Borderwalk: One man’s journey from the U.K. to Australia – on foot

The Borderwalk route. Photo by Arjun Bhogal

Arjun Bhogal’s past five years have been a rollercoaster of highs and lows, joy and pain, daily struggles and personal revelations. He has been robbed, imprisoned and held at gunpoint; suffered anxiety, depression and dysentery and pushed his body near to its breaking point.

For over five years, Bhogal has been walking across the world.

On May 3, 2017, Bhogal arrived in Cardiff, Australia, marking the end of a journey that spanned three continents, 20 countries and over 16,000 kilometres. But if you were to ask, the 29-year-old Briton would tell you he’s just a normal guy.

Arjun arrives in Cardiff, Australia. Photo by Arjun Bhogal

Bhogal’s story begins in 2011, in a university kitchen, where he and some friends read about adventurers who had traversed the planet using unconventional transportation methods.

Having thought a great deal about the millions of people around the world who have to walk each day to access clean water, Bhogal half-jokingly asked his friends, “What if we walked?”

After a year of saving money, planning, and finding companies willing to sponsor the trip, Bhogal and his friend Kieran Rae did exactly that.

They called their expedition the Borderwalk, and began their trek from Cardiff, Wales, U.K. to Cardiff, New South Wales, Australia, on April 1, 2012, with the goal of raising money and awareness for WaterAid, a non-profit organization that provides clean drinking water and sanitation to 30 countries worldwide.

The Journey

In their first year, the pair walked east across Europe, moving through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, arriving in Ukraine as the final months of 2012 approached.

One night in Kiev, Bhogal and a friend came across some burly men with KKK tattoos outside of a bar. Emboldened by liquid courage, they asked and learned that the men were, in fact, members of the KKK.

Camping in Ukraine. Photo by Kieran Rae

The next day, Bhogal awoke to find one of the men sleeping in a nearby bunk at his hostel, and, despite their ideological differences, they became friends.

At the time, the looming threat of the end of the world, on Dec. 21, 2012, was fast approaching. To celebrate, Bhogal and Rae were invited by their new friend to an end-of-the-world party hosted by the KKK.

“When we got to the party, we had to go down some stairs to get in, and we saw that the place had a name that resembled The Fuhrer,” says Bhogal.

“But we had a great night … we met nice people and I never had to wait for a drink. You know your life is strange when you’re Indian and getting served faster in a bar by a member of the KKK than you do in a normal bar.”

The pair left Ukraine in early 2013. They passed through Russia and Kazakhstan, and had made it into Kyrgyzstan before being hit with a serious roadblock.

It had been a year-and-a-half since they took their first steps at Cardiff Castle. After a run-in with some corrupt police, they found themselves in prison, threatened with a 24-month sentence for not carrying their passports.

The icy roads of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Arjun Bhogal

Three days later they were released, but after the mishap, Rae decided to return home, leaving Bhogal to continue the journey solo.

“I was, for the first time, alone in a country, with the first set of mountains to cross on Borderwalk, in winter (-35 degrees). It was by far one of the hardest and loneliest things I’ll ever do,” says Bhogal.

Over the next three years, he found that the physical and mental challenges of Borderwalk were often magnified by feelings of loneliness.

“Even after Central Asia into South and Southeast Asia for the following three years, depression and anxiety would become an issue. The physical demand on my body, paired with the loneliness, the worry of finding a safe place to sleep every night, all whilst I compete with the daily struggles of finding enough food and water to get me through. The lack of sleep, from getting moved on by people, telling me I couldn’t sleep on their land or trying to rob me, would at times make me a different person.”

But he pushed onward and made it safely through Tajikistan and onto Afghan soil before being confronted with his next major setback.

“At one point in Afghanistan, I was, for lack of a better word, kidnapped in the middle of the night by seven men with AK-47s, dressed in plain clothes, and stuffed into a 4×4. They drove for 30 minutes while I was thinking the whole time, this is it, I should have listened to people who said not to go, but I didn’t. Eventually, I was chucked out at a military compound, thanking the stars as I was rushed into a room filled with military personnel and men in charge. They were all pretty angry guys except one who added me on Facebook. They told me the Taliban knew of a British national who was walking through the area and so they came to get me before the Taliban did.”

Despite the fear of death and the fact that one of the officers had stolen his emergency phone, Afghanistan was one of Bhogal’s favourite countries. In addition to the land’s natural splendor, he points out that it was a fascinating experience visiting a place that the world typically sees “through the lens of conflict and disaster.”

