Pip Stewart’s quest for adventure has been the foundation for her rewarding career as a journalist, presenter, and author. It has led her on record-breaking voyages in often unheard-of parts of the world but, these days, we’ll probably find her whiling away hours on the East Sussex coast, immersed in her latest adventure – motherhood.
“When I got pregnant, someone said to me ‘Well, that’s the end of your adventuring career’ and I was so cross! I thought – no, it’s the start of a whole new set of adventures…”
I’d trundled two-and-a-half hours southwest from Dover to the seaside village of East Wittering in West Sussex on a creative crusade to meet adventurer and author, Pip Stewart. I’d followed her on Instagram for a few years and eventually gathered the gumption to ask if I could feature her in my #makingwavesproject, a photographic venture I’d started a couple of years ago when I relocated to the Kent coast. My portfolio of ordinary women had evolved to become a meaningful platform for extraordinary stories that would otherwise go untold. I’d coaxed out genuine tales of overcoming adversity, whether that be in the form of grief, disability, illness, mental health issues, bullying, menopause, and lost identity. What all these women had in common was an affiliation with the sea.
Pip Stewart has been propelled around the globe by her quest to – as she puts it – “tell stories with heart”. Her life story brims with extraordinary achievements and yet, I’d made it my mission to unearth the ordinary in her life. To spend time with her authentic self. To see the real Pip, now a mum-of-two…and of course, to photograph her in the sea.
I drove down a quiet lane to a medium-sized detached house clad in trendy faded timber, set back about a hundred metres from the seashore. Pip and her husband Charlie – with whom she’s had some of her adventures – welcomed me into their family home in a very door’s-always-open way. I perceived a generosity which had undoubtedly served them both well around the world. Pip had particularly magnetic bluey-green eyes which had initially caught me off guard and, a tad flustered, I’d blurted out a compliment which I hope didn’t come across as a chat-up line. Beaming, she put a big mug of tea in front of me, along with a piece of homemade banana bread served on a dainty vintage plate which she said she’d found in a charity shop. The tail-end of the UK’s Indian summer delivered sunshine through the vast bifold doors, bouncing off a glossy painted teapot in the marine blue kitchen.
“I considered tidying up…” she said, glancing around the open-plan living space with a little shrug to indicate she’d decided not to bother. The scattered bits-and-bobs of family life made me feel at ease, as though I was amongst friends. Three-year-old Willow with her wisps of blond hair babbled assuredly to me. Baby Finn, somewhat dazed from his nap and only wearing one sock, gave me a gummy smile. Children really are marvellous icebreakers. So effective in easing the moment when strangers meet.
I’d felt a tad jittery ahead of meeting Pip. Daft really. She’s a woman who, albeit immensely driven and worldly, projects a light-hearted and humble sense of self. One of the photographs on her Instagram features her laughing heartedly alongside the caption, “…I was trying to pose, then I realised my flies were so far down, half of Italy could see my pants.” Her humour obviously resonated. Nearly 2,000 followers liked the post.
One of the reasons Pip Stewart is so likeable is because she leads us to consider that behind epic adventures are individuals who wrestle with the same sense of fallibility and vulnerability that us folk do. In 2013, she ambitiously (and successfully!) cycled home to London from Malaysia with Charlie, covering 9,941 miles and visiting 26 countries. It took the pair a steady 13 months and Pip openly admits to losing her wits at one point, throwing her bike down on the side of the road in despair, adamant that she couldn’t go on any further. She did, of course. In 2018, Pip took on a world’s first – paddling the entire length of the Essequibo, South America’s third largest river, from source to sea, documented in her book Life Lessons from the Amazon. Pip writes that she was often lagging behind her fellow adventurers, Laura Bingham and Ness Knight, somewhat of a slowcoach within the group. Her wobbly moments make her relatable. They also make the perseverance even more admirable.
“I don’t want to ask you predictable questions about motherhood,” I said to her as we stole a quiet moment together, “but I am really interested in how you hang on to ‘Pip’ now that you’re a mummy.” As if on cue, an indignant wail from baby Finn in the adjacent room dissipated any smidge of formality and we both cackled with laughter.
