November 04, 2022 14 min read

Pip Stewart is an adventurer, journalist and presenter who’s no stranger to pushing both mental and physical barriers. Pip has cycled halfway around the world, recently completed a world-first kayak journey through the Amazon with fellow adventurersLaura Bingham and Ness Knight, and survived a flesh-eating parasite. I had the absolute pleasure of chatting to Pip about what sparked her love for the outdoors, found out more about her epic adventures, and found out what’s next on her bucket list.


(Credit: John Oakley)


Thank you for joining us Pip! Could you tell us a little bit about your background? How would your friends/family describe you?

I'm Pip Stewart, and I am a fan of travel and adventure. I've been lucky enough to live in Malaysia and Hong Kong. I cycled back halfway around the world from Malaysia to London. I teamed up with Laura Bingham (who you’ve also spoken to) and Ness Night, who are fellow adventurers and together with the Wai-Wai community in Guyana, we did a world-first source-to-sea expedition. So, essentially, I would sum myself up as someone who loves adventure, a mum and an author, because I recently wrote a book about our journey called ‘Life Lessons from the Amazon.’


You’ve now become a well-known adventurer and have been on many amazing expeditions, some of which you have touched upon already. When did you first find your love of the outdoors?

I think it was from my parents! We loved walking, we'd always go on walking holidays and things like that. My dad was in the Forces so we moved around a lot when I was kid and I think that really helped instil that love for adventure and just being outside. In terms of bigger expeditions, I'd say it's the Duke of Edinburgh Award. So at school, we had the opportunity to learn about how to navigate properly and go out on expeditions. I went out with all my mates, and inevitably, we got lost, you know, got stuck in a cow field and stuff like that. It's just a really fun thing thinking that actually, we're really capable of a lot more than we think. I think that was kind of what really got me into sort of doing more longer form of travel.


(Credit: Jon Williams)


In 2013, you cycled home from Malaysia to London, covering 10,000 miles and 26 countries in a year on your bike. What inspired you to undertake this? What sort of obstacles did you encounter? 

My partner, Charlie and I, were living and working in Malaysia. We'd always talked about coming back overland. He said to me one day ‘Why don’t we cycle it?’ You know, I'm not an athlete, I am very slow, usually powered by cake. I just thought he has completely lost the plot. You know, I like being outdoors, but I'm not properly sporty if you know what I mean. But eventually, I thought, yeah, why not? If I can sit at my desk, from nine to five, I can sit on a bike from nine to five. We set off and I think because I told people I was going to cycle halfway around the world, that's what I thought I'd do. Then three weeks in, realised I was massively unfit, I hadn't really trained for this at all, I couldn't get up the smallest hill that we encountered, and just sort of threw my bike down at the side of the road and had a massive tantrum and just tried break up with Charlie, poor guy. I was like, ‘you picked the wrong woman, I can't do this!’ He said to me, look, these aren't physical journeys, these are mental ones. Once I got my head around that, then I just sort of cracked on and we went really slowly. I mean, it took us 13 months. I'm sure Charlie could have done it in six. It was a really useful lesson for me because you don't have to be the fittest, the fastest, or the strongest. I've never been any of those things on an expedition. But it's just if you want to go and do it, give it a go! Who cares if you're bloomin’ slow, do you know what I mean? And that was really powerful. Then when we turned up in the centre of London in Westminster by Big Ben and we had our friends and family waiting with banners, it was a real confidence-boosting moment for me because I was like, wow, do you know what, this is unfit cake-eater has actually managed to cycle over mountain ranges just because it's been so gradual. That was really powerful, just kind of understanding that the limit is probably more in your head than your body because your body will catch up eventually, like, just go slow, and don't push it too hard. And yeah, it's something that I've sort of taken going forward as well.

I think this is one of the things about the adventurer community is that quite often it looks quite terrifying from the outside. I mean, I don't know about you, but I see on Instagram, all these pictures of very airbrush women, who seem to have no sweat at the top of a hill looking so glam. And I'm like, that is not the reality of things! A lot of people say the outdoors is accessible, but I think in some ways, it's not, and in some ways, we need to kind of address those barriers to entry whether that's financial or mental.


In 2016, your adventures took you on a 3,000-mile cycle, boat and plane journey exploring Brazil and Peru. What were the main objectives of this expedition?

So a man called Reza Pakravan, who's a producer and filmmaker got in touch and said ‘I'm looking for someone with cycling and journalistic experience to look into deforestation, would you be up for it?’ And I was like, absolutely. The point of the expedition was to travel along something called the trans-Amazonian highway in Brazil, looking at how deforestation has impacted people on the ground. That was a really kind of eye-opening, massively humbling journey because I saw sort of first-hand the choices that I'm making as a consumer, and how that plays into global politics and the environment. So it was a real kind of take a breath away moment almost because I suddenly linked myself more to these global issues that were going on. When you hear about people being murdered, because loggers are trying to use their land, and we've seen the burning of the Amazon for cattle ranching and things like that, and, you know, it's just devastating, and then to put human faces to those stories, really made me reconsider what I buy and where it comes from.


