Tatler - Wander Women
July 2015

Woman are aces at adventurous. They always have been. Consider restless Freya Stark, who left behind her English-Italian family to journey through inter-war Arabia, writing dozens of vivid travel books en route. Or Gertrude Bell, an Oxford graduate who spoke eight languages, conquered numerous mountains, became a spy and made her home in Baghdad. Some travelled as dutiful wives of boring ambassadors; others were privileged and independently rich. Amelia Edwards, an army officer’s daughter, paid her own way by writing bestselling books -- A Thousand Miles up the Nile, published in 1877, bankrolled her archaeological digs in Egypt. The photographer Isabella Bird converted her cabin into a darkroom as she sailed up the Yangtze in the 1890s.

And then there were those who broke all the rules of the age. Like the Victorian aristocrat Jane Digby, who, after multiple marriages and romantic liaisons, found love with a Bedouin Sheikh young enough to be her son, splitting her time between nomadic life in the desert and a villa in Damascus.

Women are still at it. Not that you’d necessarily know; we do it more quietly than our male counterparts (not to point any fingers, Bear). Less ego. But just as much chutzpah.

Take Isabelle Santoire, one of the very few female mountain guides, who runs all-women gatherings in Chamonix and ice-climbing clinics in Norway. She taught me to walk with crampons the day before I climbed Mt Blanc. ‘For women, it’s not about the thrill of the vertical,’ she says. “We do it for a sense of bien-être, a mental and physical balance, for the “afterward feeling”. For men, it’s more about gnarly things captured on GoPro, sponsored by Red Bull. Women don’t have to break records -- they just want to get out there.’

She’s right. For me, it’s all about the bien-être. I’ve swum across the Bosphorus, bagged my private pilot’s licence and sailed across the Great Australian Bight. When I summited Gulap Kangri in Ladakh, it was with the Peaks Foundation, which runs all-women treks while investing in local girls’ charities. After coming third in the Peking to Paris vintage car rally, I’m planning on doing the women-only Rallye Aïcha des Gazelles across the Sahara next year. And I adore it all: the training (in that Marmite love-hate way); the gruelling push to the finish line; the sense of wonder at one’s own might. There are risks, but a bit of fear that makes you dig deeper is essential -- it makes you feel more alive.

Former model Jackie Head, who has been on various expeditions over the past three years, says the motivation is simple: to feel good, nothing more. Her next adventure is to cross the Greenland ice sheet on skis, followed by a trek to the South Pole. ‘I don’t need anyone to say, “Well done, Jackie,”’ she says.

But maybe we do need some recognition. Antje von Dewitz, CEO of Vaude outdoor clothing and equipment, is a trailblazer in the business of adventure. ‘There has been progress,’ she says, ‘but we still have things like this: the German word Rabenmütter, to describe mothers who work and have adventures -- and are therefore seen as not taking care of their children.’ She sighs. ‘We need to get more extraordinary women out there, bringing about change.’