© Jon Williams
Regular blog readers will remember my chat with journalist and adventurer Pip Stewart earlier this year, when Pip was gearing up for a world-first attempt to paddle the length of Guyana’s Essequibo River. Since then, Pip and expedition teammates Laura Bingham and Ness Knight successfully became the first people ever to paddle the Essequibo from its source in the Acarai Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean – a 1014km journey. *High-five*
To catch-up on her Essequibo adventure, Pip managed to squeeze me in for a chat ahead of her talk at Kendal Mountain Festival tomorrow. We chatted about the challenges of remote jungle expeditions, being open about fear and how, after contracting leishmaniasis, she’s on a mission to raise awareness of the flesh-eating disease.
How was your expedition experience – did it live up to your expectations?
Oh my god, Katie, it was absolutely magical. Spending time in remote wilderness like that was definitely a journey of a lifetime. The Essequibo is so untouched, especially in the upper reaches. Just learning to live and survive in the jungle, sleeping at night in a hammock for months on end – it was an experience I’ll never forget. In a way, though, I wasn’t prepared for how scared I was going to be, so that was a real shock. Obviously, we’d had a lot of training in terms of kayaking but the remoteness suddenly really hit me – I think that was the first time I really went, ‘Oh my gosh, this is genuinely quite terrifying’ [laughs].
It took me a couple of weeks to get used to that. It was definitely a mental journey way more than I anticipated.
I imagine nearly getting bitten on the bum by a deadly labaria snake didn’t help?
I think it was the snake incident really that threw me off because we knew that during the first section, the hike to the source, which was a three week period, if we got into trouble we were really in big trouble, because we were pretty much on our own. And that was when I nearly sat on a snake. Mentally, that really does something to you. I brushed it off initially and just laughed about it and then in my hammock at night those fears really started to play on my mind. One night I woke the team up screaming because I thought I was being attacked by a jaguar. It’s funny what the psyche does.
I’ve mentioned this before in other interviews, but one of the bravest things I did on that journey was actually telling others that I was struggling mentally. [After that] all these hammocks popped up around me and a fire would spring up early doors and I actually really relaxed. And for the rest of the journey I absolutely loved the jungle environment. But I think very often expeditions are presented as big and chest-beaty ‘everything’s fine’, but for me it at the start, it really wasn’t. I really did struggle. But by the end, I came to absolutely love it.
Before you could paddle you had to trek for weeks to find the source of the Essequibo – this took longer than expected, didn’t it?
We massively underestimated our ability versus the wilderness because, actually, moving four kilometres in dense jungle is a good day. We thought we’d be able to get a little bit further than we did. As a result, food, resources… we were running a bit low. We took a load of freeze-dried food from FirePot and supplemented that with fish and anything we could find in the jungle, thinking the trek to the source was going to take two weeks. I took three weeks, so food sources were slightly lower than we would have liked. The whole thing was a real lesson and the first time I’ve genuinely understood the term ‘survival’. It was definitely a journey I’m not going to forget in a hurry.
Did the delay in reaching the source affect morale?
Oh god, yeah. Because we were up in the Acarai Mountains on the border with Brazil, this wasn’t just little trek to the source; this was up and down dense vertiginous rainforest, carrying all your gear on your back, you’re sweating, you’re hot. I’ve never done so much physical exercise in my life. I remember turning to Ness and Laura at one point and saying I’m never doing another physical journey! We knew that this was just the start of the expedition, and I think that was the tough thing at the beginning. This was just to find the source and it was brutal. In my head I think I’d almost prepped for the kayaking, learning the dangers of white water, knowing how to survive, getting my technique right, and actually I hadn’t expected the mountainous hike to be so tough.
So it wasn’t a flat hike? That’s what I’d envisioned your trek to the source would be…
No! We had to go up over 45-degree slopes and down them and then up another and down, doing that for days on end not knowing quite when we were going to reach the source. It became a real mental battle more than anything else. That was where we’d try and cheer each other up by telling stories. You find that if you’re hiking next to someone and chatting away for a bit whilst cutting a line, that really does help; asking the Wai Wai (the local indigenous community who acted as the team’s guides) about stories of the forest, how they use various plants… seeing it as a jungle teaching environment became my way of getting through that first section.
Did you use your machete skills a lot?
Oh gosh, yes. I had never appreciated how useful a machete is – we’d use it for everything from setting up camp to chopping down dead wood, you’d take it with you to the loo to clear areas of the forest, and just on the hike as well; making sure no rogue vines were in the way. The whole thing was unbelievably physical. I came back feeling so fit, so healthy, the fittest I ever felt. Which is why when I got struck down by leishmaniasis it was such as shitter. I’d gone from having this unbelievable strength – and then I got diagnosed with glandular fever as well, so it was a double whammy.
