An interview with Christina Dodwell
So, I am opening this 2018 with a something big, and of which I’m very proud and happy.
And here’s a little introduction…
Christina Dodwell’s been one of my real-life heroes for the last 25 years, ever since I discovered her books in a London bookstore (Hatchard’s, if you really must know).
My personal favorites are An Explorer’s Handbook (great fun, and a great resource for a writer) and A Traveller in China (because of my old fascination with China and all that — we discussed this already), followed suit by A Traveler on Horseback in Eastern Turkey and Iran.
Now, the great news: I was granted permission to reprint an interview that was originally posted on the website of the Long Riders’ Guild, in which Miss Dodwell talks about her experiences as a traveler and an explorer.
I am extremely grateful to Christina Dodwell, to Basha O’Reilly who conducted the original interview, and everybody at the Long Riders’ Guild, for this great opportunity.
So, here goes. I’m sure you guys will enjoy the ride.
Christina was born in Nigeria, West Africa, and educated in England. Her life of remarkable adventure began by chance in 1975, when she made a 20,000-mile journey round Africa by horse, camel and dug-out canoe. She followed that up with solo journeys in Papua New Guinea, China, Siberia, Madagascar, Turkey and Iran.
Christina has made 3 television films and more than 40 radio documentary programmes for BBC Radio 4 – several have received distinguished merit awards. She has worked for the Consulate of Madagascar in London for fourteen years and in 1995 she founded The Dodwell Trust, a charity dedicated to the Third World.
Christina was awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1989.
Like Isabella Bird and Rosita Forbes, Christina demonstrates enormous courage, a keen eye for detail, an insatiable curiosity about the local people and great respect for their culture.
As Chris Bonington wrote, “Christina Dodwell continues the tradition of many renowned travellers, of Gertrude Bell, Annie Taylor, Isabella Bird, Freya Stark and Ella Maillart.”
**Who do you think was the most influential explorer in history and why? **
Isabella Bird, as I remember she was the first woman invited to be a Fellow of the RGS, and therefore opened the field of exploration to the wider world of women, making it acceptable and respectable for women. She may not be one of the most famous explorers, but she was certainly among the most influential.
Who inspired you to become an explorer and why?
My mother, she told me often that it’s OK to be different, not to want a sedentary life was OK too. She was born and raised in China, where grandpa worked while grandma rode horses and mules on distant forays of exploration through China – during the time of the warlords. After their marriage my parents moved to West Africa for 15 years, where I was born and raised in the bush.
When I was 24 I told her about my plans for a few years of travel, she said she had complete confidence in my ability to survive. Her confidence in me gave me the confidence I needed to handle many tricky situations.
As to what would happen if I disappeared without trace, we agreed to keep in touch by letter at least once every 3 months, and that after 3 months of no word she could think about looking for me. In fact it happened twice, the first time was while I was on horseback in Southern Africa and, instead of calling out Search and Rescue, she used ‘the Grapevine’ and she sent a message through friends of friends to the South African farmers and fishermen, telling me to write home urgently. The grapevine worked because no one forgets seeing a solo woman travelling on horseback. Her message only took 2 weeks to reach me.
What is your favourite exploration book and why?
None really, maybe Tschiffely’s Ride by Aimé Tschiffely, which I enjoyed in my teens though it had no immediate impact, or maybe Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de St. Exupéry that I loved reading and is the desert. Not that I like deserts.
What is your favourite exploration film and why?
African Queen with Katherine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart playing a drunk chap.
If you were travelling to the South Pole in the “Heroic Age,” would you prefer to travel with Shackleton, Amundson or Scott, and why?
Whichever got back with the least horrendous suffering, so it has to be Amundson.
After having had so many adventures in so many countries, what was the most dangerous situation you survived?
Would it be bandits or are they less dangerous than rivers in flood and airborne engine-failures in dust storms? Hard to know, I think that nature is more dangerous than people.
What is the greatest sacrifice you have made to be an explorer?
Nothing I would not give up, willingly.
What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the exploration world since you began?
People’s expectation of how things should work. Telephones that work. And of course technology today.
What modern technology or techniques do you find most helpful?
It would be helpful to have a modern map of Madagascar, my most recent OS maps are dated 1951.
What piece of equipment always goes with you?
Camera and film.
Please tell us what prompted you to found the Dodwell Trust.
Lack of others. I like to do what others don’t or can’t do – and let others do the things they can do.
Back in 1993 when I found the model for radio drama serials for social and economic development, and I knew I could make it a national radio top rating show because I’d experience of radio production and enough contacts, I was given an honest and capable associate in Tana, and funds were offered by UNICEF and USAid.
Which book would you recommend to would-be explorers today?
The oldest books, to learn about what was there in 1700s and 1800s, and go knowing what used to be there and is probably still there.
What would you tell young explorers to be wary of?
Nothing, only their fears. And maybe scorpions.
Why is it important for humans to continue exploring?
Creating friendships in third world, and creating awareness in the West about development issues.
Which of your many achievements do you think will be most remembered?
The effects of the Dodwell Trust in Madagascar.
What’s your greatest concern for the future of exploration?
Trivialisation, or package tour exploration such as the South American travel tours which planned to find uncontacted peoples – there were no restrictions about people travelling with colds and flu, though germs can be disastrous for those with no immunity.
[all images courtesy of Christina Dodwell]