Wessex Scene spoke to explorer and journalist Pip Stewart ahead of her forthcoming ‘Reflections from the Amazon’ talk at Turner Sims on 2nd October at 8pm. Earlier this year, Stewart was part of a team who completed a world-first, travelling by paddle along the Essequibo River, South America’s 3rd largest river, from source to sea.
Previous adventures have included cycling all the way back to London from Malaysia (16,000km) and cycling along the Trans-Amazonian highway (a mere 4,000km-long). As well as writing and documenting her travels, Stewart has also written and contributed to the likes of The Daily Telegraph, South China Morning Post, CNN, Forbes and anchored Hong Kong TV station TVB.
So you’re doing a ‘Reflections from the Amazon’ talk at Turner Sims on October 2nd, what can people expect from it?
I suppose I want to represent a more human side to travel and exploration and just what impact we as consumers have on the world, and trying to get people to think a little bit more about the source of what they consume. Hopefully there’ll be a few jokes along the way, but yeah, just kind of encourage the more human side of connection.
You’ve documented on social media your battle with the flesh-eating parasite, visceral leishmaniasis?
Yeah, I’ve actually had cutaneous leishmaniasis, but visceral is the one that’s really deadly so I had leishmaniasis-light, if you will. If I didn’t treat it, it had the potential to spread to my nose and soft palette and sort of take both of those away. It’s a horrible, horrible disease, leishmaniasis in general, because either it will kill you in 2 years or it can leave you horribly scarred and deformed. So yeah, it’s a real passion of mine at the moment to just raise awareness of it really because visceral leishmaniasis is the second biggest parasitic killer after malaria, yet I don’t think most people have ever really heard of it. I mean, you can get it in Ibiza!
Why do you think this disease is neglected so much? If you can catch it in Ibiza and nobody really knows about it then…
I had one doctor message me saying ‘In a funny way, I’m glad this has happened to you’ because unfortunately, people living in remote areas tend to be the ones most at risk. It’s caused by the bite of an infected sandfly. So when you’ve got people who are poor and living in remote areas there’s zero incentive really for drug companies or whatever to manufacture drugs because there’s no money to be made. So it comes down to economics, which is really sad.
Are you doing anything yourself to proactively spread awareness about this disease?
Yeah, so I’m actually trying to raise as much awareness as I can at the moment – I’m in the process of trying to set something up around the issue, but I’m not quite ready to unveil that yet, but it’s definitely an issue that’s very much got under my skin.
Interaction with indigenous communities is quite a key theme in your travels. What have you taken away from your interactions with these communities, (for example the Wai Wai) and were the effects of climate change being noted by any communities you met?
Funnily enough when we were in Peru a lot of people living in the Andes told us that climate change was having a big effect on their crops and they can’t grow as much as they used to be able to. Any of my travelling is just showing that wherever you are in the world we’re all very human. We all have the same frailties, strengths, weaknesses, but I suppose what I took from living in more wild places with the communities there would be just how out of touch, in the UK, we’ve become with nature and that’s really my only comparison that I have. But I really have enjoyed getting back to living more harmoniously with nature, in a sense, on these sorts of trips.
You went on a trip down the Essequibo River, what kind of preparations did you take to go on this adventure?
Before we set off, we were all of us novice kayakers so we pretty much spent the winter doing white water training in Wales and near Nottingham, ‘skilling’ ourselves up. We found the outdoor paddling community was just unbelievably friendly and any gaps in our knowledge (and there were a lot!) we had people trying to help us. So I think because the nature of this expedition was so remote and to be fair, quite dangerous, we really did try to skill ourselves up as much as possible before we set off. I think the other thing to note with this is that if you’re a white water freak, if you love chasing white water, you’ll look at the Essequibo and go ‘that river is so benign, there’s nothing really to stress about’ which is why I think it’s probably never been done before. If you’re into white water it’s probably not a river you’re gonna choose to do, but as a beginner kayaker, as myself and my two friends were, that was a real challenge for us and especially living in the jungle for two and a half months in order to get down this river, it blew my mind in a sense of the whole place.
