The view from here
"I think there’s something really nice about everything being so simple. It seems like the more complicated we make life, the more stressed we are. But when you’re just cycling or running along, and all you have to think about is where can I get food from, where can I get water from, and where am I going to pitch my tent… it’s just so easy, and so free."
By Jess O’Connor
When we got the opportunity to interview Emma Timmis, the awe-inspiring adventuress who ran across Africa, I remember thinking – “wow, Africa” and then putting the thought to the back of my mind. It wasn’t until Emma told me that she ran over a marathon a day for 89 days, that my brain finally registered the enormity of this achievement. Holy shit, Africa!
It turns out I’m not the only one who finds the concept of running across a continent a little hard to compute. According to Emma, most people politely change the subject when she tells them about it – as if they think she’s said the wrong word, and are too embarrassed for her to point this out. But there are no typos here – the story is true, Emma definitely ran across Africa, an incredible experience which you can read all about here.
But what I want to focus on today is – who is Emma? What drives her? What inspires someone to go on extreme outdoor adventures and live from tent spot to tent spot? She chatted to me on the phone from her new home in Queenstown, and I was blown away by her infectious enthusiasm for all things travel, exercise and self-discovery. So much so that the first thing I did when I put down the phone was go for a run (seriously!). Here are some highlights from our conversation…
Emma Timmis – in some circles your name has become synonymous with ‘running across Africa’. You’re pretty much the face of ‘active travel!’ What made you decide to embark on these physical adventures?
To be honest, I wouldn’t ever describe myself as a runner – although obviously I’ve done some very long distance running! [laughs] – but what I’m most passionate about is travel. Travel and exploration, finding new places, and learning about new cultures.
I started travelling when I was 18 – as soon as I was old enough to leave home, I literally just went. I worked four jobs within a three-month period. I was doing like three shifts a day, about 80 or 90 hours a week for three months. I saved as much money as I could and went travelling for a year.
It was brilliant, I absolutely loved it, but I think if I could turn back the clock now I would travel differently to how I did then. I did it kind of the bog-standard way – getting on busses, going on tour groups, sitting in hotels drinking, eating unhealthily, and lots of socialising. I had this love for travel, but I wasn’t looking after myself – I wasn’t healthy, fit and active.
What I like to do now is be healthy, fit and active, but also travel. It’s a combination of both my passions, but it’s more than that… I feel for me, it’s a more personal way to travel. You really get to see where you are when you’re on foot, or on a bike, rather than just sitting in a bus, looking through a window and seeing places go past.
That’s so true, what you said about travelling the ‘bog-standard’ way when you were 18 because you didn’t know what else was out there. What would you say to 18 year old women today, to inspire them to travel differently?
I’d love to inspire younger women – no, all women really – to travel in a more adventurous and physical way. But there’s a part of me that does worry, would I be putting myself in a bad position if I were to encourage women to go out and travel alone, and then something happened to them? That would obviously be awful… but then again, something could happen anywhere the world, couldn’t it, when you’re doing anything…
To be honest, we feel it as well when we’re publishing stories – that fear of not wanting anyone to go and do something rash, and then say ‘oh well, I read on a blog somewhere that I should such and such…’ You know what I mean? But I think what young women really need is to see examples of other women doing adventurous stuff. I think leading by example can be enough… you don’t even have to say, ‘you should do this’, rather it’s about showing young women that there are alternative ways to travel, and to live. They’ll see it and think hey, ‘this sounds like me’.
Yes! I’m definitely seeing more women in the media doing these things. I’m part of loads of groups on Facebook and Twitter, and I’m seeing women who are fed up with all the focus being on Bear Grylls, etc – there are women out there, having amazing adventures, but they’re just not getting the coverage.
I wish I could have seen someone like myself now when I was 18, and been inspired and thought – I can do that, instead of just sitting on a bus with other 18 year olds and getting drunk. I wish that I had known that you can explore somewhere different, and you can do it with a tent on your back. Of course I wouldn’t want anyone to be in any danger – but then again, I haven’t really been in any danger.
That actually leads on to my next question – what has been your experience of travelling alone as a woman?
The only bad things that have happened to me when I’ve travelled actually happened when I was travelling ‘normally’, in tourist hotspots. For example, when I was somewhere in Southeast Asia when I was 18, I was staying in a guest house and I had my own room, and a man climbed through my window in the middle of the night, obviously hoping to have relations with me… fortunately I woke up and was aware of what was going on, and screamed and shouted and he left, and I was okay – you do hear about worse things happening.
