Q+A: The Guy Behind the World's Wildest Charity
Say you’re a Mongolian yak herder. It’s a Monday and you look up from your chores to see a three-quarters naked person in an Evel Knievel helmet roar past you behind the wheel of a dented, steaming, mud-plastered Fiat 126 with a pup tent lashed to the roof and a second semi-naked person attempting to tow-ski off the utility hitch. You have likely just encountered a party of Adventurists. And there will be more following shortly.
The Adventurists, brainchild of Chief Idiot and self-described “lazy” person, Tom Morgan, is a UK-based company that does two things very well: creating chaos-forward adventure races for a huge and devoted international tribe of motivated lunatics and using those races to raise money for charity–over $11 million at the latest tally.
Mr. Tom, as he’s known around Adventurists HQ, maintains a ho-hum tone when pressed about the globe-trotting mayhem he creates. (Seriously. I defy you to find a single exclamation point punctuating their site copy.) He’s polite, but blunt: he thinks that the #weekendadventure you’re currently Instagramming, while fine, and possibly even dandy, simply doesn’t qualify as an adventure. Not the way he defines it.
This week, Huckberry managed to get Mr. Tom to sit still long enough to lay it all out for us, starting with a solid working definition of the word “faff…”
Mr. Tom: The word...what?
Huckberry: The word 'faff.’ You used it in the last email exchange we had. You said 'sorry for the faff'.
Mr. Tom: Oh faff!
Mr. Tom: Can I define the word 'faff'...
Mr. Tom: Kind of, unnecessary buggering around in a slightly irrelevant fashion. Someone could be 'faffy' if they constantly reshuffle things and don't really know what they're doing and keep coming and going. Does that make any sense?
Huckberry: Totally. So how central would you say that 'faffing' and 'faffery' is, in general, to The Adventurists and what they're about?
Mr. Tom: Well if you extend ‘faff’ to ‘buggeration,’ then I think it's pretty central. It's kind of getting lost, getting stuck, creating faff.
Huckberry: Cool. So who are The Adventurists, and what are they are about?
Mr. Tom: Okay. The Adventurists, I guess we organize stupid and dangerous adventures where people can come and get lost and stuck, the sort of thing where you start and you don't know if you're going to finish. Rather than say, a lot of people call adventure things like climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro, but at the end of the day somebody is a tour company and they'll guarantee that they'll carry your bags and they'll cook your food whereas the thing what we do isn’t organize holidays, we just sort of set the stage for chaos and then throw people into the pit of disaster that follows.
"It was a disaster. We didn't get anywhere near, but we had quite a lot of fun."
Huckberry: So that's the original branch of The Adventurists and then there's a second branch now, right, the charity branch?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, well, no it's always been there from the beginning, because we have quite a lot of fun rolling around in the world, it seems only fair that you give something back. So we've been, since the beginning, we’ve always raised money for charities and we added it all up, this week I think, and we've hit eight million quid which is quite good.
Huckberry: Oh wow, that's fantastic. Is there something, do you think, quintessentially British about the notion of tackling the geographic unknown?
Mr. Tom: I don't think so. I think they're universal human instincts to travel and get out and explore. We probably present it in a slightly English way but I think the underlying essence is that modern life is a bit constricted and safe and ordinary and actually fundamentally, humans don't really thrive in that environment, there's no kind of moment by moment test of will, which I think hopefully is what we provide. Which I think is pretty universal; we just say it with a British accent.
Huckberry: This originally started with a fun side trip while you were doing a Fine Art degree, is that right?
Mr. Tom: That is correct, yeah. I was extremely well qualified in: not very much. So yeah, I did Fine Art for five years and as part of that, I went to the Czech Republic on a sort of exchange program. Me and a friend bought the world's crappest Fiat 126, which is a sort of 499cc shoe-box with small wheels, and then we tried to drive to the most stupid place we could think of, which happened to be Mongolia. And we failed miserably. It was a disaster. We didn't get anywhere near, but we had quite a lot of fun.
"We organize stupid and dangerous adventures where people can come and get lost and stuck, the sort of thing where you start and you don't know if you're going to finish."
Huckberry: Where did you grow up?
Mr. Tom: I grew up on the south coast of England, in a small market town called Chichester.
Huckberry: Ah Chichester. I said 'ah Chichester' as if I've been there, but I have not.
Mr. Tom: Nor have many people. It’s quite a lot of retirees and people in search of Roman market crosses. It's pretty boring.
