Welcome to the jungle
The jungle comes alive at night and you fall asleep feeling so insignificant.
In 2018, Pip Stewart stepped into the Amazon Rainforest in Guyana with fellow adventurers Laura Bingham and Ness Knight, with the goal of kayaking the length of the Essequibo River – 1,014km from source to sea. After 10 weeks of gruelling conditions, they became the first humans to descend the whole river. Upon arriving back home after their triumph, Pip soon realised there was something wrong. After a trip to the hospital, she found that she had contracted leishmaniasis and needed to receive treatment that hadn’t been updated since the 1940s.
Beth Finney (BF): What was the motivation behind choosing the Essequibo river?
Pip Stewart (PS): Laura had heard about how beautiful the Essequibo was after her husband (explorer Ed Stafford) had filmed a piece for the BBC there. She asked Ness and I if we’d like to join her on the journey and we jumped at the chance. We were beginners before we set off and the Essequibo river had that element of challenge for us. There were rapids and waterfalls suitable for our skill level, and the jungle environment appealed to our desire for adventure. It took us three weeks just to hike through the jungle to find the source. If you were really into kayaking you’d probably go elsewhere for your kicks, but all three of us were just keen to go out and experience that environment. What also really appealed to me was the opportunity to spend time with the Wai Wai community and to learn more about the Amazon from a Guyanese perspective, looking at the gold mining issues further downstream.
BF: During the Essequibo river expedition how did the local Amazonian communities help you?
PS: We couldn’t have done this expedition without the Wai Wai. A team of us set out – myself, Ness and Laura – from the UK and we joined members of the Wai Wai indigenous community in Guyana. Without them this trip wouldn’t have been possible. A team of five helped guide us to the source of the Essequibo river and we had two guides on the water. Nigel was one of my favourite guides. He was 16 but unlike any 16-year-old I’ve ever met. He taught me how to survive in the jungle. It took a while to get used to the environment but the Wai Wai helped us to not only survive, but to thrive.
BF: Which challenges surprised you most on the Essequibo river expedition?
PS: Of course, there were the physical challenges. From the moment you wake up until the moment you fall asleep you are being active, so physically it was exhausting. Then you had the heat, the sand flies, the snakes and the scorpions. I do remember on that hike to the source I thought ‘I’m never doing another physical challenge in my life’ because at one point it was 45 degrees up 45 degrees down, we were carrying our kit and sweating in that hot, humid and oppressive heat of the jungle. On a good day we’d move about four kilometres on that hike to the source. It was relentless and very tough, even before we started kayaking.
But for me personally, the biggest challenge was sitting with my ego. You spend eight hours a day in a kayak, so there’s a lot of thinking time. I distinctly remember one incident where I was looking back at my social media feed and it was selfie after selfie after selfie. I thought: ‘This isn’t who I am. This is not what I want to be presenting to the world.’ Even though I’d been writing down the stories of the people in our team every night, I hadn’t been sharing that on social media and I felt like that was a massive failing on my part. I really struggled with that because if I was really honest, I’d been posting selfies because they get more likes. One night we were setting up camp and we had a satellite system to get a Wi-Fi signal. James, the oldest guy in the group, said: “Guys is everything okay? You look so sad.” We’d all logged on to our social media and we’d gone from having this amazing connected experience in the jungle to suddenly being glowing zombies. That for me was a real wakeup call about how we use tech. I was probably overly reflective while on the Essequibo but that time with my thoughts definitely showed me my dark side as well as the light. I had to learn to sit with that and then use it in a positive way. I also noticed that, when we had a Jaguar come through camp one night, the stress response I felt – admittedly was much more exaggerated – but it wasn’t dissimilar to when I get a notification on my phone. Obviously when the Jaguar goes away you can relax but when I came back to the concrete jungle I realised that feeling wasn’t going away.
BF: While on the expedition, you got leishmaniasis. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
PS: Leishmaniasis is a flesh eating parasite, and it’ s caused by the bite of an infected sand fly. I distinctly remember being in Guyana and we’d done a really thorough risk assessment before we set off and I knew that sand flies were a risk. I got bitten on my neck – in the jungle you’re covered in bites so that was quite normal. But this one particular bite didn’t go away and it didn’t hurt or itch but it was getting bigger and at one point it really started to smell, which was pretty grim. I went to the hospital for tropical diseases in London and they diagnosed it as cutaneous leishmaniasis. The doctor said if you don’t treat this might spread to your nose and your soft palate and eat away at your face. The treatment for that was three weeks attached to an I.V. being pumped full of a toxic medicine which dates from the 1940s. My heart and my liver functions were monitored really closely. The problem with leishmaniasis is that even though one billion people in 98 countries are affected by the disease, most people who get it are poor and live in remote areas. So there’s literally no capital incentive for drug companies to do much about it, which is why my treatment was so outdated. I messaged my friends back in Guyana and asked if they had ever had it before, and if so how did they treat it? My friend Fay James said that she put burning cow fat onto her skin in order to sear out the parasite, which is horrific. There needs to be more research into these sorts of diseases and treatment options need to be made far more accessible to poor and remote communities. It was shocking to me. The healthcare inequality I encountered when I came out of the jungle was probably more terrifying than anything I encountered when in the jungle.