How important was group spirit in order to help you get through the trials of the trip?
Oh massively, each night we’d come together round the camp fire with the Wai Wai and we’d always say grace. I’m not particularly religious but that was a nice point in the day where we’d all get together. When someone’s having a bad time the group is so important to lift you up. I remember I nearly sat on a deadly snake on the way to the source of this river, my friend Jackson from behind just whipped out his machete and killed it and I said to him ‘why did you kill the snake?’ and he sort of looked at me and was like ‘if I didn’t kill the snake it would kill you’. Brutally honestly, I had night tremors and I really struggled mentally after that. I’m going down a river that no-one’s ever heard of, I’m in a really dangerous environment, what on earth am I doing? Why am I here? And I’d wake up screaming at 2/3 in the morning and it was only when I said to the group, guys I’m really emotionally having a hard time processing it. It was quite sweet everyone started sweeping around me, I noticed that my hammock would always be in the middle of the group and suddenly fires would be lit near where I was sleeping and actually it was just having that kind of moral support when you’re struggling is exceptionally helpful. I think in a way that was probably the bravest I was on the expedition, just saying I’m having a really hard time mentally, because it really did help bring me back to a more normal mental state.
Even more recently you spent some time with the Royal Marines this summer, what was that like?
Yes, so unfortunately I had glandular fever on that trip! Trying to keep up with the marines was amazingly tricky, but it was great. I saw firsthand how they react to the weakest link of the group, and I literally had people at times pushing me up a hill on a bicycle, which was hugely embarrassing. But I think a lot of these trips for me have been about dealing with your own ego, recognising that you’ve got an ego and almost removing yourself from that equation and being like, you know what, I am struggling, I do need to admit I need help. What was fascinating on that trip was, although I was physically very much the weakest, I was there looking at how marines use nature and expeditions as a way of managing their own mental health. I had quite a few people say to me, we really want to talk about what we’ve seen basically at war, and there are structures in place within the military but the culture is not quite there yet for us to do so. I think my big take away from that is that however tough and macho you might appear, we all struggle. On that trip I was struggling physically but in many ways you can’t see people’s mental struggles.
What excites you the most about travelling and have you got any more adventures planned for the future?
I’d definitely say it’s connection. That’s what I love about travel. You have the ability to connect with yourself, other people and the world around you and I feel like when I’ve gone off on wilderness trips, I come back with such a love for humanity and I think anyone who loves travel will know what I mean. You realise the world is a really, really good place beyond all the negative headlines that you read.
You did some freelance journalism in Asia, do you have any advice for aspiring journalists, maybe even journalists that want to do freelance?
I suppose the thing with all my travels is that at heart, I’m a journalist. It’s an amazing way of telling stories and I suppose my advice would be if you’re starting out, try and get to an unusual location. So, I moved to Hong Kong in order to study a masters in journalism, I then got myself to a festival in Mongolia. While I was there I messaged the BBC going ‘I’m at this festival, I don’t think anyone’s covering it, can I cover it for you?’ and I think if you want to get into journalism, slightly use your initiative, get off your bum, find stories that aren’t being reported, and then just hustle! Just keep hustling and eventually that becomes a career. You’re never going to be rich, that’s one thing I will say. I think if you go down the travel journalism route you’re rich in experience but not necessarily monetarily. But from my point of view I can’t imagine a more rewarding career, I really can’t.
Lastly, you’ve spent a fair amount of time on the saddle when you cycled from Malaysia to London 5 years ago, and now obviously in a kayak. If you had to travel by either bicycle or kayak, which would you prefer?
Ah, do you know what, I’m converted to the kayak! You can have both calm water and rough water, and it’s just the peace and tranquility. I think when you’re on the water you really are closest to nature.
Pip Stewart will be delivering her ‘Reflections from the Amazon’ talk at the University of Southampton Turner Sims building on Tuesday 2nd October at 8pm. Tickets cost £8 for students and may be purchased here.