The Great Wall of China is the largest man-made structure ever built, stretching for over 4,000 kilometres from central Asia, across the Gobi Desert, through the remote, cold mountains of northern China to end on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Nathan Hoturoa Gray, a young New Zealand lawyer, wanted to be one of the first Westerners in history to walk the entire length of the Great Wall...
The Great Wall of China is the largest man-made structure ever built, stretching for over 4,000 kilometres from central Asia, across the Gobi Desert, through the remote, cold mountains of northern China to end on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Nathan Hoturoa Gray, a young New Zealand lawyer, wanted to be one of the first Westerners in history to walk the entire length of the Great Wall...
In 2000 he looked over the Gobi desert with an unlikely group of traveling companions including a Buddhist Monk, a Mormon golfer and an Italian recording artist. He saw a flash of light in the distance. In a landscape where the wall often disappeared into the sand for miles, he knew that light would be the first guiding point on what would turn out to be an incredible two year journey.
In this episode, Nathan talks about his incredible adventure and his book: First Pass Under Heaven - One Man's 4000km Trek along the Great Wall of China. A Penguin best seller, the book is available worldwide.
For more about this episode go to: www.leaderscalltoadventure.com/1
Visit Nathan's website: www.greatwalldvd.com
What possessed you to walk the entire length of the Great Wall of China?
Nathan: Well, basically, I mean, if I'm completely honest it was all ego initially. I just had this call up with this invitation to go and be the first westerners in history to walk the length of the Great Wall. My kind of ego reared up and thought, ‘Yeah, cool, I'll give that a crack.’ That was probably the initial impetus, but if I'm really honest, I was working as a lawyer in Alaska and I was visiting this gallery one time and it was a photo gallery of all these glaciers in the area but there were these two photos of China and they just stood right out from all the other photos and I just had this very very strong draw to these two photos. I had no idea that I'd go to China later on in the future, but I just knew at that moment that there was something going on and I would be in that country. I didn't have any desire to go to China at that stage. About six to eight months later, I got this first email from a friend who was working with my twin brother in London on an aerial theatre danceshow called De La Guarda. He'd been invited by a Buddhist monk who had come up with the idea to walk the wall and was basically trying to find other members to complete a documentary on this guy's walk. That's when the invitation came to me.
Initially, it was like I had a lot of fear and I didn't really want to do it, but then when he said we'd be the first group of westerners, then my ego was like, ‘Yeah, man, ok, I'll give this a crack.’ Essentially, that got us out there in the first place - that whole ego thing. That was a whole month of hemming and hawing and preparing and being scared pretty much out of my wits with the whole idea of the journey. Once we got out there, it was quite different because we took a two-day train from Beijing and we'd been in Beijing for about three weeks preparing, just learning as much language as we could just to get a little bit of the language so we could survive out there. I didn't know any Chinese at all before we got to China. I had traveled through about fifty countries before that stage. I was used to being around other cultures and being in one place one day, another place the next day and I very much enjoyed that type of lifestyle, but in terms of taking on this whole new sort of alien culture, it was completely new. We just kind of had to prepare. When we got out there, that two day train ride and I was sitting at the very first watchtower for the Great Wall, basically, to put it into a context, you've got the Himalayas right in back of the south of you. It's stretched as far as the eye can see to the south. Then, in front, you've got the Gobi desert and it spreads out as far as the eye can see. The Great Wall, it kind of comes down this black mountain that you're on top of and it weaves out into the sand and about two kilometres later, it disappears like a worm in the sand. So, you just don't know where to go. It just stops. And so, I was just looking at this vista and the other guys were down in the bottom, just sort of hanging around in the middle of the day. I was sort of saying to myself, ‘Now, do I really want to do this? What am I here to do? ‘ And, I just made this promise that I was going to walk all the way to the ocean and as soon as I said that little promise to myself, there was this flash of sunlight on this rocky outcrop, far, far, far to the north right in the heart of the desert. I just saw it and I knew that in that second that was the direction we had to head. It was kind of like a sign or what we called a tohu that our Maori ancestors would have looked at when they were about to embark on their massive sea or land migrations. In the early days, they discovered New Zealand or traveling through the country back in the old days in the last thousand years or so. It really felt like that kind of connection so I just had this very strong clear sense that was the direction we needed to head. So, I went down the mountain and caught up with the other four guys and they were not too sure what to do. We then go back to the hotel and I said, ‘Nobody is going to head this way. We just walk straight into the desert.’ And then, by the end of the day, when we reached the rocky outcrop, there were these three tents basically filled with Chinese irrigation workers. I think they were fixing up some sort of pipe set-up. It was basically a way of getting some food and then they invited us and we had or tents, but they fed us and gave us this opportunity. There was no way that I knew that those people were going to be there, but that calling was so strong and then we were looked after. And that's basically what the first three months of walking the Great Wall of China was like.
It was like going into the heart of the Gobi desert so you don't know exactly where the next village was where you're going to survive. The maps we were using, the villages were so small, that they didn't point them out on that map so we had no idea. We could just work out vaguely where that wall would go or that was there and just keep on following it in faith and then just keep on walking until eventually we came across a village and we could get our next meal. We did have some food that we carried with us like scroggin, fruitand noodles too. It was quite light food. We couldn't carry too much stuff. So, we were pretty reliant on the hospitality of the Chinese peasants as we went. But, it was, pretty much one of the journeys of, you don't know where the next village is, you just gotta keep on going. And just have faith in the wall - that it will provide. That was the whole initial experience of going through the Gobi desert.
Lori: Right, now, in the Gobi desert, would the wall just sort of disintegrate and then you wouldn't know where it connected up again? You'd look in all directions and you couldn't see it and then you just had to get some sort of sense, is that how it worked? Piece by piece?
