Over the past few months I’ve begun writing for a magazine, Beyond Limits. The concept of the magazine is ordinary people doing extraordinary things. We cover topics of Adventure, Challenge and Inspiration and the best part of it is that I get to meet and interview some incredible and inspirational people. Last month I had the pleasure of interviewing Ricky De Agrela, who flew around the world in a microlight. So, courtesy of Beyond Limits magazine, here is that feature again in full.
In 2004, Ricky Agrela set off with his friend Alan Honeybourne on the Freedom Flight: a world-record setting expedition to fly around the world on microlights. 11 months later, after hurdles, challenges and tragedy, Ricky arrived back home in Cape Town, South Africa, having achieved a world-record for the longest microlight expedition in history: 64000km.
He calls himself, “An ordinary guy who enjoys indulging in the extraordinary and inspiring others to do the same.” Ricky is also a father and a businessman. In this interview we look at how he balances the different parts of his life with being an adventurer.
Ricky certainly wasn’t a novice to adventure when he set out on his trip: he started parachuting when he was just 16 and embarked on his first round-the-world trip in 1982. He left home with nothing more than a backpack and US$100, something which certainly, “puts a sock in the mouth of all those commentators who say they’d do it if they had the money.”
But the microlight expedition was something else. “It first came up in the 90s,” explains Ricky, “I was hang-gliding at that stage and microlighting was a natural extension of that. There was a stirring to do something big and totally different and it seemed like an awesome idea. Alan inspired the idea of making it so big that it would not only be around the world, it would encompass every continent too.”
But it was still an extremely daunting thought. “My life, and that of Alan’s,” says Ricky, “Was at a point where we could take the leap, abandon the routine life and do it. It took a huge amount of courage to stop business, bid farewell to family and friends and head off on a one, possibly two, year expedition, where everyone had placed bets on us not doing it. The majority of the courage needed during the entire journey was just to take off on day one.”
Following one’s passion is important to Ricky. By pursuing it, one can discover things that you wouldn’t otherwise have expected. The trip appealed to Ricky from its inception, “Flying, travelling, adventure, challenge; the thought of seeing the world in such detail and the freedom of flying anywhere. The world was literally our playground, it was a life opportunity.
If I hadn’t taken that opportunity, it would have certainly become a major regret and, with hindsight, I now can’t understand why more people don’t follow their passion. They seem to be unable to step out of routine life.”
At the start of the expedition, Ricky didn’t really appreciate the full extent of what they were embarking upon, or what it might mean if it succeeded. But during the 3 years of the planning of the expedition, Ricky and Alan realised that was becoming bigger than just them and needed to have a bigger purpose. There was also a pragmatic element to Ricky’s thinking on this, “We thought that, after several months, things may become routine and boring, as they sometimes can, and we needed to add a deeper reason for doing the expedition. I really enjoy children and felt that doing the journey for something related to children would work for me. Alan was keen on the idea too. When we approached the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, they were quite positive and they explained that they did not want us to collect money for them but, what they needed was publicity to maintain the public awareness of the Children’s Hospital. This would also add value, for when they approached large corporations, they would be a known charity and, hence, more able to raise funding for the children’s hospital.”
As a businessman, this made perfect sense to Ricky, who was very impressed to see how well the hospital was run, and how every cent raised went straight to the hospital and its activities.
“A tour of the hospital sold me 110%. The dedication of the doctors, the success rate and leading edge medicine that goes on in that hospital is what keeps me a dedicated supporter,” he says, explaining why he continues to back the hospital today.
Of course, embarking on an expedition entailing up to 2 years away from home, meant that sacrifices had to be made. Nearly everything, as it turned out. “After 16 years of being self-employed, I was at a stage in business where it was all pretty much together and things were going really well,” says Ricky, “If I’d continued working for a few more years, I’d have done well enough to probably not have to work for the rest of my life. How many people would have had the courage or conviction to turn their back on that? And from the family and friends point of view, it was very tough.
This is what I mean when I say that it took an enormous amount of courage to leave on that first day. That alone sets one apart from most.”
As the trip went on, hurdles and challenges needed to be overcome, but Ricky has long challenged his own fears and abilities. “I’m definitely one of those who doesn’t meet my own expectations,” he says, “Never quite good enough. Regardless of what others said, (they were just being nice) it was what I thought that mattered. It’s a characteristic I recognised at an early age and have learnt to use it in my favour. I will challenge myself and go out to achieve anything I think I’m not capable of or not good enough at.” This approach to his own perceived flaws led to Ricky spending 3 years training to overcome his ability to “swim like a brick” in order to swim the 11km across the shark-infested waters of False Bay, followed by the 7.5 km from Robben Island, South Africa. “I was slow, but surprised even myself,” he says.
Swimming across a shark-infested bay might be enough fear to overcome for one lifetime, but the Freedom Flight was, from the outset, about managing fear, from the mundane and administrative, to mortal danger.
“Fear we would not get permissions, fear we did not have enough money, fear we would have engine failure, fear of the war-torn areas we would be flying into, the regular fears relating to flying a microlight, bad weather ….. It was fear, fear and more fear. To add to it, everyone was laughing at us and said we stood no chance.
Even people experienced in flying in different parts of the world said there was no ways we would get through all the bureaucracy. Towards the end of the trip, every minute felt like I was about to bungy jump. I hardly slept or ate which made matters far worse. It almost became too much but, thankfully, luck was on my side. 11 months of being scared. Not easy.”
