| 5.6°C Belfast

They'd never done any paddling before so what happened when these three women spent 10 weeks kayaking down a river in South America?

Adventurer Laura Bingham led her female British team in a world first. Sarah Marshall finds out how we can all be adventurers


All aboard: Pip Stewart, Ness Knight and Laura Bingham in their canoes

All aboard: Pip Stewart, Ness Knight and Laura Bingham in their canoes


Ed Stafford, Laura and their son Ranulph

Ed Stafford, Laura and their son Ranulph


Helping hand: Ness pulling Pip’s kayak along the riversomething

Helping hand: Ness pulling Pip’s kayak along the riversomething


All aboard: Pip Stewart, Ness Knight and Laura Bingham in their canoes

It was a challenge no-one had ever attempted, tracing one of South America's longest rivers from sea to source. But last month, three young British explorers set a world first by kayaking the entire length of the Essequibo river in Guyana.

Led by 25-year-old adventurer Laura Bingham, who's married to TV wild man Ed Stafford and gave birth to their son Ranulph only eight months previously, the team travelled 600 miles in inflatable kayaks on a journey that took 10 weeks.

Bingham, who is best known for cycling 7,000km unsupported across South America without any money, was joined by 32-year-old Ness Knight, the first female to swim the River Thames from source to sea, and Pip Stewart (33), an adventurer and journalist who recently cycled around Brazil and Peru to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Along the way, they encountered exotic wildlife, indigenous tribes and the shocking effects of human impact on the environment, and now they're ready to share their story.

When did you start planning this expedition?

Laura: "In July/August late last year. My husband had just finished Lost Land Of The Jaguar with Steve Backshall and he painted this Disney-esque image of the Guyanese jungle with monkeys and jaguars. He said the river had never been done before - crazily - and that gave me the idea."

Did Ed assist with the training?

Laura: "We'd not done any paddling before, so we went in low season when the rapids wouldn't be too tricky. It was the safest version of the river possible. Ed had to advise these guys and they had to advise me, because I couldn't take any advice from him! He gave us a few jungle lessons in a bit of woodland - showing us how to use a machete, put up hammocks and light fires."

Was finding the river source a challenge?

Ness: "That turned out to be an expedition even before the expedition started! It was one of the most fascinating bits - going under the canopy in virgin rainforest. It was humid and physically taxing; we were cutting our line with machetes with huge packs on our backs."

Did you get sick along the way?

Laura: "I'm full of abscesses and cold!"

Pip: "I got quite bad trench foot to the point where Laura told me I looked like an 89-year old about to die. It was insanely painful and I couldn't put any pressure on my feet. I had huge craters of flesh hanging out. All my Instagram followers kept asking about 'Boris'. The infection was whitey-yellow and Boris seemed an appropriate name. It had a hairstyle!"

What was it like to travel with members of the indigenous community?

Pip: "The Wai Wai are the most insane jungle experts, so to have them lead us to the source of their river was phenomenal. Explorers of the past might have been interested in flag-planting and chest beating, but actually, in this global world, we have real opportunity to make positive connections cross culturally. We learned so much from the Wai Wai, and what's really nice is that they said they learned from us as well. That sharing of knowledge has to be the future of exploration."

Were there any surprises along the way?

Ness: "I was surprised at how many jaguars we saw! It says a lot about how well the Wai Wai are looking after the area. Nearly every day, we'd hear or see jaguars, or we'd find their footprints or scat."

Pip: "I nearly sat on the most dangerous snake in the jungle. I got my foot stuck in a log and Laura spotted a snake two or three inches from where my a*** had been! Before we left, the helicopter rescue guys told us, 'If something happens out there, you're going to have to be prepared to clear an area the size of a football field, so we can land safely'. We went into those upper regions knowing that if something happened, that would probably be it."

What were the low points?

Laura: "There were points when I missed my son so much, it was almost physical pain. It's never an easy decision to leave a child, but it's about staying true to your beliefs and knowing he's so happy and so safe with his dad. No one bats an eyelid when a father goes away for a period of time, but it's different for women."

Pip: "It was sad to see the destruction of the river, coming from this pristine source all the way to hitting the mining and logging areas. Confronting the modern world was the point I wanted to rush back to the jungle. You have a lot of time to think in a kayak, about the ways we've contributed to all of this."

What do you hope will be the legacy of your expedition?

Laura: "I'm behind female empowerment. I want to give women worldwide the confidence to do what they want in their dreams."

Pip: "Often, my barrier for entry into adventure is not knowing how to do something. But if you have a sense of humour and accept you're a bit rubbish, you will improve. I capsized so many times - it's a miracle I made it down the river in one piece."

Ness: "In reality, we're very ordinary people; we just choose to chase extraordinary things. There's nothing special about us - we're like everyone else; we're terrified, we cry a lot. We just had this crackers idea to do something - and we ultimately did it."

Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.

Already have an account?

Belfast Telegraph