Walking the Gobi DesertWalking the Gobi Desert

Story: Laura Charabot
Photos: Mateusz Waligóra

August 30, 2019

In July 2018, National Geographic explorer Mateusz Waligóra became the first man to cross the Gobi Desert alone. Dragging a cart laden with 200kg of supplies for 58 days across diverse terrain in incredibly challenging conditions saw him join the ranks of the world’s most accomplished explorers. We caught up with him as he prepared for his next expedition, across the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, to find out what it takes to challenge yourself to the extreme.

Tell us about the trip.
It was important for me to do it as a personal challenge. But also as a result I became the first man in the world to do a solo crossing of the Mongolian part of the Gobi desert. In 58 days, I crossed 1,785km of desert, carrying all my food, water and equipment on a specially prepared trolley.

The journey tested you technically, physically and mentally to the extreme. Did you think about giving up?
This trip led me to the absolute limits of my body. During it I lost 24kg in weight, and had many injuries, some of which I will struggle with for years. I reached the goal mainly thanks to willpower. At 500km before the end of the march I wrote these words in my notebook: ‘There is so much haughtiness in this pointless, instrumental exploitation of my body, that I feel sick at the very thought of myself. I feel the strong need to stop walking, and yet there is one more, even stronger feeling in me: “hold to the very end.”’

Talk us through isolation and what it does to the human spirit.
Solitude is a danger and a blessing at the same time. It bothered me at the beginning of my expedition but it gradually became my ally. Embracing the desert on my own was the only choice for me. The desert is like a mirror that you can see yourself in. It has no filters, no editing options. It’s just me. I don’t play any role here as there is no audience to play for. Through those several dozen days I was real to the bone.

Have you learned lessons from your trip that you can pass on? About yourself and about life in general?
All the knowledge and experience that I gained during this trip is hard to limit to a few sentences, so I’m writing a book about this and previous expeditions to share that. But in short, I realized (once again) that people can do things they do not even suspect. They have willpower and strength, they just need the courage to discover this in themselves.

Did you receive unexpected help or support?
By assumption, this expedition was carried out without external support. And although there is no single coherent definition of such a style, for me it meant using only own food, no previously prepared discharges of water and food, and no assistance. I met many nomads on the Gobi, and consistently refused any help from them. However, their presence in difficult times acted on me with a comforting effect.

Was there a particular defining moment in the trip that stood out?
For sure I will always remember the moment when I first spotted Sainshand town – my ultimate destination – on the horizon. It was touching. However, the truth is that the whole trip was an exceptional moment.

What made you want to spend your life as an adventurer?
I always liked to be in the open air. As a child, I spent hours at a nearby lake, walking on the frozen ice in winter and imagining I was on my way to the North Pole. Only the scale of these adventures has changed – now I walk on frozen rivers in the Himalayas or cross the deserts of Australia. And I cannot imagine doing a 9am to 5pm workday.

Has this come with sacrifices?
The more effort something needs, the more satisfaction it gives. For 12 of my 32 years I have subordinated almost all the decisions in my life to becoming a professional adventurer. It has worked, and although it is not always easy, what I do makes me happy.

What is your relationship with nature? How does it fuel your purpose?
Nature is the biggest driving force of all my trips. The goals of the next expeditions most often define places that are not inhabited by people – deserts, high mountains or the Arctic are places where I feel the best, because I meet unspoiled nature in them.

"People can do things they do not even suspect. They have willpower and strength, they just need the courage to discover this in themselves."

‘The first tree in 1,600km of walking – I had to hug it.’

‘The first tree in 1,600km of walking – I had to hug it.’

Mateusz faced weather that was extreme, and extremely changeable.

Mateusz faced weather that was extreme, and extremely changeable.

Spotting camels – ‘Sometimes I could smell them before I could see them’.

Spotting camels – ‘Sometimes I could smell them before I could see them’.

Dealing with equipment failure en-route was all part of the adventure.

Dealing with equipment failure en-route was all part of the adventure.

‘When the wind wasn’t blowing at night in the desert, the silence seemed absolute.’

‘When the wind wasn’t blowing at night in the desert, the silence seemed absolute.’