Huckberry: Did you start out in the fine art milieu? Is that what you were all about originally as a kid or did you...
Mr. Tom: No, god no. No, I think I just found drawing pictures and painting things quite easy and I'm fundamentally slightly lazy so I picked art as a degree as I knew I could do it without much work. And it turns out that you get one hour of semi-compulsory lecture a week which was pretty easy to maintain.
Huckberry: And so in terms of the future, did you have a plan? I sort of think I know what the answer is but...
Mr. Tom: God, no. I still don't have a plan.
Huckberry: Did you ever have any sense of doing something like The Adventurists before you ended up doing it, or being an entrepreneur, I guess?
Mr. Tom: I left art school and swore I'd never get a job working for anyone else, so I think I always thought I'd set up businesses. It was just never very well planned out. I think I just stumbled into The Adventurists. I just did it as a hobby to start with while I incredibly unsuccessfully tried to make a million pounds with the spare change I found down the back of my sofa, which just failed at about 400 pounds. And then in the background, I was doing this Mongol Rally thing for fun, which was free to take part in, which is obviously a brilliant business decision when it comes to pricing. And I thought thousands of people would come and join and take part and, there were only like six teams. I was like 'ah fuck it, this isn't going to go anywhere'. Did it again, and I thought I'd charge the incredible sum of 50 quid and suddenly there were 40 teams and then 200 teams and I thought 'alright, this is either going to drive me insane or it's going to start becoming a thing' and there were already new ideas bubbling around so it became a thing.
Huckberry: On that first run, you said there were, what, like six teams. How many of them finished the Mongol Rally?
Mr. Tom: Four finished.
Huckberry: Four out of six, that's pretty good.
Mr. Tom: Yeah, especially in those days. There was quite a lot less tarmac in those days and we had no idea. Everyone we spoke to told us we couldn't do it. Which is a theme of every adventure we set up.
Huckberry: Well also, now there's sort of a whole, not to say, infrastructure or industry around the Mongol Rally, but it is a thing that happens every year and Mongolia sort of...knows it's happening, right?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, they know it's happening. Definitely.
Huckberry: So it seems like there's maybe a cottage Mongol Rally industry going on there?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, I think mechanic prices get adjusted sometime between August and September.
Huckberry: Yeah I've been watching user videos from the Mongol Rally from various years. I can't remember specifically who this one was, but one team ended up breaking down pretty badly and ended up at some mechanic's place and they quickly realized it was like a graveyard for old Mongol Rally cars–
Mr. Tom: Yeah they've probably been digging the potholes.
Huckberry: Yeah exactly. And the mechanics told them there was no hope for their car. They were like “I think, well...let’s try something” and they like, lit it on fire with some gasoline and it's like a classic Adventurists story because then it cuts to 'and then we were back on the road' and you're like, what? How? How did you do that?
Mr. Tom: Good.
Huckberry: Yeah it was brilliant. What's your favorite part about being Chief Adventurist? Do you have a title? I just made that up.
Mr. Tom: Not really. Chief Idiot? I don't know.
Huckberry: Chief Idiot, okay.
Mr. Tom: Probably the favorite part is I get to test all the new stuff out on myself, which is quite good.
Huckberry: Can you go into that a little further, like why, why do you like that so much? What is it about it?
Mr. Tom: There's something really like, the whole point of The Adventurists is encouraging people to get out there and try stuff without really thinking it through and without planning it and for me that is setting stuff up. We never really know if it's going to work, sometimes it doesn't work. It's kind of like a very clean form of chaos.
Huckberry: Can you tell me a really good story about when it really didn't work?
Mr. Tom: We did, I don't know if it's a good story but we did a um–it was stupid. We tried to set up a reindeer race in Southern Siberia. There are a couple of tribes that actually sit on reindeer and ride them. Anyway, we looked completely ridiculous. It's not a good story, it just didn't work. But it was quite funny while we were trying.
Huckberry: So you did a lot of land based adventures, there was a sailing adventure and then obviously you looked to the skies, right?
Mr. Tom: Yeah.
Huckberry: The next frontier. Tell us about the couple of races that you've done that have gone into the air.
