Photo Credit: John Oakley
Next month journalist and adventurer, Pip Stewart, will embark on a world-first descent of South America’s third largest river, the Essequibo River, from source to sea via kayak, alongside fellow expedition adventurers, Laura Bingham and Ness Knight. Not a journey to be underestimated, this challenge will take the trio on remote river passes, rapids and waterfalls as they paddle its 1014km length from southern Guyana to the Atlantic ocean.
I caught up with Pip, whose previous adventures include cycling 10,000 miles from Malaysia to London, to get the details.
Photo Credit: Reza Pakravan
You have a huge expedition coming up to paddle the Essequibo River in Guyana. Tell me more?
In February, Laura Bingham, Ness Knight and I are going to try and canoe from source to sea, the Essequibo River, which is 1014km. It’s never been done – it will be a world first. The reason it’s never been done is that locals have no real need to go down sections of it. Mainly they’re full of rapids and waterfalls.
Apparently there’s never been a colour photo of certain areas, let alone filming. So for us, it’s the one unexplored part of the world that we’re fascinated by. I love the Jungle, having spent some time in the Amazon. I think it has real spiritual energy – I know that sounds a bit hippy but there’s something about the vibe of the jungle that I’m really drawn to.
Where did the idea to paddle the Essequibo come from?
Essentially, it was Laura’s idea. She came to Ness and I and said her partner, Ed Stafford (the first person to walk the length of the Amazon river), who does a series for the discovery channel called Left for Dead, had been dropped off in Guyana and said it was the most insane place. And that sort of sparked the idea to do this trip.
I don’t have much kayaking experience at all so I’ve been training, I’ve been learning, trying to get my skills up. We’re going to do a lot of portaging. We’re not going into it recklessly; if there are sections we think are too difficult or if one of us feels uncomfortable, we will walk around a rapid or waterfall. There’s no shame in doing that when you paddle a river.
It will be really interesting. A world first if we can pull it off, and if not it will just be a nice trip!
Photo Credit: David Bain, Kayak Wales
How long ago did you decide to take on the expedition?
About two or three months ago. So it’s a fairly tight turnaround. Laura’s just had a child so it fits in with Ed, her husband, and the time when he’s not filming, so he can look after the baby. For me personally, that’s super-inspiring. As women, something we all struggle with if we want a family is ‘How does that affect adventure?’ Laura and Ed show that, as a team, if you plan well, it doesn’t have to be the end of adventures. It takes planning and a bit of foresight and there are some things you can’t do, but that’s the reality of being a woman and it’s not forever. With a bit of planning you can still get those adventures in.
The river is 1014km long. How long do you anticipate it will take you to paddle it?
Two months. We’ll have to learn how to machete our way through the jungle for a quite a fair bit of it. My knife skills are not the best, Katie. I need serious practice. You should see me chopping an onion, it’s just terrible [laughs].
Have you worked out what distance you plan to paddle each day?
It will depend on the river. I think about 60 percent of the river is flat water, so on those days when we have sections of flat it will be about getting our head down and getting some distance done. We have a lot of maps, so we’ve got to work out which sections we can nail and which sections we’ll have to take slower. If we can’t see around a bend it will be a case of getting out the boats and scouting the river ahead.
It’s the most intense expedition I’ve ever done because there’s a shit-load of planning. When I did my cycle ride (Pip cycled 10,000 miles from Malaysia to London) you’d just get on the bike and see where you ended up. But if you took that approach with this trip I think you could end up in a fair bit of trouble. So [it’s about being] very planned, trying to use Google satellite imagery and there’s a couple of kayaking websites where you can really drill down into the scenery, the lay of the river.
Photo Credit: David Bain, Kayak Wales
Will you be wild camping?
Yes, we’ll be sleeping in the jungle and there’s a section for about three weeks where we don’t anticipate we’ll see anybody. It’s going to be really super, super-remote. We’ll be catching fish from the river and living in the jungle. So, hammocks, essentially, in the trees. And shit loads of mozzie repellent!
Didn’t you get some awful mosquito bites on your Amazon trip?
I got absolutely mullered, it was awful! Usually, when I go somewhere I just follow what the locals do; they have the local knowledge, they know better. On this one occasion, we went for a walk in the jungle and were being shown where a road was going to be built. We walked in and everyone had their sleeves rolled up. Up until this point I had my long-sleeve shirts – jungle gear. Then I thought, Oh, everyone’s rolled their sleeves up, I’m sure I’ll be fine! And we were only out for maybe half an hour to an hour and I got back and I was like, Oh my lord. I was literally munched and everyone else was absolutely fine. I don’t know, maybe they knew that I was an easy target. So my advice is: keep covered!
