Tuesday, April 01, 2014

LIVE from…The Great Wall of China!

THE GREAT WALL—He is one of the few people in history crazy enough to do it. He's also the youngest westerner, the first New Zealander, and very likely the only trained lawyer. In 2000, Nathan Hoturoa Gray set out to walk the entire length of the Great Wall of China. He was joined by a Buddhist monk, an Argentinean photojournalist, a Mormon golfer, an Italian recording artist—and for a time, a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. In order to achieve this incredible dream, he had to skirt police surveillance, brave snakes, and even face starvation. Once, he had to sleep in a plastic bag to protect himself from a blizzard. Oh and, he had to walk four thousand kilometers.

Nathan Hoturoa Gray is a 39-year-old adventure journalist. He's a half-Maori, half-English New
Nathan Gray (Courtesy: Nathan Gray)
Zealander living in Wellington. Nathan is described as having "youthful energy," and that he does. He talks quickly and excitedly about the adventures he's been on. And those have been many. Nathan has traveled to more than seventy countries, thirty-six American states, and he's hitchhiked from Norway to the Middle East, with a stint in between in western Europe and at the pyramids.

"You do it with the power of your thumb!" Nathan says about hitchhiking, or about his ability to achieve unusual feats of adventure, or maybe both.

It was a 1993 trip to South Africa that would change his life.

In 1993, when Nathan was eighteen, he was chosen to study abroad in South Africa. His selection for the exchange program was significant. Ever since the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, one of the most contentious events in New Zealand history, New Zealand exchange students had not been permitted to study in South Africa. Nathan would be the first Kiwi to study in the country since 1981, and the first Maori—ever. At the time, South Africa was in tumult. Three years prior, Nelson Mandela had been freed. There were riots, demonstrations, and racism. For a "fresh-faced and naive Kiwi," as Nathan described himself, it would have been a tremendous risk, especially for someone of color, as Nathan is.

"I experienced living history and learned self-reliance," he said about his year there. Enrolled in a staunch Afrikaans school, he made sure to learn the language. And then he did something unusual: he taught his classmates the Maori haka dance, which would be a turning point for him, and for them. While it helped his classmates overcome prejudices, it helped Nathan overcome his own shame.

"I'd been ashamed of my Maori side," he admitted candidly, noting that although he is half-Maori, his physical appearance is more English. "My time in South Africa helped me to appreciate that side [of my heritage]. I experienced cultural awareness, and I was able to truly see the country for the first time."

After he completed his year there, Nathan went on to study in America. He got a law degree, and took a couple of internships in Alaska and Saipan, in the Western Pacific. His internships, one for local government and one as a summer clerk at a law firm, were supposed to help his budding law career. Instead, they drew one conclusion for him:

"I didn't want to get stuck in an office. I was twenty-four, and I knew that quite clearly."

Nathan on the Great Wall trek (Courtesy: Nathan Gray)
Nathan figured he had five years to travel before he had to get serious about life and work. He also figured he could get by on five dollars a day for the next two years. He'd saved $10,000 from his two internships, and he committed to using that money to fulfill this new dream of his to get on the road.

"For me, the next five years was all about seeing as many sunrises and sunsets as possible," Nathan said.

Nathan started in America, driving through thirty-six states, flew to Europe, and ultimately ended up in Egypt. And it was in Egypt, at the pyramids, that he encountered another profound moment, one which would spark his curiosity for the ancient. At Cheops, also known as the Great Pyramid of Giza and one of the oldest and largest pyramids, Nathan found himself completely alone. It was dark, the other tourists were gone, and he began to experience  an "out-of-this-world intensity" that had an important impact on him. As it turns out, Cheops is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and this was not lost on Nathan. He left inspired, and more curious than ever.

All the while, Nathan was writing. It was the late 1990s, email had just become mainstream, and Nathan had begun to discover an audience.

"One thing led to another," Nathan explained. Did it ever.

Nathan trekking in winter (Courtesy: Nathan Gray)
Nathan's travel emails made it into the inboxes of magazine editors, and soon he was getting published in Tu Mai magazine, P3 Update, and National Geographic. Better still, his twin brother Tanemahuta Gray, a dancer and choreographer, had been forwarding Nathan's messages to a certain Argentinean photojournalist. That photojournalist would offer Nathan the chance of a lifetime: he invited Nathan to join him to walk The Great Wall of China.

Nathan Hoturoa Gray never did end up a lawyer, and he hasn't spent a day in an office that didn't excite him. (Often, his office is on the road; he's covered stories from the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 2009 cyclone in the Philippines and many more—he's even reported on the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa by examining race relations in the country.)

After Nathan received the invitation from the Argentinean photojournalist, he packed his bags for China. Over the next two years, he walked and he wrote.
Nathan's book, "First Pass Under Heaven"

"Being first out of the womb, I am generally considered to be the elder," Nathan writes in the opening chapter of his book First Pass Under Heaven, which tells the tale of this incredible journey from the Gobi to the Bohai Sea. "Not so, it seems, from the perspective of the Maori. They believe the second is the elder because the latter twin 'kicked' the first from the womb. Life began with an eviction. I suppose it does with us all."

In his book, Nathan faces barely imaginable obstacles in his pursuit of his dream to walk the Great Wall. It's no secret that he makes it; the secret is in how he makes it. "I made a promise to myself," Nathan tells me. "And that was getting to the end of the wall."

To read about Nathan's incredible journey walking the Great Wall of China, you can buy "First Pass Under Heaven" (Penguin, 2006) on Amazon. Nathan has also recently published "The Age of Fire", an adventure travel book looking at where the human species is heading in the next fifty years. Buy it here. Nathan has clerked for the Chief Judge of the Maori Land Court/Waitangi Tribunal and worked in Communications for the CEO of the Ministry of Maori Development. He served five years on the Maori Board of Creative New Zealand as well as two years on the Board of the New Zealand Film Archive.

"LIVE from Mongolia!" is the true story of what can happen when you follow your wildest dream. It's available on Amazon (hardcover and Kindle), on Barnes & Noble, and in select int'l bookstores. Join me here for this weekly blog series featuring stories of ordinary people following extraordinary dreams! 

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