Traveler: An Interview with Darren Ellis

By Patrick Cummings

Darren Ellis is in Brisbane, Australia to attend the first CrossFit Tour event and to compete in the upcoming Hardn’up Challenge. The owner of CrossFit New Zealand, he’s spending the week filling sandbags and helping coach classes at CrossFit Brisbane between trips to the beach to surf.

One humid afternoon, he and I return from lunch to find the doors of the gym closed and locked. After sitting on the sidewalk for twenty minutes, we’re finally let in and take a seat in the lobby of the gym, which doubles nicely as a fully functioning espresso bar.

On opposite sides of a four foot picnic table, Darren tells me he was born on a dairy farm in the small town of Te Awumutu, situated about two hours south of Auckland. With a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science, Darren is a contributor to numerous online and print publications. I ask him first of his days as a student, growing up on the island of nearly five million people.

Darren: In high school, I actually started out in the accelerated learning classes, the geeks class, but quickly went backwards. Just the way our system was set up, I was able to keep progressing while doing worse every year. I essentially failed high school. I didn’t get a diploma or whatever you want to call it. However, I did get the award for first place in physical education.

It was kind of expected that I would just take over the family farm, that sort of thing, which I knew was definitely not for me. Once I left school, I took the first job I could get, which was actually working in a farming supply store. So I sold fence posts and wire and horse feed and stuff like that. I did it for three years. Just total dead end job. What I did, like so many of my friends, was look forward to the weekend where we could get completely drunk. So, I did that for three solid years.

Luckily enough, a couple of my very close friends decided that we were going to go overseas, which is really common. It’s very common for New Zealanders and Australians to do what we call the OE, the overseas experience.

All six of us ended up in this flat in Scotland. We proceeded to do exactly the same thing we’d done at home, which was get menial jobs and drink ourselves under the table.

There’s a saying that I whole-heartedly believe in, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The five people I was hanging out with were doing the exact same thing as me, which was bugger all.

It was great fun. I was still only twenty, so it was good. But once my money ran out, that was…luckily that was a good thing.

I realized I needed a better job than what I was currently doing, which was waiting tables. I saw some work going on a farm in Southern England. It wasn’t paying that well, but you worked long hours and couldn’t spend any--there was nowhere else to spend, I was in the middle of nowhere.

It was basically driving tractors for twelve hours a day, cutting corn, and I saved a tidy sum of English Pounds, and so I thought, “All right, this time I’m not going to make the same mistake. I’m going to see how far I can make this money go.” So, I started looking in travel guides and brochures, things like two weeks to the Himalayas for approximately the money I had--not long enough. A month in Europe on one of those Contiki buses--not long enough. I stumbled across these African safari trips, on the back of an old converted Army truck, and they put a few bus seats in the back, and you’d get a grizzled old Australian or Kiwi, ex-army guy driving the truck.

When I saw that, and I did the math and realized that I could actually make that work--I’m there.

Patrick: So, you’re twenty years old and you’ve signed up to go to Africa. Did you have a good idea as to what you were getting yourself into?

Darren: I told people I was going to Africa. I was completely and utterly naïve.

I was drunk for the first week on that trip. We brought trays and trays of beer from the duty-free ferry across to France from London. So, we’re all consuming it. We’re all very naïve, and it directly turned into, “This is not a holiday. You’re part of the safari team.”

It was as close to an organized tour as you can get in a place like that. We were going to Zaire and Congo, Cameron, Rwanda. It was some dodgy ass places and all sorts of things. I experienced anything from pick-pocketing to kidnap to being held up at gunpoint, being stranded in rivers in this truck, digging him out for like twelve hours straight, being chased by hippopotamus. It was amazing.

Patrick: What happened when you left Africa? Did you go back to New Zealand?

Darren: I went back to a menial job in London--myself and a girlfriend who I met on the trip. We were just completely hooked, so we saved up and we planned another trip.

There’s a saying, Once you drink from an African stream, you’ll always go back. It gets in your head.

Patrick: Where did this second trip take you?

Darren: We started with the Middle East this time – Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, and the idea was then to try to go through Egypt into the Sudan and into Ethiopia, but it was right when that US Embassy got bombed. So, the borders all were shut up pretty sharply.

