What I’ve learnt from a year of interviewing the world’s top female adventurers

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Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the world’s most inspiring female adventurers for Flash Pack’s Female SOLOists series – a monthly column dedicated to women exploring the world their own way. 

When we started, the intention of this series was to disrupt the conventional image of what a ‘real’ adventurer was. You know the type: ex-paratroopers, icicles on beards, dressed in head to toe in North Face…

This type of adventurer has been so widely covered it’s become a trope. But the solo female travellers I’ve interviewed over the last year have also broken barriers, records and bones. They’ve visited hundreds of countries, travelled thousands of miles and amassed millions of social media followers. Yet, their stories haven’t been so quick to follow.

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In my book, I tried to put long-forgotten female figures on the map

A year into the series – and to celebrate International Women’s Day – I wanted to reflect on how these women, with every click of their cameras or clip of their crampons, are redefining what it means to be a modern-day explorer.

It’s something I delved deep into in my book A Trip Of One’s Own as I tried to put long-forgotten female figures back on the map. Women like Nellie Bly. A global superstar back in 1890 but now largely forgotten, even though she circled the world faster than anyone before her. Or botanist Jeanne Baret, who disguised herself as a man to become the first woman to sail around the world in 1768.

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These women are redefining what it means to be a modern-day explorer

When I retraced these womens’ journeys and re-read their books, I drew many parallels with the contemporary women I’ve been interviewing for this column.

Firstly, through all these women, past and present, I’ve discovered that trips don’t have to be epic to be meaningful. You don’t have to go to the ends of the Earth to have a braggable adventure. 

Indeed, many of the female explorers I spoke to for the SOLOists series said that some of their most memorable trips were smaller or closer to home.

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Through them, I’ve discovered trips don’t have to be epic to be meaningful

Endurance athlete Anna McNuff, who has cycled the Andes and run the length of New Zealand told me, “Some of my favourite adventures have been only a few days, like the time a friend and I tried to rollerblade around Amsterdam or when I decided to run the length of Hadrian’s Wall dressed as a Roman soldier.” As you do…

Leilani McConagle, the Costa Rican surfer, said something similar. “I go hiking every day in the jungle near my home with my four dogs. When you know a place so well and can still see it in a new way – that’s when I feel like an explorer.” 

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Even the most seasoned solo explorers have doubts

I’ve also discovered that everyone has doubts. Even the most seasoned solo explorers have a “I can’t do this” moment. Sometimes, they have several.

Jessica Nabongo is the first black woman to visit every country in the world. But she told me that her confidence wavered many times during her 195-nation odyssey. “I really doubted myself and wondered if I was crazy. I’d think ‘What am I doing? I’m spending all my money on this and my body hurts from so many economy flights’. But there was no going back.”

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You just have to keep blasting head-first into the unfamiliar

Pro snowboarder, Taylor Godber, knows that feeling, too. She was part of an all-female, sled-powered trip to Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, one of the best (and most challenging) heli-skiing spots on the planet. “You do have doubts, but you just have to keep blasting head-first into the unfamiliar,” she told me.

All the solo travellers I spoke to also mentioned the importance of chatting to locals, asking for favours and depending on others. That crucial but often overlooked act of faith that everyone who visits new places has to discover – especially when travelling solo.

“If you’re solo, you’re talking to your taxi driver, the bartender, the waiter and they make the experience richer…” said Jessica Nabongo. “My journey was made beautiful by the kindness of strangers.” 

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They’ve instilled in me the power of community

The self-taught Indonesian chef Rahel Stephanie told me she also taps local knowledge on her research-gathering solo missions. “When you’re by yourself, you really have the space and time to explore,” she said. “I like it because I can walk around trying things on little street corners. I then get chatting to people and ask them where they like to eat.” Together, these women have instilled in me the power of community. 

An inordinate amount of the explorers told me of the importance of packing good socks – which I’ve distilled down to a simple lesson of travelling light, but packing something that reminds you of home.

I loved that Anna McNuff never leaves home without her pink leggings, which she calls her ‘Pants of Perspective’. Meanwhile, Mexican photographer, Ana Hop, packs her trainers and running clothes. “When you’re travelling, everything about your routine changes – your food, your sleep… I find, if I can go for my morning run, at least that feels familiar. Plus it’s a great way to get your bearings.” 

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Many of these women said the trick of achieving great things is just to start

Many of these women told me that key to achieving incredible, often record-breaking feats was just to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, the trick is just to start. 

Norwegian mountaineer, Cecilie Skog, the only person in the world to have skied across both the poles and climbed the highest mountain on each continent, had this tip for conquering your fears: “In the beginning, I didn’t feel comfortable and I felt a little bit scared. Then I realised I just had to take small steps and I would reach the summit eventually.”

As captured in her book Tracks, Robyn Davidson trekked 2,700km across the Australian outback with just two camels and a dog for company in 1977. She too identified the same sentiment as Cecilie when she wrote: “You are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be. The most difficult part of any endeavour is taking the first step”.

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Being a woman shouldn’t stop you seeing the world how you want to

Finally, my main takeaway for women this International Women’s Day is don’t underestimate yourself. 

Another interviewee, explorer Ellen Magellan, is currently rowing around the world in a record-breaking journey that will take her seven years across 40,000 miles. Yes, seven years.

“I want to show that women shouldn’t be robbed of the life-changing experiences of solo travel,” she told me. “We can travel alone, we can be pilots, we can be ocean rowers, we can be strong and we can go far. Being a woman shouldn’t stop you seeing the world in the way you want to.” Amen to that.

Kate Wills is the author of A Trip of One’s Own and the journalist behind Flash Pack’s Female SOLOists series, which spotlights women exploring the world their own way. Next up, Bolivian skateboarder Zusan Mezza. 

Images: Courtesy of Kate Wills, Leilani McGonagle, Anna McNuff, Jessica Nabongo, Taylor Godber, Rahel Stephanie, Ana Hop and Ellen Magellan.

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