It’s almost inevitable that when having a conversation about the adventures that I’ve been on or am planning, the person I’m talking to will ask “how did you end up doing this?” It’s a very reasonable question to ask, and one I find myself asking other people regularly as well. I like to hear people’s stories, how a given experience influenced later decisions they made and eventually led to where they are in life now.
Growing up, I was always very outdoorsy. I started riding horses at a young age and my favourite thing to do for most of my childhood and early teenage years was spend days on end at the yard, mucking out stables, traipsing up and down from the fields, and exploring on horseback, my dog bounding alongside.
Likewise, family holidays always focused on being out of the house. I’m half Swedish so most of our summers were spent in Sweden, either staying in a cabin on a forested island - where our main mode of transport was either bicycles or canoes - or by the sea with my grandmother. We would swim in the sea every day, regardless of water temperature, weather or number of jellyfish… Spring and autumn half-terms always led us to Cornwall or Wales with family friends, where the kids would be released into the wild while the mums enjoyed a cup of tea and a moment’s calm.
I think this instilled in me an appreciation of nature and open spaces, and over the years this became a refuge for me. It wasn’t until my gap year in 2012 that I stumbled upon the world of “adventure”, somewhat by chance. As part of a trip to Central America with a sustainable development charity, I spent three weeks trekking through jungles, mountains and along beaches in Costa Rica.
This was probably the most physically demanding thing I’d ever done in my life, but what stood out for me most was the mental strength it required, and the consequent highs I felt at the end of each day when we eventually made camp. Reaching the end of the trek, my teammates were crying tears of relief that the ordeal was over… While I sat in the corner, gently sobbing tears of sadness that the following day, I wouldn’t be exploring a new pocket of this beautiful country or overcoming something I didn’t know I was capable of doing.
Returning from that trek, I knew I had found something that ignited a new passion in me. This came as a surprise to a lot of people: to put this into context, upon completing my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, I swore I would neither trek nor camp like that again. If only 15 year-old me could see what I’m doing now!
The following autumn I started at the University of Exeter and “big adventures” were put on the backburner. Small adventures thrived, however, as I resumed horse riding, took up surfing and spent weekends exploring all that the South West of England has to offer.
During the Easter holidays of my first year of uni I ended up hitchhiking to Morocco with a few friends. Though not a physical journey, this alternative form of transport rekindled my love for adventure and it wasn’t long before I was planning my next big journey, walking the 500 mile Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain.
Ticking this off - and having a life-changingly incredible time in the process of doing so - my addiction to adventure spiralled. While my friends at university were applying for summer work placements and internships, I was preparing to walk 1,000 miles across France and Spain by myself.
Finishing that three-month adventure on my 22nd birthday, I had incredibly mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was excited that it was my birthday and I felt proud of what I had achieved despite the cynicism and doubt surrounding the journey as a “worthwhile” use of a university summer. However, my prevailing feeling as I made my way to the airport to fly home was disappointment that the adventure was over and that I now had to return to “normal” life and a conventional career.
After graduating from university, I set out on what many people thought was my “final fling” with adventure before starting my graduate job: a five-week solo trek across the wilderness of arctic Sweden. Unsurprisingly, those weeks of wild camping and trekking through some of Europe’s most pristine and vast wilderness convinced me that this was what I wanted to create a life doing. Exploring, adventuring, pushing my physical and mental limits, and sharing my experiences and the stories I came across along the way.
I did start that office job, but I didn’t even last a full year of spending five days a week at a desk before I went part-time, filling my newly free time with long-weekend adventures and sporadic writing and speaking to top up my funds. Fifteen months after starting, I walked out of the office for the last time, a new challenge awaiting: my world first Kayaking the Continent expedition, which saw my friend Kate and I tandem kayak 4,000km across Europe, from London to the Black Sea.
During those five months this year, we paddled through eleven countries and five capital cities, raising nearly £60,000 for Pancreatic Cancer Action. And a happy byproduct of that whole experience? My career as an adventurer is well and truly underway.
Anna Blackwell is coming to FINDRA HQ, Innerleithen, on Wednesday 21st November 2018. To spend an evening talking about all things adventure with Anna, reserve your ticket and we'll see you there!