In a few weeks, 24-year-old adventurer Anna Blackwell will be packing up her kayak to attempt a world-first expedition with teammate, Kate Culverwell, as they Kayak from England to the Black Sea. No stranger to expeditions, in the last few years Anna has completed a solo 5-week trek of the Arctic wilderness with only reindeers for company; walked 1000 miles solo from France to Spain, and trekked Spain’s 500-mile Camino de Santiago solo.
I chatted with Anna ahead of her Kayaking the Continent expedition to see how she was planning and preparing, and found out about the highs and lows of her solo expeditions so far.
Kayaking the continent – what does your upcoming expedition involve?
We’re going to be kayaking from England to the Black Sea which is the other side of Romania. It’s a long way – 4,000km. It’s going to take about four months and takes us through 13 different countries and four capital cities. The expedition itself kicks off on April 21 and is also fundraising for the charity, Pancreatic Cancer Action.
How did the idea to kayak the continent come about?
Around October 2017 I was looking for my next big adventure on a website called Explorers Connect, which is essentially an expedition teammate-finding platform, and I saw an advert pop-up. It was a girl, Kate, looking for a kayaking expedition partner. Everything about it lined up quite neatly – the amount of time it was going to take; when she wanted to start it; the fact that it was kayaking, because I knew I wanted to do something different and push myself outside my comfort zone a bit.
It turned out Kate and I are both from Oxford and even went to the same school. We absolutely hit it off. So I was chosen, which was very exciting.
Did you have any kayaking experience prior to this?
Nope! I had kayaked recreationally, for fun, quite casually. Last summer I spent four days sea kayaking with some friends off the coast of Cornwall, so I’ve done little bits here and there but not anything that I’ve had to take particularly seriously.
What’s going to be the most challenging aspect of your kayak expedition?
The funding and getting it off the ground has been a big challenge. After that, it will be the endurance of it. The first section, day one, is kayaking the English Channel. People do that as a challenge in its own right, and we’re continuing for 4000km [laughs]. After that, spending a lot of time with another person. We’re doing it in a tandem kayak and will always be within a couple of feet of each other.
Will you be wild camping or aiming for specific points to spend the night?
We’re going to be wild camping as much as we can but we’ll have an ideal destination in mind when we start each day. It helps mentally to know how far you’ve got to go each day and what’s coming up. So we’re going to try and have that sort of itinerary in place.
As part of the expedition we’re doing water research for an organisation called Fresh Water Watch, and for part of that we’re going to be meeting up with a couple of different groups and communities along the way, and possibly giving some talks in Luxemburg, Vienna, Budapest and Serbia. This gives the expedition a bit of structure because of timings we have to stick to, and helps keep the motivation going.
Tell me about the water research you’re doing?
We’re basically measuring phosphates and nitrates in the water, which gives an indication of the amount of algae. That, in turn, tells us how much oxygen is in the water, which tells us how many plants there are, how much aquatic life there is, and basically how healthy that water is. We’re also looking at the turbidity, which is how clear the water is, and the salt levels. That all ties into pollution running into the water from urban areas and agricultural products. It tells you a bit about what’s going on in that water.
It’s pretty urban where you’re kayaking, so you’re not expecting rapids or strong currents are you?
There’s definitely no white water – we’ll be really screwed if there is! There will be quite strong sections of water – the Rhine in particular is a very fast flowing river and we’ll spend a bit of time paddling along it. The Danube as well gets really big, and quite choppy if it’s bad weather. You can encounter a pretty full-on environment, so we’re actually going in a sea kayak even though we’re not in the sea, apart from the English Channel. But we need a boat that will be able to deal with quite big sections like that.
We also need something that has the capacity to hold all our camping equipment and food. We’ll be self-sufficient, but as we’re very close to civilisation we won’t have to plan too far ahead in terms of our food. There are some more remote sections going through Serbia and the Bulgaria-Romanian border where we’ll have to plan ahead a little bit and take up to a week’s worth of food.
What kind of distance are you hoping to kayak each day?
It will depend on what kind of section of river we’re on. When we get to the Danube, which is 3/5ths of the journey, we want to be averaging about 60km a day. Before that it will be a lot harder to reach that distance because there are a lot of locks. They will take up a lot of our time because we will have to portage around them – get all of our kit out, get the kayak, which weights 40kg, out of the water, carry it round to the other side. Depending on the size of the lock that could take anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour and a half.
How have you been training?
We’ve been spending a lot of time in the gym, pretty much focusing on upper body and core, because you use your core a lot to counter balance. We’re been really unlucky with the river – there’s been so much rain and snow that it’s been high and fast and we haven’t been allowed out much to kayak. To make up for that we’ve been doing a lot of free weights in the gym focusing on shoulders and arms, and cardio. It’s been tiring but rewarding.
Away from kayaking, you tackled your first 4000m mountain climb last year – how was that?
That was Mount Toubkal in Morocco, the highest peak in North Africa, and it was absolutely awesome. It was the first big mountain I’ve done. It was really hard work and I felt the altitude a bit towards the summit. Not enough that I had to stop. It was so, so rewarding. We got to the summit as the sun was rising and it was sensational.
You’ve done a lot of long-distance treks, including the Camino de Santiago?
