It started as a running joke between comrades, but now Louis Nethercott and Anthony Lambert stand on the brink of history. The ex-Royal Marine Commandos are attempting a world first – to become the first adventurers in history to traverse the five largest islands on the planet, unsupported, using only human power. A feat of mental and physical fortitude that few would be mad enough to undertake.
“We used to say that we both had a bergen – a bergen is your backpack in the military – packed in our sheds, and that when one of us made the call we’d just go out and do some crazy adventure,” Ant explains.
It was Louis who made the call in early 2016. Having been medically discharged from the military for the PTSD he suffered following gruelling tours of Afghanistan, the would-be adventurer sat down with his former brother in arms and talked seriously about turning their passion into a reality.
“When I left the Marines, I wasn’t having a very good time. I needed a bit of direction, and I thought to myself, ‘If you’re going to do something, just fucking do it’,” Louis says. “It was like asking a kid what you want to do when you grow up, the thing that popped into my head was to be an explorer.”
From there it was a case of unfurling maps and finding the adventure. A mission to the source of the River Ganges was kicked around for a while, before Borneo was settled on as a familiar starting point for the duo, who had both travelled to the country in the past.
In their planning, they discovered that the Asian nation was the third largest island on Earth. A quick Google search revealed the top five: Greenland, Papua New Guinea, Borneo, Madagascar, and Baffin Island. Explorers had sought to discover each in isolation, but no single person had ever traversed all five. Expedition Five was born…
With the support of Help For Heroes, the pair were able to set off on a one-of-a-kind adventure. In their own words, Louis and Ant talk us through their experience to date:
Borneo: Bruised Egos (November - December 2016)
Louis and Ant embarked on their first island traverse in November 2016. They travelled from East Kalimantan’s provincial capital Samarinda, through an unexplored corridor within the heart of Borneo’s thick jungle, and into West Kalimantan before finishing in the sprawling port of Pontianak.
In doing so, they became only the second recorded people to complete a human-powered expedition of the third largest island on Earth, beaten only by legendary South African explorer Mike Horn.
Louis: People see that we’re Royal Marines Commandos and just automatically think that we’ll be global expedition ninjas. In the early days, we really played on that. But the truth was when we were in the Marines we did very little other than Afghanistan.
We knew fuck all about the jungle. We’d never been to the Arctic. You know, we didn’t have any media background, didn’t know how to put sponsorship proposals together, risk assessments… From start to finish it was a complete cuff, and it still is!
Anthony: In terms of the severity of these expeditions, our egos took a serious fucking check quite early on. In the Marines they train you up to believe you’re the best and believe you can do everything, but without the whole infrastructure behind us, it soon became quite apparent that approaching things as we did in the Marines just wasn’t going to work.
Louis: Our route across Borneo was 1,300km from east to west – that’s about the same as from London to Rome – but a lot of that was mountainous dense jungle that’s not been explored before. When we got to the centre, we called it the ‘Death Zone’, there was nothing but mountain, jungle, mud. You just can’t get information on a place like that.
Anthony: When we planned the expedition, we could see settlements 45km apart as the crow flies. We just assumed that because they were so remote there had to be a route between the two somewhere, even though it just looked like mountains and jungle.
There was no route, and the only alternative was to go on a 500km detour, so we basically had to wangle ourselves a guide at the first settlement to help us make it through, and he fucking deserted us on the first day. At that point we had a decision to make as to whether we were going to carry on or turn back.
Louis: And then one day this storm blows through. It felt like a tsunami was going to crash through the jungle. There were these giant fig trees crashing down all around us, the floor felt like it was shaking, there was flash flooding and these big lumps of soaked wood the size of fridge freezers falling out the trees.
Borneo was a big turning point for me as I realised I wasn't happy to die. Before then, I wasn't sure
I remember sitting in my shorts just caked in mud thinking we could die here quite easily. It would take one bad decision at any time and we would be something else’s dinner.
Anthony: It got so bad that we had to change route. We realised that because it was raining a lot maybe the headwaters of the nearest river were closer to us than it shows on the map.
We figured if we could get to the water then we could make a raft, and ride it to safety. It was getting to a survival situation at this point.
