The Unlikely Art of Backyard Adventuring

After a rogue wave nearly killed him off the coast of South Africa, Beau Miles began seeking a different sort of adventure: the kind he could find outside his front door.

Text—Mark Mann
Photos—Zemmy Lee

Beau Miles sings the body exhausted. Aching, chafing, stinking, swelling, limping, bruising — these are the reliable landmarks of an adventure-filled life, and the popular Australian YouTuber knows them all intimately. At 41, he’s spent the better part of the last 20 years hurling himself across landscapes and bodies of water, cheerfully chronicling his gruelling pursuits for an audience of millions.

But it’s not his toughness that draws so many people to Miles’ videos. After all, ultra-athletes aren’t such an uncommon breed anymore. Miles has something better and more interesting than sheer willpower: namely, a very good attitude. The man is cheerful as hell, and seemingly no amount of discomfort can dislodge his positive outlook. He once described a toothache as an opportunity to discover a universe of pain inside his mouth.

Miles started out on a classic adventurer’s path, embarking on punishingly long sojourns in his twenties: long mountain hikes in the Himalayas, protracted paddles along the Australian coast, then 2,000 km by kayak around the southern tip of Africa in 2007, followed by a 650 km run — more than a marathon every day for two straight weeks — through the Australian alps in 2011. The following year he began a Ph.D. to investigate “the essences of adventure,” in which he documented a 400 km kayak journey with two friends from mainland Australia to Tasmania across the notorious Bass Strait.

Miles fulfills the adventurer archetype by every normal metric except one: he no longer likes to travel far from home.

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Miles’ new book, The Backyard Adventurer (May 2021), is an ode “to the life-affirming wonders of calloused hands and sore feet,” and to the fact that these joys can be obtained right outside your front door. He writes that “Backyard adventuring is about concocting meaningful events and experiments that challenge me, that redefine my childhood sense of the hero’s journey, that force me to look intimately in everyday places, and question how I live among others.”

For Miles, backyard adventuring can take many forms: walking his entire 90 km commute to work, kayaking that same commute in debris-clogged roadside streams and canals, sleeping high up in a giant gum tree in his backyard, or subsisting exclusively on tinned beans for 40 straight days.

There was no one moment that convinced Miles to seek adventure close to home, but nearly dying in his kayak during the Africa trip proved transformative. “Staring death in the face is certainly one where you think, ’This is not worth it. I do not want to die. I’ve got way too much life to live,’” Miles told me over Zoom, his face covered with a sheen of sweat, having just returned from a run.

The act of surviving
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For his first truly epic trip, Miles had intended to kayak around the southern tip of Africa from Mozambique to Namibia, a journey of about 4,000 km that was ultimately cut short in Cape Town, about half the intended distance. “We’ve lost what it means to get places under our own steam, calling on our own bodies to move us forward,” he says in the film he made about the experience, using a camera mounted to his kayak (inside a custom-fitted piece of sewer pipe) and one in his lap.

He wanted to feel his own powers, not knowing what’s across the horizon every day. There’s a kind of beauty that’s offered only to the very daring, and Miles yearned to find it.

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But long-distance sea kayaking can be a brutal and sometimes deadly pastime. Ocean swells often make paddling impossible, and he spent many long days huddled in his tent on the beach, waiting for the waves to die down. During one of those early lulls, he received news that another Australian sea kayaker named Andrew McAuley had died while trying to paddle 1,600 km across the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand, likely because of a rogue wave.

McAuley’s death was still fresh on Miles’ mind on day 62 of the trip when the weather suddenly took a sharp turn for the worse. Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted an enormous rogue wave bearing down on him, its power “as godly as I can fathom,” he writes. “Caught in the act of surviving, or dying, I am instantly, profoundly scared. The situation becomes staggeringly real.” The wave rose beneath him, lifted him high into the air, and then crested just beyond his kayak. He bobbed over the top, narrowly avoiding being taken under by its crushing force.

