This article originally appeared in print in Sunseeker issue 59.
The world is full of possibilities and adventures to be had. Here, we catch up with adventurer, travel pioneer and eponymous travel business owner, Henry Cookson.
Experiential adventure takes various iterations and forms. Trekking in the Amazon, hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro, braving the elements in the taciturn and desolate Arctic, swimming with white pointers; the horizon and desire for arduous and rewarding travel has expanded exponentially.
Cue, Cookson Adventures: ‘Explore with elegance’ is its tagline, and subsequently it appeases our hunger for modern audacious travel…but they also provide a hint of comfort and luxury.
I met the founder, Henry Cookson, in an opulent Mayfair café, he’s home for a month. Rugged, slightly weather-beaten yet poised, “it’s the first time I have been in London for consistently more than two weeks,” he tells me.
It’s not incongruous to assume that Henry Cookson lives his life ‘on the road’. In the past four months he’s covered some impressive ground: Colombia, The Bahamas, the Antarctic (twice), India, Florida. As his eponymous company suggests, he’s certainly the ‘face of the brand’, the human personification of the Cookson adventure tagline.
Intrinsically, we all have an insatiable desire to travel to far flung and remote locations. Call it our evolutionary impulse, but we do innately wish to explore the unattained. Ronald Amundsen, Neil Armstrong, Christopher Columbus and Amelia Earhart, attest to this assertion.
Cookson Adventure has organically evolved from a passion point to a successful business, with the desire for exploration being the backbone.
“I grew up in the countryside,” says Henry. “I was the eldest of four boys, so it would be a lot of rough and tumble and building camps. I got carted off to a boarding school, aged eight; and it was basically a big adventure playground. We were building camps; treehouses and we became sort of inventive. We’d find old bits of corrugated iron in the bushes and crowbars, use vines and create these very complicated structures. We’d create a narrative and a story.”
It’s a narrative not dissimilar to many, but the differentiation is that Henry Cookson has (to the envy of many) managed to evolve his passion into a viable and successful career.
It began in Africa, the rawest evocation of existence, and on a safari; perhaps the most widely acknowledged signifier of Sub-Saharan Africa.
“In my teens I spent a bit of time in East Africa. You start going to Africa and that’s when things start getting raw. As a fifteen-sixteen year old, being in the middle of nowhere and on big cattle ranches and wildlife reserves, it was the nail in the coffin in terms of sealing me in there.
“When I left school, I went back to Africa and ended up working on a riding safari for six months. The perception of African safaris was a Land Rover or walking, but I had to learn to ride a horse.”
It whetted the appetite for greater exploration and adventure, and certainly discoloured the idea of embarking on a conventional city career. However, conformism called, and Cookson ended up at Goldman Sachs doing his “duty for a few years” before eventually quitting and returning to Africa.
But, he never made it there. Rather, after a “conversation and a couple of drinks too many” with a friend, the idea to tackle the somewhat impenetrable North Pole proved too desirable to ignore. Henry and a couple of mates embarked on the 2005 Polar Challenge race, a 360-mile ski contest across the frozen Arctic. Unequivocally and shockingly, Henry and his team mates ended up winning.
“The North Pole really wasn’t me. I mean, I was somewhat overweight, I liked to party, I was bankrupt. I didn’t do Gortex, I didn’t camp. Suddenly, you open your eyes to this world of training, rations and stupidly cold temperatures. It was exciting, doing something different, once in a lifetime and then go back to normality.”
For many, the Arctic is seen through rose-tinted spectacles: the endless fjords, glaciers and all-encompassing haze of white. The danger (frostbite, polar bears, sub-zero temperatures) only compels our imagination. The reality, however, is far from romantic.
“The pain, the exhaustion, sleep deprivation and the food was revolting! Everything about it was just wrong,” Henry says defiantly (recalling his preparation for the Arctic in 2005).
“The race was eleven days, so we were doing some serious mileage, more than a marathon in a day. It was also minus twenty to thirty degree temperatures, and you’re dragging a seventy kilo sled behind you. And then at the end of each day you’ve got to put up your tent, melt the snow for drinking water, stich up your clothes, make a satellite call to give your position, and all of this time you have to navigate and keep yourself from losing your finger. I mean, at the end of the day it’s mentally exhausting.”
Despite this evident physical and emotional strain, the Arctic evidently enticed, captivated and intrigued Henry Cookson. He has been back numerous times, even once attempting and succeeding to kite ski to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility, and thus attaining a Guinness World Record.
But, why? Why endure the risk? There are various watered-down varieties of adventurous travel, yet Cookson doesn’t seem to stomach them.
“Nobody else had ever tried to go there before. There’s a serious lack of originality out there. Everyone wants to go and climb Everest. So, I suppose the mind-set was, ‘Well, we’re doing something different, so let’s make it really different. This is our time, our money, our everything, so let’s do something that really makes a difference to us.’
It’s this ethos that tangibly interlinks and intertwines all of Cookson’s adventures, both personally and professionally. Cookson Adventures is a bespoke luxury adventure travel company, it tailors the adventure to the client. Whether it’s exploring the remote Turkana by helicopter, swimming with sharks in Mozambique, or uncovering the Titanic wreck in a miniature submarine (a recent foray), Cookson Adventures prodigiously organises plans and materialises your ideal escapade.