“It teaches you the way in which it’s so easy to detach ourselves from people and their problems … and however clichéd it sounds, not realize how similar we all are,” he says.

Crossing a bridge in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Photo by Arjun Bhogal

And it was the similarities, not the differences that leave a lasting impact on Bhogal as he looks back on his past five years.

With each border crossed, he came to understand that the image of many countries as seen from the outside would rarely align with his lived experience.

Bhogal had been repeatedly warned that in Russia, for example, a man of his ethnicity would not be welcomed. Yet, looking back, he says that some of the kindest people he met during Borderwalk were Russian.

“One man named Valentin, who I met in Russia, drove 1000 kilometres to meet us and have lunch,” he says. “He even hand-built a card and had it shipped to Kazakhstan to meet us.”

“Another man named Derek, who I met in Kyrgyzstan, was cycling around the world with a serious illness and one lung. When I met him he had just been hit by a car in the mountains, but he was still somehow going on.”

As the months progressed, Bhogal found that his years on the road had started to take a serious toll on his body.

“By Indonesia, my body was beginning to break down after three years on the road, and I was beginning to have to rely on painkillers to keep moving, so I could make it in time for my visa,” he explains.

“I would find myself stranded for days at a time on a bed someone had managed to help me get to, with my foot raised or whatever part of me was injured, resting.”

Without the constant generosity of strangers, Bhogal says that Borderwalk would not have been possible.

He managed to raise over $4,000 U.S. dollars for WaterAid since his trip began, but he points out that the journey’s success goes far beyond dollars earned.

“People on the road really wanted to make physical donations and wanted to be involved, be part of the story, some even walked with me, some people got other people to donate, and also donated their time, food, water, and even a place to sleep to help make the journey possible,” he says.

“It really is a journey stitched together by the thousands of people around the world who have been generous enough to help me when I was in need.”

Arjun’s travel kit. Photo by Arjun Bhogal

Over the past five years, Bhogal walked 30 to 40 kilometres per day, with a daily budget as little as five dollars.

His bag, which started at 95 litres, was reduced to 35 litres and consisted of just one change of clothes, toiletries, a notebook and pen, GPS device, knife, camera and equipment, laptop, chargers, water bottles, rice or couscous, snacks, a tent or hammock, and a solar panel attached to the outside.

Life After Borderwalk

“The world after Borderwalk has been a curious place,” says Bhogal. “What was normally taken up by finding a place to sleep, food to eat, and water to drink was now, upon finishing the walk, taken up by listening to people seated in front of me discuss ‘why I voted for Brexit’ and ‘why Trump would be a better leader.’

“When someone would tell me a story, like the moment they realized they’d left their phone in a bar and felt their heart sink, and then ask ‘You know what I mean?’ my mind would rush to moments of having a gun pointed at me at point blank range in my face, being made to sit in front of a wall in Afghanistan riddled with bullet holes, being shouted at by a military officer, and for a second my heart sinking, wondering if he was going to shoot me, all over a phone. It’s like in an instant I’m there, I can smell it, I can taste it, and I can feel my heart beating, and as I come back to the room, I look at the person I’m talking to in the eyes and say ‘oh god, I couldn’t imagine.”

Sleeping in a hammock. Photo by Arjun Bhogal

Since completing Borderwalk, Bhogal has been living in Australia, where he is working on a book about his journey and sharing his story with anyone who will listen.

He is currently working with an NGO called Cultivator, and will take part in the Australian Sustainable Living Festival this February.

“I want to inspire people to take on their own adventures, no matter what size, and let them realize through the story that you don’t have to be special to achieve something special. We’re all capable of great things, irrespective of colour or creed.”

Did Bhogal ever think about giving up? Absolutely. At some points, he thought about it every day.

“But I look back at my decision to carry on solo and try to finish what we had started, with a smile. If you were to ask any of our friends, if they were betting people, would they bet on me being the one to carry on? Nope. But I had to sit down and really think if this was something I wanted to carry on doing alone.

“So when I’m asked why I carried on after jail, it’s because one day I hope to have children, and one day they’ll come to me and tell me that they’re not smart enough, not strong enough or brave enough to do something they want to do, and I’ll be able to sit them down and tell them a story. A story about two guys who weren’t special in any way, who were painfully ordinary, who had an idea that they ran with… well, walked with, and weave my own tale of adventure, hope, determination, sometimes despair and pain, and hopefully inspire them to take on their own challenge, whatever it be.”

Kazakhstan’s endless highway. Photo by Kieran Rae

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