“I’m usually on the other side of this,” she giggled, alluding to the multitude of in-depth interviews she has done throughout her time spent as a journalist, and is still doing; her podcast The First Mile, which she co-hosts with travel journalist Ash Bhardwaj, delivers far-reaching discussions with some of the world’s greatest travellers. “I feel quite lucky that I was a slightly older when I had children,” Pip continued, “so a lot of the more selfish things I wanted to do, like the travelling and experimenting in my early years, I’d done. I therefore feel very ready to fully be a mum. Of course, there are moments when I think, hang on a minute, who am I now? It is a case of re-evaluating who I am, who I am going to be. As for the expeditions, I have had to accept that maybe I’m not that person who’s going to do a world-first, three months away, because I now have two children under three-and-a-half. It’s tricky and limiting in some ways, but a huge opportunity in others because you can take them with you, on little adventures.”
These “little adventures” with bubbas-in-tow are well-documented on Pip’s Instagram. Walking the Cotswold Way with Willow in a baby carrier. A camper waggon trip around Scandinavia. A house swap in Canada. At the time of writing, a trip to Spain was around the corner. Regular travel is made possible because her and Charlie are able to work remotely, their home in East Wittering waiting patiently for them to return. It’s a manageable house, a sensible choice by insatiable adventurers. The modest garden isn’t going to turn into a jungle whilst they’re away exploring a real jungle. I think of the wild house with the big mortgage I live in with my husband and three children and I’m wistful. These days, it’s not so easy to just drop things and go.
“Layer on top mortgages and bills and all that adulting stuff, and somehow the awe and wonder of life gets lost in us, doesn’t it?” Pip reflected. “The joy of having children is that it helps us tune into all that simplicity again. Going down to the beach with Willow, seeing the way she looks at rocks and the way she looks at the sea and runs around in the tide and I think, this is just as rewarding as kayaking down a river. If not more so, because you’re teaching new minds how amazing the world is, or not even teaching them, they’re just seeing it for themselves.”
I understand what Pip is saying, I really do. Small adventures can indeed feel big when viewing them through the eyes of our children. Take, for example, the renowned yet familiar collection of shipwrecks in the shallows of my nearest beach, Sandwich Bay, which are made so much more intriguing when I’m wading out to explore them with my children. The kids are full of enthusiasm; the littlest one murmuring slight trepidation as the sea splashes into her wellies. I tell them a tale of a ship bound for Africa, sunk in a storm, the bones of passengers washing up on the shore. I like to hear them gasp in genuine amazement and I view the disintegrating stumps of wood with a fresher, more imaginative perspective. Still, I’m compelled to press Pip further on leaving behind these gripping and goal-oriented journeys of hers. How do you challenge yourself these days, I ask her, how do you get out of your comfort zone?
“Ha!” she laughed. “This is funny. When I had Finn, my youngest – bearing in mind I’ve kayaked down a river full of Caiman, rapids, waterfalls, and piranha – trying to get out of the house with two children, I was more scared than I was in the Amazon! I thought, I’m on my own, I don’t know how to do this, I’ve never been outdoors with two children! What if Willow runs away and Finn cries and needs a change? I remember being really scared just leaving the house and you think, am I the same person who had those adventures?”
I related to what she said, harking back in hindsight to my own days of wandering solo around the far east and bringing home death-defying tales of a car accident on the edge of a cliff in India; bobbing around on a broken down boat in the middle of the South China Sea in rough waves; or rattling through a tropical storm in a ramshackle airplane, the darkness flickering with sheet lightning. There were undoubtedly hairy moments, but I’d still felt empowered, in contrast to the stage of my life when a raging toddler meltdown would wreck-havoc on my visit to the supermarket, leaving me feeling more vulnerable than ever.
“That time, for me, was a real transition,” Pip continued, “because I can preach all that family adventure stuff but when you’re a new parent and you’re doing things for the first time and you have these precious little beings who are solely looking at you to be responsible, that is quite challenging. So how I challenge myself now is just being a parent and all the emotional regulation which has to come with that. There is a lot of stuff which needs to go on within me and work that needs to happen. That’s a different set of challenges.”
I nodded but decided to nudge Pip again. Are these micro-adventures with children really enough for a derring-do, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants, record breaker? Honestly?
“With the big adventures, often it was about ego,” she admits. “It was about trying to prove something. It was about insecurities. It was, ‘I don’t feel good enough in a certain way so I’m going to be the person who cycles halfway around the world’. Now I just feel I’m me and I don’t have to prove anything. Sometimes you have to go on those difficult journeys to work this out.”
Again, her answer resonated, for I’d struggled with ego too. A sense of never being enough for myself and bumbling through aimless years of chasing my own version of the Essequibo River – minus the Caiman, rapids, waterfalls, piranha…and the flesh-eating parasite. Yes, you read that last bit right. In Life Lessons from the Amazon, Pip chronicles her ordeal of contracting Leishmaniasis, a parasite transmitted by the bite of infected female sandflies. “It was a lot to take on board,” she recalls, “being told that a flesh-eating parasite risked eating my face.” After undergoing a form of chemo which hopefully has beaten the bug for good, Pip now does her bit to raise awareness of this disease which affects some of the world’s poorest people. The experience has, understandably, shaped newfound priorities in her life. “I remember thinking at the time, life is too short, you never know what’s going to happen, I want to live by the sea.”
I smile in anticipation of this chapter of the story; the part of the plot which brings Pip and Charlie to the Sussex coast. “I have so many happy memories here,” she explained. “Charlie and I got married on the beach in December. My daughter Willow was born under a full moon. After my waters broke, one of the things I had to do at three in the morning was rush down to the sea. I stood there looking at this huge body of water and thinking about how it all connects us. It reminds me of what a tiny and insignificant dot I am. I heard a quote recently which said, ‘If the sea can calm itself, so can we.’ We can have rough days with huge waves, but then calmer days, as flat as a pancake.”
To the sea…
With the golden hour approaching, that is, the hour before sunset when the light is muted and magical, we bundle the children into the car and set off to neighbouring West Wittering beach with its distinctive rolling sand dunes. Pip has chosen to wear jeans and a jumper. Down to earth. No-frills. Simple. The photo session is no different. An hour of letting loose barefoot. Giving Willow free rein to lead us all wherever she wanted to go. Scampering up sandy slopes and sliding down the other side: Baby Finn’s contented gurgling grins; Pip’s boundless laughter; Charlie’s constant protective hand. Afterwards, wrapping the children up in blankets, Pip and I seized the chance for a quick swim. The sand was firm on our bare feet as we walked into the shallows. The swell flicked affable waves against our legs. The sky was like crumpled tie-dye.
“Meeting you is quite a milestone for me,” I told Pip, as we bobbed around in the swell. “I was a very different person when we exchanged messages 18 months ago, living a very different life.” She listened, and I spilled some chapters of my story into the English Channel. A tale of highs and lows, of reaching an enviable creative epiphany, producing the best photos of my career, yet struggling with my identity and expectations of myself post-babies; of chilled-out encounters around campfires with journalists, authors, record-breaking explorers, and expedition leaders; of satisfyingly clawing back identity but realising I was losing myself in other ways, as a mother and wife; of needing to find a very grounded tribe and purpose; of being led into the gritty but gratifying therapeutic world of helping people with addiction and mental health issues. “I needed to take a break from the adventure world for a while,” I explained as we waded back to shore, “Social media, too.”
“Comparison is the thief of all joy,” Pip replied knowingly. Whilst her 35,000 followers are a valuable resource for earning a living through writing and traveling, she’s aware of the dark side and often touches on it in her posts. “I think if you’re not in a particularly good place and you’re seeing all these people doing amazing things, you suddenly feel less than.” She rolls her eyes. “I remember being in Guyana, in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, logging online and thinking, oh God, all these people are doing amazing things and then realised, hang on a minute, there is literally very few places on earth which are more beautiful than where I am now and yet I’m comparing myself. It’s ridiculous!”
Once again, admittance of her own flaws which led me to say, “I’ve found a lot of comfort in your story, Pip. Thank you for telling it to me.”
Back on shore, we peeled off our wet swimming costumes, towels clinging clumsily around our waists whilst we tried to yank our trousers onto salty legs. Amid this troublesome feat, Willow and Finn adopted an impromptu adorable pose and, jeans around my ankles, towel thankfully tucked around my waist, I snatched my camera and dived onto the sand rugby-style, clicking the shutter before they moved. The parents cooed, delighted that the opportunity hadn’t been missed. It took another minute for us all to realise that my bottom was partially on display to unfortunate passers-by. Hilarity ensued. Now that was an authentic moment.
Our afternoon together had consisted of many of those moments. Pip Stewart had been the mellow, game-for-anything, ‘ordinary’ woman I’d hoped for. I remain enamoured by her adventures but it’s the humility, self-reflection, and fallibility I captured that day which will stick with me.