But my adventurous, ‘expeditiony’ style travelling takes me to really remote places, where I’m not actually in any danger because there are no people around! When I was walking the Alpine Track in Australia, I was completely on my own in the middle of nowhere, and my mum sent me this text and said ‘are you not scared on your own in the middle of nowhere?’. And I was like no, there is nothing to be scared of because there are no people around for miles, there’s literally no people. And there aren’t any big predators, no big animals that are going to come and eat me. If I was on my own in Africa I might be scared that a lion might come along [laughs], but in Australia the only things that are really going to kill me are snakes and spiders, and I’m zipping them out of my tent!
That totally makes sense! I suppose this kind of leads onto my next question – do you ever have days when you feel like taking the easier road? And not pursuing such active endeavours?
No… I really don’t. I recently discovered a new phrase, ‘Fear Of Missing Out’ (FOMO), and I was like – oh my god, that’s what I’ve got! I don’t want to miss out on anything… so I don’t have that thing, I guess, that some people have – people who are just quite happy with normal life, working 9-5, taking a holiday every now and then and going to new places. And a lot of people go back to the same places every year! But not me, I just don’t want to miss out.
And then of course, I really enjoy exploring in an active way. Obviously running across Africa is an extreme example, but I’ve done a lot of less intense trips that have been hugely rewarding. For example, my rock climbing partner and I cycled from Manchester in the UK through seven countries to get to Northern Italy to go rock climbing. It was brilliant! I think there’s something really nice about everything being so simple. It seems like the more complicated we make life, the more stressed we are. But when you’re just cycling along, and all you have to think about is where can I get food from, where can I get water from, and where am I going to pitch my tent… it’s just so easy, and so free. It’s stress-free.
Yes! I think every traveller can relate to that feeling of freedom – even if they’re not travelling in an active way. One common theme that’s emerged in some of the stories we’ve published is how travelling takes us back to what’s important… it can be so easy to get caught up in day-to-day life and forget to live in the present moment.
Absolutely. I love just having the simple things in life and not having to stress.
Speaking of stress – let’s touch on money briefly. How do you fund your travels?
The thing about travelling in the way I do is that it’s so cheap… it’s unbelievably cheap. When my rock climbing partner and I cycled from Manchester to Italy, we only spent one thousand pounds each over three months. Which is nothing! Well, it is money… but you could never do a three-month package holiday for that kind of money. In fact, your rent to stay at home could cost you that… So to live for three months in some of the most beautiful places ever, and to do the activities you love… for one thousand pounds. It’s amazing. Once you’ve got the kit, the tent, the bike etc, that’s it – you don’t need to spend that money again.
Are you working at the moment, or is travelling your full-time job now?
I left my full-time job about a year and a half ago. Ever since then, I’ve just done badly paid jobs but worked intensively… I’ll go and work for 2-3 months solidly, working day and night. I’ll take whatever job I can find that will give me heaps of hours, and I’ll just live a very cheap life. More recently I was working in a bar but living in a hostel, but the hostel let me clean in exchange for free accommodation. So I’d clean for an hour a day and then all the money I’d earned would go straight into my pocket.
Also generally, I don’t spend a lot. The way I like to see it, is I don’t focus on how much I earn, but how much I spend… I don’t do adventures that cost a lot of money. Flying is a big expense, but once I’m there, I don’t need to pay for much because I’m cycling, walking, running or whatever – and I’ll be living on rice and noodles! [Laughs]. I don’t earn a lot of money, and I don’t work that much… but I don’t spend much, either.
That’s some real talk! It’s really refreshing to hear, because I think once you get to a certain age there’s a certain pressure to get a ‘real job’. It’s something me and the [Travelher] girls talk about a lot, how much we miss the simplicity of working casual jobs and being able to leave easily, without feeling like you’re letting people down.
Definitely. I guess people follow society’s rules a little too much… you don’t have to do any of these things, it’s your life, you don’t have to do anything anyone says. You can either have a more meaningful career, and a job that you go to and you really enjoy… or you can have a more flexible lifestyle, like me. I might get fed up sometimes – but then I can always leave.
I’m incredibly inspired by your lifestyle, and I’ve really, really, really enjoyed talking with you. I just have one more question before I let you go – what does being a ‘Travelher’ mean to you?
Ooh! Good question! [Laughs]. Um… it’s being in charge of your own life. Making your own rules. I’m a female, I’m not following any man’s rules. I’m doing what I want to do, and I’m going to travel where I want to go, and I’m making my life what I want it to be. It’s a powerful thing – in my Gran’s era, you wouldn’t just be able to do that… when my Gran was my age, she wouldn’t be able to go travelling and make her own life and choose what she wanted to do, and make her own rules on a daily basis. And we’re in a position nowadays where we can do that… so I say, let’s make the most of it.
YES. That’s brilliant – I couldn’t agree more. Emma, thank you SO much for talking to me, and sharing your experiences with Travelher. We can’t wait to see what you do next.