Sadly, Alan didn’t make it back, as he died in a fatal accident in China, reinforcing the fears which Ricky already had. After a great deal of soul-searching, he decided that he wanted to continue on and complete the expedition, with each challenge and hurdle leaving him more determined.
The support of his friends and family helped him through the preparation phase as much as the journey itself, “It took the support of my family, friends and work colleagues: without them I was going nowhere. Even my ex-wife supported me and I certainly appreciate her for that. From the work front it took a lot of untangling and simplifying. It was actually a very interesting process, how at the outset of the idea it seemed almost impossible with all the hurdles, and towards the end how everything had aligned to actually encourage us to go.
Picture telling the bank manager who you owe a fortune to that you’re going to take 2 years off to fly a microlight around the world! Well it took meeting in the middle: I paid back some and agreed to take out stupid life cover for part of what was left. (Not that they would have paid out if I had an accident!).”
Ricky’s unwinding, simplifying and time-out from his business had a surprising effect: “From a business point of view it was the best thing ever.
I have since progressed much further and better than if I had not stopped working. One gets so entangled in seemingly “important” issues that you lose all idea of what’s important. Getting off that “hamster wheel” gives one a chance to look at things from the outside, see inwards and realise what you’re wasting your efforts on and where you are progressing, in a way that is not possible unless you stop working totally for a period of time.
It switches on the lateral thinking of what things you are doing and why you do them. It also allows you to have a good laugh at what you deemed as important. I now easily recognise people who are so busy with things that appear important but who have actually totally lost sight of what they are doing. And there is nothing in their current way of living that will make them see it. I believe everybody should voluntarily take off, or be fired, for a few months every 5 years and be forced to go do what they really want to: it won’t be a problem if you plan for it; and people will be far better at their jobs afterwards.
As Alan put it, “There is no point in waiting until you retire to do the things you want to do.””
The journey had plenty of moments where Ricky thought it would end sooner than expected, from nearly running out of fuel over the Sahara Desert to Port Sudan, to food poisoning in Eritrea. But it was “mental gymnastics” that kept him going: reciting positive quotes and basically forcing himself to think positively.
The epic voyage taught Ricky as much about himself as it did about the world he travelled through. It reinforced his belief in two key values: having a strong mind; and a strong sense of perseverance to maintain priorities. More than that, it taught him the importance of seeing beyond himself to the values of those around him, but to not allow himself to sit inside his comfort zone for too long, “Tomorrow is not promised. Safety and security is an illusion. When you think you’re safe is probably when you’re not. Live life to the fullest and see everything as an adventure.
Health is wealth. Don’t try to become too rich, you will miss the point. Play more.”
Serendipity also plays a part. Taking on challenges and moving outside your comfort zone leads to new opportunities that he could never have anticipated. This included volunteering on a project using microlights to help in the fight against poaching.”They were very keen to have someone experienced vet their set-up and standards. And for me it was a great opportunity to apply my experience for a good cause. It was a great experience and an impressive way of viewing the migration of wildebeest.
To fly over the thousands of migrating animals, and thriving life and energy, was a picture that will be with me for a long time. It really is “the greatest show on earth.””
One might be surprised to learn that superstition is one of the main reasons why microlights are so effective in discouraging poaching. ”The microlight being slow and completely open allows one to see everything in detail: you can easily identity people walking around on the ground or any carcasses the poachers may have shot. But the locals also call the microlight “popabawa,” an evil spirit that looks like a bat. So they are afraid of it and its mere presence has an effect of keeping people out of the reserve.”
Although Freedom Flight was an incredible journey, Ricky has continued on his adventures, including a 24500km motorbike journey from Buenos Aires to San Francisco. He’s also been to the South Pole and has just returned from an expedition to the top of Aconcagua: a 6962m peak in the Andes, although his daughter is now, “getting upset at the rate at which I am spending her inheritance and has banished me to hard work for a while.” Which brings us to another point.
Although Ricky loves his adventures, it is still his daughter who remains the focus of his life. When asked what the most awesome or spectacular moment of his journey was, he quickly answers, “meeting up with my daughter in Australia.”
So what is next for Ricky? ”I really enjoy having a mission, when I’m out there doing something which I would like as many people as possible to enjoy and benefit from. I try, via the internet, to share the experience. Sort of the ordinary guy indulging in the extraordinary and encouraging others to do the same. I would like to encourage people to get out there and do their own expeditions and follow their dreams by showing them how expeditions are done by ordinary people, like themselves, who are simply prepared to step out of conventional life and indulge in the extraordinary. I haven’t set the next expedition yet, but know it has to be something from the guts. Doing things that others do is not really for me.”
So whilst Ricky doesn’t know what his next adventure will be, keep an eye out for him. Whatever it is will be pretty spectacular and, doubtlessly, epic.
Ricky De Agrela’s adventurous spirit developed from an early age. He started parachuting at the age of 16, underwent two years of air-force training, and embarked on his first round-the-world trip in 1982, setting off with a backpack and US$ 100. In 2004 he set off on what became the longest microlight flight in history. Since then he has motorcycled from Buenos Aires to San Francisco, been to the South Pole, stopped poaching in southern Africa and climbed the 6962m peak Anconcagua in the Andes. Today Ricky has re-established himself in business. Nonetheless, he regularly creates the time to continue his adventurous travels doing motivational presentations around the globe. His long-term objective is to travel to every country in the world to highlight the positive world in which we live.
You can learn more about Freedom Flight at http://www.safreedomflight.com/index.htm