It was surely no ordinary phone call that Škoda UK made to British adventurer Alastair Humphreys earlier this year. It’s not every day that a car manufacturer rings you to request your participation in an expedition to a remote wilderness in a little-known country in search of an infamous mythical creature. But given Humphreys’ track record of completing wild and ground-breaking adventures, he probably didn’t need much convincing either.
Alastair Humphreys clearly doesn’t like sitting still. His adventuring résumé is so vast and varied, that it is easy to become blasé when it comes to the scale of his achievements.
He cycled around the world no less, beginning a 4 year journey in 2001 which would cover a total distance of 74,000KM. Since then, walking across India, pack-rafting across Iceland, completing the Marathon des Sables, rowing unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean and walking across the largest contiguous sand desert in the world – the Arabian ‘Empty Quarter’ – has further established Humphreys as a great of British adventure and exploration. As a result, he was rightly named the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012.
Although Škoda’s expedition to the wilds of Bhutan is unlikely to rank favourably alongside Humphreys’ greatest achievements, the journey will again break new ground for the renowned explorer. The 15-member expedition team led by Humphreys will travel deep into the high Bhutanese Himalaya, travelling 500KM north from Samdrup Jongkhar in the country’s south east to the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in the Trashigang District, where the elusive Yeti is said to exist. Predictably, the team will drive Škoda Yeti Crossovers, driving up to altitudes of 3,530m.
Although the expedition is naturally focused on testing the off-road capabilities of Škoda’s Yeti, with local experts and guides travelling alongside the team there are much wider interests in the expedition for Humphreys, even beyond finding the Yeti itself.
“Whether the Yeti exists or not may always be a mystery, but what is true is the strong belief that the people of Bhutan have in the creature.”
Belief in the mythical Yeti is deeply rooted within Bhutanese culture, and the strong belief still held by many communities stems from the Yeti’s centrality to centuries of Bhutanese folklore. The Yeti is also prominent in Tibetan and Nepalese folklore and is a hybrid of man, beast and bear living in the high Himalaya. It is said to be nocturnal, to whistle and growl, and to kill with a single punch. Discovering the stories and beliefs held in the communities along the expedition route is of central importance to Humphreys’ expedition.
On the prospect of adventuring deep into the remote heart of Bhutan, Humphreys commented ‘Bhutan is a country which sounds ridiculously remote and exotic and it’s a hard place to get to as an independent traveller – that’s its main appeal’.
Bhutan remains a self-contained cultural sanctuary by charging extremely high fees for tourist visits, making it one of the least-known and inaccessible countries in the world. Humphreys’ expedition is therefore very much an adventure into the unknown and although he himself is a sceptic on the prospect of finding the Yeti, he appreciates the appeal of challenging the consensus and exploring the unknown. “I’m pretty certain nowhere else on earth can claim to have a sanctuary for an apparently mythical creature, and that is a fascinating adventure to be part of.”
The scientific consensus holds that the Yeti is legend, but numerous expeditions have nonetheless ventured into the Himalaya in search of the mythical creature. Expeditions to climb high Himalayan mountains in the 20th century led to a boom in reported sightings, including Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reporting the discovery of large footprints whilst scaling Everest.
The great mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who wrote a book My Quest for the Yeti, was also active in the mission to find the Yeti and reported a face-to-face encounter with the creature, which he attributed to being an endangered Himalayan brown bear. Some experts argue in contrast that belief in the Yeti may stem from centuries-old sightings of Gigantopithecus, an extinct species of giant ape much larger than a human.
Therefore although Humphreys is a sceptic, he is also open-minded as to what the team may discover in a little-known wilderness and country. “I like the idea of the legend as it gives the local area colour and identity, but I also like the idea there might be rare animals living in parts of the world that haven’t been destroyed”.
As such it is not so much the prospect of discovering the Yeti or testing off-road capability that is likely to excite Humphreys, but the prospect of exploring somewhere genuinely remote, wild and unknown. And that, in the 21st century, is both rare and exciting in itself.
You can follow the progress of Alastair Humphreys and Škoda UK’s expedition to Bhutan on twitter at @Al_Humphreys and @SKODAUK.