Nathan: Yeah, it's pretty much. That was quite interesting because usually what they would have is that there would be a watchtower on the horizon and as long as you could see that watchtower, then you'd walk towards that watchtower and then you'd generally be able to see the next one. And, so, a lot of the wall in between would have dilapidated with either sand dunes had gone over it or had just over time withered away. And so, we pretty much, tried to climb one watchtower and then we'd be able to spot the next one at the next horizon and then sort of head in that direction. And then see the next one and the next one. So, that was generally the way that we went across the Gobi. A lot of the time, we just couldn't see the wall for three days, three or four days. It had just all gone. The thing was after we're walking this wall for quite a few weeks, you just kind of tune into that energy of where it would have been. Because, the way they built it was always the most beautiful places. It was kind of like...it was almost as if you felt building a big ley line across the place.
Lori: Yeah, yeah. I found that fascinating, that part of your book where you talked about, ‘The strategic reasons for the Wall being built probably weren't the reasons.’ Maybe you could just expand on that a little bit because I really found that interesting.
Nathan: Yeah, totally. Basically, the superbrains behind the Wall, they needed to get the money from Beijing from the emperor to complete the Wall building. Actually, it was the Mongolian presence up north, people like Genghis Khan, archenemies who would come through and invade and raid the Chinese villages that fell around where the Wall was before that time, but they needed the money to build up those walls to protect those villages. So, that's how they got the money, but there are so many places that the Wall was existing that really served no protective purpose at all. That kind of got us thinking, especially as we got really deep into the journey as to ‘Why? Why did they build this here? There's no way for Mongolian hostiles to go over that mountain or just go around here.’ There was just no point to it. It just really felt like that the superbrains were just marking a line across it. As you were walking, especially in the desert, you'd sort of look up at the stars and you'd see how the watchtowers would be all marked out and they'd line up with the stars. These are some of experiences I've had, experiences like at the Camino de Santiago in Spain and the pyramids in different places. It was kind of like little power spots. The thing was, when the Wall wasn't there, after about six weeks of walking, we just knew where it would be. We'd just feel the best path to take and sure enough, three days later, the wall would appear again. We would've been right on track. We found where it was. There are probably a lot of reasons why that was the case. In some cases, it was the energy of the building. In other cases - the Wall is also the world's longest graveyard - so you had a feeling that a lot of men perished in those areas as well and feeling their energies. It was kind of you had that sense of being guided across wherever it was and sort of being looked after.
Lori: How about water? I mean, you're going through the desert. What sort of distance are we talking about between these watchtowers? Was it ever an issue that you could run out of water?
Nathan: Yeah. I mean, that actually was really kind of interesting, because, the thing was, one of the walkers, my partner from Italy, all he carried was a one litre water bottle. All I had was one litre water bottle and a 750 ml water bottle. It was just nothing really to walk in the...
Lori: That's really nothing, no. That's not even a day's worth of water.
Nathan: Not even a day's worth of water. And, the thing is, we learned that the water is very precious. Water is literally like gold. We would drink it very, very carefully. And, only when you came across a village and had a chance to refill with the locals in terms of they'd give us some water or they'd go to a well and we'd get some more water that way. So this was a key element of the journey.Whatever we needed, as long as we didn't ask for too much, as long as we weren't greedy or we lived in harmony with our environment, then whatever we needed would just come. Water, it seemed someone would just come, out of the blue and you saw someone in the desert. You couldn't see that many people near you. You knew you had to meet that person and that person was going to be helping you out in some way. Then it would often lead to giving you some water to survive on or giving you some food that you needed or telling you a piece of information so that you would avoid a potential catastrophe that was hanging out a little further down the line that you couldn't see yourself, but you felt like you were being looked after.
Lori: Interesting. Were there any times that let's say, the energy of the group was off because you did start this journey as a group of five, correct?
Lori: Did you ever find that the experience, that maybe, you know, something was up in the group and that the energy was off and therefore the experiences that you were attracting were also reflective of that dynamic? Did you experience that as well?
Nathan: Really interesting question because the five of us initially....well, I had a good friend of mine from New Zealand and I knew the Argentinian photojournalist who I'd met a couple of times before the trip. But, the other two, the monk and the man from Italy, I hadn't met until we went to Beijing and it turned out we all had quite different ideas on how we felt the journey would transpire. Even though we all had that desire, that willingness to go walk the Wall, as it turned out, once we got out there, it was like, a couple of guys were far more interested in doing a doc(umentary) for National Geographic. A couple of us were far more interested in just walking the Wall and feeling that experience, more of just having that spiritual walk. It was almost like some were writers; some were filmmakers. The Buddhist monk, he was much more interested in just visiting all the temples around the whole area to see how much religion had re-emerged since the times of the Cultural Revolution. We actually had different ideas on it. We were actually only all together for ten days and then the monk disappeared and then after 21 days, the four of us split into two and two - which, as it turned out, was actually a much easier way to walk the walk. Much less pressure on the peasants - when you are going to a village and you find big guys coming in and they are needing to be fed and haven't eaten and had just walked 30, 60 ks or whatever - when there were two of you, it was a much easier way to have that experience. But, it was actually quite hard emotionally, especially to realize that for people that you've known for a long time in your life, the journey wasn't going to work very well with those particular relationships. So, once we kind of split up on our different ways, the journey was so much better in many ways. But, also...I mean, there were still amazing experiences on every level, but we had to be true to whatever our calling, our intention was on that trip and once that happened then the journey was able to unfold more easily.
Lori: That's an interesting piece though. I mean, there's that clarity and the ability for you to follow through on the clarity of your intention of your experience and then things sort of conspiring to work for you versus when you're not clear, maybe you're going along with some dynamics in the group are not necessarily true to your own inner compass, then things can go awry. Would that be a fair thing to say?
Nathan: Completely, yeah. Like, for example, there were times as well when we split up as a group and then the trouble really started to begin and lots of experiences like - a couple of guys got detained by police and army. I had a situation where there was…I came across quite bad luck energy where there was a stabbing and murder experience as well.
Lori: Yeah, right.
Nathan: These things tended to happen when within ourselves we weren't working as a group, when the split and our egos were taking over too much. We were trying to be so - all about ourselves and all about winning the race and getting there first or whatever. Then, the Wall or China was giving us quite hard lessons to say, ‘No, this isn't the way to go about it. You need to try and work as a team if you can and be more communal in approach.’It was quite a good strong teacher in that way even though the lessons were quite harsh. But, once we learned our lessons, the journey unfolded in a more positive way. So, yeah, it was pretty interesting in that way.