Louis: It was savage, but in terms of the psychological state that I left the Royal Marines in, that was the turning point because I realised I wasn’t happy to die. Before then, I wasn’t really sure how much I valued my life anymore. Not that I wanted to die, but I just wasn’t arsed either way.
But it was that point in the jungle that I thought: “I just want to go home. I miss my house. I love my missus. I want to see my family.” It was a real lightbulb moment for me.
Anthony: We ended up making it to the river. We made a bamboo raft – neither of us knew how, so it was completely cuffed. We were going down these rapids and we just had our bergens tied up as best we could and we were holding onto them like floatation devices and then all of a sudden we got to this village.
It was quite funny. All these kids were playing in the water and we just floated in out of nowhere. They went to get the Kapala Desa, which is the village chief, and he said, “You came from Kalimantan? You walked? You crazy white boys.”
Louis: We made it out, but we still had another 600km to go, so we convinced the chief to sell us this boat. It was nothing more than a tin-roofed canoe-type thing, but we lived on that until the finish. Two hours of paddling, two hours off, every day for 24 hours until we finally got to the delta.
It was sinking by the point we got off to walk the final 100km. We were ruined, muscles spasming, feet cut to pieces, but we made it to the west coast on Christmas Eve.
Papua New Guinea: On a Knife Edge (April - May 2017)
Papua New Guinea is not only the second largest island on the planet, but also one of the most violent places on Earth. It is feral, home to sorcery and tribal communities, and remains centuries behind the western world.
In spring 2017, Louis and Ant completed a north-to-south traverse of the island coming face to face with the very real dangers of inter-tribal conflicts, Raksol gangs and croc-infested waters. But they lived to tell the tale.
Louis:Out in Borneo we left a lot of things to chance, but we knew Papua New Guinea was going to be a different kettle of fish. It’s considered one of the most dangerous places on the planet, and we were talking about just walking across it.
There’s still lots of beliefs around spirits and sorcery out there. Some tribes practice it and some don’t – and when they clash it’s mass murder. They’re hundreds of years behind us, no electricity, wearing bush clothing, still living off the jungle like tribesman. It’s a wholly different world.
Anthony: As outsiders, we knew that it was going to be key to have local knowledge when we were out there, so we arranged to pay a guide at every village. You have to be careful out there.
We’d be dropping into these settlements not sure how we were going to be received – and it’s the kind of place where it would take one thing to go wrong or offend the wrong person, and we would quite literally have been chopped up and thrown into the jungle.
Louis: The first place we stayed was in a doctor’s house. We turned up and were greeted by this guy and then we see his 17-year-old son with a machete hack wound in his neck. We asked if he was OK and his mum just went, “Boys will be boys… They fighting.” That set the tone!
The advice from our travel doctors was unless we had to go don't go... so we went anyway
Anthony: When you’re lying in your hammock after 12 hours of yomping and you’re more concerned with getting whacked by a machete than getting some rest, that’s savage on your mental state. Not to mention most of the rivers we crossed were filled with salt water crocodiles and had spots of fierce rapids. Nothing prepared us for what we encountered.
Louis: At one point during the expedition, I started to feel properly ill and within two hours, I was delusional, disorientated, crying. I’ve got mixed memories of it all, but Ant took the contents of my bergen and it was basically left to him to yomp us both to the nearest settlement with me basically being a carcass.
I was fucking out of it by the time we got there. I remember hallucinating inside this bamboo building – I was convinced I was going to be killed for being a sorcerer.
Anthony: There was a lot of very scary moments involving appeasing these tribes, trying to keep all our gear safe, and trying our best not to end up hacked to death in the jungle, really.
After we finished the expedition, we had to make our way back to the airport. We ended up getting a lift on a PNV that was filled with betel nuts – this psychoactive stimulant that is chewed by the locals. The addicts are like crack heads and go completely mad, but most just use it like a tea or coffee while they’re having a chat. It’s supposed to be banned but you can still get it everywhere.
Louis: So we’re on this PNV selling the stuff, and we find ourselves dealing with all the gangs at different car parks. We’re rolling into these settlements where there’s burning tyres everywhere, rowdy noises and blokes with machetes everywhere. We were just praying someone didn’t say there’s two white boys on the lorry because we’d have been dead.