(Credit: Reza Pakravan)


In 2018, you joined adventurers Laura Bingham and Ness Knight to take on a world’s first - paddling the entire length of The Essequibo, South America's third largest river, from source to sea. You, unfortunately, contracted a flesh-eating parasite! Could you tell us a little bit more about this endeavour?

Yeah, so I caught something called Leishmaniasis, which was a bit of a bugger to say the least! It's one of those things you never think it's going to happen to you, we had done some really thorough risk assessments before we set out and I knew that sandflies can cause this really nasty bite, which essentially contains a flesh-eating parasite which encourages the body to attack itself. I just didn't expect it to be lunching on my neck. I came back to London with this really pussy crusty thing on my neck. And I just thought, you know, in the jungle, you're covered in bites, you're just used to discomfort. But this one didn't go away. I went to the hospital for tropical diseases in London and saw Professor Chris Whitty, actually, who referred me to a dermatologist and essentially they said to me, yes, you've got a flesh-eating parasite and it is pretty serious. If you don't have a form of chemo, essentially it could eat your nose and your soft palate and ultimately eat away at your face. So I was like alright sign me up for this highly toxic medicine. Through this whole experience, I learned that neglected tropical diseases that are a massive problem across the world, you know, 98 countries and over a billion people are at risk and this disease is the second biggest parasitic killer after Malaria. But treatment options are limited and super outdated. Like I said chemo from the 1950s. There's just no research and investment into it really because of the monetary incentive. So now I spend a lot of my time trying to raise awareness of neglected tropical diseases because that global health care and equality were probably more terrifying than anything we encountered in the jungle. You know, I'm super lucky, my hole in my neck cleared up, but you never know if it's gone away. So for the rest of my life, I've basically just got to check and see if anything pops up in my nose, any holes or anything in my mouth or anything like that. But I'm lucky, you know, my friend, Faye who joined us for a little bit on the expedition in Guyana is from a remote community. She said she put boiling cow fats into the lesions to steer out the parasites. So, to me, it just seems odd that in the 21st century, we're kind of stuck between treatment options that are outdated chemotherapy or burning yourself with cow fat. You never wish yourself to go through these things. But there's a silver lining in it in the sense of raising awareness of an issue.


(Credit: Jon Williams)


Has it put you off adventuring at all?

No, I think that trip we did to Guyana was definitely one that made you think because every day we were doing something that could potentially end our lives. You know, you're dealing in an environment where there's spiders, snakes, scorpions, I had to flick a scorpion off Laura that was crawling up the back of her neck. I saw it when we were on the boat and you know, I'm there with my paddle trying to get it between her shoulder and her neck and flick it off. We were weeks away from medical help. When we were hiking to the source of the river, I got my foot stuck between a log and a dead piece of wood. Laura goes from behind me, oh my god, there's a snake. Literally two inches under my bottom was something called the Labaria Snake, which is known for its fast, swift and deadly attacks. I just think god, if I'd have sat down on that log to try and free my foot, I wouldn't be here. Luckily Jackson, one of our guides from the Wai-Wai community appeared over me with a machete and just killed the snake. It left a real mark on me because I was like, geez, you know, that snake just could have killed me. I could be dead. It was one of those things where it's like, every day you kind of encounter something not quite as extreme as that, but you know, I fell out my kayak, I went down rapids backwards, and I just think I'm very lucky to be alive after that, to be honest. So no, it hasn't put me off adventure. Now that I'm a mum, I'm probably not going to go on such a long expedition, because it was three months, but I’m definitely keen to do more expeditions.

There was also a point where a Jaguar came through our camp halfway through the trip. We had Ed, Laura’s husband and Charlie my husband come out. At three in the morning he suddenly went I think I felt something go under my hammock and I'm like, nah, you just get used to it this is just how it is in the jungle. And next thing we know one of the guides is chasing out a Jaguar that just brushed under his bottom. So like what an introduction to life in the jungle. He was like I’m going to get eaten, and you have to try to rationalise in your brain, you’re like well if I'm going to get eaten at least it's going to be quick. Sometimes it's hard to sleep anyway, and having these weird conversations with yourself at 3am about whether you're going to be eaten by a Jaguar definitely doesn’t help you sleep!


Pip Stewart after catching Leishmaniasis


What was your favourite country you have adventured to and why? What was the scariest country and why?

I really enjoyed cycling through Kazakhstan. There were a lot of times on our bike trip when we were just completely alone. We'd find water in streams and things like that and just the big nature, we cycled across something called the Asy Plateau and I remember just the most beautiful camp spots and the stars and just Charlie and I, literally in the wilderness was quite an incredible experience.  

I wouldn't say any countries are particularly scary, because I think people are usually good in most places that you travel to, but we did have a scary experience on our bike trip. Guyana, you know, sitting on a deadly snake flesh-eating parasite aside. In Tajikistan, on the border with Afghanistan, we were wild camping, and essentially, we cycled into a field of unexploded mortars. So we gingerly wheeled our bikes back going, oh god, we don't want to disturb any of these old bombs essentially. We found what we thought was a good spot a bit further down. But in the morning, I pulled my tent peg out and next to my tent peg was another unexploded mortar. And so essentially, we had just been camping in this minefield. We were unbelievably lucky. We went to the authorities when we got back and just said, FYI, this area seems a little dangerous, you might want to go and clear it. And someone said, oh, yes, we had a cow blow up around there the other day. So I think we were we were quite lucky in that regard. 


