Finding Freedom with David Lemon

An interview with author and adventurer, David Lemon.

It takes a special kind of person to walk 2000 miles in 292 days. Not the strolling across the green and pleasant lands of England type of walking, but through leech infested flood plains, mosquito ridden swamps and dense bush. That special kind of person is David Lemon. The first person recorded in history to walk the entire length of the Zambezi River.

At 67, David wasn’t a young man when he decided to embark upon, what some people might consider, a reckless journey. David doesn’t see it that way, although he had no real strategy for the trip; no months of planning routes or preparing mentally and physically for the challenge. David didn’t take any maps with him, no hi-tech, modern technology. This was his world. He grew up in some of the more remote parts of Africa, with parents that gave him the freedom to walk in the bush, despite dangers from wildlife.

“I don’t believe in planning,” he said. “If you know there’s a major obstacle ahead, like a big hill, you worry a long time before about how you’ll get over it. If you don’t know it’s there, you just figure out how to get over the hill when it’s in front of you.”

Prior to walking the Zambezi, David had already chalked up a number of body battering challenges. In his forties, he rowed nearly 300 miles from one end of Lake Kariba to the other and back again. In his fifties he cycled from Nairobi to Cape Town which took more than four months. During the cycle ride he was arrested twice, beaten up by an army officer and contracted amoebic dysentery. If it wasn’t for a mission of Seventh-day Adventists who picked David up and took care of him, he would most likely have died.

So, what is it that makes someone want to stretch themselves to the very limit? Face almost insurmountable challenges and then want to do it all over again?

After a friend in Kariba put David in touch with Ranulph Fiennes, the two men discussed that very question. Their only conclusion was, said David; they were both nutcases. Of course it’s more than that. The need to be constantly moving, growing, being challenged. Perhaps it’s about proving yourself. David was bullied as a child at boarding school. Maybe his urge to push himself to the limit is really about showing the little boy who was on the end of jokes and taunts from bullies that he is good enough. Or maybe it’s that yearning to find what we all long for, that feeling of inner peace, of complete freedom.

It seems the spirit of adventure has been with David Lemon from a young age. At the age of 13 he ran away from home and cycled 350 miles from Nairobi to Mombasa.

“I’d planned to get a job on a boat and sail into the sunset,” he said. “But I forgot my passport.”

The police caught up with him and he was delivered safely back home. Since then, David’s life has been filled with challenges. He’s been a police officer in the Gloucestershire Constabulary and the Rhodesian police force. He’s worked as an undercover, freelance writer for the Sunday Express; reporting in Zimbabwe on the homelessness, starvation and murder of farmers whose lands were being seized. And he fought in the Rhodesian war.

“When the war finished and after I left the police force, life was pretty flat. There was no excitement,” he said. “So, I went off rowing.”

David took off on his nine-weeks and 63 days rowing expedition across Lake Kariba in a 10’ dinghy. He’d never rowed before. He lost his supplies on the first night, was shipwrecked three times and bitten by a poisonous snake.

“I didn’t want to give up in case I was laughed at,” he said.  Echoes perhaps from his difficult time as a child in boarding school.

It was the fact he was heading towards being 70 that inspired him to pick up his walking boots and emulate David Livingstone’s attempt to walk 3,200 kilometres along the length of the Zambezi River.  As David says, “you’re never too old for an adventure.”

And so, with very little supplies, no tent, a GPS which he lost half-way through the walk and very little, or no back up, David set off. “I just kept the water on my right,” he said in his self-effacing manner. Although the Discovery Channel offered to send a team to accompany and film David during his walk, he declined.

“I wasn’t doing this for the money or publicity, I was doing this for my soul. And I’m not very good with people,” he explained.

And whilst he came close to death; battling with exhaustion and malnutrition, struggling through some of the most difficult terrain in Africa in temperatures of more than 50 degrees, carrying a 35kg pack, he never gave up. Even when he was airlifted after six months of walking, suffering with hallucinations from cerebral malaria, legs covered in ulcers and bruises, he refused to give in. Fourteen months later he was back at the point where he’d been forced to stop, ready to continue his journey, completing the walk in 292 ‘walking’ days.

What was his worst moment? The trek across the Victoria Falls Gorges took three weeks, crawling over rocks with a sprained ankle.

“I was in a desperate state and covered in blood. One night, as I camped in the pitch black I felt something with me, I couldn’t see anything, I just felt this presence, who knows maybe it was God or some sort of spirit. I just knew I’d get through, that I’d be OK.”

And the highlights?

“I met more good people on my adventures than I’ve ever met in my everyday life. People with nothing went out of their way to help and neither expected, nor wanted, anything in return. After 25 years of working as a policeman and the harrowing stories I uncovered for the Sunday Express I have a very jaundiced view of people, but when I go out into the bush it’s different.”

And, of course, there were the sunsets.

“At the end of every day I looked out over the most incredible sunsets, with no responsibilities.  I was completely free.”

At the time of writing, David was working on his latest novel having, already written 16 books.  The most successful have been memoirs about his great adventures.  He’s swopped the beautiful, complex landscape of Zimbabwe for the open moorlands, deep river valleys and rare wildlife of Dartmoor.  It’s isolated and very rural, just 10 metres from his gate and you’re on the moor.

I’ve never been frightened of being on my own,” he says. Surprisingly he doesn’t believe in taking risks, but adds, being close to death is part of living. “What’s the point of living if you don’t end up with memories of wonderful moments?” Or as David puts it, his pleasant demons.

Dartmoor might be a long way from Zimbabwe, but the feeling of freedom he gets from walking on the moor, from being at one with the best and worst of nature, is what truly inspires this modest man.

And of course, there are the sunsets.

You can find out more about David Lemon, his adventures and his books on his website.

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