What are the potential hazards of your Essequibo River expedition?
I think something that’s probably overlooked is heatstroke. You’re going to be canoeing a lot on the river with the glare coming back at you. It’s hot and humid so it’s about making sure you don’t get burnt. You’ve got the obvious dangers of the rivers – rapids, waterfalls things like that. You’ve got insects. I think probably one of the biggest things is just getting sick – eating something dodgy.
Before we went to the Amazon to do the documentary, I Googled ‘What can kill you in the Amazon?’ and it terrified me. Spiders, anacondas… and I think your fears are often more imagined than in reality. So yes, you’ve got the anacondas and jaguars, but actually, most of the time they’re going to leave you alone because you’re a threat to them as well.
I think the dangers for our trip are probably more human error, sun and insects, and trying to mitigate all of those things.
Photo Credit: Ian Finch
How have you been training for the kayaking element?
We’ve basically been trying to get in a kayak whenever we can. We went to the British Canoe Symposium which was fantastic, and it was a really lovely community of people all willing to help out. We did a white water course there, they took us on grade two and three rapids and showed us the best way to read water. I’ve done a lot of stand-up paddle-boarding but, actually, one of the skills in a larger craft is knowing where water flows and where to pick your line on the river.
That was really fascinating and the British Canoe Symposium was a real source of help and insight.
Have you had other support?
Leicester Outdoor Pursuit Centre have been training us in terms of safety and paddle-stroke. They’ve been absolutely fantastic.
Chris and Andy from the centre have been incredible, from basic stroke techniques to teaching us about safety on the water. We have also been exceptionally lucky that David Bain from NRS has accompanied us on two of our longer training sessions in Wales to really increase our skillset. He’s a world-class paddler and seeing him in action was phenomenal. His girlfriend Gabrielle Ridge (also world class) accompanied us on one too and gave us some pointers. We’ve even had global help – we met Al Pace who runs canoe adventures in Canada at the British canoe symposium and he and his son, Taylor, were massively helpful in helping to analyse the satellite imagery of the river. Everyone in the paddling has been fantastic and hugely supportive – from the governing body of the sport in British Canoeing to the people on the water in the local areas. It’s an amazing community and we’re so grateful for everyone’s help and support.
Sandy Loder from Peak Dynamics also did a training afternoon with all three of us – looking at how we make decisions and how we handle conflict. Having those sorts of tools will be invaluable.
What are your plans for the nutrition side of things?
Nuzest, which is a nutrition company, is one of our big sponsors and they took us through a really in-depth nutrition day with DNA analysis, blood work and weight, to figure out how to be the most efficient in terms of nutrition and food on the water. So we’ve had a shit-load of support from people.
Photo Credit: David Bain, Kayak Wales
Will the nutrition tests tell you what you should be eating?
Yes, essentially. I haven’t got the results back yet but the DNA looks at how you metabolise what’s good for your body. So super in-depth nutrition, which is really interesting. They introduced me to a concept I’ve never heard before called Ketonics where the idea is that you burn your fat, rather than the carb, which essentially can help you last for longer. You’re burning your fat stores more efficiently, so for a day on the river that might be very helpful. As a carb junkie, this is a new concept albeit slightly terrifying! I’m trying to get my head around it.
What kind of things will you be eating?
At the moment it’s open for discussion. We’re going to take a net to catch local fish and we’ll be taking a fair bit of protein (from Nuzest) with us as well. We’ve also got something called The Good Green Stuff, which is a product which has a lot of vegetables in powder form, so we can get our green intake. Because that’s one of the worries on an expedition, finding the food. And we’re not going to be able to get fresh fruit and veg that easily, so it’s making sure our diets are okay. And then it will probably be whatever we can pick up locally.
Are you planning to meet local communities as you canoe the river?
Where the source of the river is, is an indigenous area which is home to the Wai Wai indigenous community, and in order to get there we’ve had to apply for their permission to let us in. So that’s had to go through the Government. Obviously, indigenous land rights are a huge issue across jungle areas, so we’re really sensitive to the fact that we don’t want to be imposing ourselves upon anyone – being invited to come is a huge thing. We’re seeking all the right permissions. We’ve been granted permission from the heads of the Wai Wai indigenous community and we’re hoping that they can help us by giving us some local knowledge about the start of the river.
