Leadership Network member
recounts Great Wall trek

A Leadership Network member’s extraordinary exploit in China more than 15 years ago is still turning heads.
Man laughs, church in background

Nathan: "It was an incredibly humbling honour to be able to speak to a world renowned platform."

At the invitation of the Royal Geographical Society and with help from a Leadership Network travel grant, Nathan Hoturoa Gray spoke to a full auditorium in Hong Kong last year about his epic traverse of the Great Wall of China, which began in 2000.

“It was an incredibly humbling honour to be able to speak to a world-renowned platform that had previously invited distinguished speakers such as Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, primate expert Dame Jane Goodall . . . ” Nathan says.

He describes the epic trek as one of the pivotal experiences of his life.

“The Great Wall expedition was and always will be a defining part of my identity in the sense that the sorts of challenges I had to endure and incredibly mind-blowing connections and memories I made en route will always carry with me through life. 

“For example, whenever I am feeling down, unwell or unconfident, I just have to reflect back to that time and some of the trials and tribulations I went through and it gives me renewed strength for the challenge I currently face and the ones that lie ahead.”

To describe the trek as 'epic' is not to overstate it. The Great Wall stretches for more than 4000 kilometres from central Asia, across the Gobi Desert, through the remote, cold mountains of northern China to end on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

There were plenty of “full-on challenges”, Nathan says.

“We walked for three months through the Gobi Desert reliant on the incredibly generous hospitality of the Chinese peasantry for our survival…often we didn’t eat for up to two days before coming across a village.”

The terrain could be punishing, and temperatures ranged from -20 degrees Celsius to 45 degrees Celsius.

Nathan: "I know for a fact that with all I went through on that journey I would never be able to survive such an undertaking like that again."

“With all our camera gear we were often thought of as spies, so had a few harrowing encounters with the police and military en route.”

Nathan’s book First Pass Under Heaven documents the highs and lows he experienced on the journey.

Having sold more than 20,000 copies, it was Penguin’s top travel book from 2006 to 2009 and has been ranked in the top ten best alternative travel books ever written.

The trek took Nathan nine months all up, and it taught him he can take on any challenge in life if he remains humble and focused, he says.

“It’s all about the journey and taking it step by manageable step. Eventually you will make the full 4000 kilometres.”

It was a message that resonated with the audience in Hong Kong.

“They were a mix of Hong Kong expats and locals, former heads of the U.N. legal division, diplomats, academics, writers, entrepreneurs and fellow adventurers.”

His talk took them “into the heart and soul of what an expedition like this is like”, Nathan says.

“I like to share my journalistic adventures as a source of motivation and encouragement for others to follow their dreams, whatever road that might be.”

While focussing on the Great Wall journey, Nathan used the platform speak about issues currently facing humanity, such as fresh water shortage and overpopulation.

". . . there is still so much work for us to do as a species to get the planet right and this work will never end in our lifetimes."

As to whether Nathan would ever embark on such a journey again, he says he has less demanding adventures planned from here on.

Man smiles a bottom of stairs, leading up to large buddha statue

In Hong Kong, Nathan used the platform to discuss issues such as over population and water shortage

“I know for a fact that with all I went through on that journey I would never be able to survive such an undertaking like it again. 

“However, that by no means precludes me from having other types of less extreme adventures and a future goal of mine is to get from 84 countries currently explored to 100 by the end of my lifetime."

Nathan is a lecturer at Michigan State University. Together with his partner he takes students on study abroad programmes to destinations including Hawaii, Switzerland and New Zealand.

The couple have a young son and watching him grow is "a huge adventure in itself”, Nathan says.

“I can't wait to teach my son Oliver the tricks of the trade when he grows up, just as I was taught how to survive by those friends and mentors that had travelled those sorts of life paths before me."