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Making the journey part of the adventure

In deciding not to fly, Athlyn Cathcart-Keays discovers how the journey can become the adventure

FlightFree UK
29 Jun 4 min read

Since my birth in 1991, my mother has kept a diary of the trips and holidays I’ve been on. Starting with a trip from Canada (my birthplace) to Germany (where my aunt lives) in February 1992 as a 6 month old baby, I’ve been to a lot of different places.

We moved to the UK when I was 5 years old, and with an extended family that, at times, has been spread over Canada, US, Germany, China, Japan and the UK, I was no stranger to long-haul flights and adventures in all four corners of the earth. The diary was handed over to me when I was a teenager, and I’ve updated it every year or so since with the trips I’ve taken, whether international or close to home. Since that first trip to Germany in 1992, I’ve taken 64 return flights – an average of 2.2 flights per year. While I couldn’t find an average comparison, it’s estimated that 57% of the UK population took no flights abroad whatsoever in 2013.

In early 2015, I met my partner Tim. In the pub on our first date we got onto the topic of travel and he mentioned that he hadn’t taken a flight for 7 years. That took me by surprise. I remember asking if it was because he was afraid of flying. He explained his reasons – a degree in environmental science had made him all too aware of the impact of flying, and his parents had stopped years ago too. After doing my own research, I came to the same conclusion. It was less of a realisation, and more that I finally addressed what I already knew about the impact my personal actions were having, and vowed to change things going forward.

Athlyn and Tim on a flight-free trip around Europe

For most of my adult life, I had made journeys by plane that facilitated the experience that lay at the other end. But six months on from that conversation in a pub, I found myself en route to Copenhagen by bicycle, with Tim and his two younger brothers in tow. The journey itself was the adventure.

Not long after, Tim actually moved to Copenhagen to do his masters, and that’s when the “love miles” started. After six months of flying to visit Tim every few months I decided that I might as well just move there myself, which was a straightforward decision as I was working as a freelance journalist and researcher, writing about citizen-centred urban planning and sustainability, which Copenhagen knows all about!

Being based in a new place, a whole new world of travel opened for me. Holidays became about the journey and how we’d see a landscape by moving through it by bike, foot, canoe or a combination of methods, rather than transplanting ourselves somewhere via plane. I didn’t need to fly any more, and took my last flight in the summer of 2017.

The summer I moved to Scandinavia, we took a ferry to Oslo, and spent two weeks cycling through Norway with just a tent and camp stove, heading north through the land of the midnight sun. Hopping on and off ferries and riding late into the evening, we followed our circadian rhythm up to the Arctic Circle where the sun would barely dip below the horizon before rising up again in all its glory (it was news to me that you could still get sunburnt at 8.30pm).

After two weeks in the saddle, we booked a shared berth on the Arctic Circle train from Narvik (Norway) to Stockholm to meet family. It was perhaps one of the most picturesque and romantic journeys of my life. As the train wound through pine forests late into the night, the curtains of the berths billowed into the hallways, and we’d see the reflections of elk mirrored on placid lakes and hear the repetitive noise of our motion across railway sleepers and the distant warning ‘dings’ of rural level crossings.

Arctic Circle train

While our bike ride took us two weeks, the train took just 22-hours, and being able to see just how far we had come in one sped-up journey was brilliant. I fell in love with train travel more than ever.

The journey to me is so important – being able to see the distance travelled to get there, and know in my body how far I’ve come. I’ve always loved looking at maps and being geographically aware of my surroundings, so knowing that I can actually plot the journey I’ve taken from A to B is great. In the last five years, I’ve visited 12 different countries by land and sea, and could draw you a line on a map for each of them (for the bike-based journeys, I have!).

My family has been wonderful in accommodating me not flying. We’ve visited several countries together by land, and they too have started adventuring closer to home. As the climate crisis rises higher up the agenda for people, I see more and more people taking action to reduce their own footprints. The longer I’ve been ‘flight-free’, the easier it is, especially with websites like seat61.com making worldwide train travel so much less mysterious. When I feel the excitement that comes with an adventure, it doesn’t matter how far away from home I am – it’s still intoxicating and new.

Camping above Navrik, north Norway – this was taken at 11.30pm!

Athlyn is a writer and researcher focusing on community and sustainability. You can follow her @athlynck

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