Lori: Mmmhmm. Very interesting. Yeah. One of the questions I had written down for you (reading the book), was when you talked about a situation where, ‘If you are anxious about getting to your destination, you're in for a hell of a ride.’ This thing, right? The sorts of people you attract, it seems, are equally stressed out. It seems like we're on that track here - where you are basically attracting that kind of thing. If you're not in a good place yourself, you're getting that also in your experience. So, that you found that when the group was able to gel and were able to surrender, I guess to the experience rather than have their agendas running, that things went well for you, yeah?
Nathan: Yeah, definitely. Actually, I learned that the first time I was really hitchhiking properly in my travels. I was up in Vancouver Island and I wanted to go hitchhiking up the west coast. I was waiting at the side of the road. It was really interesting. I got dropped off. And, there was this bridge and I thought, ‘Ah that would be kind of cool experience actually to be able to walk across the bridge to see what's below it and there's a nice spot straight after there where cars could stop and it would be quite a good place to stop and pick up hitchhikers.’ This was before I did the Great Wall experience.So, I started to walk across the bridge and I got really anxious about not being able to get to my destination. I put my thumb out as I was walking out to the cars that were coming past. And so, one car screams right past, but the second car actually stops and I thought, ‘Man, I don't want this ride. I've missed out on this experience of walking across the bridge and just seeing what's below it and seeing that view and just taking my time.’ And so, the lady that picked me up in her car - she was really stressed out and she had had a car accident with one of her mates the day before. She drove really fast and I just, I got out of that ride and I was a little bit shaken up and I thought to myself, ‘No, you just gotta take your time and just have faith that you'll get there in the end. Don't worry about it. Don't get too anxious.’ I got off that ride and said, ‘That's ok.’ I sat down and had some lunch and bike riders came. It was an amazing experience watching at the riverside just like watching that movie called ‘Mask’ which starred Cher and just have this little scene unfold. They finished their lunch and they went off and it just felt like a nice time for me to go back to the road again and sure enough, boom, I went back on the road and there was my ride. So by having those experiences and using that wisdom to apply that to the Great Wall experience was super helpful.
Lori: Yeah. That leads actually into another question that I have here about this conversation that you have with Paolo about mental manifestation. You want to tell that story? Because, I thought that was fantastic. (It's) about ‘What would you eat if you could have anything right now?’
Nathan: Yeah, he was a very interesting character. Spending these long days in the desert walking and having just to pass the time (these) were the sort of conversations that you'd have. They could be quite deep and very interesting on a philosophical level. One time we were walking and he just asked me, ‘So, what would you like to eat?’ And, I'd make a joke or whatever, just sort of used to that. We kind of worked out a consideration of what was available in the environment that we were in and then I think I just said, ‘Noodles and I'd like an apple. Maybe some biscuits - would be so cool.’ Then, later on that day, we'd totally forgotten about that conversation and we came across a village and then you're getting fed these noodles and there are some apples, some biscuits (laughing). It was such a miracle. Every time it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so amazing! This is such a miracle.’ After awhile, it was not such a miracle anymore, it's actually just life. It's just what happens. And, in the desert, you don't have the distractions of the big city with all the people around you or lots of thoughts, lots of ideas or lots of chaos. When you're out in the desert, there's no distraction. You just notice how your thoughts manifest and that was the power of that walk through the Gobi for those three months. I know they talk about Jesus going into the desert for 40 days. I don't know exactly too much about what transpired, but it really felt like that sort of learning was going on in terms of what we have as human beings, what power we really do have which is beyond that of say people who just focus on making lots of money and that's what it's all about and pour all their energy into that process. You don't have to worry about the route to get there. It became more direct, straight to the source.
Lori: Hmm, that's interesting. Would you say that the power in that is basically the ability to not be distracted and to be very clear in your intentions or what is it? What's the magic in that?
Nathan: Yeah, I think that's exactly what it is. It's just not being distracted and very clear on your intentions, just as you said, and then just remembering that intention. That's the challenge. For example, when we met the people of the Gobi, the Chinese peasants over there, money didn't exist. The concept hadn't even gotten there. We were like the first western minds to be bringing those concepts. They just barter their food, grow their crops, passing food between their neighbours and live in this way. These people are pretty much the happiest people I ever met in my life. I mean, they were amazing. They were so present, so conscious, so giving - incredible. Really awesome morals. Not necessarily religious, but they just knew how to be good human beings, knew how to treat strangers and incredibly happy and full of self-worth. These people were the people we were living off for that first three months. It was such a different world where we would go to give them some money after they'd look after us and they'd just look at us with, ‘What's this? It's not about this.’ The connection was through looking at each other in the eyes and passing across the energy in that way. It was about the experience of sharing our culture. That's the payment. That's the transaction.
Lori: Wow! So, there's a real acknowledgement of worth, of your own individual worth as a human being in that culture then, would you say? It's not about the currency, it's about knowing that the connection, the ability to connect with others and to know the value of just being alive. It seems a lot more present.
Nathan: Yeah. That's a perfect explanation. The way I look at it, it's the way of the ancients. It's the way they've been doing things the last 2000 years. The human species has gone through massive changes the last few hundred years which has kind of taken us off that old path. There's nothing wrong with whatever path. It's all learning and experience, but if you look at a lot of the crises and the financial problems that are going on, that was eventually going to come to a head because that system isn't so sustainable anymore.
Lori: Absolutely, yeah.
Nathan: Yeah, it doesn't work. The ideas don't work.
Nathan: But, other than that, these people were just so inspiring to give us that sort of teaching so that when we did come back to the bigger cities like Beijing, it was such a great shock to the system.
Lori: Yeah, what happens in the cities then? What happens to people, the nature of life? What do you think? What's the key factor that keeps people sort of disconnected from themselves in that urban environment? What is that?
