Tom Sawyer on the Danube

TS Danube poster

Pieced together from hundreds of video dispatches from the road, “Tom Sawyer on the Danube” is Xpedition.TV’s first original adventure film. It is a collaboration between filmmaker Ric Gibbs and a team of adventurers headed by Jamie Bowlby-Whiting, who try to make their way from England to Asia using only human power – and some pretty unique means of going about it.

from Director Ric Gibbs

CONFESSION: Much as I admire hardcore explorers for their feats of daring, first ascents and so on, I’ve always had a soft spot of offbeat adventurers. Teams that don’t set out to capture any new records or challenge what humans have achieved, but rather, for the pure joy of doing something differently. Something fresh. Something odd. And they couldn’t care less if we get it.

And so it happened, while following up on a short film submitted to our Adventure Film Competition last summer, I found its filmmaker already embarked upon a somewhat mad cap idea to travel over land from England to Korea, without motor and without money.

“What do you mean, no money?” My partners asked when I brought Jamie and his team to their attention.

“I mean no money. They’re broke, more or less. Foraging from trees and food bins and the occasional kindness of strangers.”

“How are they getting around?”

“Biking.”

I watched their faces fall. Biking had been done. Even to Asia.

“Not like this it hasn’t.”

By this point I had already found a couple of Jamie’s biking videos on his blog GreatBigScaryWorld.com It was no Tour de France, but there was something incredibly likable about this gypsy pack of twenty-somethings. And – as I was to find out – there was even a love story.

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But it wasn’t QUITE what we expected.

No sooner had I roped my partners into finding some expedition sponsors and undertaking a film about it, than the bike business was over. Clearly, I had not read the fine print. Bikes were just the beginning of what we were in for.

“We’re building a raft,” Jamie announced in an email. “We thought we’d float down the Danube from Slovakia to the Black Sea.”

I opened a map. That would take them across bits of Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, dropping them at the doorstep of Asia.

“What kind of raft?”

“Whatever we can find really. My friend’s uncle gave us some oil drums.”

Oh boy, I thought. This guy is going to get himself killed. The Danube wasn’t some local creek. It wasn’t some far flung tributary in Asia. The Danube was the biggest, busiest waterway in Europe!

“I think you should light that thing up like Las Vegas,” I shot back. I dug through all my suppliers for Burning Man. I found every lighting device that I could. Too late. Within a week they had already launched, lighting be damned. And this little movie – most of it anyways – is about what happens next.

Say what you will about such madcap expeditions, they keep the waters fresh. Jamie & Leah might be the class clowns of the expeditionary world, but who’s to say they aren’t digging just as deep into their world as Sir Ranulph Fiennes is digging into his? Who is there, really, to measure one’s journey into the unknown self, except the person ON that journey? However Quixotic. Was Cervantes’ celebrated hero any less heroic for riding a jackass?

Believe me, after screening and cataloguing and editing the 700 odd video files that comprise the expedition footage; after interviewing the two of them, recording voice-over and digging through the tea leaves of this story, I can tell you that this was no small journey for either Jamie or Leah. It was absolutely transformational.

I hope this little film captures some of that magic. Just like I hope the rest of us make room for explorers like them. Because we need the class clowns. If for no other reason than to keep the rest of us honest. To keep us from confusing our “achievements” with the real adventure – all those unpredictable and wondrous surprises on the road to who we become.