Mark Kalch is an accomplished adventurer, writer and speaker. A native of Australia, Mark has paddled rivers in South Africa, hiked through jungles in East Africa, trekked solo through the Islamic Republic of Iran, and traveled the length of the Amazon River from source to sea. Now Mark is looking to continue the worlds first 7 rivers, 7 continents project – paddling the length of the longest river on each continent. Next up, a solo decent down the Missouri-Mississippi River in North America.
You’ve spent the last 12 or so years of your life working towards becoming a professional adventurer and explorer. What’s the life of a professional adventurer like?
In a word, interesting. That really does sum it up, which is fine with me. Sometimes of course it is adrenalin pumping and exciting. Other times, you are putting in way too many hours on the laptop wondering if this is what you signed up for. But, for sure it is never boring. Everyday is different. It could be responding to interviews like this one, route planning, sponsorship hunting, speaking at schools, strength and conditioning, improving my skills as a photographer and videographer and so on. So massively varied and for the most part super fun.
What has been the main focus and what important lessons have you learned in that time?
Like most people when I first got started in expeditions and adventure there was very little focus. Sea kayak guiding in Australia and raft guiding in Africa was just fun. Paddling with your mates, cooking and eating good food and watching the sun set over the sea or the desert is enough of a drawcard to worry little about the future. But of course, you grow up, you get smarter and I suppose the focus comes along with it.
I am really fortunate that my current project, 7 rivers 7 continents has forced upon me a degree of focus that I was perhaps lacking a few years ago. After we made a descent of the entire Amazon River it was really a case of, “What is next?”. So, I decided to walk alone across Iran. A most interesting and eye-opening journey indeed. After returning from Iran, the question is asked again. Rather than jumping this way and that between random projects, deciding to run the longest river on each continent from source to sea has me committed to a goal for at least the next 10 to 15 years. Focus, done!
My journeys have taught me that our planet, so connected in a lot of ways now, is so diverse and unbelievably interesting. Yet, most of us, living our modern, urban lifestyles know little outside our own cultures or spheres of interest. I went to Iran to find out for myself what the country and importantly it’s people were all about. Unsurprisingly, Iran shows little resemblance with the picture presented by our politicians and the media. It has been a pleasure to lecture to school kids and adults alike about my journey on foot across Iran, as well as the Amazon and expeditions in East Africa. To see the looks of amazement on their faces is something that cannot be stimulated by using Google or Wikipedia to find out more.
How did you first get into paddling rivers?
I grew up in Australia on the Pacific Ocean in a small town. Options to keep us entertained were fairly sparse. But there was always the bush and the ocean. Both environments played a big part in my life growing up but it was never a conscious decision to make them so. Swimming, paddling and surfing in the Pacific were things we did because we had no malls or video arcades to hang out in. I am pretty thankful for that relative isolation now!
Moving into paddling came about just by accident. I was fortunate to get a start working as a sea kayak guide. We would take clients on paddling trips lasting anywhere from a couple of hours up to a full week, island hopping on the Great Barrier Reef. Paddling for a the day, landing on a deserted island. Going spear-fishing, cooking what we caught and generally just having a blast. To get paid to do this was kind of surreal. Later, a good mate of mine was in charge of a river running operation in South Africa. A couple of times I would do parts of seasons with him out there. Again, a lifestyle while not hugely financially rewarding, gave so much in other more important ways.
I then spent a good few seasons raft guiding on another river and knew that somehow this sort of life was for me. I am still an average paddler and would never profess to be some sort of gun. But I suppose I have picked up a few skills on my expeditions over the years that your average “park and play” kayaker might not have in his arsenal.
On February 2008 after 153 days you finished a rafting expedition down the length of the amazon river. You have mention your time on the Amazon as being “the most frightening and exhausting days I have ever had.” Can you describe one of your more frightening moments on the river?
Ha! So many to choose from. I suppose the section of the river where we most exposed to danger from the river itself was the Upper Amazon on the Apurimac River. Apurimac means Divine Voice or Voice of God, which speaks volumes about the sort of river it is. Now of course there are parts of it which are just downright fun. There is even a short section which is rafted commercially on 3 days trips. But to descend the entire river is something altogether different. Some days were spent entirely portaging, others we would flip 4 or 5 times on successive rapids. Getting injured on the Apurimac in most places along it’s course is bad news. You are thousands of metres deep at the bottom of a huge valley, with steep canyon walls towering over you. You can’t walk out, so if your buddy breaks an arm or leg then you are paddling him out. Fortunately that never happened.
While every day on that section was both fun and tough, one day I guess stands out for me. We had spent the day negotiating some really tough rapids. So many must make moves with the consequences of failure pretty grim. We had flipped I think about 4 times. We made camp late in the afternoon just above the mother of all rapids, bigger and gnarlier than anything we had run previously. After a month and a half of descent we all were physically and emotionally spent. My brain just switched. I shed a few tears. I was properly scared. Looking back you sort of think, toughen up mate. But at the time it was pretty real. After flipping so many times and getting through unscathed and still will a lot of river to run, I just thought our numbers are going to come up at some point. I pulled myself together pretty quickly after a few minutes but yeh, I think in some of the photos over the next week or so, you can see in my eyes that something had gone on. A bit of a thousand yard stare. Luckily the boys got it on camera which is cool, I think! Funnily enough, after that the river just got harder!
Can you tell us a little about 7 Rivers 7 Continents project?
I am so stoked about this project. The rivers I will paddle are spread across the planet and their course takes them through every environment imaginable, both natural and human made. I don’t think I would bother with expeditions if there was not that element of adventure there, but the aim of these descents is a little different from you average expedition. Rather than focus the stories on me, the resultant stories, written, film and photos will all reveal what influence rivers have had on the formation of ecosystems and human civilizations.