Nathan: I don't know. I think there are so many different influences and so there are so many different varying ways to move this way and move that way and each conversation, I know my experience, well, I'll go do this, I'll go do that. It's very difficult to stay very focused on one thing; to remain very strong in the direction that you are going. But a lot of the time, it's just like if you put it in a conceptual level, it's like you've got this nucleus of the atom and there's millions of atoms in the nucleus just buzzing around, buzzing off each other, feeding off each other's energies, generating stuff, building buildings, whatever is happening at the level of society and then outside that nucleus of atoms, you've got these kind of more rare individuals, like electrons for example and they're just cruising around the nucleus and they'll come in from time to time to feed and maybe get some money to sustain whatever the activities are outside the nucleus and then they'll go back out and travel. And, so you've got those people. Then somebody's got a motorbike and he can go further out. So, he'll go maybe two levels of electron out if you're looking at it in an interplanetary context. So, they'll have their experiences and be broader minded in terms of what they see, what they do. And, then you'll have people who are kind of just like asteroids and they are just cutting through nucleus after nucleus which is what we were like on the Wall. We'd come to one village. As you come into the centre of the little village, you'd see all the old people sitting in the market square and that's what they do most of the day. The other bodies would be running around and exploring as much as say we were. You'd feed off their energy and they would make a comment on you and you could tell what they were seeing was quite strange to them because those kind of experiences didn't come by too often. Then we'd leave their village and we'd come out and be meeting the people who owned a motorbike and sort of explore further out. Then, boom, then you'd be gone from that energy all together and eventually you'd just be in nature and then you'd come to the next village and you'd come to the next nucleus. It was kind of like that idea. You're like asteroids going through these mini planets in that sense. Sounds a little bit out there, but it's the kind of experiences I found there. Just the learning that I got from having that kind of explorer-type experience and going from culture to culture and just feeding from each different sort of mindset really impacts the way that I look at the world now and how I function and how I hold myself in these various environments whether I'm in or out of the society or not.
Lori: Interesting, yeah. Your ability to transition through different places.
Nathan: Yeah. To be honest, when I first came back from China, I had break, quite a long break. I was about 3000 kilometres through the trek then. I really pushed my body to it's actual limit so I had to come home and recover and I did recover and I found it very, very difficult after being in the wild - on the Wall for so long - to readapt to the western world and life that I originally lived. I used to be a lawyer and had this driven, competitive sort of lifestyle. What I'm finding now is when I cross between both sides, between the wild and the more educated realms I am getting more used to making those adjustments. It's part of your life experience; know what works for you and what not to do after you've made those mistakes and just to better fit in so you don't ostracize yourself out if you've been out in the wild for awhile. So, in that way, I'm a lot more balanced. When I was walking the Wall, I really did take things to the uttermost extreme in terms of getting out there, but not going too far that I couldn't come back.
Lori: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Looking at this thing that I noted down here. I think it's important to mention this at this point about your sense of the vastness of the planet when you're out there. You said that your ‘mind became diffuse, expanding through the landscape.’ I love that. I love that statement. Tell us about that.
Nathan: Yeah, totally. For example, every two weeks we'd come across a city. You'd be walking for two weeks and just come across these little villages. Some would have a hundred people. Some would maybe have fifty people. Some might have a thousand. Then, you'd just be in nature for a few days and just nothing. Then, you'd see this city in the distance. It would be fifty kilometres away. The city would have three million people, it would be almost the size of New Zealand but in the context of where I'd been going through all those mountains and deserts, you come and you see this city as a little tiny fragment, it's like a little paua shell, abalone shell just on the beach. That's how small it was reflecting off the sunlight in the far, far distance away. Okay, there are a lot of us. There are seven billion of us now on the planet. Compared to where I've been in this sort of holy, untouched natural world, we just seem so small and it made me feel so insignificant, but at the same time having walked those experiences, having walked that history, having walked what was built all that way, all that distance, that's what made you realize what human beings are capable of and was so mind-blowing. It's kind of interesting. It's good to hold on to that humility and know that, know your place. But, at the same time it informs us of our strength and what we can achieve.
Lori: Yeah, so, in other words, still have faith in humanity in order to find some solutions to the current issues on the planet mainly in terms of how to forge a sustainable future where we can all thrive, that the earth can remain intact and in integrity and a place of beauty and resilience.
Nathan: On that note, I learnt a lot from the people in the Gobi. They had such few resources. It's a land with very little water. Whatever they could scratch together to have for food, they managed to do that, but they managed to survive despite having no resources. And, if the planet wants to go down that road where two thirds of the planet was to desertify, reach desertification levels where we've really drained the resources of the planet. It was amazing to see how our species can adapt and can do things. Hopefully, we won't have to go down that road. We can be a little bit more forward looking and realize we don't need that much to be happy, really. We just limit our desires and coming down to a psychological level of just sort of...
Lori: Well, yeah. That's very interesting about how this quest for more, more, more, it comes from an internal inability to acknowledge our own value and therefore, we are looking on the outside for more. What you're bringing up here in the people that were out there and their simple lives. They don't need a lot to be happy. There's this sort of understanding of what real value is. If you'd like to comment on that, I'd love it.
Nathan: That's exactly what it was. They were very special. I really felt like I was so privileged to have spent that time with those people because when I did go back to Beijing after three months walking through the Gobi....to put it in context, my Chinese walk was one where we were communicating by simple gestures and just looking each other in the eyes and staring. You're almost reading each other's minds to communicate for most of our needs, just because my language at that stage, at that early stage in China was so limited. Then, I'd gone into Beijing and it was so interesting. Back in the city, back where people are cutting deals and they're trying to outdo the other and I'd just look at these guy's faces and it was so glaringly obvious when people were lying or had some agenda. I could so clearly read what was going through their minds because that's just the way I was communicating for all those months. The thing with the people who are out in the desert is that there just wasn't an agenda. They just were (for want of a better word) the ‘natural human animals’. There was just no personality or agenda to taint what they were doing. There's no deviousness. In big cities it's about making the money to get whatever you needed for whatever your goal was. You could see that deviousness. You could see those agendas. They were fairly obvious after that amount of time. It was so fascinating how it all works.
Lori: I would almost at this point like to jump to this statement or summary. ‘The farther that you get away from your connection to nature, to the human animal that you are, the harder that it really is to understand what your value is as a human being.’
Nathan: Yeah, that's a really interesting question because for some people, they'll use their culture. I know that a lot of my Maori friends and cousins and brothers, they'll really stick to their Maori culture as their form of identity and their way of being. Many times in my life, I know I will stick to those values just to find my sense of self-worth and value as a human. Other people will stick to their religion whether it's Christianity or Buddhism or Islam and that's their beacon of direction and what can be conceived of value and for others its money, or wealth or material well-being. For another person, it may be getting a girlfriend or whatever. Everyone has their own type of ‘religion’ that makes them feel like whatever truth it is they’re exploring. It's hard judging anyone. If you start to judge other people because of what they're doing because it's different to you then you gotta ask yourself the question, ‘Well, why am I thinking that what I'm doing is right?’ as opposed to their way. That's when conflict arises - so it’s a matter of having that awareness. I learned a lot through the fifty-five countries or whatever it was of traveling, being around those different cultures and realizing they are different, they are different type of animal that is fascinating and I'm really interested and I'll learn what I can from it. Some parts of that animal, I'm not going to like. I just haven't been brought up that way. But, there will be some parts which are really amazing and I'll think those are really cool values and I'm going to try and bring that into my life and change myself that way. I guess all of my travels have influenced me, hopefully for the better in that way of being open enough to take on what other people have to share with me.
Lori: Or to identify different parts of yourself maybe that you didn't know were in there, but seeing that in the external world, was that (it)??
Nathan: When I was traveling through the Middle East and Europe and Asia and in South Africa, Africa as well where it was like ‘Whoa’. It was almost like a sense of comfort like I had already been there especially when the awe of places like Wadi Rum in Jordan had this overwhelming effect of peace on me. The first half of the Wall which I felt like, I'd been there too. Well, not me per say, but my ancestors had walked through those parts. The place and journey just flowed so well and I felt that. The second half of the Wall, I knew nobody had been there of my ancestors or anyone because I was forging that path for the first time and it was so hard - difficult months of experience to reach that. It really felt like I was forging it for the first time. When I look back at the history of the people, what was happening was that they had walked all the way through China, come down through the Middle East, down through Asia, come down through the Himalayas, down to South East Asia and said ‘We should go in the canoes’ to the Pacific Islands. Then around 800-1000 A.D. made their way to New Zealand. You kind of sense that whole migration route and sense the new places where they hadn't been. Those kinds of experiences, just being sensitive enough to feel those old energies is why you get this draw to go there. It brings up a lot of questions and it could be past life stuff or it could be migration routes, what your ancestors were up to and having their knowledge as part of your genetic code or muscular, deep body understanding.
Lori: Wow! That's incredible. I would say that this sort of awareness that you embody - I don't feel that a lot of people know that they have access to that. Can you talk about that? Your own ability to feel these energies and to see the signs; to be supported in your life by life itself? Can you talk about how you do that; how you use your own inner compass to navigate your life?
Nathan: It's something that I have been working on for years. I can remember when I first went to UC Davis as I had got a scholarship from New Zealand to complete the last year of my law degree in California and all of a sudden I had so much more freedom than I was normally accustomed to what with the life pathways of going to school and being herded almost like a sheep through all these channels and phases. I actually really liked it as I worked hard, took instructions well and excelled and had a very successful early career because I followed those (for want of a better word) 'fences' very well. And then I got to the stage in life where I was like in a big open paddock and I could go anywhere and I would be like so where do I go? So I would be on my bike in UC Davis and could go right or left down different streets towards University so I would spend the time choosing which way to go by listening to what way did my intuition want to go? So I did a lot if work on this particular 'skill' of reading my intuition, especially when I was travelling because of all this freedom I now had to open myself up to these type of experiences.After a while I found that I was so in tune with my intuition it would really serve me, especially when trying to access food on the Great Wall. For example if there was a gap in the Wall and I had the choice to walk on either side if I followed my intuition I would often come across an opportunity to get some food and when I didn't I would look back when coming across the next gap in the Wall and would see that there was a group of people that I had missed that I could have secured food from.
So I'm not too sure exactly what it is that is guiding us but there is something in our human capabilities that if you tap into it, can put you at an advantage as to what is available out there to help you achieve your dream or journey, or experience.This is definitely something that one can work on and tap into if you are open to this particular power, in that way.
Lori: Yes it is what a lot of leaders do and this is the leaders call to adventure right? I feel that a very important quality of leadership is to follow your own inner direction and use that to take a stand because if you are leading, how exactly do you lead, you know? You're not following if you are leading, you're leading right!? So what informs your decision?
Nathan: Yes and that is what comes down to the huge challenge in life because you are not always going to be the leader so you need to know how to follow in order to learn how to be a good leader as well and thus be effective in both roles or jobs.I know that there is a lot of times in my life where I'm going 'what am I doing next, where am I going?' and I really need to have that time with myself to really connect with who I am and where I want to be going and then re-identify with what my calling is, because it is very easy to jump on someone else's bandwagon whether it be a corporate structure, a person that inspires you or a family member or whatever it is that you feel you would like to be following for a bit, but I find that if I start to do that for too long I start to get a lot of warnings or signs that tell me I can carry along with that path if I want but it's not necessarily going to be in your best interests with what life perhaps has planned for you or wants you to be doing. So knowing your internal compass is naturally very important, but I do enjoy both following and leading overall and essentially is what works best for you at the time.
Lori: What was it that got you through to the end of this 4000 km walk?