Mr. Tom: The first one was The Icarus. So, a friend of mine called Gilo, runs a company in the UK called Parajet and they make these things called paramotors. It's like a paraglider with a two-stroke engine on your back with a fan. I must have known they existed but I didn't really clock it and then he took me out and 20 minutes in and I was flying, flying around, completely soiling myself. And then I crashed. And I just thought “this is literally the coolest thing ever.” Because you don't need a license, you don't need to register aircraft. It's absolutely insane that I can tie myself into a handkerchief, strap a lawnmower on my back and fly around in the sky.
Huckberry: The sky is literally the limit.
Mr. Tom: Yeah! And then I looked around and no one was doing any kind of adventuring on this. Individuals were, but there were no races, there was no... I was slightly set back; I just thought, “right, let's do it.” So we set up The Icarus Trophy.
Huckberry: That took place in the US, right?
Mr. Tom: It did, yeah. We did it three years in the US and now we're moving it to South Africa and we're going to keep moving it all round the world to try and hoover up and encourage more and more people to take up, what is a really quite awesome sport.
Huckberry: Yeah the thing that I noticed about the video for the Icarus Trophy, different from coverage of your other races, was the participants in that one were sort of, they weren't like idiot louts, and their takeaway from it was something that seemed a lot more profound. Not to say that the Mongol Rally doesn't have a profound effect on people, but when people were talking about doing the Icarus challenge, they just had this look on their face like, 'this is one of the most sublime things I've ever done'.
Mr. Tom: Yeah it's kind of like that and the horse race we run [the Mongal Derby], they feel kind of different. There is that sense like, I guess the Mongol Rally you can just kind of stumble into and it doesn't matter and you get the same sense of being lost and stuck but I don't know, there's something super epic about being lost and stuck with your own aircraft. It's a difficult balance to tread because I don't like the idea of these things becoming ultra professional because that's kind of counter to the idea, the whole point of adventure. So we try to undermine the racy-ness. We set the rules to try and make it feel exciting...
Huckberry: How do you do that? What rules do you set?
Mr. Tom: A lot of it is setting a stage that you can't complete in a normal professional environment, I think. So if you were a paramotorist and you were asked to fly 20 miles in a triangle...a lot of them are about flying with the least amount of fuel or... flying the fastest... I think you can compete in that scenario in a quite pre-planned way. Whereas if you're flying 1000 miles and there aren't enough fuel stations, you don't know where you're going to land, over a five day period where the weather may or may not be flyable or it's probably in the middle quite a lot of the time, you're going to have to come down somewhere, you're going to be siphoning petrol out of someone's car, you're going... like the stage itself, forces people to be less slightly boring sportsmen. You can't live in your little sports world where it's all about performance. You have to engage with the world that's out there and interact with normal people.
Huckberry: Right, make a mess, basically.
Mr. Tom: Yeah, trying to spoil people is fun.
Huckberry: So, like with the Mongol Rally, there's no set course to get from Europe to Mongolia.
Mr. Tom: Yeah and the same with Icarus. We have a couple of points that they have to take and we warn people of places where flying would be extremely stupid. Because obviously if you get things wrong with the Mongol Rally, you probably lose a wheel or you burst a tire. If you get things epically wrong on The Icarus Trophy, you'd fall out of the sky like a rock. Which has stronger consequences. A lot of it is attitude, I think It's not necessarily about skills. I think you could be a much worse pilot than someone and still be kind of broadly alive at the end of it. If you're like hyper competitive, then that's going to potentially a) spoil all your fun and b) leave you squashed on the ground.
Huckberry: I love that as a metric: 'broadly alive'.
Mr. Tom: I suppose that's fairly binary.
Huckberry: And then there's the balloons.
Mr. Tom: Yeah! So, the balloons. They’re kind of self explanatory: tie party balloons to yourself and a garden chair... I saw a 1905 Popular Mechanics article, I think, about these guys doing repairs on airships with these little, tiny little hopper balloons, that were slightly heavier than them and they could just jump up, and climb up the airships and do the repairs on it. And they were hydrogen filled and obviously, being the early 1900's, they were smoking at the same time and I imagine there were a few disasters that went along with that. It's something I wanted to do for ages. I saw something about the Gordon Bennett Cup, which is a long distance gas balloon, originally hydrogen, balloon race, started by Gordon Bennett, a bit of a legend. And the race is you've got to get as far as you possibly can from a single field, in any direction. The person who gets the furthest, wins.
And it was an absolutely shit-show, the first time they ran it, I think like five of the teams died. But they've kept it up and it's still going today and I'm a cheapskate and I can't afford it so I thought, what is the cheapskate's version of the Gordon Bennett Cup and that is tying party balloons to a chair. And it turns out that that is extremely good fun.
