Three young Brits quit their day jobs in September 2009 and embarked on a 32 000-kilometre overland journey to circumnavigate the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, the Atlantic Rising team is tackling climate change. Alison Westwood spoke to Tim Bromfield after they arrived in Brazil.
Why did you give up your jobs and drive around the Atlantic in a Land Rover?
We heard that the Royal Geographic Society was having a competition for a bursary of £10 000 and the use of a Land Rover. The three of us were keen to swap suits for sandals. We thought up this project over a number of pints of beer in our local pub.
Atlantic Rising is an overland expedition following the one-metre contour line, which is the height to which scientists predict sea levels will rise in the next 100 years. We started in Scotland and worked our way down as far as Ghana. We’ve just crossed the Atlantic to South America and we’ll be going back up as far as Canada. This gives us the chance to see what stands to be lost if the predictions are accurate.
The idea is also to create a network between schools around the Atlantic. We think that kids often pay more attention to their peers than they do to their teachers and we want to make the abstract topic of climate change real for them by putting them in touch with one another.
How do you manage to stick to the contour line?
We’re pretty incompetent when it comes to driving our Land Rover, I’m afraid. In London, we ride bicycles and none of us are mechanics. When we do try to keep to the letter of our project, it gets us into difficulties.
When we were in Mauritania, we got stuck in the mud and sand numerous times and had to be rescued. When we tried to leave the road on the border between Morocco and the Sahara, we were told that we’d be blown up by mines.
One metre honestly doesn’t sound like much. Can you give an example of how a small rise in sea levels would have a big effect?
In Mauritania, there’s a huge, very low-lying national park, the Banc d’Arguin, the only place where the Sahara touches the Atlantic. It’s an estuarine environment and you find thousands of birds – wading species – which are often on a migratory path from northern Europe. The rising tide is affecting nesting sites and their reproductive rates have decreased drastically in the last five or 10 years.
What’s interesting is that it’s not an isolated problem. What happens there affects bird watchers in northern Europe. It’s pointless investing in conservation schemes for birds in Europe if we’re not looking after their migratory destinations in Africa.
What differences in attitude to climate change have you noticed between children in Africa and in the UK?
The children we met in West Africa are under no illusions that climate change exists. People are aware of the phenomenon – they see it every day. Perhaps their grandparents’ houses have been swept into the sea or farmers’ crops are decimated by unseasonal rains which didn’t used to happen.
In the UK, children talk about climate change in the future tense. To them it’s something that will happen tomorrow – or not at all – and that will probably affect other people first. They’re very sheltered.
In Africa, children are really keen to learn. They’re ambitious and ready to play a part. In Britain, children just say it’s the government’s responsibility.
Three Brits, one Land Rover and 11 African countries. It sounds like a recipe for adventure…
Yes and we have so much on our plate that basic things often get overlooked. For instance, when we crossed the border from Liberia into Côté D’Ivoire, we didn’t realise we were driving straight into rebel territory.
It was a bit of a shock when we arrived at the border and were told we’d have to take a rebel escort. We spent an uncomfortable few hours driving around with a couple of guys armed to the teeth as we tried to find someone who would stamp our passports.
In the end, we claimed that we were just off to get some lunch and that we’d be right back. We sped off down the road without looking back.
How do you reconcile travel with being environmentally responsible?
My personal justification for driving is that we lead quite a low-carbon lifestyle. We try to avoid driving off-road and we do all the little things to minimise our environmental impact, like not leaving waste around our campsites. We hope that we’re doing more in defence of the environment than we are doing harm.
When it comes to holidays, I think that you can travel locally and have as big an adventure. You don’t have to necessarily go somewhere exotic. If you do want to go abroad, then you can build in some sort of activity when you go there to engage with the community you visit, for example through volunteer work.
Read blogs and see photos from the expedition at www.atlanticrising.org.