There’s nothing like a language barrier to complicate matters when somebody’s pointing a gun at your head in the middle of the night at a border control, says adventurer Matt Prior.
Now, from the relative safety of a cafe in Causeway Bay, the Hong Kong-based Briton is able to look back and laugh about his first big adventure, which saw him drive a £150 car from London to Mongolia at the age of 21. “The biggest thing is to stay calm, don’t rise to anything,” he says. “And smile – in all situations. If you start getting aggressive with people it can quickly escalate.”
Prior, 30, says the trip was a turning point in his life. “I’d had a bursary to start military service and I was delaying it as long as possible because I wanted to see as much of the world as I could before I joined,” he says.
One night, over a few beers, a friend mentioned that somebody he knew was going to drive a battered old car to Mongolia.
“That’s all he said,” recalls Prior. “I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t get this idea out of my head. I rang my mate up and we got a map out and said, let’s go through all these supposedly dangerous, crazy countries, and have a real adventure. And that turned everything upside down. Everything: the way I looked at life, my priorities – and that’s why I live life like I do today.”
Taking a London taxi around the world.
For a guy who has achieved a world-first ice run on a second world war Russian motorbike across Lake Baikal in Siberia, broken a world record taking a London taxi around the globe and to altitudes of more than 5,180 metres at Everest (which raised £20,000 for the British Red Cross), scaled several famous peaks and led overseas military expeditions, he is surprisingly down-to-earth.
Ask him about his proudest achievement to date and he looks blank. “Hard question … will have to get back to you on that one. I don’t look at them as achievements, as it’s all just fun – and a challenge – for me.”
Prior, who served in the Royal Air Force for six years flying Tucanos and Hawks and currently works as a commercial pilot, now hopes to share a taste of this fun with others, albeit at a more accessible level, with the recent launch of his eponymous Adventure Academy (mpadventureacademy.com).
He has started taking small groups of three people at a time on week-long trips in Indonesia, climbing volcanoes, riding motorbikes and exploring off-the-beaten-track areas – the aim being to teach them to embark on their own future adventures.
“I think a bit of adventure can benefit anyone,” he says. “Everything is so sheltered and our modern lives are making us so detached from our natural selves.”
Prior and fellow adventurer Dennis Malone on the surface of Lake Baikal.
His advice? Start close to home.
“My fiancée and I put everything on our backs and went walking around the country park for a week recently, and it was like going on a holiday on the other side of the world; like being completely in the middle of nowhere. Just camping on the beaches, walking in the hills – and it’s all free. In Hong Kong you’ve got this amazing resource on your doorstep, yet of the seven million people that live here, only a tiny percentage actually use it.”
Prior believes his time in the military gave him a good foundation for life. “It teaches you a lot about discipline, high standards, pushing yourself, quick decision making and handling different people in high stress situations.”
He does confess that it brought out a competitive streak in him. “The military is very alpha male, and I was in their fast jet stream – it doesn’t get more competitive than that,” he says.
“Unfortunately, that environment breeds that in you – you had to be like that to get where I got. I’ve calmed down a lot now,” he adds.
“And I like myself more now for it. I still have it in me though, and if I need to be competitive then I will. I don’t like giving up and I don’t like losing.”
Crashing through the surface of Lake Baikal.
It also demands a good base level of fitness, something which he’s always enjoyed. Growing up, Prior represented his high school at various sports; he’s done kickboxing, and plays soccer five times a week as well as tennis and squash. As a result, he doesn’t see the need to train for his adventures, though they tend to be physically taxing.
“What I’ve realised is that for adventures, it’s all about mental strength. It’s not so much the physical training you need, because it’s all up here. Even people that I’ve come across that are clearly unfit – and I’d think, no chance – as long as they’re strong mentally, it’s amazing what they can push themselves to do.”
His next challenge will be to use his academy as a medium for social change. He plans to work with both the disadvantaged and community leaders, with the wealthier clients supporting and subsidising the less well off.
“I want to show that no matter what cards you are dealt you can still go on and achieve your dreams.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Itchy feats