4 of the rivers are more than 4000 miles in length, 2 others more than 2000 miles and one just 25 miles! All together a lot of paddling. Having completed the Amazon I am looking forward to each and every one of the others. Some I will complete alone and for obvious reasons, others in a team.
How long will it take you to complete all 7 rivers?
If it takes me the rest of my life I will be happy. In reality with a young family now, I would estimate 10 to 15 years.
What is it about paddling rivers that fascinates you?
So much. Paddling a river takes you places where no vehicle could ever hope and quite often places not really accessible even on foot. Even the smallest rivers meander through a wide range of environments on their journey to their mouths. You can paddle a really gentle river and just kick back and enjoy or have a crack at whitewater that is so epic you will wonder what you were thinking when you put-in! Probably the best thing is that when you are on a river, especially on an extended journey, you live in the present so fully. Outside of paddling, eating and sleeping nothing else matters. No bills, trains, buses, news, nothing. Life becomes simple once more.
A quote by Sir Richard Francis Burton, a favorite Victorian era explorer sums it up for me pretty nicely – “Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks is the departure upon a distant journey to unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the Slavery of Home, man feels once more happy. The blood flows with the fast circulation of childhood….afresh dawns the morn of life…”
On your trip down the Amazon river you started with a crew of 3 and eventually finished as a duo because of illness, why have you decided to go solo on your upcoming trip down the Missouri/Mississippi?
The simple answer is, because I can. I don’t think I would have liked to make a full and proper descent of the Amazon alone. The risk to life and limb was just too great, or so we felt. On the Missouri-Mississippi this risk is greatly reduced. I would never underestimate any river that is for sure. Do that and you will be dealt a quick and harsh lesson. Piotr Chmieliński, who made the first source to sea descent of the Amazon and was a god-send to us gave us this advice, “Remember, the river always wins”. Wise words.
Walking across Iran alone also made me realize that turning up somewhere alone rather than with a group of people means that your welcome is so much greater. Folks are less wary and of course more willing and able to provide assistance if you need it.
Your expedition will take you roughly 3,899mi (6275km), How do you keep motivated in difficult times during such a long trip?
The thought of sitting in front of this laptop for an equivalent amount of time! No, well sort of! I am not sure. Many times on expeditions the thought crosses my mind of the consequences of packing it in. Failure, embarrassment, weakness are all elements of it. But I guess a big part of it is keeping on exploring. How will I ever know what is around the next corner if I don’t go? That desire to see is quite often enough.
How are you training?
I get asked a lot what sort of training and preparation I do for my expeditions. The simple answer is: not very much. But I will explain. Of course I am paddling every week and train most days wrestling, stretching and kettlebell. But not really with an eye on an expedition. I just like to stay fit and strong all the time. I have had 2 major surgeries on my right shoulder including a reconstruction and having a bone graft and titanium plate screwed in. On my left I have had the outside 1cm of my collarbone cut off and cleaned up. Not the kind of shoulders one would think would be ideal for paddling 22 000 miles! Probably they aren’t but they are surviving. For that reason I don’t really want to overdo things prior putting-in. I think on any expedition there is a period of adjustment to a harder (if more enjoyable) life. For me the first couple of weeks get me up to speed and from then on it is all good.
What goes in to planning an expedition of this size?
A lot, but not as much as some people might want. Having made expeditions and adventure my profession necessitates that there is more planning than I would like. All things being equal I would just go. But with sponsors to keep happy and the necessary evil of money to be somehow conjured up certain things do have to be put in place. I am super excited about the platform we are building to showcase this years paddle. It is certainly different to your average expedition website. That is taking up a lot of time and effort I guess. The actual paddling is pretty straightforward isn’t it? Just point your boat down river and go!
As I mentioned before, I want to know what is around the next corner but I don’t want to always know beforehand. At times, in the process of gathering stories being forewarned about an interesting person or subject to interview is pretty handy but not all the time.
What is the importance of human powered adventures?
Going slow. Probably I could drive down the length of most of the Missouri-Mississippi. Probably I could meet the same people, talk to them and gather their stories. But it is different somehow. Paddling a 4000 mile river is really something. A lot of the time you are beat. Being physically tired affects your thought patterns which in turn influences your decision making. Not necessarily in a negative way but certainly you will make different decisions after a week of hard paddling and camping than you would after a similar time driving and sleeping in a nice soft bed.
Going human-powered both literally and in a hippy-like spiritual way brings you closer to your environment. Walking across Iran I was exposed so acutely to my surroundings whether that was a city, snow-covered mountains or the desert. There was no escaping or retreating from it. They filled all my senses with their force. How can you compare this to sitting behind the glass windows on a bus speeding along at 100 miles an hour? You can’t.
What are your favorite bits of gear?
If a bit of kit works I will use it. Despite being a bit of a gear junkie I have never been massively concerned about tech and specs of my gear. That said I really like my dry bags from Seal Line. Pretty simple, they keep you gear dry. I like that. As well it is hard to beat my sunglasses from Zeal Optics. Sun blasting off the desert floor or similarly, a wide expanse of water is just plain anoying without eye protection.
Any people or sponsors that you’d like thank?
I would be stoked to thank my sponsors who are coming along for the ride – Rab, Suunto, Zeal Optics, Lowe Alpine, P & H Kayaks, Pyranha Kayaks, SnapDragon Design, LOWA, Kokatat, H2O Performance Paddles, Seal Line and MSR.
Learn more about Mark Kalch, his expeditions, and the 7 Rivers 7 Continents project @