(Credit: Chinami Uematsu) 


Have you ever come close to abandoning an expedition?

Yeah, I'd say on that cycle ride, you know, we didn't do any training for the trip. I hadn’t cycled with loaded panniers until the day we sent off. My ego got in the way, you know when I said like three weeks in I threw my bike down on the side of the road, because yeah essentially I told everyone I’m going to do this amazing trip, and my body just couldn't cope. That was when the whole these aren't physical journeys they’re mental ones really kind of came into effect.

The only other time was I was invited to join the Marines on an expedition to Norway. This was just after our Guyana trip and what I didn't realise was I'd come back with glandular fever, as well as this flesh-eating parasite. I was absolutely shattered. I was later diagnosed with ME and I was trying to keep up with the Marines on a bicycle during the time when there was a World Cup football match on and the Marines were desperate to catch it. I was just cycling along and the Marines don't leave any man or woman behind. I just remember these Marines pushing my back, pushing me up this hill, and taking it in turns, cycling up as fast as they could. Obviously, I didn't realise I had glandular fever at the time, and subsequently was absolutely exhausted. But at that point, I thought, actually, do you know what? We had to catch a ferry in order to get to the hospital to watch the football match so I said, I’m going to tap out of this one so that the Marines can watch their football match and could get to where they wanted to on time. But other than that, no I haven’t abandoned an expedition or come close to. You really do just have to listen to your body though and in that instance, I was clearly ill. My mind was telling me to keep going with the Marines but my body was telling me to stop.


What's at the top of your bucket list?

I'd say it's just family travel, like introducing my children to the amazing world that we live in. And yeah, I found it ironic that the last time I was in Norway, I was with Marines. And this time I'm in Norway with Willow, my daughter, my two-year-old. And I'm pulling her up a rock and last time I was scaling a glacier. But for me, that sensation of teaching her something and learning about the world is, in many ways, the biggest adventure.


What’s the one piece of advice you have for somebody wanting to take on their first big adventure?

My favourite sort of quote, I'd suppose, is that “everyone can teach you something.” I think that really applies when you're starting out on a big expedition, or a big adventure, or anything really, ask for help. Don't be too proud, too because I think the most important thing when you're doing anything is to have a bit of a sense of humour about how rubbish you are. Because that way, you're starting from a low base, and no one expects you to be good at something. On our kayaking journey, for example, we opened our hearts and minds to the adventure community and said, look, we're doing this trip, can anyone help and we received so much support from people helping plot maps to teaching us to kayak, you know, we were basically beginner kayakers before we set off and we went to train in Wales on the River Dee and we had so many amazing people support us. It really was a journey where we were standing on the shoulders of giants. That's the beautiful thing about the adventure and outdoors community is I think people are really genuinely nice people who want to help other people experience the wonder of the outdoors. So yeah, ask for help have a sense of humour, and just remember, everyone can teach you something.


Great advice! Finally, do you have any more big adventures on the cards?

Myself, my husband and my daughter have just come back from a camper waggon trip around Scandinavia. That was really fun. We also did a house swap in Canada over the summer, and that actually is a really amazing thing to do and I recommend it to people, especially with the whole financial crisis going on. If you want to travel further afield, look at something like house swaps because accommodation is one of the biggest expenses or camping as well, which really reduces expenses. That was brilliant and we've had an amazing summer. And then next big adventure, I'm pregnant! So I'm due to have a second baby end of January. I’ve got some more family travel plans for late next year but I think my focus over the next couple of months is probably cooking a small baby.


(Credit: Peiman Zekavat)


Now for some quick-fire questions:

  1. Favourite way to relax and unwind?

    I love a bath with Epsom salts.

  2. Land or sea?


  3. Is there anything you're afraid to try?

    I'm not a massive fan of weird animal intestine things.

  4. Who or what is your biggest inspiration?

    My parents for sure. They’re two people I really respect and admire. I’m also inspired by people who brush themselves off when the going gets tough. It's not necessarily a celebrity or anyone in particular, it's just people who overcome adversity because I've got so much respect for it that mental resilience or just kind of falling down and getting back up again. I think it's an amazing trait.

  5. What's your must-have piece of outdoor equipment?

    It depends on where you are. It's a machete if you're going anywhere really remote, or mosquito repellent.

  6. Do you have any superstitions or rituals?

    I find mantra really useful. When we were getting close to the finish line in Guyana, I kept saying to myself, as we were paddling, you can do this, you are doing this. So I find words are incredibly powerful. And yeah, repeating words to yourself and positive affirmation is really very powerful.

  7. What's your favourite post-adventure meal? 

    Oh, I love eggs and avocado.


Thank you so much to Pip for sharing this with us. You can read up more about her and keep up to date with her expeditions on her website and Instagram. Also, check out Pip’s incredible book, Life Lessons from the Amazon - it’s such an inspiring read!

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