Nathan: I think at the end of the day it is just probably blind obsession as it was the only thing that I could really ever think about with regards just achieving that goal and thus was completely motivated towards that particular objective and it really took that to be able to get to the end. Even when I came home for a break when I was about 3000 km through the journey and my body had been so battered, even when I was technically 'resting' I couldn't get that journey out of my mind, so it really was like an obsession which in many ways was the compulsion to get me there. This is not necessarily such a healthy thing because to be focused on that one sole thing for such a long time can close you off from other experiences, but for this particular journey I just really needed that particular drive and blind level of focus to get there and it was the same with writing the book as well. It required such sacrifice of every other life option at the time just to get to the end, to the extent that in some ways were I to do that type of experience again I would do it differently because there wasn't enough balance - it was too driven and too focused that I missed out on a lot of other life experiences around that time, but having said that I got the journey done and got the book done and they are two achievements that I am very proud of and the sacrifices that they took were of no comparison to the enormous benefit of getting the book out there and completing that particular journey because they were definitely the two biggest accomplishments of my life at this stage.
So to put it all into context on the Great Wall journey itself, you would be walking and you would come up to a mountain and you'd see the last few days of walking where you had been, you'd see all the pitfalls, the villages where you had eaten at, the spot where that guy had told us to go round this way to avoid this steep gully and basically all the past you had encountered and then you would turn around from the top of that mountain and you would look to see the Wall head out to your future and you didn't know exactly what was going to happen as it was still your future but you would have an idea or feeling after so much walking of what was going to kinda happen, and that's when I started to tune into reading signs and omens. For example, sometimes I would see some birds flying and I would question ‘why are those birds there?’ and as you are on your own are wondering what possible meaning those birds could be? So you are forging ahead with your life path with the Great Wall in front of you as the journey (which was the plan) but you didn't know exactly what was going to happen but you could get insights and ideas of what was coming from warnings or good feelings so it was an interesting mindset to be adopting, especially going through all these experiences and building on them as I faced this challenge, it also became easier to want to finish the entire trip because you did not want to give up knowing all that you had gone through already.
So I had one experience on my own where I had been caught by the Chinese army and it was full on and I didn't know what was going to happen with that experience but when I got through it and then the hundreds of mountains all around me that I had to travel through and over, it just gave me this strength knowing all that I had already achieved to tackle the next challenge along the path. It just the same as when you are say building a house or putting a case together for court you just have to take it all step by step and that eventually gets you to this massive destination.
So it ultimately brings things right back to simplicity of being in the moment and making the most of that particular moment and doing it the best you possibly can so you are in the best possible position to carry on and make the most of the next opportunity that comes up during the next stage of the journey. So you have this collection of days, 9 months of them in all, and eventually you look back and you have 4000km of them behind you from the top of the mountain and it's such an empowering feeling because as the Wall comes to the end at the ocean you own all of that journey. So for example when I went back to cover the Beijing Olympics many years later and I would see snippets of the Wall of that journey I knew I had been to all those places and that was a part of who I am, it's a part of my mana, or my status or destiny.It was a proud realization and not the reason that I had taken the journey for, but was an extra additional benefit nonetheless. So what we go through in our lives is what we become as people and that's what you carry to the next challenge you take on, so having that 4000km behind me for example there's not too much that can faze me too much anymore because I know in myself that I have gone out there and completed something that was seemed conceivably impossible in my mind when I first set out to do it. So for the two full years the entire journey took I realized that if I can apply myself to achieve that I can just put my head down and be humble and take things step by step and I will eventually get there with whatever I choose to do next so it just gives you this inner strength.
Lori: Yes because your life was at risk a number of times out there wasn't it?
Nathan: Yes, the whole point of the journey in that you didn't know when or where you were going to get your next meal and in some cases didn't eat for a couple of days, there's lots of snakes and the heat is 45 degrees centigrade, and right down to -20 degrees and we didn't really have the polar gear to really stay alive in such extreme temperatures so we were basically just walking to stay alive and finding shelter in the middle of the day if we could or places where we could swim and cool off in the summers so we were really relying on our own wits because we had no support crew, because those that have that have a completely different type of experience when at the end of the day someone is out there looking out for you, so we didn't have that , we just went out there with faith really, just a will to walk the Wall and that will alone saw us through and that's paying huge credence to the Chinese people because they were phenomenally generous in hosting and looking after us, they really did propel us along and keep us going. I wouldn't have been able to walk 5% of that wall without their support, kindness and generosity.
Lori: They were your support crew. You had to surrender to their support really.
Nathan: That's exactly what it was. And that was the most humbling thing about the trip was having these people be so amazing to us.
Lori: Especially the fact that they were willing to share everything with you.
Nathan: That was the amazing thing as it was this mutual sharing in each other's cultures, especially with the kids who hadn't seen white people face to face before so you'd know that when you walked passed them and witness the sheer shock in their facial expressions that you had just expanded the boundaries of their cerebral awareness in that very second. It was at moments like that where you realized there was this huge responsibility as they were forging their perception of the 'white man' or the 'foreigner' in that very encounter and they were going to hold that for potentially the majority of their lives given it was so remote. So we went out there and learned over time to give across as much love as we could possibly muster and just be so giving and kind so if that was the one representation they were going to have in their lives it was going to be a bloody good one. This was the responsibility that we held having this cultural exchange. The same would happen when you had walked 30km to come into a village and you are so exhausted and these people are feeding you, and you are so grateful, like I've never been so grateful, and the food had never tasted so good, and the company so savoured, and you would have the whole village coming into this family's home to just sit there and stare at you all night, and you're exhausted but you'd just look straight back at them and we would be exchanging this energy by all this staring, and our two cultures were attracted to each other. I just don't know how that journey would have worked if our cultures weren't attracted to each other. I know in Australia for example there are a lot of problems between the local Aboriginees and the British colonists and there wasn't that sense of mutual attraction so there were a lot of issues between those races, where Chinese and Europeans have a lot of connection so it opened a lot of doors for us, and that's what pretty much kept me alive in that sense so we were really lucky in that way as well. So our nights were just sitting and staring at each other in awe and the next morning we would be on our way carrying on to the next village. So it was a real privilege to have that opportunity to experience this right at the time when those areas around the Great Wall had just been opened, and being some of the first people to go through there in a very long time.