Huckberry: Right. So you did this.
Mr. Tom: Yeah, yeah. Down in... we tried to do it in Botswana because it's a big, old country with what we thought would be not very much to crash into. But it turns out a huge amount of the land, the surface area of Botswana, is covered in, I can't remember what they are called but like gorse bushes with two inch death spikes on which, neither my bum or the balloons is optimal.
Huckberry: It's the kind of thing you couldn't really figure out until you're in it.
Mr. Tom: That's probably the kind of thing that 12 seconds of Googling would have figured out. But... we didn't do that. We just set off. The original plan was me and Buddy, the guy who comes and tests things with me, we're going to have a little mini race, me and him, in the sky. All very funny. And then we'd land and it would be hilarious and it would be the launch of a new adventure.
Huckberry: And how long were you in the air?
Mr. Tom: The original goal was to be flying for two to three days. We were actually in the air for two to three hours. We inflated inside because we then had a completely controlled environment but and then in the morning it was perfect for about three hours and then the weather closed in and we were getting 25 knot gusts...
Huckberry: How did you control your altitude?
Mr. Tom: You have balloons you can burst and I had a couple of water cans with taps on, tied to the camping chair. So if I was going down too fast, I could let some water out, if I was going up too fast, I could get rid of a balloon. And I discovered half way through that if you get rid of a balloon, it changed my ascent rate by about 0.2 meters per second but if I took a wee, it was 0.1 so I could kind of, I was pretty accurate by the end. Although I obviously ran out of wee after a while.
Huckberry: And you can't steer, obviously.
Mr. Tom: No.
Huckberry: So you're just catching a wind current?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, and I'd never ballooned, I've got no idea what I was doing. By the end, when I was coming down to land, I had kind of planned it to land in a big field where there was no electricity pylons or roads or anything. So I lined up for that, got the right number of balloons and just basically plummeted straight towards a lake instead. Cause I got it wrong. I get probably about a meter and a half off the thing, I started frantically unscrewing the taps, trying to get myself out of this kind of fetid pool of, I don't know what it was, but I got out in the end and then finally did land in the field but quite a lot of balloons and panic later.
Huckberry: So will that become a race?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, it's too good not to.
Huckberry: Can you describe for me your regular workout routine?
Mr. Tom: Workout routine?
Huckberry: Sorry I just wanted to ask you that.
Mr. Tom: I'm working out right now by drinking some wine. And I've got some beers in the fridge.
Huckberry: Speaking of, you guys have an annual conference in Chicago coming up, right? [Editor’s note: The Chicago Adventurist’s Convention kicks on on March 2nd and 3rd.]
Mr. Tom: We do yeah. We started it in the UK as just a sort of party to get together and drink with the people that we like, which is all of our customers. And then we thought “this is fun, let's do it somewhere else.”
Huckberry: What can a ticket buyer expect if they choose to join you in Chicago?
Mr. Tom: To be rapidly drunk and to hang around with lots of idiots, I think, is probably the summary of what one can expect.
Huckberry: And will there be slideshows?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, yeah, we've been making films for a while so we're probably going to show, for the first time, the balloon film we shot, as well as a couple of episodes of a series we've been making. And then we'll just do a kind of annual conference where we announce how much money we've managed to lose every year and give away some awards to some idiots. And usually announce a new adventure. We have hundreds of new adventures that are gradually working their way through the list.
Huckberry: After 12 years of this foolishness, do you have any words of wisdom or wishes for the wider world. What would you put on a billboard?
Mr. Tom: What would I put on a billboard? That’a a good question.
Huckberry: Yeah, I stole that from Tim Ferriss.
Mr. Tom: “Get lost” would be up there high on the list.
Huckberry: Do you see all this going on indefinitely?
Mr. Tom: I hope so. I think people always need adventure. I can't see...I don't see evidence of society becoming less safe and less controlled with all this technology, at the moment. I think people will always need an escape, until we stop being human.
Huckberry: Well yeah. Once we colonize Mars, I mean that just opens up a whole new–
Mr. Tom: Yeah space, that's the key thing that we can't quite afford. A rocket program. We tried that. It didn't go so well.
Huckberry: I mean, have you thought about trying to get in touch with Elon Musk?
Mr. Tom: Yeah, I have actually, do you know him? - [H]