Edinburgh’s Mike Laird has made his way across the world – and through the alphabet – on the back of a wager.
THE magnolia walls, the unwrinkled throw across the neat sofa, the tidiness of the bookcase – every spine turned to face the same direction.
It’s just not right.
The house of an explorer and adventurer should be littered with exotic objects, souvenirs from the jungle, prized possessions plucked from the seabed, shrunken heads bestowed by tribesmen hanging from shelves which are piled high, higgledy piggledy, with maps and guidebooks.
But no, not Mike Laird’s home. There are a few black and white photos from Iraq and Afghanistan on the wall in a neat row, and a colourful rug from Bolivia on the floor. But then the small flat is just a stone’s throw from Tesco in Corstorphine where the most adventurous thing that might happen is the stealing of a shopping trolley.
Yet Laird is very much a modern-day intrepid adventurer. He’s the non-TV version of Ben Fogle. The pair are friends of a sort – they met when taking part in BBC’s social experiment Castaway on the Scottish island of Taransay. Laird even has a signed copy of Fogle’s book The Teatime Islands, but while Fogle’s “accidental adventures” are always followed by a full television crew, his passage into dangerous waters smoothed by the flash of a BBC pass, Laird has done it all on his own.
And most of his adventures began with a bet. For one he drove to the Sahara in a Mondeo in under a week to prove a point. And when an old travelling friend bet him £50 he couldn’t visit a country for every letter of the alphabet (except X as there is none) his global tour was put into action.
Ten years on, five passports later and £15,000 worse off, he has done it. He has around 72 countries under his belt, from Austria, Australia and Afghanistan to Yugoslavia (when it existed) and Zambia.
The 43-year-old says when I arrive he’s got an hour before flying to Canada to take part in a race to the North Pole. His house is so tidy due to his departure and his polar kit is already packed and in London.
Laird says he has always been fascinated by travel – and as a risk management consultant he can fit his job around his jaunts abroad.
“I’m not quite a modern-day Phileas Fogg,” he says. “Don’t have the snacks for a start. Or a Passepartout. Got to do it all on my own most of the time. But that’s fine. And I find that it doesn’t matter where you go or what you might experience if you stay calm then generally things work out OK.”
He’s had more reason than most to put those words into action. He’s been in prison in Ethiopia, had Iraqi secret police arrest him and had a gun in his face in Beiruit . . . but he just laughs it off.
“There have been lots of risky places and situations,” he says. ‘It’s the antithesis of my job I suppose. But to me that’s what travel is all about. Getting into a place, meeting the real people, experiencing the culture – even getting ill and being treated abroad. I’ve had malaria and last year it was jaundice when I was in Iraq.
“You experience nothing if you’re in a holiday resort drinking and eating British food. I guess for me it’s become an obsession and I’m lucky I can work for six months for a large multi-national at the Gyle, then my contract is done and I can be on my way the next week to Zambia to see the Victoria Falls, which is what I did in January.”
Laird’s first trip abroad was as a four-year-old on a family holiday to Malta. “Not that that happened every year, but I can remember loving it, loving the differences. And when I was a child I would collect foreign coins and stamps and I was fascinated about where they came from.”
It was while at Edinburgh Academy that his love of wild places took hold. “By the age of eight I was camping in the Cairngorms with school – they thought it was good for you, toughened you up, that sort of thing. It was great. It gave me a love of the outdoors and of camp craft, and gave me all sorts of skills which have stood me in good stead.”
Skills which have gone on to be supplemented by others such as Lofty Wiseman, the former SAS man who taught the Taransay volunteers vital survival techniques. “That was fantastic, and I’ve soaked up other advice over the years, too. When I did my 4000km bike ride across Australia (in 2010 he followed the route of Burke and Wills 1860 expedition across the interior of the country) there were times I thought I’d taken on too much. I was 300 miles from any water, was having to carry my bike because of the sand, but as I had a water filtration kit, when I came across any standing water I could drink it.”
The Round the World bet put to him back in 2003 came from his friend, Stephen Blackmore.
“He got married and settled down so couldn’t travel as much with me as he had – we’d been to Cambodia in 1997 together when we were arrogantly trying to go to the countries on the Foreign Office’s black list, where they had no representation and wouldn’t come rescue you if there was trouble. We thought it was funny, though it was just idiocy. But when he made the bet I couldn’t turn it down.”
There were rules, though. Laird couldn’t count Scotland as an S country – but countries he’d already visited could go on the list, so Yugoslavia, where he’d been in 1986, stood. He also had to stay in the place for longer than 48 hours and use its English name (so no Cote d’Ivoire, but Ivory Coast). Along with a desire to travel, the bet has taken Laird to places most would avoid. A keen photographer, he attempted to get sent to Afghanistan as an MoD snapper, but was turned down. Undaunted, he grew a beard and flew to Islamabad, dressed in traditional garb and made his way through Pakistan to the Khyber Pass and got a bus from Jalalabad to Kabul.
He adds: “Whenever I go to a Muslim country I have a copy of the Quoran in my luggage which I find always helps.”
There is an altruistic aim behind some of his travelling. Laird runs the charity Maroc-aroundtheclock, which he launched after that drive to the Sahara. “When I got there I thought ‘what a donkey. Why have I wasted all that fuel, polluted the atmosphere, and for what?’ So I went to a clinic, spoke to doctors about what help might be needed. I ended up talking to the deputy minister for health in Morocco and that first year we took an aid convoy of 14 people and trucks full of supplies.
“We don’t do disaster relief because we’re a small charity, but we like to think we’re making a difference.”
Ask him though, where his favourite place in the world is, and Edinburgh runs a close second to Peru.
“I just love the history and culture and the people and the food is interesting,” he says, “I also like Venezuela so I’ll be going back there, but then there’s Bhutan and Nepal and there’s this island Socotra which is a bit like the Galapagos but really hard to get to.”
Laird, it seems, has many more miles to travel.
• To donate, visit www.marocaroundtheclock.org