A massive waste of time
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In the 15 years since that rogue wave permanently altered his priorities, Miles has followed a winding road to the rural existence he now embraces, living with his wife, Helen, and young daughter, May, in their country home near where he grew up. In retrospect, the Africa adventure feels like a mistake. The trip flatlined, he tells me, because he “had no motive other than going and spending a truckload of time in a sea kayak on a coast I don’t know, on waters that I’m unfamiliar with.” Miles has less patience for that sort of thing nowadays: “It’s a massive waste of time,” he concludes.

The problem, he realized, is that all those thousands of kilometres at sea don’t necessarily add up to a great story, and being able to tell good stories was always the main point.

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From the beginning, he wanted to take his energy and appetite for life and “make it into a storytelling machine.” But his initial formula was too basic: if you do something for long enough, the story will come, he reasoned.

“I thought that my grand adventure was the way to really capture a story because in some respects, you didn’t have to tell a story at all: the length and the duration and the toil was all it needed.” Looking back, he wouldn’t do a trip like that one again — at least, not alone. “It’s a bit too self-indulgent.” But he would consider doing a long journey with his family.

Find your own path
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Miles’ shift to backyard adventuring went hand in hand with his evolution as a documentarian. “I haven’t always been a great storyteller,” he admits. “To be honest, I think I’m only just learning what to do.”

To create meaningful at-home challenges and expeditions, Miles knew he would have to be innovative. And the best way to do that, he realized, was to start cutting back. The classical form of adventure entails “high expertise, high competencies, and high-end equipment to get the job done.” Instead, he asked himself, how much can you strip away those elements and still have an adventure?

In 2016 he made his first attempt to answer that question, with a walk to work—all 90 km along the side of the road to his office at Monash University, where he was teaching outdoor education at the time. He laid out the following rules for himself: “Leaving with the clothes on my back, hat, shoes, and nothing else, I will find and make my own shelter and source all water and food, either found or purchased using money I find.” Items not included on the journey: tent, sleeping bag, water bottle, eating utensils, flashlight, first-aid kit. He gave himself 30 hours to take the 117,640 steps he calculated were required to complete the journey.

The video he made about that hike along the highway is what first captivated me about Miles. After that, I binged all his other mini-docs (which are all shot and edited by his long-time collaborator Mitch Drummond). Another favourite is A Mile an Hour: Running a Different Kind of Marathon, for which he ran a marathon in 24 consecutive increments along a loop near his house. In between each mile, he performed some task that he’d been meaning to do. Within the space of a single day, he’d planted 40 trees, made two canoe paddles, fixed a chair, mowed the lawn, patched a pair of pants, shaved his beard, hung some picture frames, chopped wood, picked up trash along the road, built an outdoor table, baked a loaf of bread, prepared soup for dinner, and, of course, run a marathon, among other things.

The sheer vigour of the Mile an Hour challenge is contagious — you’ll want to leap from your chair and fix something. The video has been watched nearly four million times and has inspired dozens of people to make their own mile-an-hour marathon videos.

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But Miles isn’t trying to inspire anybody: “I suck at it, and I don’t know how to do it,” he says of his power to intentionally influence others. He isn’t seeking imitators either. “I’m really quite selfish with how I tell stories, in that I don’t want to reach beyond myself,” he says. “I would never say, ’This is the best way to go,’ or, ’This is how you can reinvent your life or your sense of adventure.’ I just have no idea . . . People have to find their own path. I’m just doing mine, but, you know, I’m taking the camera along and trying to tell that story.”

Miles goes to incredible lengths to create adventures, but in some ways, the most important part always comes later, when he’s crafting the story. An adventure is a thing you’re always trying to live up to, not just when it’s happening but long afterward.

“We’ve got to give ourselves these opportunities to have experiences that we can then draw on for the rest of our lives,” he says.

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What makes adventure possible isn’t how far you’re willing to travel, or how athletic you are. It’s whether you’re willing to try. “My philosophical slant is that we wander around with a huge head full of assumptions,” says Miles. “And you don’t have to do much to try and break those assumptions. What is hard is actually making the decision to go and do it.”

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