Photo Credit: Savio Martins
For me as a journalist, interacting with local people and that shared communication of knowledge is something I’m absolutely passionate about because I think – and this sounds a bit wanky again – travel really can change the world, provided you go with an open heart, an open mind and you’re not imposing your own views. I just love when you go to a new culture and you can come away with so much knowledge and learning that maybe you’d never even thought about. So definitely, meeting people is part of it, but I’m not sure how many we’ll meet apart from the indigenous Wai Wai community.
Will you be passing through goldmine areas?
Later down the river there’s a big goldmine area, which again is something I’m really passionate about. I think the goldmine industry is something we don’t hear enough about in the media, and actually when I did this documentary, TransAmazonica, recently I learned that [via goldmining] mercury is put in the water, then the fish get the mercury inside them and then the local people eat the fish. It’s a huge, problematic industry. We need to make sure our gold is better regulated and we’re a lot more aware about the sources of our gold, where it’s coming from and where it’s consumed. At the moment I know very little about the gold trade in Guyana, but it’s an area I’m very interested to look at from a journalistic point of view as we go along.
Will you be filming your experience paddling the Essequibo?
We are going to be filming it as we go. Ness has basically put her hand up as head of operations, but we’ll also all have our own personal cameras to record the journey and we’d love to turn it into a documentary. I’m going to write a book about it eventually. I think it’s got a lot to it. I love the fact it’s three women. I love that Ness and Laura are both fascinating people.
Growing up were you always adventurous?
I’ve always loved travel. My dad was a Harrier pilot and as a family we’d move around a lot with Dad’s work. So I’ve always loved being in new places – I grew up in Germany and was born there. I guess from a young age I’ve always moved, I’ve always travelled. Every university holiday I’d get out [and travel] whereas everybody else was doing internships.
Photo Credit: Reza Pakravan
I’ve always loved it, living abroad. We moved to Hong Kong and Malaysia, but that first cycle trip with my partner, Charlie, that was when I realised, Oh my god, I love travel, but if you travel in an adventurous way, it’s a whole other dimension. I just loved the way that slow travel on a bike opened me up to communities. I found that rather than going to the tourist places, I was in random-ass villages where no one ever goes, but the stories there are fascinating and the people there are fascinating. It just felt like you’re living someone else’s live for a tiny moment, and I think the insights you garner from that are so eye-opening.
So I think that was the trip that opened up what was already an adventurous spirit into ‘Fuck, I need to do more of this.’
Did it open your eyes to what you could do?
It removed the fear, I think. Because I hadn’t been on my bike until the day before I set off; I hadn’t cycled with weight until the day I set off – and then three weeks in, I literally sat on the side of the road and cried my eyes out, saying: ‘I don’t think I can do this Charlie. I really don’t. I’m not fit enough.’ I was trying to push my bike up a hill and at that point he said to me, ‘Pip, these aren’t physical journeys, these are mental ones.’ And ever since then it kind of removed a lot of that fear for me. And that’s the thing about my adventures; I’m never the fastest. I did a stand-up paddle board competition recently and I came last – full-on last person on the finish line out of 700 [laughs]!
But I think that’s the point isn’t it, to give things a go? We’re all scared and we’re all a bit shit at certain things, but I’d rather give it a go than think, ‘I wish I’d tried that.’ It doesn’t matter if you come last, it doesn’t matter if you’re slow. And I think as women that’s something we’re a little bad at – you don’t want to look stupid. Often, fear puts us off. But now, I embrace the fact that often I’m going to look stupid!
Photo Credit: Peiman Zekavat
I think a lot of us are guilty of not trying things in case we look stupid…
Maybe it’s like being vulnerable, but in a funny way, the more vulnerable you are, the more your experience is being enriched. If you hold up your hands and say, ‘Guys, I don’t know what I’m doing’, people love to share their knowledge and suddenly you have that connection with humanity once again. As soon as I stopped trying to be something or trying to be the best, or trying to be this adventurous soul and instead went, ‘You know what, I’d like to do that but I’m a bit shit and don’t know how, can somebody help?’ people love to help.
I reckon a sense of humour is the biggest barrier to adventure. I think as soon as you can laugh at yourself, that’s it, your door is open.
Photo Credit: Peiman Zekava
You filmed a documentary about your trip to the Amazon. What was your experience like?
There’s a road that was built in the 1970s called the Trans-Amazonian Highway which had the aim of opening up Brazil to development and economic prosperity in the region. Unfortunately, the reality of so-called development is environmental annihilation and instead what happened was a lot of illegal logging, gold-mining and drug trafficking took place across this road. They call it the fishbone effect because often off a main road you get lots of little cuts into the forest which is where the deforestation happens.
