Adventuring never stops for Mike Laird. Not long back from completing an epic cycle from North to South Australia, which retraced the route of the doomed expedition of Burke and Wells in 1860, he is now launching the first ever Trans Oz Bike Ride to inspire more people to do the same. The course runs for over 2,000 miles from Melbourne to Northern Queensland, taking in some of Australia’s wildest landscapes.
Mike, who spends much of his time travelling and appeared in the BBC show Castaway 2000, was inspired to set out on the route after reading about the Burke and Wells’s expedition in Sarah Murgatroyd’s book The Dig Tree. Initially embarking on foot, he quickly switched to two wheels and reached the north coast in five weeks, alone and without any support vehicle. Impressed by the outback and the hospitality of the Australian people, he wanted to make the experience available to more people.
“Turning those pedals for twelve to fourteen hours a day, you come up with some fairly crazy thoughts”, Mike says. “And I thought it would be great to take some people out here and show them what the outback is about.”
Feeling that the challenge of a bike race would be the perfect way to explore the area, he returned this summer to complete the course again in a four-wheel-drive car and plan the logistics (there is a shorter 1,300 mile course as well as the full route). Working out how to provide a tonne of drinking water per day to participants was among the many practical challenges he faced – but after extensive research, discussions with flying doctors, police and hotel owners, the recruitment of a professional team, and exhaustive risk assessments the project was ready to go ahead.
Having visited Australia three times in the past ten months, as well as getting married there, Mike has developed a love for the country and feels that the outback in particular is under-appreciated.
“Most tourists, and even a lot of Australians, tend to go around the coast road,” he says. “Very few have actually been through the outback, seen the wild running animals, gone past the massive sheep stations.”
The area has just experienced its biggest floods for the past hundred years, which has made it exceptionally green, with full rivers and abundant wildlife.
As Mike made his way up to the north coast, the reception he received from locals was remarkable.
“The levels of courtesy and generosity extended to me were unbelievable. Everybody knew I was coming two days before I got there.”
Such warmth was welcome in the environment in which he found himself. While the next village was never more than a couple of days ride away, he would often go 250-300km without much in the way of civilisation or human contact. There were a couple of difficult days – and on his birthday, Mike says he missed seeing familiar faces. “I’m a bit of a softy at heart,” he says. “I like to have friends and family around me.”
It’s a striking thing to hear from somebody who has constantly thrown himself into adverse situations. Mike is a keen photographer and is driven by a desire to capture change on film, whether it’s countries in political upheaval, or the elemental natural force of volcanic eruptions and mudslides. This fascination has frequently landed him into trouble with authorities in countries he has visited – he’s had snipers knocking on his bedroom door in Beirut and been detained by Ethiopian police after photographing a slum in Addis Ababa.
His determination remains undimmed by such scrapes, and after being turned down by the MoD to work as a freelance photographer in Afghanistan, he decided to fly to Pakistan and make his own way there. Spending six weeks with the US forces and seeing the war up close gave him huge respect for what soldiers there were having to endure.
Mike’s crossing of the outback was by no means the most isolated he has felt. He once spent eight days crossing the Alaskan wilderness near Mount McKinley, during which time he saw nobody at all. “I was on my own, the temperature was down to minus 30, grizzly bears were coming out of hibernation – and I was making my way through waist-deep snow at half a mile an hour.”
But he felt equal to the challenge, and believes every experience makes him stronger.
“The more frustration that you have to cope with and truly get out of on your own, the more resilient you become. And you don’t put yourself back into a situation like that unless you know you can cope.”
“Stop calling me Sir Wilfred”
He was prompted to go to Alaska, as with the Australia expedition, by reading a book: this time Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, which a member of the public sent to him after Castaway 2000. “It only takes something like that to spark me off – much to the annoyance of some people in my life. If something grabs me, I’ll do some research and just go.”
Another inspiration was the late explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Mike discovered that Thesiger was living in an old people’s home near where he lives in Surrey while researching how to cross the Danakil desert in Ethiopia. Thesiger had witnessed Haile Sellassie’s coronation, fought against Rommel in Northern Africa and been to many of the world’s most forbidding places. But getting him to talk about them was a skill that required some practice. “He was an amazingly gentle man – very courteous, very modest.” He also disliked excessive formality. “For goodness sake,” the distinguished explorer once implored Mike. “Stop calling me Sir Wilfred.”
Thesiger is one of few people who have managed to gain real access to the Marsh Arabs of Iraq – a community Mike is set to visit this winter in order to lay the foundations for charitable work in the area. The Marsh Arabs suffered hugely after Saddam Hussein drained the wetlands following the 1991 uprising. The sea is now encroaching on the land and the date palm crops the people rely on are dying, threatening their way of life. Mike will be working on several projects, including a desalination plant, and hopes to be able to provide drinking water for the area.
Charity work is a large part of Mike’s life. He is CEO of Maroc around the Clock, which began running projects in Morocco before becoming pan-African, and recently, extending its reach globally. He is also a trustee of the Scientific Exploration Society, which combines environmental, community-based and healthcare projects with archaeological and research studies.
In all, Mike’s work and travelling has taken him to 75 countries – but as he points out, that’s only a third of the world. In addition to his immediate plans with the Marsh Arabs, Mike’s longer term ambitions include walking across Greenland and photographing the Arctic.
It may sound like he has a lot of things to be getting on with – but Mike wouldn’t have it any other way. “I would be a wilted flower without doing this,” he says. “I’d just crumple. This is how I like to be.”