Pip Stewart - Adventurer
Pip Stewart is an adventurer, journalist and presenter. Her latest challenge, alongside seasoned adventurers Laura Bingham and Ness Knight, saw her become one of the first people ever to paddle the length of the Essequibo River in South America from source to sea. This year National Go Canoeing Week, runs from 26th May - 3rd June. We caught up with Pip ahead of this to discuss her latest expedition and pick up her top tips for hitting the water and taking on your own adventure.
Hi Pip! Lovely to meet you…welcome back to the UK! How are you finding being back on dry land!?
I think I’m still suffering from reverse culture shock! Having spent nearly three months in remote jungle it has been a jolt to the system landing back into London life - the noise, the consumption, the fast pace - it’s manic. It was such a joy to spend the last few months on the water. Rapids aside, paddling is an extremely peaceful activity.
You hadn’t done much paddling before you decided to paddle the length of the third largest river in South America…what possessed you!?
Nope, it’s fair to say my paddling skills were limited, I’d tried it a bit on holiday in New Zealand - and hated it. I was recovering from glandular fever at the time and absolutely shattered. I’d ruled it out as a sport entirely but I am so grateful I gave it another go as I love it now.
Before I went to Guyana I was invited to spend a day at Lee Valley with Olympic gold medalist and Red Bull athlete Joe Clarke. That was a lot of fun and although I spent most of the day swimming I came away feeling massively exhilarated.
The Essequibo trip came about as Laura Bingham is a friend of mine. Her husband, the explorer Ed Stafford (best known for walking the length of the Amazon), had done some filming in Guyana and said it was absolutely stunning, like Disneyland for nature. He planted the seed of an idea in Laura’s mind and it grew from there. She then roped in Ness and I and the rest is history.
Where did you train for the expedition? How quickly did you pick up the skills you needed?
Wales - the obvious choice for a hot, humid, jungle expedition…ha ha. The climates could not have been more different. We were in dry suits in Wales (note to any other newbies, make sure ALL the zips are done up properly, especially if you’re liable to capsize. I made this error. It was a cold lesson!)
Because we had a great wider team in place it was amazing how quickly you can learn. We did a white water course at the British Canoe Symposium and it was great to see how much more confident I became - even in a weekend.
One thing to stress though is that when we headed out to Guyana we were all acutely aware that we were not high-level kayakers. Knowing our skill set was key when it came to choosing what rapids to run and which ones to portage around. That was the beauty of the Essequibo in a sense - it was a challenge for us but not so technical that we couldn’t do it. Any paddler in search of serious white water would probably overlook this river but for us it was perfect!
Now you’re a paddling expert, if you had just one day to paddle anywhere in the world, where would you go?
Geez, I’m no expert, ha ha!
Tough call but I’d probably head to Scotland. The north-west coast is insanely beautiful.
I also met Al Pace who runs Canoe North Adventures in Canada at the British canoe symposium. Not only was he (and his son) incredibly helpful in terms of helping us plan a route in Guyana, his pictures of paddling in Canada look immense so I would love to paddle there.
For National Go Canoeing Week 2018, our theme to get the nation paddling is ‘The Big Adventure.’ What does adventure mean to you?
Adventure is the chance to get out, be at one with nature - and yourself. Ultimately it’s about feeling connected. You feel the elements, I may look like a drowned rat at times but I feel like a million dollars; adventure makes me feel alive.
What advice would you give to anyone undertaking their own adventure, what top tips would you share?
1. Remove those doubts from your head that say you can’t - and don’t be afraid of laughing at yourself when learning a new skill. I was utterly rubbish a few months ago when I started kayaking. I spent more time swimming than I would have liked when learning to navigate rapids! Just laugh.
2. If you’re attempting a more challenging adventure reach out to those with experience, you’ll find people are usually very happy to help. The outdoors community is fantastic and we have some seriously amazing teachers here in the UK. Upskilling is fun and you’re likely to meet like-minded people who you’ll want to go on adventures with.
Is there anything you learnt about paddling while you were on your adventure that you perhaps didn’t know before or cover in your training?
It was fascinating watching the different stroke styles of all the paddlers on the team - from Ness and Laura to the Wai Wai. It made me realise that, at the end of the day, technique matters but it’s not the be all and end all. We all got down the river.
I think it’s easy to get hung up on “am I doing this right” and lose sight of the ultimate joy of being outside and enjoying exercise.
Paddling was obviously a huge part of your latest adventure. What was your paddling highlight?
Just how much I enjoyed it! I found it to be almost meditative on the flat sections - you really feel immersed in the landscape and part of nature.
Will you be continuing to paddle here in the UK? We’ve just launched a new challenge route in London just to tempt you…
Hell yes! I AM IN.
You can find our full interview with Pip and read more about her journey down the Essequibo River in the next edition of Canoe Focus, out in July!
If Pip’s adventure has inspired you to take to the water then National Go Canoeing Week is the perfect time! Whether you’re a seasoned paddler who wants to clock up the miles, or a complete novice who has never tried paddling before, you’ll find plenty to get involved with with Starter Sessions, Guided Tours, Events and other activities taking place up and down the country. To find out how you can take part click here.
Feeling inspired? Find out more about Pip’s adventures and the Essequibo expedition here:
Photo credits: @pipstewart Instagram