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Tales from journeying around the world in 13 years

Jenny Lee chats to Guinness World Record explorer, author and sustainability campaigner Jason Lewis, the first person to circumnavigate the Earth using human power

WHAT can a crocodile attack, a year at sea in a tiny boat, contracting blood poisoning and malaria, and getting hit by a car and left for dead with two broken legs teach us about global sustainability?

Jason Lewis is an explorer, author, and sustainability campaigner. He is recognised by Guinness World Records as the first person to circumnavigate the Earth using only human power: walking, cycling, and inline skating five continents, and kayaking, swimming, rowing, and pedalling a boat across the rivers, seas, and oceans.

Lewis has set three additional records: the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Europe to North America by human power, the first crossing of North America on inline skates and first crossing of the Pacific Ocean by pedal power.

But being an adventurer is about much more than just records or firsts for him. Rather than seeking fame and media attention like fellow adventurers Bear Grylls and Ben Fogle, Lewis is more concerned about safeguarding a healthy planet for future generations. During his 13-year adventure he visited over 900 schools in 37 countries promoting world citizenship, zero-carbon-emission travel and raising awareness of lifestyle choices and humanitarianism.

When he was young Lewis didn't have an innate desire to seek adventure and explore. He even describes himself as an "unconfident teenager". So how did he go from washing windows to travelling around the world by human power, initially with friend Steve Smith, on a custom-made 26ft pedal boat?

"We were both interested in travel and the idea of going by human-powered pace to learn more about ourselves and the wider world was exciting to us".

Taking shifts at the pedals and the single sleeping compartment, the pair made it to Miami in 111 days.

Lewis then continued his journey on roller-blades until was run over in Colorado by an 82-year-old drunk driver, breaking both his legs and landing him in intensive care. It was an accident that changed his reason for his journey. "I realised it was not about me conquering the world and waving a flag at the end." In a wheelchair he started to visit schools and give talks on sustainability.

After nine months in rehabilitation Lewis recommenced his journey, battling numerous hazards  from waterless deserts to seaborne pirates and illegally crossing borders in extremist hotspots. But it was his arrest at the Sudan-Egypt border, where he was mistaken for a spy, that scared him the most.

"When you are involved in an accident or bitten by a crocodile, it is over before you know it. But sitting in a cell facing 40 years of your life in prison gives your mind so much time to worry," he recalls.

The 46-year-old will be sharing his experience and reading from the third volume of his book, The Expedition, as part of the Belfast Book Festival today. Such was his passion to accurately convey every detail of his 46,505-mile journey that he turned down a six-figure deal with HarperCollins. Instead dyslexic Lewis has spent a number years crafting his 44 handwritten diaries into a three-book series.

"They wanted a ghost writer to do it in nine weeks. It would have been the sensible thing to do financially and in terms of making a career out of it, but it was too rushed. I didn't want to be part of that commercial side of publishing where they pump out a product and aren't necessarily interested in the quality between the covers. So I went off and did it myself. It's taken a long time, but I'm proud about it."

And having reflected upon his expedition, he is more passionate about making people part of the solution, rather than the problem, to a habitable planet. "The most interesting thing I took away from my travels was the sense of community in areas such an island in the South Pacific where people had to live within their means. We can learn so much from what these people are doing ,such as when things break you have to fix them yourself. I would like young people in the Western world to be more aware of where stuff comes from and learn to take more care."

Despite having pedalled across the Atlantic using a compass as opposed to GPS, Lewis does believe technology does play a role in a sustainable future. "Being online allows you to share your experiences, connect with schools, fund-raise, crowd source and transpose sustainable knowledge from the micro to the macro."

:: The Expedition  The True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Earth is available now. Jason Lewis will be speaking at the Crescent Arts Centre at 6.15pm today. Belfastbookfestival.com.

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