Interview with Darren Clarkson-King
The Scout Association is excited to welcome Darren Clarkson-King – kayaker, writer, and inspirational speaker - on board as our new Scout Adventurer.
Best known for kayaking down Everest, Darren was first introduced to paddling as a Cub Scout, where he gained much of the skills and the confidence he would later come to rely on, both in and out of the water. ‘Scouting is not just about being in the outdoors,’ he says. ‘it opens doors for people in all kinds of ways.' We couldn't agree more.
We called Darren to chat about brave life decisions, dream river expeditions and the unbridled joy of tucking into a campfire cake.
How did you get into the world of outdoor adventure, Darren?
I’ve been camping with Scouts since I was a few months old! My dad ran a Cub Scout Group, so connecting with nature was always encouraged; it was just a normal part of growing up.
What skills did you gain through Scouting? Do you still use any of them today?
Scouting undoubtedly fuelled my sense of adventure, and it gave me loads of valuable, transferrable skills. It not only taught me how to camp and cook, it gave me the building blocks to become a confident leader. I'd say it actually fashioned a lot of my career and life choices.
I didn't always appreciate it, though. I dropped out of Scouts in my teens because kayaking was what I wanted to pour my energy into, but when I look back now I see the two are intrinsically linked. I lost my Dad a few years ago and in the wake of that loss I realised how much Scouting had given us both. Scouting introduced me to kayaking. I wouldn’t be kayaking without Scouting. It introduced me to the sport, and things developed from there.
I actually read the first two lines of the Scout promise at my Dad’s funeral, and you know what? The whole congregation of 150 people; all of them stood up and finished it for me. They weren’t all Scouts, but they all knew the words. That was really something.
That's lovely, Darren. And it’s amazing you’ve been involved in Scouting for so long. One of your first major expeditions was a kayak trip down Everest, is that right?
Kayaking down Everest is probably what I’m best known for, but I’ve done a lot of other stuff. Everest captures the imagination; people latch onto it.
Is there a lesser-known expedition you’re particularly proud of, then?
I’m proud of an expedition I went on in Northern India, in Ladakh, near the Tibetan plateau. It’s a beautiful place, rich in spiritual significance, and the people are extraordinary. But geologically, it’s a very harsh part of the world. The river Tsarap Chu is there. It’s 240km long. It’s hard to navigate. It’s in a gorge. It normally takes people five to seven days to complete because of its length, but my friend George Younger and I did it in 20 hours and 50 minutes.
When you go into new situations, is there anything you do to prepare?
I don’t plan in a traditional sense, but I don’t act in haste. I’ll think about a project and its potential outcomes for weeks, months, or years. It’s like rumination.
A young Darren on an early expedition to Pakistan. Image: Pure Land Expeditions
I guess that is a form of planning. You’re just visualising it in your mind, rather than on paper. What do you love about kayaking? What makes it so special to you?
In the kayak, I’m alone with my mind and my abilities. Nobody else can dictate.
Kayakers are also a global family. No matter where you go in the world, you’ll always find people whom you can spend a day on the river with. Kayakers trust each other implicitly. They look out for each other. You could have just met someone, and it’s as if you’ve known each other for years. It’s like Scouting in that sense. I work with people from all over the world, but I don’t speak anything but a poor Yorkshire dialect myself! Kayaking helps break down barriers.
Road trip. Image: Pure Land Expeditions
Would you recommend Scouting as a good starting point for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the outdoors much?
Absolutely. I think Scouting is brilliant, especially if you’re growing up in a city, or if you’re from a family who aren’t particularly outdoorsy. It opens doors.
Let’s talk about your decision to leave your desk job, and start up your own company based around adventure. What gave you courage to do that?
When I went to Nepal in 2000, I thought, ‘I’ll be there for three months, then I’ll come back to Britain and get a proper job’. Of course, it didn’t work that way. I got hooked.
I eventually found a good compromise. I worked in social care, introducing the benefits of the outdoors to young people with challenging behaviours. These were people in crisis, from all sorts of backgrounds. We’d go camping and kayaking, climbing and water-skiing. I did that for a long time, and worked as a freelance guide as well. But I wasn’t always happy with the quality of service I could offer through external companies. One day, my wife and I set up our own company, and we haven’t looked back.
Darren with his wife and business partner Andrea. Image: Pure Land Expeditions
Any advice for young people who feel intimidated by outdoor adventure?
There’s no point jumping in with both feet before you’re ready. The whole point of any adventure is to have fun and experience new things and meet people. It’s not supposed to be punishment, is it? Go slowly, and remember you can change your mind.
Is kayaking something you grew to love, or did you know right away?
At one point I couldn’t paddle in a straight line. I was so scared of tipping over. I was scared of everything about it. I always loved sleeping outdoors and cooking on the fire, though. You know, I just led a trip to Chile, and ninety five per cent of the adults on the boat had never tasted dough twists! It’s the little things you miss out on if you’re not a Scout!
That’s a skill I never thought I’d need. The ability to whip up dough twists! I made them on the river, and my customers loved it. I cook a lot on open fires. I do a great Victoria sponge.
I love that. You can have afternoon tea on the river! What’s the most beautiful sight you’ve ever woken up to?
It’s beautiful to watch the sun rise, no matter where you are in the world. More people should wake up early once in a while.
Sunset kayaking. Image: Ian Jones
What do you always carry in your adventure kit, no matter where you’re going?
I always carry a neck scarf, a toothbrush, a knife and a lighter. I can deal without everything else. My wife teases me because I’ll go away for three months on three t-shirts.
Imagine if you could kayak anywhere in the world, during any time period. Where would you go, and who would go with?
I’d go back to the seventies to travel with an iconic white water paddler called Walt Blackadar. We’d go across Alaska together, and he’d tell me his secrets. I’ve paddled the same waters he did. Even now those routes don’t get paddled very often, for good reason. I’d love to know how he did it in the boats he had, how sight was even possible.
If you were in charge of camp dinner, what would you prepare?
Let’s start with nachos then we’ll have a veggie curry with green chillies on the side. For dessert, we could have ice cream, couldn’t we? That’d be pretty hard to do on camp, though…
Birthday cake for lunch, Pakistan. Image: Pure Land Expeditions
We could have one your campfire Victoria sponge!
A Victoria sponge and a pot of tea. No messing around. I want a proper teapot on the table.
Which luxury item would you take on a desert island?
I stopped drinking coffee five years ago but if I’m stranded on a desert island, I’m going to start drinking it again. A stack of quality coffee and an espresso machine will do nicely.
Morning tea on the beach, Nepal. Image: Pure Land Expeditions
Take a look at Darren's video on the impact that Scouting has had on his life.
Further reading: For more information on Darren's adventures, check out his books and talks available via Pure Land Expeditions.