We chatted to photographer, explorer, and VALLON Ambassador, Oli Broadhead, about surviving lockdown, finding adventures and the importance of connecting with the Outdoors.
As someone who has always had a passion for exploring, adventure and travel, how has the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown affected you?
I was extraordinarily lucky actually – I quit my job to go and kayak the west coast of Alaska and Canada just as Covid began to trickle on to the news. It seems mad now, but I honestly thought I’d still be able to go until about 2 weeks before the first lockdown, the speed it all happened was bonkers. Thankfully, I was given my job back at the last minute. It would have been a very different year otherwise!
What are your best tips for getting through lockdowns?
That question assumes I’ve handled it well! I spent a lot of the first lockdown planning a survey expedition to an un-researched montane forest in Sumatra – it definitely helped to have a project in mind, but you can only get so excited about endless funding proposals, and to be honest, my biggest slumps were also a result of that planning process.
Exercise has also had ups and downs. I overdid it during the first lockdown (taking out frustration) and ended up with a couple of minor injuries. Since then, I’ve dropped the intensity back, allowing me to do a couple of easy workouts a day. It gives me something to do in the morning and something to look forward to after work. I found it helpful to set a long term goal and track progress. For me, that goal is a hard local climb that I’ve been able to stay consistently excited for.
The global population continues to increase, and less of the planet remains untouched by humans, are there still challenges and adventures out there for modern explorers?
Infinite ones. Adventures are just physical challenges outdoors, so they’re not going anywhere soon. Expeditions are more interesting – in my book, an expedition is a form of information gathering that requires a physical journey. No one is ‘just’ an explorer; they’re an explorer and a biologist, or an explorer and a journalist, or an explorer and a doctor etc.
So the question is, are those activities still relevant? And the answer is a resounding yes. The world is changing faster than it has in human history and we’re going to need information about all of these changes, both social and environmental. Expeditions are one way that this information needs to be gathered.
"Too much of modern life makes us feel like observers, but when you’re in nature, you’re part of the story. If you’re part of the story, you care about the outcome."
What country had the biggest impression on you when on a photographic assignment, and why?
Ethiopia. Utterly unlike anywhere else. Two unexpected highlights being great food (injera) and great dancing (eskista – go on, Google it, then try and move your shoulders like that, I dare you).
How are you able to adapt your travel to minimize your environmental impact?
A great question and one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about recently. I’m vegan(ish) and I only buy second hand or (rarely) something new that’s both going to last and going to be used a lot, but in all honesty my carbon footprint is still significantly above the UK average, possibly even double it. I reckon that my carbon emissions have more than halved this year and I don’t want them to go back up.
My plan is effectively less trips, with longer stays. I’m aiming for two flights (one return) per year, with stays of over 6 months in a given region. The other obvious option is to stay as local as possible, I’m currently planning a conservation-related river journey in Eastern Europe that would have a negligible carbon footprint, i.e. the environmental pros should outweigh the cons!
You took part in a “Rangers Without Borders” project in 2018 that looked at conservation efforts in Poland and Lithuania, do you feel that the diversity of wildlife in Europe is something often overlooked?
Overlooked is maybe the wrong word, because Europe has an amazing culture of amateur and professional enthusiasm for wildlife. There’s no pretending that Europe’s wildlife has taken an absolute hammering over the last few hundred years, but that doesn’t mean we should give into pessimism, there’s lots of brilliant stuff left that still needs protecting.
It’s easier to spot if you love the small stuff (I’m personally a fan of amphibians), but the bigger wildlife is here too, such as Bison in Poland, which I was lucky enough to see during Rangers Without Borders. There’s plenty that’s disappeared recently but would bounce back rapidly if given half a chance (particularly marine species).
On top of all that, we have huge areas of farmland, and altering farming practices is going to be vital to combating the Climate Crisis (in short, we need methods that lock up carbon in the soil). This shift in farmland management could provide a brilliant opportunity to improve our biodiversity on a massive scale.
How do outdoor sports and activities help you to connect to nature?
There’s endless levels and nuances to interaction with nature, from a sense of timeless calm, to awe, to full-blown terror. All of these feelings can be facilitated by outdoor sports (sometimes in quick succession) and all share a common theme, in that they all dissolve the ‘us’ part of our brain for a while, reminding us that we’re not the centre of the universe – which if accepted properly, is both hugely comforting and a great source of empathy.
Too much of modern life makes us feel like observers, but when you’re in nature, you’re part of the story. If you’re part of the story, you care about the outcome.
Oli wears Heron Ocean in the featured photos.
Photos by Oli Broadhead.
Oli has been known to write, photograph, and film, with articles and photos featured in publications such as Sidetracked, Geographical, and National Geographic Kids. His previous expeditions include an attempted first ascent of a remote Sumatran mountain, a biodiversity survey of an un-researched tropical forest, and two months spent walking coast-to-coast across South India - sleeping in fields frequented by tigers and facing the monsoon with no tent (his own fault).
To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram.