The Welsh long-distance walker on spending nearly three years walking 8,850km/5,500 miles home from Ukraine, passing through 14 countries and a global pandemic.
By Rebecca Swirsky
High up in the Pyrenees
Did your ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2011 make you more adventurous?
I was adventurous before the diagnosis, but afterwards there was this sense of ‘I could have died, and that would have been it.’ Walking emerged from this fairly reactive fog, a place of blindly making choices, of fumblingly thinking: ‘This is the only thing that makes sense in this moment.’ Seeing two points on a map and joining them with the power of my body was born less from a formal rambling culture per se and more a ‘Why don’t I do that?’ philosophy. I wouldn’t say I was a free spirit, but a spirit that needs to be free; that can’t bear to be controlled. And where cancer leaves you physically and emotionally vulnerable, the vulnerability of wild camping, of not knowing where you’ll be sleeping at night, offers a self-sufficiency and confidence. Long-distance walking happens to be the thing that offers me a way forward, a way of being in the world.
You hitched from Wales to Kiev and walked back. How did you plan such a journey?
There’s no doubt it’s an enormously intimidating prospect. Contemplating such a big concept, I needed to think small and do what felt right, which meant giving in to my body’s natural pace. Only by breaking things down, and then down again, did the pieces become manageable. So I’d think: ‘I’m going to walk until my next rest day, or across this part of the country, or to the border, or until the weather turns…’ Logistically, there was generally one rest day a week, and one rest week every eight weeks – which meant stretching, washing clothes, writing a blog, watching TV if I was in a hotel. And that, basically, was how I did it.
How did the pandemic affect the walk?
Lockdown was the exact opposite of my normal, usual freedom, being completely indoors [March-June 2020 was spent alone in a house in a small French village]. When restrictions lifted, it felt wonderful to be alone in nature. Being a stranger in towns and villages was hard, with everyone retreating to their known worlds. I was also acutely aware of my potential to spread infection. A heavy burden to carry, adding to the weight of my rucksack. That said, connections I did make were perhaps more profound. On the Camino de Santiago pilgrim trail, it was a snowy winter, I was camping, and for a week the temperature stayed below zero all day, dropping to minus eight degrees Celsius. In the early stages, I met a priest. Where there would usually be 20-30 people passing per week, I was the sole person. The priest felt any pilgrims journeying in those conditions were having the truest Camino experience, because suffering was integral to the pilgrim process.
Among sunflowers in Provence
Do you feel you have inspired others?
I do think public appreciation for female walkers has moved on from seeing women as public trailblazers. On Instagram, women from every corner are kicking ass, doing what they want. Having said that, I’m also probably underestimated because I’m a woman and I don’t appear very athletic.
Did you have any moments of self-doubt?
Confidence is mental. It’s not having the knife, but acting as if you had the knife. I’m an anxious person. At home, I’ll easily beat myself up, imagining the worst-case scenario. But when you’re actually out there, you’re too busy dealing with what’s going on to have the distance to worry. So, if you lose the path, or suddenly discover that a giant precipice has appeared beneath you, there’s no time to freak out. You’re intensely concentrating, carrying out your checklist, undertaking your risk assessment... When was your last drink? How much food are you carrying? How much battery do you have left? A laser focus comes into play, obliterating all pain and discomfort.
Tell us about a particularly memorable moment?
Yes, when I encountered my first mountain bear. I was in Bosnia, close to the border with Montenegro, climbing into my tent, when I saw the bear. She was on the other side of a porous limestone depression with her two cubs. I made the bear aware of my presence – in a happy, calm manner, I said hello. The bear dropped down and, with its two cubs, went away. But I had to talk to myself. I was a day-and-a-half trek from the nearest road and, I belatedly realised, deep in bear territory. I managed to pack up and get myself moving. After a while, I realised two things: I wouldn’t get out of bear territory before dark and my eyes were poking out of my head with nerves. So I stopped, found another spot and put the tent up. Eventually, I did fall asleep, though I was certain every noise was bear-related.
(Right: Wild camping in the snowy Romanian Carpathians)
Which country surprised you most?
Moving from one landscape to another can be a real geographical jolt to the system. North and south of the Danube offer startlingly different geographies. South of the Carpathians, in Romania, lies a big, flat floodplain, or what would have been a floodplain relating to the Danube, while on the other side, in Bulgaria, between the Danube river and the Stara Planina mountains, lies this intense, very craggy crevice, with high rocks rearing either side – an utterly unexpected place.
What did you learn along the way?
In two years and nine months, not one person was mean to me. In fact, everyone told me how brilliant and inspiring I was. One challenge, having returned, is having ongoing relationships with people for more than half an hour. I must also learn to buy other people drinks!
Arriving at Finisterre
What have you got planned next?
In January, to mark the 10-year anniversary of my ovarian cancer diagnosis, I’ll be walking from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in 83 days. I’ll begin on the day I saw the doctor and finish the day I entered follow-up treatment (meaning no more cancer is detected). To achieve all this within the magic number of 83, I’ll be imposing a daily parameter of 14 miles with no rest days. I hope I will be ready for the challenge. For me, adventure inhabits the space between risk and idiocy. It feels creative, artistic, and it comes from somewhere rebellious.
www.onewomanwalks.com (opens in a new window)
What’s your favourite
Machynlleth has a picturesque, glorious loop between Aran Fawddwy and Cadair Idris, which takes four to five days and is around 60 miles. It’s satisfying to walk in your local area.
For 10 years, I’ve walked to my post-cancer check-up, taking me across the very green Clifton Down, along Whiteladies Road to St Michael’s Hospital in Bristol. I celebrate with a pint.
Currently, it’s Cadair Idris, covered by bracken and trees.
Despite the fact that it’s bigger than an inflatable version, I’ve never regretted carrying my fluff-filled pillow from Trespass.
In winter, hot chocolate and cognac combined.