’ when you are free of all that, when the pressure is lifted, when you are free to take your time; free, even, of the constant low-level pressure of living in a hideously overpopulated place like the UK. Having said that I am enormously moved by, and respectful of, the genuine hospitality and kindness of people I have met in ones and twos in my desert adventures. Alas, conditioned to be suspicious, on my guard and waiting for the sting, all too often the genuineness is only apparent in retrospect – a sick reflection on our society.
Ryan: What is the greatest travel challenge for you personally? The physical, the mental?
Tom Sheppard: I think it must be the mental. Overcoming the bureaucratic barriers at the beginning, going into the endless minutiae of planning and equipment levels (that bit nonetheless enjoyable and satisfying), the en-route decision-making – monitoring supply levels and reserves, decisions on navigation; but then the reward of activating it all in the careful progression of the trip; keeping things carefully judged and safe, caring for the vehicle on which in remote desert regions on your own your safety, and life, depend absolutely. The impetus of the trip, the stimulus of the landscape, seem well able to absorb any physical stress without leaving any trace (except, perhaps the occasional bout of dehydration – QFAT pp.43-44).
Ryan: What was your most memorable experience?
Tom Sheppard: I guess it must be that time looking down at Jebel Uweinat and the dawn over the Libyan desert (back jacket flap, top quote, QFAT). Especially coming on top of the excitement and expectation of my first pilot trip in a large transport aircraft to Khartoum and Aden – exotic destinations.
Ryan: What do you know as a result of your journeys that the rest of us don’t?
Tom Sheppard: Judging from my observation of those for whom it is a first experience, it would seem that the peace, tranquility, freedom and beauty conferred by the remote desert is something not yet appreciated by many.
Ryan: What impact does your work/travel have on your personal life?
Tom Sheppard: Complete takeover! I’ve come to the conclusion that I am a certifiable workaholic and (unapologetic) perfectionist. I have to have (and usually have) a grand projet onto which I can focus totally. The perfectionism – or put less pejoratively, just getting things absolutely right – goes with the territory. As I say repeatedly in QFAT, ‘ … life is about detail’. Pilot training (or even my day to day motorcycling) is a good place to start with this approach; if you don’t ‘get things right’, you’ll probably die, and take others with you.
Ryan: What are you most proud of? What mistakes have you made? What mistakes do you continue to make?
Tom Sheppard: I suppose it has to be the organization, team training and execution of the coast-to-coast West-East Sahara expedition. Mistakes: too many miles in a day. After 40 years I think I’m at last getting it licked! Strange to say, until recently my record was set in 1979 in the Hoggar mountains: 12 miles and most of the time spent stopped and taking pictures! Mistakes I continue to make? Judging distance visually in the desert – notoriously difficult. (See pic and caption p.188/189, The Nobility of Wilderness.)
Ryan: What are the most significant lessons you have learned from solo desert travel?
Tom Sheppard: ‘Doucement, doucement!‘, as an avuncular Algerian truckie once told me as I crouched at the side of the track mending a puncture. Take it steady. Be a granny. ‘Get things right’. Life is about detail. Plan ahead. Recce on foot. Or, to put it another way … no, I already have! And all easier to do when you’re on your own.
Ryan: How has travel changed you?
Tom Sheppard: Hard to say since the change is so gradual but looking back, say, 35 to 40 years, my passion for the beauty of desert landscapes and the magic of solitude remain unchanged. I do, however, see it now in the wider world context, appreciate its perilous rarity not just within Algeria but in relation to the whole planet. True wilderness, very precious, that must not be spoiled or desecrated; that must, with the application of a few simple rules (TNOW, p.237), be protected (TNOW p.233). Totally relevant to all this, and to the survival of our species – yes, the survival of our species – is population. World population. When is it going to stop? Read – slowly, and weigh – p.166, QFAT.
Ryan: What traits (contributing to your success) do you possess that others may lack? What characteristic are you most grateful for? Do you enjoy the most? Do you least like about yourself?
Tom Sheppard: See 7 and 8 above. I’m grateful for these traits but probably value most of all my sense of wonder – which keeps expanding. The skills of animals and birds, the extraordinary mutual rapport there seems to be between man and certain groups of species. The beauty of horses. The apparent miracles of nature, the beauty of leaves on a tree in spring and early summer, the fact the earth’s axis is tilted over at 23° (without which there’d be no spring or summer); the staggering ingenuity of the human brain, the cleverness of software designers, the metallurgists who give us 150,000-mile auto engines, the extraordinary and ever-expanding capability of electronics, the teams that begat GPS and Google Earth. And the edge taken off so much of it by the dumb-ass technophobia and lack of appreciation by our opinion-makers – ‘the media’ – and how it rubs off on the average person. President Obama was right: ‘Put science back in it’s proper place.’
Most enjoyed? After the expedition itself and the photography, the huge creative treat of putting a book together to enshrine the landscapes – all here at home, taking it steady, ‘getting it right’ as our wonderful software and hardware allow us to do; tweaking and honing it for as long as you like.
Least liked about me? Probably my ears. Getting bigger; and noise-damaged years ago with a pronounced higher-frequencies dip in the audiogram. But you ought to see the fancy electronic do-dads I have to lift the curve … !
Ryan: What is your greatest achievement?
Tom Sheppard: Being so modest! (Think about it … !)
Ryan: What is your greatest wish for yourself?
Tom Sheppard: The promise of a carte blanche visa arrangement for yearly solo Sahara trips in Algeria!
Thanks again Tom for taking the time to talk with me.
Those interested in Tom’s books should visit Desert Wind Publishing. I highly recommend them!
All images copyright Tom Sheppard