Posted on May 16 2018
We are over the moon to share the story of Pip Stewart today - adventurer, journalist and presenter. Pip - alongside Laura Bingham and Ness Knight - recently completed a world-first when they paddled the entire length of The Essequibo, South America's third largest river, from source to sea in just two and a half months.
A highly under-explored part of the world, the journey for the three started in the Acarai Mountains in Southern Guyana from which they followed the 1014km (630 mile) river traversing through remote jungle, untouched rainforest, unknown rapids and contentious gold mining camps until it meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Here's her amazing story:
Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about your background? What were you like you growing up / how would your friends and family have described you?
Stewart: My dad was in the Forces so I had a slightly nomadic childhood where the notion of "home" was more about the people you were with than the physical location - a theme that has transitioned into my adult life.
I've always loved to travel, was a chatty kid (although secretly shy at heart) and used to love making up songs in the garden which I'd belt out at full volume. It turns out my singing is shit but I've kept hold of my love of words through my writing and poetry.
Growing up I think my friends and family would probably describe me as slightly unhinged, a mad dancer, and an exam stress-head (I was a bit of a swot) - but hopefully a good friend.
Bardega: Can you tell us more about your career path as a journalist and presenter including some highs and lows?
Stewart: I had a false start in business, joining the grad scheme of innocent drinks after uni and a year of travelling. However, it soon became apparent that I was rubbish at selling things. I decided to retrain as a journalist and went to study at Hong Kong University as a way of satisfying my desire to travel again while vaguely doing something that would pass as "work" and "serious life stuff."
I absolutely loved the course and made so many amazing connections and friends there. Whilst studying, I also got experience with companies like CNN, Forbes, the BBC, South China Morning Post, ABC News etc. After graduating I got a job on the local TV station, TVB as an anchor and reporter which was my first proper foray into the world of "telly" - and I've never looked back. I love it. I then spent the next 3-4 years travelling and reporting around Asia as a freelancer before cycling back, 16,000 km from Malaysia to London.
My most embarrassing career cock-up to date was when I completely blanked on a live report at a political protest. I mean totally blanked. Utterly vacant. Fish stuck in a fish bowl vibe. Thankfully the anchor managed to cover it up by citing some technical difficulty but I remember just staring into the camera and thinking "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO." My brain was clearly having a technical difficulty that day. It was a good lesson though - even when things go badly, it's never as bad as you've made it out in your head. Live reports since have been a (semi) doddle as I tell myself that at least I can't cock it up that badly again - I hope!
My career highlight so far was working on a six-part documentary called TransAmazonica with a friend of mine who produced it, explorer Reza Pakravan. It aired internationally including on Al Jazeera. We crossed the Amazon by bike, small planes and dugout boats to look at how deforestation is impacting the indigenous communities that live there. Not only was it an incredible adventure but we also tried to shine a light on some of the destruction that industries like gold mining have on the environment and the people that live there. The journey was really a rollercoaster of emotions - from exhilarating to humbling and, at times, harrowing.
Bardega: What led you to your adventure path? And what drives this passion to do hard things?
Stewart: I'm motivated by connecting with people, I love learning, and often the people with the best stories are located in the most weird and wonderful locations. It pays to get off the beaten track! For me, it's not so much about "doing hard things" but doing unusual things as a way of interacting with parts of the world I'd never otherwise get to see.
Bardega: Along with Laura Bingham and Ness Knight (pictured left and right above) you became the first to ever paddle the length of The Essequibo – what drove you guys to do that and how did you prepare – mentally and physically?
Stewart: Laura's husband, the adventurer Ed Stafford, had been to Guyana for a TV show. He came back and said how incredible it was and how no one had ever paddled the whole length of the river before. After that a seed of an idea was planted in Laura's head. She roped in Ness and me and the rest is history. They are both wonderful women and I learnt some much from both of them. We belly laughed pretty much every day which is testimony to the strength of the team I think.
We all brought different skills and strengths to the expedition. Before we set off we did a team dynamics assessment with Sandy (Loder) from Peak Dynamics, which proved to be invaluable as it made us all aware of our potential blindspots - and how we could work to compliment each other's skillsets. This trip wouldn't have been possible though without the support of the indigenous Wai-Wai community who were our guides and friends along the way. Learning about jungle survival from the world's experts was truly a privilege. I for one would probably be dead in the jungle if it wasn't for their knowledge. We also had two cameramen join us for different sections of the trip - Peiman Zekavat and Jon Williams, both hugely talented and with a great sense of humour - which counts for a lot on tough, remote expeditions like this.
None of us had much kayaking experience so we sought the help of experts - namely Chris Murin from Leicester Outdoor Pursuits Centre and then David Bain from NRS (our boat sponsor) who both gave us excellent training and helped make sure we were as ready as we could be for the river. We did several training trips with David down in Wales as well as heading to the English Canoe Symposium to do white water courses which helped improve our skills. The whole paddling community was fantastic though and we had offers of help come in from the grassroots level right to the top - British Canoeing has been incredibly supportive of what we're up to too. I also enlisted the help of a PT, Dan Peterson, who helped get me fighting fit for expedition.
