Phoebe Smith, aka Wanderwoman, is a travel journalist who spends much of her time on the road (pre-lockdown). Along the way she’s met a variety of incredible individuals who are doing important work, whether on the frontline of wildlife conservation, making a difference to local communities, or simply have an amazing story that she’s been captivated by to tell.
These stories are found in the traditional media outlets she writes for, but there’s only so much she can squeeze in: that’s where the idea for her Wanderwoman podcast and award-winning blog was born. So, as much as we love reading about the amazing people she’s met on her journey, we’d like to delve a little deeper into who the Wanderwoman really is.
Finish this sentence: The best thing about what I do is…
It sounds like a cliché, but no two days are ever the same. One day I could be sitting at my desk filing an article that is due in that week then suddenly a phone call later and I'm booking a ticket to head off to a far-flung land to cover the wildlife conservation story or do a long-distance walk. I have to juggle so much - writing articles for magazines, newspapers, books and radio, researching and pitching, recording my podcast, as well as working on my various projects as an adventurer - it can be exhausting but I don’t think I’d have it any other way!
If you could meet anyone in the world, who would you meet and why?
Is a really tricky one to answer. I think if it was anyone - whether they were living or dead - I think I would choose a woman called Katherine Routledge. She is the reason I started the Wanderwoman podcast after finding out about work as an archeologist on Easter Island in 1914. She had a boat built so that she and a team could sail from England over to the Chilean outpost (it took months), but while all the rest of them looked purely at measurements and positions of the Moai, she decided to hire a translator and spend hours interviewing the Rapa Nui elders to try and understand why the giant heads were there.
It is the information gleaned from those interviews that still forms the basis for what we know about the statues to this day - yet how come no one knows her name? Through finding and rooting out her essays, I realised that she shared my love of adventure and wild camping and wrote quite poetically about spending nights under canvas on the island. If a man had done what she did we'd likely all know his name, but she has been lost in the history books.
It’s stories such as hers that have spurred me on to find more incredibly inspiring women throughout history which I feature on each episode of the podcast in my Wanderwoman of the Month slot. So I’d love to meet her and ask her what it was like to have wandered on Easter Island back then compared to when I visited to follow in her footsteps 100 years later.
Who has been your biggest influence in life?
I lost my mum when I was a teenager and I think the words she said to me when she knew she wasn’t going to make it really have influenced my life the most. She said that if there was something I really want to do, I should give it my all and try and do it even if everyone else said it was impossible. Her assertion was that even if I wasn’t successful, I would at least have done my damnedest to make it happen. She said fear had stopped her doing many things she wanted to and desperately didn't want that to happen to me.
My whole life changed when I lost her and from that day onwards, whenever I am scared of doing something outside my comfort zone, I think of her and what she said. You never regret the things you do, only the things you don’t do after all.
What has been your proudest career moment?
I knew I was a storyteller from a very early age, when we were given writing homework in school my friends would complain, but I would be really excited about it. Later I decided to study journalism but the course I tried to get onto turned me down saying that they 'didn’t see me as a journalist'. Years later, one of my old tutors got in touch with me to ask if one of her students could do an internship on the magazine I was working on - she hadn't realised who I was.
Just that week I had won an industry award for 'Editor of the Year' as well as an award for an article too, which I took great delight in telling her whilst accepting her student. There's nothing like someone saying 'you can't' do something to give you the motivation and bloody mindedness to make it happen!
What does the ‘outdoors’ mean to you?
In a word 'freedom'. I learned a long time ago that the outdoors it is the ultimate leveller. The mountains don’t care whether you’re a man or a woman, how much money you have, what you look like, what religion you are or aren't - it rains and everyone the same. There is something incredibly freeing about knowing that.
What did you want to be growing up and why?
For many years I wanted to be a rockstar. I joined a band when I was 15 as a singer/song writer. We recorded a demo and toured around Wales a bit, but that's as far as it went. I always joke that now I am a rock star...albeit of a different kind.
Favourite place in the world?
Standing on the top of Tryfan in Snowdonia National Park, North Wales, watching the sunrise with no one else around for miles.
What does your song playlist look like?
It’s very eclectic. On there you'll find songs that remind me of the outdoors by bands such as Lord Huron (look them up they are amazing), but equally there is some pop, such as Sia, rock such as Hole, and then a whole mix of stuff from many eras, as well as some favourite Zumba tunes! I don't limit myself by genre, I just listen to whatever I like that remind me of moments, people and places.
Any podcasts you’d recommend?