Lori: It took you a lot of years to complete the journey and the book. How did you manage financially and fit it all in with you career?
Nathan: Yes, good question. I started walking in 2000 and ended it exactly 2 years later in 2002 which in itself encapsulated 9 months of walking overall. I would sustain myself during that time as well as the three years that it took me to write my book and another year on top of that to get it published by Penguin - what I was doing is that I would do a three month working contract at a law firm or a legal government agency to save some money.They also have an artist scheme in New Zealand which enables you to basically get the same as being on the unemployment benefit without doing employment finding programs and dedicate all your time to doing your art which I utilised for two of the years that I was writing my book. I was literally living off $140 a week - just enough for my rent and a little bit of food.It was interesting living in this way however because when I would go into the supermarket it was the same life as being on the Wall in some ways because all the supermarket deals would just come along my path so I could afford everything. Yet when I really started to make money, those deals were no longer there anymore and things were more expensive - so I started to notice that even in the Western world there is that same flow, that same kind of energy as in China so it was a matter of taking those skills I had learned on the Wall journey and applying it to my current reality. Hence by keeping my intention to complete the book - life was still trying to help me out so long as I was not too greedy and living in harmony with the environment. So I had more than enough to get me through. It wasn't a great time such as running round 5 star resorts and having a superstar lifestyle, it was hard knacker but there was just enough to enable me to get to the end as long as I followed through on that intention. Again if your intention was good, then life would seem to help you out, but if your intention wasn't, then trouble would often occur.
Lori: Indeed that will certainly keep you on track - the struggle teaching you where you need to change yourself - inevitably.
Nathan: During the promotional period of the book all the energy that I had invested in its creation came back as it turned into a best seller and reciprocated to the time spent. It was more like a delayed series of experiences rather than going to work each week for a set salary so that I would get paid a similar amount later down the track.
Lori: What has life been like for you since you got your book out there - you're still travelling but what is your next big adventure or idea that propels you forward now?
Nathan: I had already been to 50 countries and my goal was to get the book done before traveling again as my new challenge which upon completion my travels transformed from solely exploratory into more like an extended book promotional tour which saw me go through Australia, China, USA and the UK for the next two years in the build up to the Beijing Olympics and also writing stories for the magazines that I have been working for freelance over the past 12 years on the side.Stories that interested me were looking at the Tsunami Recovery Program in Thailand as I had been in Thailand in 2004 when the Boxing Day Tsunami hit and I missed it by just one day so I had that emotional attachment to that absolute tragedy. I also wrote about the changes to China from 2000 through till 2010 as infrastructurally, psychologically and culturally it had changed so much over this incredibly historic time in the country. For example, Beijing had built over 7000 sky-rises in the lead in to the Olympics which totally blew my mind with regards how much the country was progressing and then last year I went to the Soccer World Cup and covered that in South Africa and the main reason was because I was an exchange student there in 1993-4 when I was 18 during the build up to their first free democratic elections and I had never been back s so returned exactly half a lifetime later.That trip was a very strong flow as well as three of my friends were in the New Zealand Soccer team going over there so I wanted to support them as well as writing about how much the Apartheid system had changed since I was there during the build up to Nelson Mandela's key election victory. It was great to see how much positive change there had been in that timeline. So basically I get driven by ideas that involve travel but have a certain political issue, world event or competition attached to that place which deepens my experience. For example there is the Rugby World Cup here in New Zealand so I am back home getting engaged with what is going on around the country during this historic time for New Zealand. Its nice and is what kind if dictates my life at present but I know, being 37, that I will get to that stage where I will start to think about having a family and finding a partner - so those dreams are slowly becoming more of a priority and that is where my body is wanting me to be. So I'm not stressing about that kind of particular direction, I'm still very much following my desires and staying in the moment of each day - but I have got this sense that based on the experiences I have had I know that the right people will come along at the right time so long as I stick to my laurels, goals and dreams and just let everything fall into place. So I believe that things will come at the right time and if they don't then they are just life lessons as well so it's all good.
Lori: Is it always your passion pushing you forward or is it you just being open to life and the signs that prompt you along - especially looking at your South Africa trip - what is the deciding factor? Is it you, and then things start falling into place or is it that circumstances align in a certain way and then you think that you are interested in that and just go with that. How does it work for you?
Nathan: It's an interesting question. With the South Africa trip I had wanting to go back for a really long time because I had had such an amazing year there on exchange, such a profound experience watching the rise of Mandela and the build up to those first free democratic elections.That was the first year that I had definitely 'lived history' in my life. I was almost too scared to go back, and I was still in touch with some of my friends there, some of whom were rugby Springboks and rugby players I had caught up with in the UK and I was planning to go there the year before but it just wasn't the right time. I could sense it, like having a strong spiritual warning not to go there yet, and waiting till the next year for the Soccer World Cup it was so the right time - but that trip was definitely coming from my original intention. But there are a lot of times when I simply don't know what to do next so those are times that I try to stay grounded and save some money and do the basics in life, so that when the exploration opportunities do arise then I have the means to be able to capitalize on this. There is a reason and purpose for everything I think so it is more of a balance of my own desires and more external forces the latter of which was certainly the Great wall trek. So my view is whatever is meant to be will be so just go about it as humbly and with your best possible effort and hopefully I am happy with how it all pans out.
Lori: You've accomplished so much via this receptiveness to your own life really - the openness to just observe and see and respond - essentially giving your life a chance to show you.
Nathan: Exactly. It's a really great way of putting it. Like with the Wall for example I was really attached to the outcome to the extent that I was blindly driven so that I couldn't be a happy person until I had achieved that goal, and by going through that process I have learned that you don't have to be that blindly attached to something, it's not necessarily that healthy. You'll get there, in the end, you'll get there. Just be patient, let things unfold in their own time, don't be so regimented and restrictive with regards time, as its not necessarily the best way to go forward, so I've learned to be a lot more relaxed in the last say 4 or 5 years than I was in my early twenties where we had been brought up in our late teens in such competitive environments. Indeed there is nothing wrong with that at all, as it can get things done and lead to some really positive results but the journey through China really changed me and made me realize that there are other ways to follow your dreams and learn your lessons.