Checking into the airport hotel in Port Moresby was the first time we felt safe in weeks. After Papua New Guinea, feeling like you can sleep without one eye open is definitely underrated.
Madagascar: Avoid like the Plague (November 2017 - December 2017)
Madagascar isn’t anything like the Dreamworks Animation film. The fourth largest island on Earth is teeming with flora and fauna on the east of the island, but in the centre there is arid red desert where very little lives. It is a poor country, where water scarcity is a constant challenge.
Add to the mix that Louis and Ant were visiting during the worst outbreak of the plague the country had seen in generations, and this was one a wholly different test entirely.
To stave off dehydration, the ex-Marines covered a marathon each day pulling all their supplies on a trailer through the sands of the Malagasy hinterlands…
Anthony: Madagascar is one of the only places on Earth where there are still regular cases of bubonic plague. Normally, that kicks off in the rainy season where they have about 200 cases and then it dies down, but in the build up to us heading out for our expedition, the rainy season hadn’t even arrived yet and they’d already had about 2,000 cases. And it had spread from the bubonic form carried in rats to the pneumonic form.
It was a full-blown endemic, the World Health Organisation were on the ground and we had to make a decision whether we were going to reschedule the trip. The advice from our travel doctors was unless we had to go don’t go… so we went anyway.
Louis: I dropped Ant a line to see what he thought, and he messaged back just saying: “It’s your call, mate. I have very little value for my own safety.” So we made the decision to go!
Anthony: We were crossing Madagascar from the north east to the south west, and on the east coast of Madagscar there’s this mountainous spine that is steep on the east side and then is like a plateau down to the west into an arid red-soiled wasteland. So you have one side that is all jungle with all this crazy biodiversity and the other is completely barren.
Louis: The arid country was a different challenge altogether. We knew there wasn’t water for hundreds of miles, so we came up with the idea of pulling the water on these trolleys that we had flown out to a Christian Aid hospital on the edge of the desert.
When I left the marines, I felt like my field of vision was broad, but I didn't have a clue
Anthony: We stayed in the hospital for a day or so, and it was quite sobering. You realise that we’re on our adventure and you have people all around you who are living in abject poverty. We set off on this expedition for a good cause, but we didn’t really think about what was going on out there on these islands. It was very humbling what we saw there.
Louis: The whole experience to date has changed me massively as a person. We’re getting to some places where the previous year’s harvest had failed. We’d be asking where the well was and it would be this stagnant puddle.
Anthony: We could purify the water, so it wasn’t a problem for us, but these people are trying to survive on their own. It’s the kind of images you see on a UNICEF advert.
Louis: It provides you with an awful lot of perspective. When I left the Marines, I felt like my field of vision was pretty broad, but really I didn’t have a fucking clue who I was. Every expedition we’ve done, I’ve chopped away to get a clearer perspective of what’s actually important and what makes me happy.
It’s so easy to get caught up on what we should do rather than trying to make choices around what makes us happy and what we want to do. That’s what I say to the guys I’m working with now: gut instinct and choice are such valuable tools.
Anthony: The rest of Madagascar was more of the same really, we spent another few days in the arid plains before we came out onto the east coast side that was covered in mangroves and rice paddies. We were crossing rivers filled with crocodiles again but we eventually made it to the coast and got out of there.
Greenland: Up a blind alley (September - October 2018)
The largest island on Earth represented not only the boys’ biggest challenge to date but also the coldest. In the arctic tundra, the duo completed a hellish coast-to-coast crossing from the remote settlement of Isortoq on the east coast to Kangerlussuaq’s fjord on the western coast.
Help For Heroes
Louis and Ant may have tackled each expedition alone, but back in the UK Help for Heroes has been a constant support to the two Marines. For Louis, the charity was also there for him during the worst of his PTSD: “Without any exaggeration, Help for Heroes has turned my life around. Without the focus, ambition and passion they gave me, I would be at a complete loss.” In tackling Expedition Five, Louis hopes to inspire veterans who have battled similar problems. “It’s about looking the dark days in the eye and saying you’ve come out the other end stronger.” helpforheroes.org.uk
In doing so, they were forced to haul their equipment up and down steep slopes on the polar ice sheet; ski across the ice cap dragging their supplies in 120kg pulks; experience temperatures as low as -25c; and mind their step among hidden crevasses destined to drag their victims to a chilly early grave.
