The Wander Woman – an interview with Phoebe Smith

Photography by Phoebe Smith

An award-winning travel writer, photographer and broadcaster Phoebe Smith chats to WanderOwl about her extreme sleepouts, bedtime travel stories for grown-ups, support for wildlife conservation and quest to change the face of adventure. 

Hi Phoebe, nice chatting with you. You have been called an outdoor guru and a veteran globetrotter.  Was there a single event which began your adventures, or was it a slow-burn infatuation with the world around you?

Well, the funny thing is that actually as a kid I wasn’t interested in travel or adventure at all. I was actually quite a homebody. I think the defining time happened when I was coming to the end of high school and I genuinely didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I was good at writing and I loved telling stories, but I didn’t really know what to do with that. I didn’t really want to get a proper job and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to university or not. So, I took some time out and realised that actually I wanted to see a bit more of the world.  I went to USA to work on a Fairground, just for a summer. I worked solidly for three months with barely a day off. At the end I had enough money to travel for a couple of weeks. I remember, I got so much out of it; my confidence grew and I wanted to explore even more. That was the very initial seed that set me off. I knew I wanted to do something where I get to travel and explore and write about it. 

You are best known for your extreme sleeping adventures. Where did the love of camping in the wild and strange places come from?

When I finished schooI I went on a big trip to Australia where I got a job on a travel magazine as a writer. I was asked to go and sleep in a swag bag which is this rollaway waterproof bed that drovers would sleep out in when moving their cattle through the Outback.  So, I did that and I remember thinking: I am overseas, in the Australian Outback, where there are a lot of creatures that can actually harm me, but I’ve never really camped out at home where nothing can. It was an incredible night in the outdoors and I decided that I wanted more adventures like this when I got home. 

And this set me off on this dual path; on one hand I worked really hard to establish myself as a travel writer but then in my free time, I was pushing myself out of my comfort zone by sleeping in stranger and stranger places around the UK and becoming a much more confident adventurer. The two kind of worked in parallel; the confidence from going out and making myself do something slightly difficult or uncomfortable in the outdoors made me more confident in my work as a travel writer, photographer and a broadcaster. 

Photography © Phoebe Smith

What is it like to camp wild in the UK?

UK wild camping is basically camping not in a campsite. You don’t have any facilities and you’ve got to carry everything you need with you. It’s actually not technically legal everywhere. You can do it in Scotland and in a national park called Dartmoor because of an old bylaw, but everywhere else our land is owned by people and you’re supposed to ask for permission. But it’s often impossible to find out whom exactly to ask. So, I suppose the thing I’m doing is “stealth wild camping”, when I arrive late, leave early and take everything with me.

Do you remember your first solo wild camp?

Oh yes.  Before I went I had so many people telling me that all manner of things would go wrong, that I would be mugged or attacked. Someone even said I’d be eaten by a bear, even though it was in North Wales where there are no bears. But luckily, I’m quite a stubborn person and if I decide I’m going to do something the more people tell me I shouldn’t or I can’t, the more it makes me want to do it. 

Lots of things did go wrong though; It started off in really bad weather, so I took all this extra stuff for a rainy night. Then it turned out there was a heat wave in Wales and I was actually getting sunburned rather than wet. I got chased by sheep, midges were biting my face.  I woke up in the night hearing what I thought were footsteps of someone coming to attack me, but of course it turned out just to be a rabbit. When I got back to my car the next day and looked at my face in the in the rear-view mirror, it was all red and blotchy because of the sunburn and bites. I remember thinking that even though I’ve never looked less glamorous, I actually never looked so good! I knew in that moment there had been this cataclysmic shift in me. I had become a wild camper. I was addicted and wanted more. 

That was over 10 years ago now and from that point on I have made it my mission to do more of these sleeps. At first it felt extreme just going alone, but when you’ve done it for a while it doesn’t feel so extreme anymore. So, I pushed more and more by finding stranger and stranger places to sleep: in caves, dangling from trees, hanging off sea cliffs, or a football stadium as I did last year as part of a charity challenge. 

Did you have to learn any particular skills that you didn’t already have?

I think I just learnt as I did it. When I first started there weren’t really any women doing this who I could ask, or look to for advice. Obviously, there have been women adventures and explorers in the past, but they were very difficult to find. I also found the outdoors and adventure community back then to be quite closed; you were either in it or you weren’t. So, I just had to make it up as I went along. I made loads of mistakes of course, but every time you make a mistake you learn.  That’s why I started writing the books to make the outdoors a more accessible place for those who perhaps thought it wasn’t for them.

Photography © Phoebe Smith

Over the years, what have you found is the most challenging/hardest part of those extreme sleeping adventures? 

I think at first and even now the hardest part is just making myself go out and do it. There’s always something in our lives standing in the way of having an adventure. Adventures can be hard, of course they can, but finding the time and making yourself leave the comfort of the routine. That’s the real challenge.

What was the strangest place you ever slept in? 

I’d say the strangest place has been inside a glacier in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It’s cold there all year round but it warms up enough in the summer time that the top layer of the snow on the glacier melts and the water runs inside the glacier, carving winding river channels. When the weather gets cold again, the water stops flowing, leaving frozen channels and caves, that you can climb down and explore. To understand atmospheric conditions, students of the local university have been climbing down and taking samples from the air trapped in the glacial ice. Sometimes they would stay there overnight and after a while they decided to start offering this experience to others. I was asked to come, give it a go and see how I found it. 

As Svalbard is polar bear country you have to take a guide who knows how to scare off the bear. We climbed up to the top of this glacier pulling all of our stuff on sleds. There was literally this hole in the snow that we climbed down into. At the bottom the walls were just swirls and curves of different ice formations sparkling in the light of the head-torch. It was more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. I asked my guide to sleep further away so I could get the experience of being there on my own. I remember waking up in the night hearing this weird grunting and I was convinced a polar bear had got into the glacier, which of course is not beyond the realms of possibility. It took me a good few minutes wrestling with the idea of what I should do, when I suddenly realised it was actually the snores of the guide that were echoing down the cave!

And what was your favorite sleep? 

The most memorable one happened just last year during my extreme sleepout charity challenge, where I dangled off 10 UK landmarks for 10 consecutive nights raising money for Centrepoint, the young people’s homeless charity. Above all I remember the first night being simply wonderful. It was the far north of Scotland on a sea cliff; we could hear the waves crashing below us, see seals frolicking in the water and the sun had barely set, as it was the day before the summer solstice. It was the start of one hell of an adventure.

Photography © Zak Bentley

I guess over the years, there must have been few but have you had any particularly scary or sketchy moments?

Yes, a few years ago. I was researching a book of mine about bothies, which are these mountain huts that exist in wild spaces in Britain. They’re left open and free for anyone to go and stay in. It was in the North West of Scotland, where there were two bothies in the area. The weather was awful and when I got to the first one I thought I could easily just stay here. But I started reading some notes that people left about this other bothy, which is quite remote and difficult to get to. It became like this Shangri-La of bothies to me that I had to experience for myself. So, I set off, it rained and hailed and the wind was whipping my face. It took hours to get over there over terrain that had crumbled due to landslip, but I finally saw it. I still had to cross a river but saw in horror that the footbridge had been pulled out by the river bursting its banks and was no longer there. The river was in spate and flowing fast due to the heavy rain. I spent an hour trying to find a right spot to cross it. At the end I just had to choose and went in. When I was about a metre or so from the other side the rock I was standing on fell underneath me and I dropped right down. Suddenly the water was above my chest.  It was very cold and I couldn’t move. I remember thinking, if I was discovered here, ending it all in the middle of nowhere, all the people that said I shouldn’t and couldn’t be doing this, would love this. I was so angry at the thought, it gave me this energy, I guess it was adrenaline. I managed to throw myself at the bank and haul myself out. Cold, shivering and shaken I walked towards the bothy. When I came closer I saw these crates of beer outside and it turned out I had inadvertently crashed a stag party. I was worried for a split second that everything was going to go even more horribly wrong, but they turned out to be really wonderful guys. They insisted I sat next to the fire to dry off, gave me food and drink, and moved all their stuff into one room so I could have my own. Of course, I was shaken from the experience of the river crossing but it also reaffirmed why I am doing this. It showed me that the power of the outdoors can bring out the best in people. (And I’m now much better at crossing rivers!)

Now, I love a good travel story, and usually when I hear one, I just want to pack my backpack and leave.  But some of your travel stories are actually meant to send people to sleep, tell us more about the art of sleep storytelling

Most of my travel stories are not intended to make anyone fall asleep. In fact, I’d be mortally offended if someone said that they’d read a piece I’d written and fell asleep! But a while ago I’d written a piece for a magazine on a journey I had taken on the Trans-Siberian railway and got an email from a guy who had started this app called Calm. He said he loved my story and asked if I’d consider rewriting it as a ‘sleep story’, which is essentially a bedtime story.  When we are kids and have difficulty sleeping, normally a grown-up will read us a story to refocus the mind and get us falling asleep. But then we get to an age when we stop doing it. Unlike watching tv or reading a book, when someone is reading to you, you don’t have to focus on anything; you just close your eyes. The reason you’re lying in bed and not sleeping is often because you’re thinking about all kinds of stuff in everyday life that you have to deal with and are getting stressed about it all.  The idea behind doing these travel themed sleep stories is to transport someone away, take them on a journey with me to these places and hopefully never actually make it to the end. But it’s not just describing the beauty of somewhere but also learning something about the place, it’s history, wildlife or the people who live there.