Lori: On that note, because we all have our different calls and things that we are compelled to do our life shows us what we are meant to do right? With your wisdom and guidance how can other people answer their inner calling in a way that makes sense and has some level of comfort in that - how would you advise people to do that? Maybe they would love to do something tremendous like you have done but they do not even know what their thing is to do? How would you guide them in figuring that out?
Nathan: I have a lot of time in my life where I don't know what to do next. Without a doubt I think that this is part of the human condition. You're just lost, you have no idea or inspiration, you are like, 'oh man what do I do?' and I have that a lot, without a doubt. For example when walking the Wall it just gave me this place to be everyday and was quite a nice journey to set my intention to as I didn't have to think much about what I was going to do next for the following couple of years. Yet if I am really lost I just have to be on my own and go to a quiet place and let me come back into me, so I am not too influenced by too many things out there, and just try and see where I am at, where my body is at, what it is kinda wanting at this particular stage of life just for my own mental and physical well-being, to find that core gravity and if I can find that feeling clearly - then when I go back out into the world I am still responsive to what is around me, but that time has made me stronger in myself and my convictions to what sort of journeys I will go on because what I have learned in my travels, I do recognize flow very quickly, for example I will be working on a show that my twin brother is creating and be totally engaged with what that journey entails, and as soon as I finish that job, the very second that relationship is cut off then the rugby world cup, which is my latest work project will immediately become fore and centre of my life. So I will start to notice a lot of tourists that are visiting the city and I get to make a decision whether or not I am ready to jump on that flow and get my camera out and start taking photos, whatever it is that I want to do around that particular experience, and then I will cut myself off from that and be with a friend or partner and have that particular time with them, if am needing a romantic experience, and as soon as that terminates then my twin brothers show work will appear again. Hence my career is simply jumping from these different flows whether it be tourism work, connecting with people etc. Sometimes its enough to do one's head in looking at all these varieties of energy coming into my life and going with them, but I think that the important thing is during that time on your own is to have developed enough inner strength and sense of self that this gives you the ability to make the best choices that arise in these encounters which are ultimately best for you. There's no right or wrong, it ultimately is what it is, however although this is the way that I operate today this is certainly not the only way to operate and I am certainly no master on these matters. Life's an ongoing inquiry and there is always a lot of learning going on down the road...
Lori: I think that's really interesting about taking that time, because you have the answer from within, it's just that need to suss it out and keep looking for that quest of what I should do or what other people would want me to do instead of taking that moment to connect in with yourself and determine what is good for me and what message is my body telling me that I need to do. That's a very important guide - our body!
Nathan: Yes I think that's vital. I can remember when I was 23/24 and working in the law offices and I enjoyed it, as it was a really good experience, but my body was so eager and I was constantly looking outside the window thinking 'oh man I want to be out there'. So I listened to my body's needs and was so happy as I essentially changed my career to being more of a journalist because it was more conducive to being out there. Its like my body wanted to be experiencing all these cultures, witnessing environmental degradation, poverty, over population, ultimately seeing life; and now it takes a lot more effort for me to have the passion and ability to do all those things so I will still keep it in my life (that freedom piece) for say three months a year, but it is not the be all or end all that it was throughout my twenties. The body now doesn't mind doing the job in the office, connecting with my community etc.as a guide it has kept me relatively happy, as even though a lot of my friends have high level legal roles and are stuck there, I have all this variety and just simply have no regrets. So by following my body I was more aware of my lifespan and how there are times to certain things and time not to do them.The body has an innate wisdom that our minds take a while to come around to but if you do have the fortune and freedom to be able to follow these whims then they seem to end up ultimately good for you and your health, which is definitely the most important thing overall.As long as you are happy and doing what you want your blood flow will be healthy and you are unlikely to be picking up cancers and diseases which often stem from conditions like depression,which often happens if you are living a life you were not designed to be living. I certainly can feel it when my depressed thoughts are impacting my body.
Lori: So you think your body freaks out when it is going against its inner wisdom? Is that what happens?
Nathan: If I am putting myself under massive stress and doing things that I can put up with for a while, (like the Great wall trip where I put my body through enormous stress from the sheer undertaking and really knocked myself around), and so I learned the hard way through that trip, (fortunately I didn't kill myself or go all the way), and when I took the time I needed to recover from that journey I learned that you simply don't have to be that blindly driven - you are still going to get there - but there is a more balanced way, a more middle way of doing it. And this was my own personal way of learning my own limits and working around them, and so that now when I take these journeys and do travel, instead of having some outlandish idea and taking it all the way I tend to take my time to the half way point, and it is such a more pleasant experience, a nicer way of approaching it in my life. So I am just going with where my body and mind is at - at that time, and being in tune with that, even if it means retreating into myself to meditate and help make it easier for me to find that place. Yeah, so that's just my way, but I am sure everyone has their own way of finding out what calls to them most. If you can follow your passions and what feels right, it's probably a good thing - more likely than not, anyway.
Lori: It's simple, and sometimes we can complicate things right?
Nathan: Yes we're a complex animal for sure.
Lori: Yet if we can just tune into our animal and work out exactly what it needs - a lot of key information would simply be there. It is right there. It's just a matter of paying attention to it.
Nathan: I don't think it just benefits you, as it will also benefit those that you are around and who you influence as well because if you're happy with what you are doing, then you are going to create that type of positive energy around you to those whom you come into contact with, and by continuing in that mode you are going to create a far more healthy environment around you and for those people as well so it keeps compounding in that way. That's got to be good. Look at those countries where there is a lot of hardship and social distress and that compounding negative energy leads to further crises and wars and famines, and those kind of problems that we are facing. So if you surround yourself with people that are good and positive this is a good approach to life as well. But at the end of the day it's your path and your truth and if you can be true to that path then hopefully you will be stronger for others.
Lori: On that note, that’s pretty much it. That’s what it all boils down to. It’s simple, powerful and true and I thank you for that.