So together with Reza Pakravan, who was my cycling partner and producer on this trip, we cycled along the Trans-Amazonian highway, we took boats and small planes right into the headwaters of the Amazon as well, in Peru, looking at how deforestation is really impacting the people on the ground. We kind of grow-up thinking ‘Oh, the Amazon is in trouble’ but until you’re there – until you see it – it’s a completely different experience. I’d done a lot of reading and research before I went, but talking to people on the ground you realise what a complex issue development and the environment can be, and how to unpick that is a long, hard process.
Photo Credit: Reza Pakravan
Were local people receptive and happy to talk to you?
Absolutely. It was tough at times. One of the more scary moments was when we were with the Munduruku community who live in Brazil. A lot of the problems that the indigenous community have is that their land is taken over by illegal miners or loggers, so they have a lot of problems trying to protect it because of issues around land rights. On one occasion, we were staying with the Munduruku doing a boat patrol up and down the river and we spotted this illegal goldmine and boarded it to talk to the guy there. Obviously, it was a little tense because we didn’t know how people were going to react, but it kind of showed me the reality for people on the ground – there’d been a lot of murders in the Amazon region, a lot of conflict, all surrounding the resource grab.
I just found it was one of the saddest trips I’ve ever done to be honest, Katie. We spoke to people whose family members had been murdered. I spoke to a guy who had lost his 27-year-old wife because she’d died of mercury poisoning because of the gold mining industry. It was both harrowing and wonderful, because we also saw a lot of huge, incredible kindness. A lot of people are working really hard to protect that area, but yeah, I think it’s one of those things where it’s so easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the world and turn a bit of a blind eye to it as it’s someone else’s problem. I guess it’s how we best spark a discussion and how we can help as a global community going forward.
Tell us about the documentary and where we can watch it?
It’s a six-part series called Transamazonica which aired on Canada’s CBC primetime over Christmas and will be out on Al Jazeera later this year.
We wanted to get the message out there through the medium of adventure; hopefully that will hook people in – seeing me in tears on the bike saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do it’! – and then hit them with the point of why we were there, which was to highlight the environmental issues.
Personally do you prefer adventuring with people or solo?
I love solo travel. I often do a lot of city breaks on my own because I think it’s a great way to get to know yourself, but the core of who I am is about connecting, connecting with people and trying to show the world how amazing humanity is. So I prefer doing expeditions with partners because when it’s longer I like bouncing ideas off people, I like discussion, I like debate and I think having people along on a journey enriches it for me, personally – not for everybody. For shorter journeys, I like self-reflection. Naval-gazing, I suppose!
Have you got any favourite pieces of kit for travel or adventure?
I love Lucas Paw-Paw ointment from Australia. It’s so good if you have itches, bites or whatever. So when I got mullered in the Amazon I was just smothering myself with that. There’s also something called White Flower Ointment, which I got from Hong Kong which is like a menthol thing and if I ever have a headache I rub it on my temples – it’s kind of like tiger balm but in a liquid form.
Photo Credit: Pip Stewart
Do you have any sponsors for your Essequibo trip?
For the trip we have Nuzest, Transglobe Expedition Trust, a few more – Powertraveller and NRS, our boat sponsor. Children’s Air Ambulance is our charity partner. And Mooncup is a sponsor which I think is really good when you’re in the arse-end of nowhere. It’s something we don’t talk about as women. You know, you do have periods, you do bleed when you’re in strange places. It’s not always convenient to have a period. So that’s where something like a Mooncup is really good because you’re not trying to dispose of tampons in your bag really wrapped up in tissues. That’s the reality of being a woman on an expedition.
I don’t think it occurs to a lot of people that a woman might have a period while they’re on an expedition…
Yeah, during the documentary I just disappeared into the bushes off the bike and one of the crew said to me ‘Why did you take a bag in with you?’ [Laughs]. It doesn’t always strike people that this is the reality of life on the road as a woman.
So when does your Essequibo River adventure kick-off?
February 1st it all kicks off. Until then I’ll be trying to eat right, train.
We’ve all been working really hard to pull this together. We’ve got a cracking team and Ness and Laura are Wonder Women in my eyes.
For more information about Pip, Ness and Laura’s expedition, visit www.theessequibo.org. You can follow Pip’s journey and adventures via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/pipstewart, www.twitter.com/Stewart_Pip and www.facebook.com/PipStewartAdventure or by visiting her website: www.phillippastewart.com.
You can watch Pip’s showreel here: https://vimeo.com/247518396