BF: How did it feel to experience first-hand that massive difference in privilege between yourself and your friends in these remote areas?
PS: When you travel you’re always very aware of your privilege. I think the trip really highlighted that to me as well, the fact that going on the Essequibo expedition was a privileged choice in the first place. Having access to free medical treatment when I came home was it just mind blowing in comparison. I asked my friend Fay who joined us for part of the Essequibo trip in Guyana: “Why didn’t you go to hospital?” She said: “Well, it’s six weeks away from home. I live in the middle of the jungle. I’ve got kids so it’s just not possible.” That’s even if you can afford the treatment.
BF: It’s incredibly topical at the moment because global heating means an increase in the spread of disease.
PS: Well this was it. Through getting leishmaniasis I’ve really been hit by the fact that climate change is going to affect us all. You can already get leishmaniasis in parts of the Southern Med, Ibiza, for example. As the world heats up and sand flies spread further. This might be a disease that the West can no longer afford to ignore. But I think there’s a moral case that already if one billion people in 98 countries are at risk of this we really should be doing something about it, even if it doesn’t affect the so-called developed West.
BF: What motivates you to take on these extraordinary challenges?
PS: I think it’s connection. I love to travel because it connects you to yourself, to others and to the natural world around you. When Laura rang me up I was working as Red Bull’s adventure editor. She mentioned a few things like kayaks, piranha, caimen and waterfalls. I reckon I must have heard pina coladas and floating down a river. I do like a challenge. For me when you’re in wild places there’s just such an opportunity to learn. I was definitely the weakest in the group physically. But it was a really interesting environment to be in and I learnt so much about myself and the world around me.
BF: How has female camaraderie affected you on big expeditions?
PS: It was everything to me. The jungle comes alive at night and you fall asleep feeling so insignificant. It’s quite scary to start with if I’m really honest. When we washed ourselves down by the Essequibo there was such a strong sense of freedom and familiarity. I found it to be an immense experience. I remember in those early days, on the hike to the source, I nearly sat on a deadly snake called the Labaria. Jackson, one of our guides, appeared with a machete and killed it. I asked him why and he just stared at me and said: “If I didn’t kill the snake it would have killed you.” For a couple of nights after that I had night terrors and woke up screaming. I had been suddenly confronted with my own mortality and ego. That was when the team and female friendships really came into their own because someone would always be there to give me a hug or a comforting word.
It’s funny because some people refer to me as a tough woman, but honestly I’m one of the most sensitive people – I’m not necessarily your definition of tough. You don’t have to be an alpha, actually you can be highly sensitive and there’s a real strength in that. For me it’s important to shift that narrative about what true strength really is. Having more visible diverse representations of strength is important, especially when it comes to women. The more honest we can all be about those things the better.
BF: Would you say that adventure and mental health are intrinsically linked?
PS: Absolutely. If I ever have a down day, just getting outside for a walk helps massively. So often we get stuck in this trope in society of saying: ‘It doesn’t matter as long as you’re happy.’ I think that’s ridiculous because we can’t be happy all the time. We’re human and humans have this beautiful array of emotions. So you need the lows to experience the highs, and I think if you’re obviously struggling with more lows than highs then seek professional help. But adventure pushes you to all sides of yourself. Sometimes it’s not always fun. It’s very uncomfortable. But there’s great growth through adventure. It’s that growth mindset that can really help you sit with the times in life that are more uncomfortable. Adventure can mirror life in that sense. The ability to laugh at yourself is really key too, on any sort of adventure. So often in my own life I’ve been afraid to do something in case I look stupid. Now I just embrace that – I am going to look stupid because I’m a beginner. And that’s what beginners do. I think there’s great power in that. Accepting that you don’t know everything. Having the humility when you get things wrong and moving forward with that.
Team shot (top to bottom, left to right): James Suse, Aron Marawanaru, Nereus Chekema, Peiman Zekavat, Nigel Isaacs, Jackson (Elijah) Marawanaru, Laura Bingham, Ness Knight and Pip Stewart. The team river guides, Romel Shoni and Anthony Shushu, are not pictured but were integral to the expedition.
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