Anthony: After Madagascar we sat down to discuss how we were going to tackle Greenland. Neither of us had ever done anything polar in the Marines – and that is some really technical stuff. Fair enough, if you fuck up in Madagascar or Borneo you’re going to be uncomfortable for a night or two, but if you mess up out in Greenland you’re fucking dead. We realised in order for us to do a self-supported self-guided expedition, one of us was going to need to know their shit when we’re out there. So I opted to go out to Norway for a couple of months to train.
I got in touch with a guy called Petter Thorsen who’s really good friends with Børge Ousland – the first guy to ski across Antarctica. He’s an absolute ninja, and Petter and him have done several expeditions together, so when we told him about what we were doing he offered to do some training with me. He loaded me up with this pulk and sent me off into the mountains between Norway and Sweden to do training exercises. A lot of it was really basic things that you wouldn’t think of as that important, but things like putting up a tent in an extreme gale – if you can’t get that tent up you’re going to fucking die, it’s as simple as that.
I spent about five weeks with him and another week doing this Norwegian military course, and then in May 2018 Louis and I both flew out there to consolidate what I’d learnt.
Louis: Basically, there have been a number of similar expeditions where people have frozen to death and the government have had to spend a fortune picking up the bodies, so they don’t let just anybody go on the ice sheet. You need a series of permits and insurances and insurance for the insurances, and a bank guarantee. It was all pretty serious.
Our first job in Greenland was to test out the rifle, just in case a polar bear attacked us
Anthony: We got a boat to our start location and it was just a beautiful place. You’re weaving in and out of icebergs, the colour of the icy melt water and you can see the glacier. They take you to this rocky outcrop and we had to just scramble up these cliffs and onto the ice. By the point the boat leaves, there is literally no one else. It’s you and the ice.
Louis: Our first job was to test out the rifle in case a polar bear attacked us, and then we got onto the ice and into this local cabin that the Inuits have there. It’s basically a little survival shelter.
Looking out onto the ice from this cabin, the easiest way I can describe it is you’re on this tiny little island and you’re about to paddle out into the ocean. Because that’s what it is, it’s an ocean of ice – and we know there is absolutely nothing until we get to the other coast in 650km.
Anthony: While we were in the cabin, we tested out the sat phone and were getting nothing back, so I yomped up the top of this mountain and eventually got a fix. I spoke to one of Petter’s friends, Lars Ebesson, in mission control and he assured me that everything would be alright once we got to the right height. But once we set off we had no comms for 72 hours.
On the third day, we finally got a fix and Lars came through on the other line telling us we were on the wrong course… and there’s a storm going to hit in four hours. So we had limited time to get up as high as we could away from the worst of the weather, and set up a really good camp to sit it out.
Louis: The further onto the ice you go, you lose the view of the mountains and it’s just white. Nothing else. So, it’s head down skiing for 12 hours a day, an hour on, ten minutes rest, times 12. Get in the tent, cup of tea, food, sleep for a few hours then up and go again. It’s just a routine you have to get into.
Anthony: Hats off to the polar explorers who do 60-70 days in a row of this, because it’s shit. By the second week we were already losing our minds. It’s not particularly hard once you get used to it, but it’s uncomfortable mentally.
Louis: The things that go through your head when you’ve got that much time to think is crazy. Because you don’t speak while you’re skiing, you’re literally on your own, especially when the weather’s bad – you’ve got your mask on, goggles on and your hood.
I had to put a lot of my energy into not going down negative tangents. About mistakes I’ve made in my life, things that happened in Afghan, or decisions about why I’m here or should I be here. If I ever felt like things were going downhill, I just looked down at my feet and concentrated on taking one more step.
I’m snowblind in one eye, skiing through a crevasse field in the dark. What a fucking idiot!
Anthony: When you start experiencing true white-outs, where the cloud cover blends in with the snow cover, it really fucks with your mind.
Your brain can’t comprehend that level of white, so it starts filling in the blanks and causes these mini hallucinations. I’d be skiing behind Louis and I could just sense that buildings were all around me, even though there was obviously nothing there. I just had this feeling I was in an alleyway.