The one that first got me onto podcasts was Serial - I absolutely love the in-depth reporting on that. From there I fell in love with This American Life, which tells wonderful stories, both from the past and the present, some funny, some serious and some bizarre. I am always on the lookout for new ones to get hooked on!
The ideal five guests around your dinner table would be…
Nan Shepherd (author of The Living Mountain) - so I could talk to her all about her love of the Cairngorms and find out how it has changed between then and now.
Millican Dalton (the 'Caveman of Borrowdale') - so I can ask him about some of his gear innovations and also what it was really like to really live in Castle Crag cave in the Lake District.
Maya Angelou - because she is one of the wisest women I've ever heard talk. I could happily listen to her wisdom and poems for hours.
George Mallory - so I could find out if he and Irvine really did make it to the top of Everest...
Cerys Matthews - because you need someone there you know and who you can have a good laugh with.
What three items couldn’t you live without?
My rucksack, my sleeping bag and my inflatable pillow...
Phoebe in her portaledge on a mission to raise money and awareness about youth homelessness through adventure.
What is something people might not know about you (but will after reading this)?
I cannot stand raisins, but I do love the flavour. You should see me eating a teacake - I pick them all out of it - I just cannot stand the texture. I guess that’s a bit weird.
You’re a busy individual and you live varied days, how do you keep your mental health and self-care in-check when things become a little too much?
To be honest with you that is still something I am trying to perfect! I certainly have realised during this lockdown that I am the kind of person who thrives on being busy and having lots to do, and I find it much more difficult to relax. But I’ve also realised that there is pleasure to be had by simply sitting back, doing nothing and just enjoying being in this wonderful world of ours - and not feeling guilty about it.
For me, when things get a little too much I think the key to remember is that it’s okay to feel bad because like a storm it will pass. You will feel good again even if you don't feel good that minute. I’ve also learnt in the past year that it’s perfectly okay to ask for help if you need it and if you do you may well be surprised how many people really do care. No matter how you feel - I promise you are not alone.
What is your mantra (if you have one)?
Actually, I can.
What are your personal tips for staying at home right now?
As a restless soul it has been super hard - I have at times felt like a caged animal. What has really helped me, though, is taking the time to notice the little things. I discovered this when I decided to get out the macro lens for my DSLR and went on my walks. I was unable to take photos of the scenes and landscapes with that on, and it physically forced me to look for small facets of beauty, even in a mundane scene that I thought I knew really well and had nothing else to discover.
I have also have made it my mission to keep in touch with friends and family better than before. I have been so used to rushing around everywhere and only having time for a quick text check in now and then, but during lockdown I've prioritised scheduling in virtual meetings, drinks and even pub quizzes with people - and that has really kept me going and helped them too.
Finally, I think we all need to remind ourselves that while on social media it can seem that everyone is learning new languages, baking or writing a novel, for many of us lockdown is hard, very hard, and for some of us just surviving it, and coming out the other side, is achievement enough.
What three things inspire you?
1. Enthusiastic people: I can listen to anyone talk about anything as long as they are passionate about it.
2. Nature: its beauty, its fragility and its resilience.
3. The kindness of strangers: I have discovered this time and again through my Christmas charity expeditions - walking the length of Britain over 40 days this Christmas with my teammate Dwayne Fields (for our #WeTwo Foundation); sleeping the 3 peaks solo and walking the width of Britain dressed as Wanderwoman for Centrepoint (the young people's homeless charity).
The way people will help you out and be so generous has truly astounded me. And it's not just on expeditions. Travelling all over the world has proved that if you give people a chance, you realise how wonderful they can be.
Is there a particular person you’d like to join you on your next Wanderwoman Podcast?
I’d love to have Stephen Fry on. I’ve written for him before - he read a Sleep Story I penned for Calm which has been their biggest hit and been listened to over 30 million times. I met him last year, but felt so in awe I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say - so I’d like to give it another go!
How does it feel to have your own podcast named as one of Guardian Travel’s Top 10 Travel Podcasts?
Incredible - I’ve been overwhelmed with how well it's been received - especially as it’s really a one woman show. I’m hugely grateful to my producer Daniel Neilson and, of course, all the people who’ve been so kind as to speak to me on my travels. Also, I'm massively thankful to Rohan whose support and belief have made it happen!
And finally, what would be a good theme song for your life?
A cheesy one. I think I’m gonna have to go for Bon Jovi’s It's my Life.
Travel Writer Phoebe Smith on assignment to seek out the wild Estonia beyond Tallin's city walls.