Adventurer, wildlife conservationist, expedition leader, and coral reef ecologist, and founder of The Matriarch Adventure, Catherine Edsell shares what her many experiences have taught her, reflecting on how often it is the ones you’d least expect that teach you the most and encouraging us all to consider embarking on our own adventures.
Have you heard of Joseph Campbell? He was a mythographer who studied the power of myths across all cultures all around the world. He discovered through extensive research that all myths are in fact basically the same story. I recently came across his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, within which he talks of the ‘hero’s journey’ – an archetypal journey employed by most fairytales and Hollywood blockbusters, but that also has relevance to the dramas that we play out in our own lives. The hero’s journey starts with an ordinary person who receives the call to adventure.
At the age of 26 (unbeknownst to me), I embarked on my own ‘heroine’s journey’ – I was a choreographer by profession at the time, I had my own dance company, but segued into a life of conservation expeditions through my search for freedom, my love of nature, and my propensity for saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity presented to me. For seven years straight, my feet barely touched British soil as I immersed myself in the rainforests of Central America and Indonesia, lived in the Himalaya with locals, trekked through the Namib Desert in search of elusive elephants, and dived the oceans surveying coral reefs. It was a rich and rewarding lifestyle filled with frontline ecology, grassroots environmentalism, and the simplicity of expedition life. As in any good fairytale, I was tested many times along the way but rose to each challenge and grew with each experience. Even ‘my dance with death’ (apparently an important feature of every ‘heroine’s journey’) when I was caught in a landslide of my own creation, nearly meeting my end in the mighty Zanscar River in Ladakh, Northern India, prompted me to take action and up my skillset, resulting in the role of jungle trainer and forest operations coordinator for a biodiversity science expedition organisation.
And then as it says in the book… ‘The hero reaches the innermost cave where she endures the supreme ordeal.’ The problem was, it was disguised. As motherhood! This was seriously the biggest challenge I had ever had to face, but I didn’t realise this was part of the journey. I thought it was the end of the journey. I thought that the journeying part of my life was over.
I remember one dreadful NCT (National Childbirth Trust) coffee morning in Starbucks, a world away from where I felt comfortable, listening to one of the mums saying, ‘Oh, I’m going back to work in a couple of weeks…’ I don’t recall the rest of the sentence as my own personal abyss widened. ‘I can’t go back to work,’ I thought, ‘my work is in a JUNGLE!’ I had naively assumed that I could just strap the baby to my back and carry on, but these were dark, directionless times of no sleep and overwhelming feelings of guilt, isolation, and incompetence. Interestingly, people would say to me, ‘Ah! But this is the real world, this is real life’, but to me, my former existence was the real life, with its trees and animals, and sense of community. Coffee in Starbucks was a poor substitute.
On my 38th birthday, my brother gave me a card inscribed with, ‘I wanted to go out and change the world but I couldn’t find a babysitter.’ He’d meant it to be funny but it wasn’t AT ALL! Still these words, stuck to my fridge with heart-shaped magnets, were the catalyst for change. They were the key I had been looking for to let me out of the cave.
I slowly clawed my way back into the light, revisiting the jungles that gave me so much joy, with my kids in tow. I retrained as a divemaster (as it’s actually much easier to take your kids to a beach than it is to drag them through a jungle), and began leading expeditions again. Soon, I felt back on track. Then something changed, I began noticing that other women were remarking how ‘lucky’ I was to be going on such amazing adventures, how they wished they too could do something like that, and it hit me like a bolt of lightning – why don’t I create an adventure for them?!
I sat down and wrote a letter to all my female friends:
‘As a woman, and a mother, I notice the limitations we create 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 re-connect 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. When we even think about doing this we meet amazing resistance – particularly from ourselves, even if it’s what we actually really need.’
And right there and then on that very page, The Matriarch Adventure was born. ‘10 days, 10 women in the Namibian wilderness, tracking elusive desert elephants (the most iconic matriarchs there are), having an adventure, dawn yoga under huge flame-red skies, group inspiration round a camp fire, sleeping out under a myriad of stars, meeting with Namibian women and hearing their story… and all else that expedition life has to offer.’
The Matriarch Adventure is now in its fourth evolution and each expedition proves to me that adventure in remote and extreme wilderness environments with other women has a powerful transformative effect, quickly stripping away the non-essential trappings of modern life with all its guises (be they physical, social or otherwise), and replacing them with integrity, clarity, and sisterhood. This new paradigm allows women to rediscover what it is to be confident and self-reliant, and to return to their everyday lives supported and empowered.
In the words of one of the ‘Matriarchs’:
‘Of all my travels and adventures, some being incredibly physically challenging, some being emotionally challenging, some being ‘child’ challenging, this was perhaps the most memorable and special. Maybe and precisely because it was with just women, maybe because it was that we came with no or few acquaintances, maybe it’s because we shared an experience that few others on this planet have embarked upon. We were and certainly are outliers. And I think the company and camaraderie of similar-minded outliers made us sisters for those days. So thank you for that gift.’
I have since discovered that the final part of the hero’s journey is ‘for her to return to the ordinary world and share the treasure, the idea or the elixir she has discovered to benefit her world.’ So it does feel like I’m on the right track. We’re all on a heroine’s journey. We are all, ordinary and, at the same time, extraordinary.
Catherine Edsell FRGS is an adventurer and global expedition leader. An avid naturalist, she combines her passion for travel and effective conservation through independent and collaborative expedition work in the most remote areas of the world. She is a trained PADI Divemaster, Reef Check Trainer, coral reef ecologist, mountain leader, jungle trainer, motivational speaker, and yoga teacher. She has 20 years’ experience working in all manner of terrains, often with her children in tow. Inspired by her immersion in stunning natural habitats, Catherine is now leading a series of transformative adventures solely for women. Through travel to extreme wilderness locations, in close proximity to wildlife, Catherine designs expeditions that open up her world of adventure to any woman who wishes to seize the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone, push their own mental and physical boundaries, and in doing so, rediscover themselves.
TEDx Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfKB8GAqAGw