“We are always compromising, multi-tasking, taking the slack, holding the fort, and this is all great, except when we do this ALL the time, and don’t give ourselves even a few days to go off on our own, to reconnect with ourselves, to challenge ourselves physically, to marvel at the wonders of nature, to learn, to grow, and also to strip away, to get back to basics, to clear our thinking, and to change. When we even think about doing this we meet amazing resistance – particularly from ourselves, even if it’s what we actually really need.” – Catherine Edsell
Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. You have some amazing achievements, from climbing Mount Semeru by moonlight, to visiting the 12 Apostles and now you are about to embark on your next journey. Please tell us about the Matriarch Adventure, what will you be doing and what will the women experience?
The Matriarch Adventure is a unique combination of desert elephant conservation, and personal transformation through wilderness exposure, dawn yoga and life coaching. The women will be taken on a journey through the Namibian wilderness both physically and metaphorically, and over the course of ten days will experience complete emersion in something notably other than their daily lives. First, they’ll learn all about desert elephants, be briefed in safety protocols and learn what to look for to identify the elephants, then they’ll go out on patrol tracking the elephants, (wherever they may be), then there’ll be an element of trekking, dawn yoga, and coaching which will help the women as individuals, and as a group move through any personal limitations they are currently facing. I cannot say at this point exactly what they will experience, but I can let you know when I get back!
Tell us, what was it that led you to the concept of gathering women together for this expedition?
I was initially just reflecting on my own journey as an expedition leader and a woman in adventure, and how hard it had been at times for me to reclaim my own freedom and do the things I loved to do, and I noticed that it was not just me, but that as women in general we create a ton of limitations around what we allow ourselves to do – we are always compromising, multi-tasking, taking the slack, holding the fort, and this is all great, except when we do this ALL the time, and don’t give ourselves even a few days to go off on our own, to reconnect with ourselves, to challenge ourselves physically, to marvel at the wonders of nature, to learn, to grow, and also to strip away, to get back to basics, to clear our thinking, and to change, where necessary, our mindset. I found it incredible that when we even THINK about doing this we meet amazing resistance – particularly from ourselves, even if it is what we really need. So, really it was borne from this desire to create an opportunity for women to get away, to recharge, to commune with other women, and what better place to do this than in the middle of nowhere!
The big question we’d like answered is, why elephants?
Elephants are the iconic matriarchs, and exist in a wholly matriarchal society – I’ve always been fascinated by them, and their system of organisation spurred research whether these societies existed in the human realm. (It actually doesn’t, apart from in a few very remote tribal communities.) I am lucky to have a real sisterhood of friends, and I love that elephants also have this – male elephants are forced to leave the herd once they reach a certain level of maturity and go off on their own to forage and find other wandering bachelors, while the female members of the herd, collectively take care of the young, and each other, and the eldest and most experienced of the herd becomes the matriarch. I like that, and as the eldest daughter of a family of 5 it obviously resonated with me.
Sounds like you’ve chosen the perfect mammal to track. So, what type of data will you be collecting?
The purpose of tracking the desert elephants is to ascertain their seasonal patterns and also which herd move where, and if any of the known members of the herds are missing, (either through poaching, or death through natural causes). To get this information we will be GPS’ing their locations once they are sighted, and also taking photos of their ears, as these are the means by which they can be identified, as each elephant has a unique earlobe. The data, once collected, will go back to EHRA HQ and logged to help them keep up to date records of the elephants, stay aware of any illegal poaching activity, and perhaps, most importantly, help protect and educate the villagers in their path, as elephants can get quite disruptive, especially when food and water are scarce.
Amazing, you definitely know your stuff! Why do you feel it is important for women to adventure together?
I find there’s always a feeling of solidarity when women get together, and there is also less competition, less need to prove your strength and more acceptance of shared vulnerabilities. With men out of the picture, there’s also no-one to impress, and an empowerment that comes from not being able to defer to someone of the opposite sex, and solve problems whatever their nature, (even if they typically fall into a male stereotype).
You have two young daughters, but haven’t let that stop you exploring. You’ve even taken them with you! What do you think the real barriers to adventure for family women are?
Logistics mostly, and also overcoming the feeling that your children will not be okay without you. I think for each woman it is working out the right time to leave your children behind. Some find it easier than others. It also depends massively on your support network. If your husband or partner is supportive then that’s a huge bonus, if not then that will also be a huge barrier. Having parents or in-laws or a good childminder on hand are also really important. Without these support structures in place it can feel impossible to leave the family home, even for a week!
So how have you prepared for this expedition, both mentally and physically?
Mentally, I love expeditions, so there are no obstacles there, of course I have to make sure that it is safely run, so I have had in depth chats with our project partner EHRA in Namibia, checked out their risk assessments, and written my own. I have made sure that all the women who are coming are fully aware of the risks involved and are prepared both mentally and physically, and have good insurance in place. As far as organising logistics, again, I have been liaising with our project partners and making sure that they can provide everything we need, and as far as my own kit, I have pretty much all of it ready to go, just a few tweaks here and there. Physically I keep pretty fit anyway, and for this expedition there’s nothing particularly strenuous we will be undertaking.
Space must be limited on the trip, what will you take with you?
It’s not so much space as weight on the airline. We have a 23kg allowance, but if you wear your boots, and pack only essentials, it’s easy to keep within that. The heaviest thing I’m bringing is my army issue free-standing mosquito net. It’s a bit like a tent but made of mosquito netting so you can see the stars from your bed, but know no scorpions will be making their nest in your sleeping bag!
