Image courtesy of Jon Williams.
Before her regional tour of the UK gets underway, we caught up with adventurer, journalist and presenter Pip Stewart to discuss her love of travel, her visits to the Amazon and the stories she can’t wait to share.
Tell us a bit about your background – have you always been interested in travel?
Absolutely! My dad was in the Forces so we moved around a lot as a family. I think those infected with the travel bug will know what I mean when you say once it’s taken root it never really goes away. I love how it connects you to yourself, others and the world around you. Travelling is my favourite way to learn about the world - the people in it are our greatest teachers.
Over the past few years you have taken part in a number of expeditions in the Amazon. What made you want to travel in this region in particular? What keeps you going back?
The Amazon has this call for me. It’s a place where life and death seem to teeter on a knife edge. It’s a place I’ve never felt more human. In remote jungle you are sharply reminded of our animalistic nature and how we’re not always top of the food chain. For me, it’s a place of surprise, of fear, of feeling unbelievably alive.
Then there are the stories contained within the canopy - both environmental and human. I grew up with this message that the Amazon is in trouble but going to the place reinforced what a special part of our world this is - and why humanity needs to protect it.
What level of training and preparation is needed for expeditions like this?
Before my recent kayaking expedition we made sure we found the right experts - right through from learning how to paddle to managing white water. The paddling community was amazing and offered us so much support. Then there was a case of making sure we had the right kit, jabs, medical training, risk assessment - and crucially knowing where our limits lay. All three of us were beginner kayakers when we started and although we trained extensively in the run up to the trip we also knew what was too much to bite off in terms of white water.
Your work always includes meeting and interviewing local people- are there any stories which have stood out for you?
There have been some heart-breaking stories which I will never forget. I interviewed a woman called Diana Rios in Peru whose father had been murdered by illegal loggers. She is now trying to raise awareness of the need of indigenous communities to have more land rights to protect their homelands. There was not a dry eye anywhere during that interview and it really hit home how deforestation is a matter of life and death for those on the ground.
Then there was an unexpected tale of heartbreak when we were filming in an eco-tourism lodge in Peru. We expected the story to be about the benefits of eco-tourism to the area as an alternative to gold mining. Over dinner I started asking questions to one of the workers, Wilfer, and it turns out his wife had died a few weeks previously due to mercury poisoning from the gold mining. His heartbreak left the entire crew devastated. You can’t help but leave environments like that deeply changed.
Your talks cover cattle ranching, deforestation and gold mining, topics that seem much removed from life in the UK. What was it about these particular issues that struck you?
They were so unexpected for me if I’m honest. I first went to the Amazon mainly out of curiosity. When I dug further into the issues it was hard not to want to make more noise about what’s going on out there. That’s part of the issue I have with being a journalist - I can show what’s going on - and then what?! I hope that through sharing my stories more people can come up with ideas and solutions.
Have you got any more expeditions coming up? Where are you going, and what are you hoping to achieve?
At the core of what I do is to try and help people live more meaningful and fulfilled lives. For me, this is through travel and being outdoors as I find this is the best way I personally connect meaningfully - but everyone is different. In October I have been invited to witness the ancient monastic practice of connecting with nature with the yamabushi – the mountain monks of Japan. I can’t wait for this journey.
What can audiences expect from your Regional Theatres tour?
Raw, honest emotion. My time in the Amazon has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be human - from feeling abject fear as a jaguar walked through camp to the heart-breaking tales of the people that live there. I hope the audience will walk away knowing more about the issues but also more about themselves and how they function in the 21st century. At least that’s the plan…
Raising awareness about environmental issues is clearly something you are very passionate about- is there a take home message that you would like audiences to come away with?
Everyone can teach you something.
Pip Stewart’s ‘Reflections from the Amazon’ is part of the Society’s Regional Theatres Programme. Book your spot now to hear more about her amazing journeys.
18 September at 7.30pm, Grantham – book now.
19 September at 7.30pm, Stamford – book now.
1 October at 7.30pm, Brecon – book now.
2 October at 8.00pm, Southampton – book now.
23 October at 7.30pm, King’s Lynn – book now.
24 October at 7.30pm, Exeter – book now.
6 November at 8.00pm, Darlington – book now.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the successful completion of the British Trans-Arctic Expedition led by Sir Wally Herbert, his daughter will tell the story of the four men who were the first to reach the North Pole on foot at the Monday night lecture on 1 April.
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