That must have been a real low after the high of your expedition?
We’d had this amazing jungle environment, then we finished the journey and got in a taxi. I hadn’t been in a car for three months at this point, let alone a taxi, and it was amazing what you forget when you’re out of society, because we went past billboards and that really stuck out: the advertising, the consumerism. I’d forgotten about this, coming from a need-based economy on the boat, where the jungle is your supermarket, to suddenly being flogged stuff that we didn’t need. When I actually arrived back in London to so much choice and consumption, it was just mind-blowing.
The one thing I wouldn’t change is the fact that I could walk into the NHS and get treated in the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases for freefrom the experts in their field. That was amazing.
At what point did you realise you’ve caught the tropical disease leishmaniasis?
We all had ailments in the jungle – Ness passed out at one point; Laura had weird boils in her armpit and around her bum, but the worst I had was trench foot, although it was bloody painful. I came back thinking I’d escaped lightly, but I had this little sand-fly bite on my neck I thought I should probably get checked. At first, the doctor did ‘watchful waiting’, as the location on my neck is very close to glands. Then they decided it could be quite serious and did a biopsy, and it turned out to be leishmaniasis.
What’s shocking is that the more I’ve read into this flesh-eating parasite, the more dismayed I am, because it affects over 97 countries; a billion people around the world are at risk. You can get it in the Mediterranean. But unfortunately, there’s no profit incentive to do anything about it because the people who get it are the world’s poorest people. And it’s usually in areas of environmental change.
You’re now on a mission to spread awareness of the disease?
I got a really funny message from a doctor saying, “I’m really glad this has happened to you, as most people don’t have access to the media.” In a funny way, I’m glad too, because I’m just trying to spread awareness of it. It seems really wrong that I can get treated for free whereas my mate, Fay, in Guyana, puts boiling cow fat on the legions. Fay and the kids in her village are burning themselves with cow fat, while I had to endure three weeks of very intensive chemical therapy. I was on a drip every day for an hour and a half, being pumped full of toxic medicine from the 1940s. And again, the fact that it’s so dated is because there’s no real research happening that has an impact. There are some great smaller companies doing things, but grand, large-scale funding isn’t there at the moment.
Are you cured or will your Leishmaniasis require future treatment?
We don’t really know – again, lack of research. The doctors just have to keep an eye on me for the next two years or so. I have something called cutaneous leishmaniasis, but there’s a risk that it can spread to the nose and soft palate, and basically eat them through. It’s pretty horrific, but in a sense, I was lucky because there’s a more severe form of the disease called visceral leishmaniasis, and if you don’t treat that within two years, it will kill you.
The treatment I have had is successful in 95 percent of cases, so it’s just a case of keeping an eye on things from now on.
Going back to the expedition, how physically tough was it?
During the hike to the source, that’s when I got trench foot. It’s unbelievably painful to put your foot down to walk. At one point, Laura said I looked like an 89-year-old woman about to die, because I was shaking around and could barely put weight on my feet. Then there’s the general discomfort of kayaking at the start, but by the end that became more routine as your muscles are worked and used to it. But everything was physical: you’d wake-up and you’d be fetching water, then you’re boiling water. You’re putting your hammock up, you’re bending, you’re stretching, you’re moving. I felt like my body, for the first time, was doing what it was supposed to be doing.
So yes, it was unbelievably physical, but I certainly felt more alive and more athletic and powerful than I’d ever felt. Which was weird coming back to London where I’m suddenly back on my computer, and my back hurts again between my shoulder blades, staring at the screen.
Did you manage to eat enough to have the energy for the physical demands every day?
Yeah, absolutely. We supplemented what we had with fish or anything that the guys were hunting. For someone who is pretty much vegetarian most days, at first it was a little weird to me, but eventually James, the oldest of the Wai Wai, said to me: “Pip, we will kill this hog, but we will use everything. We don’t waste the animal” and that really struck me. Every night we would pray – I’m not religious, but you’d give thanks for the food you’re about to eat and there was a real consciousness about where what we’re consuming comes from, which I really noticed I lost when I came back and got something from the supermarket.
After the trek to the source I really enjoyed a very clean diet of rice and fish. We didn’t have enough food as I would have potentially liked, but we were doing so much physical exercise in the heat that my appetite goes anyway.
What did a typical expedition day involve?
We would basically try and move with the weather. So we’d get up early when the sun came up, about 5/6 o’clock, we’d have a substantial breakfast, pack up and get on the river. We probably stopped at 3.30pm/4pm each day because setting up camp is not just a case of pulling up to the riverbank, you suddenly have to find dead wood; you have to find trees to put hammocks up in, you’ve got to clear an area in the jungle. The whole process takes up to two hours. So you’ve done this really physical day in the water and all you want to do is to hop into bed, but to do that involves more effort and energy!