And they are all places you have been to? 

Yes, it’s so vital for me that I have been there and experienced it first-hand. I think if someone had been to the place and there was something in the story that didn’t ring true then that would wake them up, which is completely against the whole point.

Your sleep story Blue Gold narrated by Stephen Fry was a huge success. 

He recorded it couple of years ago and it has now had about 20 million listens and growing all the time. When I met him recently he said he still gets emails and messages from people telling him how much the story helps them sleep. Of all the things I’ve done; my books, articles and programs, it is actually the Sleep Stories that I get the most thank you emails from. Not being able to sleep is such a horrible thing as it affects us mentally and physically; so, I guess they are just grateful that they’ve found a way that does seem to help them sleep.

You host a great travel podcast called Wander Woman, where you report from your travels, give travel tips, interview fellow adventurers. You also talk about female adventurers of the past, what is the main message you are trying to get across?

I started the podcast because I wanted to give a little bit more of a behind-the-scenes look at my travels and let others hear the voices of the people I meet. It also gives me a space to tell more stories about these women travelers of the past, who did some pretty incredible things. Especially if you give the historical and social context of when they did it. They were ground-breaking on so many levels, but they’re not household names like their male counterparts and I intend to change that.

Can you tell us more about your charity work? 

It started a few years ago when I was doing more and more of these extreme sleep adventures. A guy got in touch and asked if I wanted to be involved in this thing called  the big canopy campout. It’s an event where on one night every year people around the world unite by sleeping in the trees to raise money for the World Land Trust; an organisation that protects threatened habitats and the wildlife within them. It doesn’t matter if you are dangling really high up on a tree, sleeping in a hammock or just in a tent in a forest – the important thing is that you get out there. I absolutely loved the idea. The first time we did it was here in the UK. We were dangling in our tents from the roof of the Eden Project’s Biome, which basically replicates a rainforest environment. It was great and I met two wonderful guys – Dr John Pike and Ollie Laker who were both expert rope climbers and offered to help me learn. I wanted to do more of this sleeping for a greater cause. I’d already given up my Christmas the year before, when I overnighted on the Three Peaks (the highest mountains of England, Scotland and Wales) and raised money for Centrepoint. I deliberately chose Christmas as it’s when everyone is in their homes; drinking, eating and forgetting about those who are forced to sleep rough. Then, with John and OIllie (and a very talented photographer called Zak Bentley) we joined together to complete our self-devised Extreme Sleep Out – sleeping suspended from 10 of Britain’s most iconic landmarks for the challenge I mentioned earlier. I gave up my Christmas again last year, dressed as my Wander Woman persona and walked the width of Britain. And I just got back from a 10 night, 300mile nocturnal kayak adventure, again with John, to raise money for Thames Valley Air Ambulance. There’s plenty more adventures planned in the pipeline. 

Precisely, let’s talk about your upcoming project, the #WeTwo Antarctica expedition

A while ago I met a fellow adventurer Dwayne Fields and over lunch we chatted about how we both feel under-represented in the adventure world; me as a woman, him as a black man.  We decided to work together to change the face of adventure. At the moment it is called #WeTwo, meaning me and Dwayne but eventually we want it to become #WeToo showing that anyone regardless their background, gender or race can be an adventurer. 

The idea is that in November 2020 we will walk from Beckner Island’s colony of emperor penguins to the South Pole in a project called Penguins to Pole. But this year so we can raise money and awareness for it, Dwayne and I will be walking and rollerskiing from the northernmost point of mainland Britain to the southernmost with all our equipment pulled behind us – in what we’re calling Seabirds to South. It’s mile for mile the same distance as what we’ll do in Antarctica and we will use it to highlight on social media environmental and wildlife conservation projects right here in the UK. Along the way we will be visiting schools and youth and Scouts groups showing not only that everyone can do it but also that adventures can be found closer to home. 

But there’s more. We are planning to take a group of under-privileged young people to Antarctica in 2021, to show young people that they can and should dream big and hopefully help to create that next generation of ambassadors for the environment and wildlife. So, that is our 3-year plan with #WeTwo. 

What is currently on a very top of your bucket list? I say currently as you must have crossed off quite a few things already.

Not at all! You see, the more you travel the more you realise just how many incredible places you haven’t seen. I’d really love to go and swim with the sperm whales off Dominica which looks incredible. I’ve never seen a sperm whale so that would be really cool. But ask me next week and my list will include a great many more…

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