Four Questions for Louis-Philippe Loncke
Australia’s Simpson Desert is hot, dry, dangerous, and over 176,000 square kilometres in area. So, Belgian explorer and adventurer Louis-Philippe Loncke decided to cross it. The whole way. On foot.
Loncke, who was the first person ever to complete this feat, undertook the adventure in 2008. But this was just one of many adventures that have kept him busy since he began travelling solo in 2000. Throughout the last decade, Loncke has braved deserts, remote wildernesses, massive national parks, and treacherous islands. Today, in addition to being an explorer and adventurer, Loncke is also a motivational speaker, a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and a member of The Explorer’s Club.
He recently undertook his (almost) greatest adventure, talking to Thought Out Loud, and, true to form, ventured beyond the borders of Four Questions, instead answering five.
Thought Out Loud: The places you have explored are so varied – from Australian deserts to Belgian waterways. What’s the connection? What inspires you to venture somewhere, maybe in lieu of somewhere else?
Louis-Philipe Loncke: I’m attracted to do different kinds of expeditions. I’ve done a few world firsts. The first of them was in Australia, as it was the country I tried to move to, and I had experience there and contacts. But, of course, it comes from the inspiration of the place. Coming from a small town (that collapsed after its clothing industry moved to Asia), I haven’t had the opportunity to discover vast landscapes and the sun. Australia is the opposite and I fell in love with the country. It could have been Canada, but life decisions brought me down under first. It’s there I discovered the adventure world, the adventure film festivals, and so on. I got inspired by Aussie adventurer Jon Muir and the gap between “dangerous” and “beautiful” deserts faded. It’s now to me more beautiful than dangerous… if well prepared.
I’m basically a dreamer, so each time I see a beautiful place on TV, in a photo book, or on a postcard, I’m like, “Hey, it would be great to see that landscape!” The way I do tourism is not so common and often involves risks. So my wish list of places to visit is huge and the choice of where to go first depends on my real envies, my budget, and being ready. In Belgium last summer I had the idea to start to learn how to kayak, so that later I can do longer remote expeditions using this human-powered craft. For the next two to three expeditions I will stay in Europe, but I’ll do a few more in Australia and then a very hard and long one I’ve been preparing for for years now, which will see me on a Lord of the Rings-type of journey across New Zealand. But I’m not ready yet, as I need to become a good sea kayaker. So the only connection between the Australian deserts and Belgian waterways is me and what’s in my head.
I also want to bring ecological attention to the issues of water consumption and water pollution. In the Simpson Desert I lived for 5 weeks with less water than an average Belgian uses in a day. And I’m not even comparing my water use to Las Vegas or Dubai.
Also, on the canals in Belgium I saw so much trash, especially plastic, as it takes ages to break down and it eventually comes back into the food chain, as fish and ducks eat them, and we eat them; so we are sadly composed of plastics and other toxic stuff. Why do we think cancer rates are exploding? We better start finding the solutions at the start, not at the end, of the problem chain.
TOL: Star Trek (one of us here is a huge Star Trek nerd) would have us believe that space is the final frontier, but your travels illustrate that much of our own planet has yet to be fully explored. What do you consider to be the ultimate earth-bound frontier?
LPL: I like Sci-Fi films too, from Alien to X-Men. The last frontiers of our planet are not known. We know where the depths of the oceans are – they have been measured – but we’ve never been there really. We know absolutely nothing about our oceans. Then there’s the hidden part: the caves. Some countries (especially large islands in South East Asia) are full of deep cave systems where there is a lot to explore. Then, there are, of course, our jungles and deserts. We go there a little more often, but not every square mile has been visited.
And then there is what we know, where we have been, but some of those things have evolved and changed. Take glaciers for instance. We do a lot of expeditions there to measure the retreat of the ice to try to better understand our climate and to try to have an idea of the evolution of our planet. Also, we haven’t found half of the species still living on earth. So being a scientist or an explorer, well it’s a job of the future!
And for space, there’s no limit. It’s continuously expanding, if I remember my physics courses.
TOL: Some travellers prefer travelling alone, while others prefer exploring with companions. You’ve embarked on both solo and group expeditions. What are the benefits and challenges of each? How do you decide whether to go on a group adventure, or go it alone?
LPL: I go alone when I know it will be more efficient to do so, or because I just can’t find a partner for an extreme journey. Going alone means that in the case of a severe accident, you’d perhaps collapse and die, or won’t be able to reach a communication system to be able to call for help. The margin for error is tiny. The reward is high, since you learn a lot about yourself when you are away from humanity (other people, music, etc…). Many of the young generation of explorers or adventurers, which I belong to, have a music player while on expedition. I want to hear the silence, to hear the blood pumping in the veins of my ears, to hear the flies – and perhaps hear a wild animal approaching and to see him before the attack!
When you are more than one, you are more efficient in terms of weight, as you only need one Satphone or one stove, but some frictions can arise. If two are going on a journey to a Pole, for instance, if one is sick and the other one healthy, the speed is different and a week later it can be the opposite. Being more increases the possible weakness points. But being alone means you have to be good at all times, otherwise you won’t finish the adventure.
The best would be to do an expedition with a female partner, a girlfriend. But I don’t have one. The positive there is that my girlfriend cannot die on expedition, or can’t get hurt – which would be bad for the expedition. I’ve a friend who did his last adventure with his wife. The adventure was also about studying the social effect of doing an expedition with someone you love. You take fewer risks and you don’t want your partner to take risks, so you want to take all the risks to avoid the partner to be hurt. It’s not easy, but surely if you’re not in a rush, you can have the best evenings ever being a wild couple in the wild.
TOL: What’s the most challenging moment you’ve encountered while exploring?
LPL: The last two weeks of my 49 day un-resupplied trek across Tasmania was the hardest thing I’ve done. No way to communicate. Lost with a dead GPS, too many deadly risks per day, food and sleep deprivation, and some dehydration led to mental depression. Until something suddenly came to me: the animal instinct of survival. It’s sort of hidden skill I believe we all have that started to tell me: “no I don’t want to die; let’s do something about it.”
I finished in bad shape with a rare and bad trench-foot disease, leaving my toes numb for 18 months. My friends compared me to the guy in the movie that was just out at the time, Into the Wild.
TOL: To raise money for charity, you organized the highest chocolate tasting ever, on Mount Everest. Does chocolate taste even better at a high altitude?
LPL: On the scientific side, I have no clue. Perhaps our taste buds are less efficient with the altitude? But on the moral side, chocolate is very appreciated. Distributing chocolate for free to the local heroes (the sherpas) made the mountaineers feel like there were in New York giving away iPads for free.
For more information on Loncke and his expeditions and adventures, visit The Versatile Explorer.