After we’d done all of that and were sat around the camp fire eating our food, I’d ask everyone what the highlight of their day was and what they had learned. That, for me, was a really lovely coming together of the entire group – especially hearing what the Wai Wai had to say, because it was a real privilege to have them guide us. Just hearing how they feel about the Essequibo River – their life source – and how it’s changing, especially as we were going past areas of gold mining and we started to see the slow creep of humanity and civilisation. That, for me, as a journalist was one of the most interesting things about the journey.
How had the gold mining affected the river?
In 2016 I did a documentary on deforestation in Brazil and Peru and a lot of that was about how mercury is used in the water. As we approached the [Essequibo] goldmines we went from drinking the water to not being able to. And when you wash in the water you might get sores and things like that – and that’s when Laura started to get a lot of these boils. So, physically, you really started to feel the effects of it. We actually had to go up to these floating barges and goldmines and ask to come on board for fresh water.
That was really interesting because we got to talk directly about the issues of gold mining and how it’s impacting the community. Many of the miners there were there illegally – they were quite open about it. Compared to Peru I felt there were fewer goldmines. However, you still could see the change in the topography of the riverbed. It’s all being dredged up and these big, fake sandbanks had been artificially made and as a result that had a big impact on insect populations and things like that.
What about the people behind the gold mining?
I think what I learned about that is that it’s a very tricky issue. Behind every story is a human, and I remember when we were on one barge with a guy called Terrence who was 59 and welcomed us on this barge with open arms. He basically said, “Pip, I’m 59, I’m an illegal gold miner, yes, but you’re sitting on my pension. What else can I do? This is all I’ve known my entire life.” It’s interesting because a lot of my work is around raising awareness of deforestation but it’s about how you get a conversation and dialogue going, because Terrence probably didn’t know 50 years ago when he started [gold mining] that this would pollute the environment. And how do you transition from that?
Were the local communities welcoming?
Oh gosh, yes. I think any of the journeys that I’ve done that are slightly unconventional, people want to help you if you appear slightly vulnerable. We had amazing scenes – we pulled up to one village and all the women of the village were like, ‘We heard you were coming and we want to paddle with you!’ so these three warrior women from this village came with us and paddled a section. They’d sourced an inflatable kayak so they could come with us and it was brilliant.
For the whole day we just shared stories, had a laugh, camped. And again, Fay, the woman I mentioned earlier, we met her at an eco-lodge and she said she would have loved to have done the whole journey with us. It turned out that she was this really interesting fishing guide, who’d done a section of the river already, so she joined us for the last section of the journey and was with us for 3 or 4 weeks. She was full or stories and sharing her stories, it was magic.
What was the most challenging aspect of the trip?
I think it was struggling with my ego. The reason I love travel is that it connects you to yourself, other people and the world around you. Each night I would take the stories of everyone around me and what they thought of the day, but I looked at my social media account and realised for the first half of the journey I’d been telling my own story – it was selfie after selfie, and it just hit me: I’m in the most amazing place, hearing stories of the Amazon, travelling with 16-year-old Wai Wai guide, Nigel, hearing what his wants and wishes are, and I hadn’t really been communicating that properly on social media. Yes, we’re filming a documentary, and yes, I’m writing a book, and it will come out very prominently in all of that, but I had this realisation that this didn’t really feel like me – this constant posting of myself. Given that I’m a journalist and love other people’s stories, it felt really weird to be pushing mine so much.
So I’m sharing more of other people’s stories, putting up more of my poetry, which I absolutely love. I sort of play for the soul now, more than the likes. And I like myself more now as a result.
Is your book about your Essequibo experience?
Every time I go on a journey I try and learn something. I really want to communicate what connects us, so yes there is going to be a book about the trip, but it’s more than that; it’s what I’ve learned and what other people can learn from that. Travel meets self-help as a genre! That will be out next year.
I’m also trying to get a documentary off the ground about neglected tropical diseases. Essentially, I think this is now my cause going forward, having being affected so much. By week three I couldn’t get out of bed, and trying to get to the hospital I was like an old lady. Emotionally, it’s been a very draining time, but I’ve been lucky. So many people are affected by tropical disease and with so many people travelling, you can’t push it aside and think, ‘Oh, it won’t affect me’ because it can, and chances are, it will. I guess we all need to have that bit of compassion.
There are still tickets left to hear Pip talk at the Kendal Mountain Festival during the Lowe Alpine Adventure Journals session at 4.30pm – 7pm. More information can be found here.