Australian Geographic Society Gala Awards 2022: Lifetime of Adventure, Dr Geoff Wilson
After finishing school, Geoff embarked on his first adventure, cycling from London to Nairobi in 1988 when he was 18 years old. When he returned to Queensland, Geoff trained as a veterinary surgeon and went on to build multiple vet hospitals across Australia.
But it’s his desert crossings – in hot and cold climates – for which Geoff is most famous. He has traversed Antarctica, the Sahara Desert, Greenland and even parts of the Australian outback on his kiteboard, collecting six world records on the way. These include the only wind-assisted crossing of the Sahara Desert (2009), the fastest solo, unsupported crossing of Antarctica (2013–14), the fastest unsupported south to north crossing of Greenland (2017), and the first crossing of the Torres Strait by kiteboard (2012).
Geoff’s fascination with human endurance fuels his adventurous streak.
“Resilience is not innate, it’s a learned behaviour,” he says. “You can discipline yourself to be more resilient over time.”
Geoff says that on every one of these journeys he reaches a point where things begin to look impossible. At that point he must then decide to either keep pushing or turn around and accept defeat.
“There’s always something you don’t expect,” he says. “That’s the whole nature of adventure; it’s a series of mishaps that you’d never predicted.”
In 2019–20, Geoff embarked on the longest solo, unsupported polar journey in human history. Departing from Thor’s Hammer on 9 November, near Russia’s Novolazarevskaya Station in Antarctica, he kite-skied 5600km to the Lenin bust at the Pole of Inaccessibility and back again. He claimed another world record en route by becoming the first unsupported person to summit Dome Argus, the highest point on the Antarctic Plateau with a surface elevation of 4093m.
In the hostile extremes of Antarctica, Geoff suffered from oxygen deprivation, hypothermia and hallucinations. But these were only part of the ordeal. The most heart-wrenching moment of the expedition occurred when Geoff strayed into a crevasse field, just two days before the end of his journey.
“I had to cross 42 crevasses solo,” says Geoff. “Any one of those bridges could’ve given up and I would’ve fallen to my death. It was a two-and-a-half-hour period of extreme anxiety and stress, trying not to make a mistake.”
A lifetime of adventuring means Geoff has had his fair share of near-death encounters, from malevolent Arctic storms to charging grizzly bears in Alaska. One of his most harrowing experiences occurred in his 2013–14 Antarctic expedition. Just three days into the journey, he became trapped in a storm. The storm raged for four continuous days, with winds peaking at 200km/h and a windchill of –47°C. The storm might have been a low point of Geoff’s adventuring career, but there have also been incredible highs.
To raise awareness for the McGrath Foundation breast cancer charity, Geoff’s 2013–14 Antarctic expedition was completed on a “boob sled”, photographs of which made headlines around the world.
But not everything Geoff does is for the limelight. In August this year Geoff spent 12 days guiding his kite-buggy 570km across the Simpson Desert. It was his third attempt in 11 years. For Geoff, it was a personal vendetta against the desert, and he completed the crossing with little media scrutiny. With a variable and fickle wind, lack of water resupply and large dunes to navigate by kite, Geoff describes it as one of the most difficult terrains he’s ever crossed.
Geoff does not plan to retire from his adventuring any time soon. His next endeavour will take him to the Arctic, on a net zero carbon emission vessel that is wind- and solar-powered, to raise awareness of climate change and its current impact on Earth’s most-fragile environments.