This week, Swiss survivalist and adventurer Sarah Marquis shouldered her rucksack and her 3DR drone and disappeared alone into the region of unforgiving Australian bush known as the Kimberley. With no food. For four months. It’s a trek she’s calling, “Dropped into the Wild Corner.”
Tomorrow, she’ll celebrate her 43rd birthday in the outback.
Now if you’re a rational human being, this all raises a number of questions. For example, “Why?”
Before we get there, you should know a few things about Sarah. First, she’s no delicate flower. She’s windbitten and wiry, with a tough “bare essentials” body type and a pair of bright eyes set like grappling hooks in an unassailable face. But she’s quick and eager to smile: She knows exactly what she’s doing.
And on the surface, what she does is incredibly simple: She walks. Far. Sarah was named NatGeo’s European Adventurer of the Year in 2013, and nominated for Adventurer of the Year last year. She once walked from Siberia to Australia, enduring expanses of tundra, the Gobi Desert and the sweltering tropics on foot and alone. It took her three years. But that trek, she says, will be nothing compared to what she’s about to do in the outback — during the region’s worst drought season, where crocodiles thrive in the 100-degree winter heat.
Mostly, though, it’s because on this trek she won’t have any food. Halfway through — two months in — she’ll meet her team at a pre-designated resupply point, but other than that Sarah will have to hunt, gather and scavenge for herself every morsel of the food that she’ll need to survive for four months in one of the most notoriously stingy environments on the planet.
Daunting? Sure; but like anything else, it’s all a matter of perspective.
“We don’t use all of our capabilities,” Sarah told me, shrugging. She spoke to me over Skype from her apartment in Switzerland, which caught a lot of natural light. Her small support team was in the room with her, but I couldn’t see or hear them. On her trek she’ll be all alone. “My treks are like science experiments, and my body is my laboratory. I want to see how far my body can go.”
“It’s a philosophy of movement,” she said. “Mind over matter, is the simple way to say it. It’s kind of like washing machine cycles: You go past a point of questioning, a point of pain, so painful you don’t know what the hell you’re doing there; then one morning you wake up, open your tent flap and step out and it’s magical — you live in the moment and you’re suddenly connected.” I imagine her stepping out like this one morning in the Gobi desert, that brief moment just after the night chill lifts and before the unbearable heat of the day barrels down. “The pain, the desire, everything else — that all just disappears. It’s really beautiful.”
So how exactly does the 3DR drone on her back fit into this picture? It would seem to not fit, right? Sarah seems like she’s out to strip away all the trappings of society and comfort and technology that have come between us and that perennial, natural moment that she’s seeking.
“Actually, I believe that technology can bring us back to nature,” she said. “That’s why I work with 3DR. We can use technology in a good way. I believe that we can synchronize ourselves with technology and use it to re-enter nature.”
Sarah will use her 3DR IRIS+ to document her trek from above, and will share her photos and video with us. The wide perspective that the IRIS+ offers, along with its hands-free Follow capability, mean that Sarah can film herself in an incredibly vast context without breaking stride in her adventure — she can be the director and the actor in this incredible story. And the birds-eye perspective will lend a proper sense of scale to her small place in the expansive Australian outback.
Sarah sees drones as our mimicry of birds, which to hear her describe it is not nearly as cliché or obvious as it may at first sound. Drones show us what it’s like to see our world as a bird sees it. That is, to see this intellectually as Sarah does, with drones we’re trying to use technology to recreate or approximate nature, to create a sort of portal so that we may then re-enter nature — not to defy nature, or distance ourselves from it and escape it, as all those electronics and circuits and product launches and ads and the full complement of artificial components might suggest.
“With a drone,” she said, “we can rise up to the air as a bird.”
I’ve always wondered at the paradox of a certain outdoor type, a “knight in UnderArmor,” spending untold amounts of money on high-end, cutting-edge fashionable gear and accessories, all in the name of getting away from the very vanity and temporality of things like fashion, money and the latest material trends — consumer technology included. (Indeed, the marketing here is brilliant, isn’t it? Want to get away from it all? Okay: Buy it all.)
Ascetic chic, you could call it.
And if we’re being honest, it’s easy to take the next step here and apply it to drones. Want to experience the complete, crushing beauty of the world around you? To see the essence of all as it really is, you’ll need one of the most technologically complicated consumer products ever made.
The two seem fundamentally at odds, don’t they — nature and technology.
“I believe that at the moment we have this invasion of technology from every corner of our lives,” Sarah said. “We often don’t control those technologies, and we’re getting polluted from them. But if you look at the big picture, with technology like drones coming out, we will actually get back to nature. These technologies are good technologies: They will show us nature in a different way, so nature will be accessible in a new way. Drones are a first example.”
I pointed out that, considering she’s using drones, it’s ironic that she’s also so adamant about walking everywhere — about keeping your feet on the ground.
“Well, I walk because I think we all need to remember the ground. We’ve forgotten what the earth is. We need to understand where our feet are!” she said — from her sixth-floor apartment, to me in my top-floor office, via an invisible digital link that leapt an ocean and two continents. I realized that our whole conversation was literally suspended. I didn’t know where my feet were — they were fifty feet in the air! — and hadn’t given a second thought about that in probably many months, or years, if ever, maybe.
Where are your feet now? Are they on the ground?
So much of Sarah’s philosophy of movement is predicated on gravity. We’re unavoidably resigned to gravity, to negotiating with it with every step we take. And again drones rise as a contradiction here: they fly. This is Life After Gravity, after all.
But drones — birds — aren’t about looking up. They’re not really about flying. They’re about what flying gets you, about what you can do with the power of flight. And for Sarah and her IRIS+, it’s about what you can see and what you can do when you have the power to look back down, to see that vast world under your feet for everything that it is. And perhaps to help her find some food and avoid the crocodiles.
“We can’t avoid nature,” Sarah told me. “We are nature. People are ready now to experience things, I think, not to take the world for granted but to truly experience it. They’re affected by me and my journeys back to nature, and they want to reconnect, too. That’s what I believe — I don’t have any proof of it, but technology will get people out there again, to sleep on the ground and take care of it.”
To learn more about Sarah Marquis, her IRIS+ and her current trek, “Dropped into the Wild Corner,” check out her website here, and follow her on her trek via Twitter: @sarah_marquis