Mentally, it was a tough trip to get my head around. There were very real dangers involved - both on the water and in the jungle. Rapids, caiman, jaguar, snakes, spiders, scorpions, mosquito borne diseases, heat stroke - to name a few. We did a thorough risk assessment before we left and also met up with the emergency helicopter team we had on standby. However, at the end of the day, we knew if something went seriously wrong we could potentially be days away from medical help. I'm not ashamed to say I had many sleepless nights and bad dreams before we set off and, at times, in the jungle too. Trying to get to sleep when you can hear a jaguar behind your hammock and caiman in front is quite a skill - one I am still trying to master. I remember lying in bed trying to rationalise that I may as well go to sleep as if I'm going to be eaten there's not a great deal I could do about it anyway so I may as well get some kip!
Ironically, I found that my stress response to these physical dangers was similar to the stress response that triggers in me when my phone buzzes with a message or email. This trip was as much about how my modern world collided with a more traditional one and I'm not entirely sure we have developed the right tools and coping mechanisms to function as humans in the 21st century. At least in the jungle when the danger leaves your stress levels do too... I think we'd all benefit from a return to a more natural way of living.
Bardega: What was the highlight of the trip? And can you tell us about any particular low points and how you overcame them?
Stewart: Highlights included making it down the river in one piece (a relief given how clumsy I am), going from being afraid of rapids to absolutely loving them, belly laughing with the girls, learning about survival from the Wai-Wai and living outdoors for two and a half months - it's amazing how alive that makes you feel.
Lowlights consisted of nearly sitting on the most deadly snake in the jungle (a labaria snake, literally inches under my bottom as I got my foot stuck in a rotten log), getting trench foot to the point where I couldn't walk and we were considering evacuation, finding a tick in my bumhole (yes, the actual hole) and having a live caiman between my legs while I was paddling a dugout canoe (the Wai-Wai had caught it to eat and it kept whacking me with its tail).
The snake incident really shook me up though if I'm honest as it forced me to really confront the danger of what it was we were doing - and the fragility of life. I find that a sense of humour in the really low moments helps. Often we can't change the problem but we can change our reaction to it - and there's liberation in that. Singing, uncomfortably loud and out of tune usually helps too. Or a weird dance. Ideally both together.
Bardega: I can imagine. Of all the places you have visited, what communities do you remember the most and why?
Newnham: The beauty of travel is that you realise that the world is full of teachers - and, ironically, they might even be sat right next to you on the bus, train, or in your office right now. Adventures give you time and space to have long, deep and meaningful conversations but there's no reason why we can't initiate them at home - indeed we should.
One of my favourite learnings from my travels comes from Nigel, one of our Wai-Wai guides, a sparky 16-year-old. He offered me a piece of advice on the horrifically arduous trek to the source of the Essequibo that has stuck with me since: "Pip, it's hard. You look like you want to cry. Don't cry. Just look forwards, don't look back. When you look back, you will cry." The Wai-Wai have been my favourite community I've ever encountered - firstly because of the communal nature of the village, their respect for their environment - and the need to protect it - and their open-heartedness.
Bardega: Who / what inspires you and why?
Stewart: Nature is probably where I draw a large amount of my inspiration and energy, I really can't think of anything man-made that is more beautiful, more powerful or more healing.
People-wise, it would be my parents, my sister Jo, family at large, my partner Charlie, and friends who consistently show me what can be achieved when you're surrounded by people who help fan the fires inside of you. If I could meet anyone in the public eye though it would be Barack Obama. His people skills strike me as insane and he genuinely seems to want to connect with others. I'd love to have a chat about life over a whisky!
Bardega: What is next for you?
Stewart: I am off to Norway in July with the marines. They are traversing the length of the country and have invited me to join them for a section. Other than that, I will be plugging away on the book about the Essequibo adventure, doing speaking gigs and generally plotting escapes. I've also started a mini-series on Instagram called #ExploreHappy where I ask people I meet on my travels what they think makes people happy in life. I'm keen to show that we are more united by our similarities than our differences. At the end of the day, we're all just trying to do the best we can with the insecurities, frailties and cock-ups that come with being human.
Bardega: If you could go back in time - what advice, if any, would you give a younger Pip?
- 1. Stop hating on your body, it gets you from A to B and you'll come to see that those legs you think are "chunky" are actually just strong. Movement is a gift, see your body for what it does for you, not what it looks like. Get outside more, nature doesn't judge you as harshly as yourself. Say thank you more for the way it works and stop being mean to it. Health is the greatest gift you have. And those wobbly bits? They're actually pretty cool...
- 2. You know that tye-dye all-in-one outfit circa 1997 that you think you look really good in? You don't. Trust me on this.
- 3. Don't worry so much about exams - you perform better when you relax - and truthfully, no one ever really asks what results you got. Focus on reaching out to people, building connections and being nice along the way - that's what really matters.
Bardega: You often ask others what makes them happy – what makes you happy?
Stewart: What makes me happy? Connection. Connecting with people, nature and myself. Dancing like a lunatic - I try and do this as often as possible, regardless of who is watching. Poetry, good conservation and good food in the presence of loved ones. Often it's the little things in life that make me happy, be that observing water droplets on a leaf or watching a sunset while lying on grass. Ironically, I think it's the little things that turn out to be the big things in the end.
My advice about leading a happier life would be to listen more. Everyone can teach you something, so go beyond surface chit-chat and ask people about what really matters to them. Listen to understand, not to respond, and you'll be amazed at how much you can learn about living a more fulfilled life. When it comes to people listening to you, don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Show the real you, without guards, and you'll find you start attracting people who light you up and stoke that fire inside of you.
Photography by Jon Williams except for picture of all 3 women and Pip with child in river by Peiman Zekavat