At the start of the trip, we met this American couple who were sailing a yacht all around that area. We bumped into them again in Egypt, and they said, “Do you want to help us crew the boat? We need help getting down to the Red Sea.”

So, we jumped on their yacht, sailed past Sudan, and landed in Eritrea, which was formerly part of Ethiopia. Out through the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, and then up around to Oman and flew from Oman into Ethiopia and continued down to Kenya to finish the trip.

Patrick: What was it about these trips that kept you wanting more? Was it the adventure, the danger, the people you met along the way?

Darren: I got addicted to having no responsibility, I’ll be honest.

When you’re on holiday for seven months, it doesn’t…we got held up at borders for two weeks. We couldn’t cross into Nigeria, things like...two weeks you had to wait. So, it was like, go back to wherever you could find a town to camp and wait. We read books and hung out. There was once in Morocco that happened. We were right beside the beach. It was fantastic. It was just a two week holiday.

But we got three days when we were in the Sahara Desert at a border, which was just a line in the sand literally, and they said, “There’s something wrong with that guy’s passport. You guys can’t come in.” We spent three days where we had to ration our water. There was twenty-five of us with twenty cans of water. We were in one of the hottest places in the world and it was like, “Okay, let’s figure out how much water we’ve got. You guys have to try to get to a capital city and back,” before we ran out of water.

That was a little bit different, but just one day rolled into the next. There was no expectations, no sense that something was not being done.

What became strangely addictive was to just live in the day, just the present day, and because of where we were, every day something amazing happened.

Patrick: Was it an addiction you thought you could feed forever?

Darren: I do remember the second trip, and moving to my third big trip, a feeling of, “I wonder if I can do this forever.”

I was meeting other people who were doing similar things. I didn’t realize it at the time, I think, but most of the people who were doing it better than me or as well as me, they had a decent career going on. They were playing the game a little bit better. The people who were like me get a little bit lost. I didn’t realize I was lost until a bit later.

Patrick: Did you ever worry about your own safety?

Darren: It’s always better when you’re there.

For instance, when I was in Oman, my mother was getting in touch with me saying, “It looks like the Gulf War is kicking off again,” but just because Oman was near some of those countries, it was still a completely different country. They were not involved in any way, shape or form. So, for my mother to be terrified that I was going to get involved in a missile strike was as unfounded as if I was in Australia.

I’d hear stories, “Watch out, what they do in their countries is they cut your hand off to get your watch.” Instead, I was being invited to people’s home and given food when these people had nothing. So, it was much, much different.

I’ve been attacked more in New Zealand by drunken no-gooders than I have walking down Main Street of Kinsasha or Nairobi. I think I realized very quickly most people are inherently good anywhere you went.

Patrick: What did you think yourself as back then? Did you ever define it?

Darren: There was a statement that was said by so many people like me in places like that, where local people would ask for money. You would get cornered, and we’d started this thing where we would say we were travelers, not tourists. We were trying to remove ourselves from people we saw as doing harm in that region, breezing through there in air conditioned coaches. “We’re sorry. We’re not like these other people,” we’d be saying to the locals, “We don’t have much money. We can’t spare it.”

One day, I sort of took a step back and looked at what I was saying and looked myself. If we were really hard done by, we wouldn’t have the money to not work for eight months and be running around in this person’s country. It was quite hypocritical. We were only poor because we put ourselves on a budget to travel. I might have said I was only allowing myself five bucks a day to live on, but it was because I was trying to not have any responsibility.

It was an incredibly arrogant thing to say these people, “I don’t have any money. I’m not wealthy.” In their eyes, it’s like, “What the hell are you talking about?” Try to explain the concept of an OE, or I’m not going to work for eight months and just hang out somewhere else.

They would just be looking at you, going, “Nice. I’ve got five kids. I’ve been working since I was seven years old.” So, I started realizing that, and that was when things started changing. It was right around twenty-five.

Patrick: So, things were changing after your second trip, but you said you made a third? Did you go to Africa again?

Darren: The third big trip I did was through Central America and Mexico. I ended up all the way back up the West Coast of America, ended up in Vancouver Island in Canada, working as a bicycle rickshaw tour guide. I was going out with a gorgeous Canadian girl and everything seemed really sweet, yet, I was basically working illegally. I knew I wanted something more.

