Jon Muir to receive Australian Geographic Society’s Lifetime of Adventure Award

Driest continent: Jon Muir during his traverse of Australia in 2001.
Driest continent: Jon Muir during his traverse of Australia in 2001.

Wollongong born and raised, Jon Muir is receiving a lifetime achievement award for his epic career as one of the world's great adventurers.

Home is where the heart is, they say, but if that was true Jon Muir would still be out on a lonesome track.

From the Wollongong suburb of Figtree where he grew up, to Western Victoria where he lives now, via Mt Everest, the North Pole, Lake Eyre – he’s left his heart all over the place.

Today Muir, 56, is being honoured as one of Australia’s finest explorers: he’s receiving the Australian Geographic Society’s Lifetime of Adventure Award.

Muir’s epic career has been driven not by a restless soul but by a thirst for new experiences and the desire to “get out there”.

His thirst for adventure was first tested by learning to sail on Lake Illawarra at age 10. Four years later he saw a documentary on climbing Mt Everest “the hard way” – and decided then and there to become a mountain climber.

He was part of the first Sherpaless ascent of Everest, but as far as mountains go he reckons he has climbed several tougher.

“Everest is a big low angled lump of a mountain –  not steep,” Muir said. “Even its steepest face – I wouldn’t say it’s easy but compared to some mountain walls it’s not too much of a challenge. There’s an awful lot of mountains on the planet.”

Everest is a big low-angled lump. I wouldn’t say it’s easy but compared to some mountain walls ...

Jon Muir

That’s not a boast – just insight. If there are types of explorers, Muir is the philosopher. Expeditions are head trips as well. 

He “moved on” from climbing in the 1990s to other pursuits. In 2001 he became the first person to walk across Australia unassisted, from Port Augusta to Burketown, without resupply or support – 2500km over 128 days. He has traversed 6000km around the world in a sea kayak; he’s trekked solo to the North Pole. 

Two years ago Muir joked to the Illawarra Mercury that his to-do list was “10,000 lives long”, but measuring by what most people pack into their time, Muir has probably done a few hundred already.

But life isn’t a list, any more than mountain climbing is about the summit. Sure, there’s Everest and the others. But the point of a summit, he says, is just to give you a reason to set out.

Muir's boat is caught in a Pacific storm that reached Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale while sailing to Fiji in 2015.

Muir's boat is caught in a Pacific storm that reached Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale while sailing to Fiji in 2015.

Now we’re getting closer to why Muir propels himself headlong into so many epic expeditions – it’s for the living. A goal gives shape to a journey, gets him out among the elements, in nature, where we belong, Muir says. Off the couch, out of the suburbs.

“These journeys I make – what’s the important thing about them? The mountain is really clear cut. The objective is to get to the top of the mountain, But is that what it’s really all about? The top of the mountain is just a step on the way, it’s just one rock, what value does that hold? How much more important is that rock than all the massive pyramid of rocks that form the mountain?

“It’s actually not about getting to the top. It’s not about completing the objective. That’s what gets you on the journey … gets you on the move. It’s every step on the way that has value – not just the last one. Say for instance in my traverse of the continent – it’s not all just waiting for you in a package at the end. It’s experience along the way.”

These days Muir is happy at home: with his wife Suzan on their land in Victoria’s stunning Grampians, where they live “off-grid”, growing vegetables, meat and fruit, generating their own power. Planning the next trip.

Have many expeditions defeated him?

“I wouldn’t say defeated – I’m still here! But more of my adventures have not reached their objective than have. And there’s lots of reasons for that – I tend to take on very challenging objectives, for one, and for two, I value my life a tremendous amount. I’m still here with all my fingers and toes and unfortunately a lot of my old climbing companions are not. I’m always prepared to call it a day.

“To complete these challenging objectives, sometimes you do have to go for it. But you do have to be really in tune with yourself. And if it’s all about getting to the top or achieving your objective, regardless of the cost … sometimes the risks aren’t worth it.”

Perhaps, for brave souls like Muir, the greater risk would be to go nowhere.