Louis: At one point, I felt like I was following Ant along a mountain ridge line and if I went left or right I’d fall – but it was just flat, my mind was playing tricks on me. It was weird.
Anthony: The one area where the polar dudes may have advised us wrongly is they’re quite lean racing snakes, whereas Louis and I are stocky Royal Marines. They told us how much weight in food to take for each day of the expedition and by the back end of the expedition we were struggling with hunger just as we were beginning to up the mileage. And we still had the western crevasse field to deal with.
Louis: The crevasse field is something else. Some you can easily see and others are covered by snow bridges. At one point, Ant had his skis off and was doing a bit of a reccy when both his legs went through a snow bridge. Just as the snow went past his thighs he managed to lean big and stick his arse out.
So he’s stuck in the snow almost up to his hips looking at me like “Fucking hell mate!” He clambered his way out and we stared down into this pit of blue abyss.
Anthony: There were these points on our GPS that were marked as ice holes and you’d come across them and they were these little tiny holes and you could just hear rushing water.
We were poking at one with our ice picks and this hole slowly opened up to the point we could see this underground ice waterfall. The whole stretch of land is littered with these crazy crevasses, ice waterfalls and rivers.
Louis: I was in charge of navigation for the first day in the crevasse field, and basically I had my sunglasses on and off so I could see what I was doing. That evening it felt like I had some sand in the back of my left eye. I was spraying it with saline, but by the end of that day I couldn’t have a head torch on because the light was too strong. It felt like someone was poking a needle in the back of my eyeball, it was fucking horrendous.
I remember thinking later: “I’m snowblind in one eye, skiing through a crevasse field in the dark. What a fucking idiot!”
You don't get any points for dying on the last island so with this one we need to get it right
Anthony: The western crevasse field is called the ice fall because it just falls away. You have these huge blocks of ice the size of houses all around you, and you either have to navigate around them or climb over them.
You’re trying to head on a bearing so you’re trying to head as straight as you can to keep to the most direct route, so sometimes you climbing up these huge blocks of ice and just tumble down the other side.
We didn’t anticipate the ground getting quite as technical as it did. Lars had told us that the ground “gets a bit bumpy” and that’s it. They’re fuckers those Norwegians!
Louis: We finished the expedition that night looking at just the most awesome Northern Lights I’ve ever seen. I think that’s probably the biggest feeling of achievement I’ve ever had.
Anthony: We got back to the hostel in Kangerlussuaq and Colin O’Brady was there – the seven summits world record holder and the guy who solo skied across Antarctica last year. He had to end his crossing early because he had prior engagements, but that still doesn’t change the fact that we beat him across the ice.
We kind of took it in our stride at the time, but the full crossing of the Greenland icecap is one of the most technical things you can do in a polar environment. Five hundred people summited Everest last year, but only twelve people started the full crossing last year and a handful finished. We did it in the fastest time.
Baffin Island: The Fierce Fifth (date: TBC)
Four expeditions down, one to go: Baffin Island is not only the last hurdle between the Expedition Five duo and their unique world record, but it’s also the toughest.
Louis and Ant will travel across the frozen Pangirtung fjord, ski the planet’s largest island lake before finishing their epic journey at the small Inuit artist community of Cape Dorset. On the way, they’re likely to encounter hurricane-force winds, Arctic storms, and temperatures that can reach as low as -50c.
As home to one of the largest concentrations of polar bears on Earth, there’s an added furry complication to this very technical expedition.
Anthony: Baffin Island is the smallest of the five, but it’s probably going to be the hardest. We’re talking a similar climate to Greenland, but the geography is a whole lot different.
There’s a lot of mountains, there’s a lot of polar bears and wolves on the ground that we’re going to have to be mindful of. We’ve been leaving it until last for a reason, because we knew we’d have to cut our teeth on Greenland, which as technical as it was is nothing compared to what we’re going to face on Baffin.
At the moment, we’re looking at routes, gathering as much information as possible before getting out there, and ideally looking to find some new sponsors to get on board for the final chapter of our mental journey.
Louis: You don’t get any points for dying on the last island so with this one we need to get it right. It’s not like Borneo where we just turned up and did our best. We’ve come a long way from that first trip, we’ve changed so much as people. Here’s hoping we can finish off Expedition Five in style.
See more at expeditionfive.co.uk