I had an open-ended ticket to go home. The airline that had my ticket went bankrupt after 9/11. I lost my ticket home. I had to stay for a little longer, and I think that increased the desire to be home because suddenly I couldn’t get home [and] I had this ticket for a whole year.

I couldn’t get a ticket for close to three months. So, when I got the ticket home, less than a month, I enrolled in university for an exercise science degree, and spent a month living on the lounge floor of a friend up in Auckland.

Patrick: How did you land on exercise science? Why was that the result of your quarter life crisis?

Darren: Before I went overseas, I actually had been lifting weights, and I had done the typical bench press-rotator cuff tear, and essentially didn’t exercise the entire time I was away, which was five years. I was gone for six years. Five of those years, I didn’t exercise. I tried to cycle everywhere. I got a pair of roller blades once in Canada. I was getting around on those. I’ve been since told that they’re highly camp and I should not wear them.

When I was in Canada, I was using my girlfriend’s identification card to get free physio treatment, and this woman was amazing. She pretty much fixed the five year problem in basically five months. When that happened, that’s what steered me in the direction.

Once I got involved in the industry, I actually realized that graduating as an exercise scientist didn’t mean I could go to the newspaper and flip past the accountants and the lawyers until I find the exercise scientist wanted page. It’s the arts division of a science degree. There’s nothing at the other end of it.

Patrick: So, what happened after you graduated, then?

Darren: Well, I got a bit lost again, so I did the typical, “I’ll stay in school, then.” My supervisor offered me a Master’s position. So, I took that. It was interesting. We did some fascinating stuff, sort of fairly cutting edge, which is unusual for Master’s. Normally, you just reprove something that’s already been proven. We were disproving the whole lactate is bad thing. Some fascinating stuff there, like infusing elite cyclists with lactate while they did time trials, and we were coming up with new methods of measuring protein breakdown and things like that. It was really, really cool.

Patrick: You’ve clearly settled into being back in New Zealand full time now--you own a gym there. Was it ever hard to quiet that part of you that wanted to wander, that wanted to be free of responsibility and spend months living out of a backpack?

Darren: I’ve done the odd trip since then where I’ve kind of tried to jump back into that method of travel, and I’ve got to stay in a hostel or whatever, and the first night some drunken teenager is spewing off the top bunk...he’s been out all night, and I’m lying there going, “You’ve had your time, go check into a hotel. You’re an adult now. You’re not a backpacker anymore.”

I’ve talked to people when they come back, especially to a small country or a small town, and they’ve lived in a really big cosmopolitan place like London or something. They have the slight feeling of arrogance and superiority that the people around them aren’t worldly enough. You don’t know what it’s like, blah, blah. It’s a horrible feeling because you don’t feel like a good person thinking it, but people who haven’t traveled perhaps don’t understand some of the things that are out there. They’re very closed-minded, but you’ve got to come to grips with that. It’s not a bad thing. They’re not bad people or anything.

Once I got over that, I started seeing what my country had to offer. It is paradise. Sure, we’re a long way from everywhere. It’s expensive, gas is seven bucks a gallon, but I live right on the beach. There’s forest about half an hour away. The beach is about an hour either way. People are friendly. There’s a low crime rate. It’s pretty good.

Patrick: Do you ever think about what your life might have been without your travels?

Darren: Sometimes I go, “Six years? That was two degrees I could have done,” but if I hadn’t done it, who would I have been? I look back and I don’t like the person I was when I was twenty. I wasn’t a bad kid. I just didn’t want any responsibility. I was not contributing to society. I wasn’t helping anybody by being alive. I realize that’s one of the coolest things you can do, and that’s all I do now. That’s my job is helping people, and it’s pretty awesome.

I made the statement to a friend [once], “What idiot would ever own their own business? Too much responsibility. I just want to work for someone, get a paycheck, live my life.” It’s stuck in my head, and I think what a fool I was to think that, how lazy to not want responsibility. That’s what I was. I was a lazy kid. Always looking for shortcuts. And here I am, doing something where there is no shortcut. So, that’s cool.