Yes, I’ve trekked 500 miles across the north of Spain which was along the Camino de Santiago, and the year after that I went back and walked 1000 miles which was 500 miles across France and 500 miles across Spain via a slightly different route. When I’d walked the 500 miles I was absolutely hooked and so sad it was over. I immediately knew the next year I was going to go and have to do something similar but more epic, more of a challenge.
At the end of the 1000 mile trek I finished on my 21st birthday which was a really bizarre day because I felt very proud I’d achieved something epic but at the same time I knew it was over and that was heart-breaking. I’d spent the last 3 months, every single day, walking. And then it was all finished.
Was it strange going from having so much purpose to resuming normal life again?
Post-expedition blues is a very real thing. It is that purpose – you wake up every single day and you know what you have to achieve. It’s quite a straight-forward route to that goal at the end of the day. And then you come back home and suddenly there are so many different distractions; you don’t have that great goal you’re working towards, and that can be really confusing.
I’ve learned that you’ve got to find people who get what you’re going through and spend lots of time with them; start thinking about your next big adventure as well, and another thing I’ve found helped is writing about my trip. Sort of reliving it and not quite letting myself completely move on from it, more weaning myself off it. It can make it easier to deal with the reality of coming home.
When you’re walking such long distances do you have strategies for beating boredom or tiredness?
When I did the 1000 miles in particular, there were certain stretches of that that were really boring. And that was often the biggest challenge of the day; getting through repetitive sections. A lot of the route was along motorways, industrial estates, things like that. Quite often I was thinking, I don’t want to walk along this, I’m here for beautiful scenery! So in those situations the best thing was audio books. I have a very strong imagination so as soon as I start a book, I’m completely oblivious to my surroundings and I can be listening to it for hours on end, completely hooked and absorbed. A couple of hours will pass and I’ve had absolutely no clue what I’ve walked through.
Do you use music or audio books on all your expeditions?
Because I wanted to be present in every moment, I didn’t even take headphones for my 5-week solo trek in the wilderness of Arctic Sweden. Even when I was really struggling, exhausted, hungry or it was bad weather, I wanted to be in that moment and get myself through it without the aid of music and technology… I’m still trying to work out how I got through those moments!
That sounds like a good way to build up mental resilience!
The whole trip was the most rewarding – and epic – thing I’ve done. I was alone, there wasn’t anyone to turn to. I had a phone but didn’t have signal for most of it so I couldn’t text or phone anyone. My phone battery was really precious as well. So when I was really struggling, it was totally down to me. Taking a break, having something to eat, sitting out of the wind and the rain were really helpful so was remembering why you’re there and why you’re doing it. And the fact I had no alternative! There was no way of getting out other than hitting the SOS button on my GPS tracker and getting a helicopter to rescue me – which would cost more money that I had. I had to keep on going. Knowing this was my only option kept me going.
Did you have any hairy moments during your Arctic trek?
The worst moment was about a week into it when my tent collapsed on me in the middle of a storm on the early hours of my birthday. I woke up with wet tent material clinging to my face, borderline suffocating me. That was a pretty hairy, grim moment. Not one I ever want to repeat. In the next couple of days I could only put my tent up if it was incredibly sheltered because all of the poles were bent out of shape.
That actually turned into a really good situation because I got in touch with a company in Sweden and explained what I was doing and that if I didn’t get a new tent it was game over. Not only did they send me a brand new top-of-the-range tent, 20% off, they also treated me to 3 days in a mountain station, with 3 fresh meals a day. They paid for it all, which was a really nice surprise.
When you go on an expedition do you have any packing essentials that you take with you?
I’ve got three things that I cannot live without and that’s my journal – I write every day religiously on trips – my camera and a Kindle. The battery life on those things is so impressive. When I was on that trip in Sweden I read about 30 books or something crazy like that. It was my only form of entertainment in my tent in the evenings and towards the end it was getting dark at 5:30pm and wasn’t getting light until 8:30am the next morning. That’s a lot of time in the dark in the tent with just a head torch. I didn’t want to waste my batteries so I spent a lot of time on the Kindle.
Are there any women in adventure that you find inspiring or you love reading about?
Yes. One of my main inspirations is a woman called Sarah Outen who spent four years circumnavigating the world by bike, kayak and rowing. She overcame some horrendous ordeals to actually keep going. She’s got a book called ‘Dare to Do’ which is one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. She’s giving us some kayaking advice.
Another woman, Anna McNuff, is one of my favourite people. She’s another adventurer and is just fantastically entertaining and has an incredible way of telling stories that’s so engaging. So they are probably two of my favourites.
Do you have any sponsors for your kayaking expedition?
Elsevier been incredibly generous and thanks to them we’ve pretty much hit our funding target to cover the costs of the expedition! On top of that, this trip wouldn’t be possible without the support of some key sponsors, including Peak UK and Helly Hansen who between them have kitted us out. A special thanks also to Mamma Mia Pizzeria – we’re going to be kayaking across the continent proudly displaying their logo on our kayak, a dream come true for me!
To find out more about Anna and her Kayaking the Continent expedition visit www.Annablackwell.co.uk and www.kayakingthecontinent.com. You can also follow Anna via www.instagram.com/annablackwell, www.instagram.com/kayakingthecontinent and www.facebook.com/annablackwelladventure.