Sleeping under the stars, it sounds perfect! What do you hope the women who go on the Matriarch Adventure will take home with them?
Hopefully, a renewed sense of freedom and purpose. The massive expanses of the desert cannot fail to be awe inspiring – all that space, time to think, overcome personal challenges and bond with other women from both cultures, (we will be spending time with Namibian women too), plus tracking desert elephants in the wild, which cannot fail to be inspirational in some way! We are also out there for International Women’s Day (March 8th), so will have a real reflection on what it is to be a woman on that day – I’ll let you know what we come up with!
Your life is full of adventure, so what advice would you give to someone wanting to go on his or her first expedition?
On a practical level, pack light – enjoy the simplicity of living with two sets of clothes and a toothbrush, it’s very liberating. Have a plan, but don’t be too rigid – part of the beauty of adventures is that anything can happen and probably will. If you tie yourself down to a fixed schedule you will inevitably have to pass on those spontaneous invitations that make expeditions so memorable. If you want to join a pre-existing expedition or go with a company, pick someone with an excellent reputation that upholds your own belief system – don’t be persuaded by price alone. On a mental level, just do it! You will never regret it!
As a mother, you believe in getting your children involved in adventure, tell us about your Everest trip later this year with your family?
This is a 10 year anniversary expedition, celebrating a big Everest research trip my husband and a team of doctors studying the effects of altitude completed back in 2007. At the time, I had to stay at home with a 6 month old (who wouldn’t sleep), and a toddler, while my husband spent 3 months at base camp. Now, 10 years later we can all go – it’s part of our family story.
We won’t get as high as base camp, as the children are still too young to be able to cope with such altitude, but I see this as part 1 of a bigger expedition. We will start right at the bottom of Everest, where Hillary and his forerunners would have started, before there was an airstrip in Lukla. It is not an easy route by any means and there are some very high passes that need to be overcome, but it is definitely an extremely beautiful part of the Himalaya, adorned with rhododendron forests and glacial streams. Now, most people skip this bit, and start at Namche Bazzar, but we will walk for 3 weeks getting to that point – it will be nice for the children to know that they have climbed the whole of Everest (maybe one day!)
What would you say to other mothers who have thought about going on an adventure with their children, but don’t feel confident enough or have worries?
I think you of course have to feel that you can cope, but going on adventures is no different than everyday life. My children are no angels, they have tantrums, demand food, need the toilet at the most inconvenient moments, but they also love setting up camp, or making ‘home’ in a new hostel. Being out of your ‘comfort zone’ also allows you to have conversations as a family that you might not usually have. From a practical point of view you usually don’t have to have everything mapped out to a tee. Choose an environment you want to be in, or a place you want to visit, do a bit of research, pack light and then go. We just walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and I would highly recommend that to anyone with kids, it is such an easy way to travel and nothing has to be booked in advance. I think many of the fears we have are based around the need to control everything. As long as your kids are able to communicate with you (ie: over the age of 3), then an adventure is no more complicated than going to Center Parcs – in fact it is a lot easier in many respects as on an adventure you leave the status quo behind and make up your own rules. You don’t have to conform in any way to someone else’s version of ‘a good time’, and yes there are good days and bad days, but that is just how life is.
How do you think adventure benefits children?
I think they get to see the world as more of a connected space. They realise that people are similar all over the world over and that whether you live in a wooden hut in Indonesia, or a stone shack in the Himalaya, or a brick semi-detached house in London, people are people, they laugh, they cry over amazingly similar things. They also get to realise how fortunate they are, and how much choice they have, and that there are pros and cons to everything. They also begin to experience the diversity of habitats and the plants animals and communities that live within them. I know my kids love recounting their adventures, and I can see that it makes them feel brave, they understand that sometimes it’s ok to feel a bit uncomfortable, and that resilience gives them confidence when they face the next challenge.
As a professional expedition leader, how different do you think it will be leading your family instead of clients?
Much harder! When you lead other people, even other children, you always have a level of detachment from them emotionally which is the key making good decisions – when you put your loved ones in the mix you cannot help but having your buttons pushed in a way that no stranger could ever do!
Is there anything you really want to do and haven’t yet?
I’m pretty satisfied at the moment, so have no strong desires – there are always more places to visit and more experiences to have, so just to continue in the same vein…. Anything is possible!
Can you tell us about a particularly unique experience you’ve had with someone on an expedition?
Swimming at night in a bioluminescent soup off the Musandam peninsula. At first no-one would come in with me, too scared of the unknown, but eventually after some persuading, I got a couple of them to dive into the inky water and transform it into a sea of sparkly lights. It was truly amazing, as though you were part of your own 3D underwater fairytale, every single hair on my body was glittering. We stayed in for hours, splashing around painting pictures with our limbs, like you do with sparklers on bonfire night.
Sounds incredible. What are some of the highs and lows of being an expedition leader?
The high’s definitely outweigh the lows – travelling around the globe, living in really remote locations, working with incredibly dedicated scientists, passionate about their corner of discovery, being immersed in nature and beauty, helping individuals overcome their challenges, in fact I can’t think of any lows. Of course there are scary incidents, and sleepless nights, but I think being a mum puts it all into perspective – this is a good lifestyle!
Does adventure give you any skills and experiences that are hard to find in life elsewhere?
I think people seek what they need – I obviously need to be outside, somewhere hot, feeling slightly uncomfortable, close to nature, living in a close community. There are probably other ways to do that, but this is the best way I’ve found.
Finally, where can we follow your expeditions and travels?
Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Have an amazing time on your expedition, we can’t wait to hear all about it when you’re back!