A desire to push herself beyond the everyday has driven Sarah Davis to embark on an intense personal challenge, with the hopes to inspire others to seek out adventure, too.
When it comes to risk management, being the first woman to paddle the length of the Nile River in Africa is an expedition with plenty to manage. With crocodiles and hippos lurking in crashing rapids, a route through politically unstable countries like South Sudan, and a planned trip time of seven months, the list that can go wrong rivals the length of the 7000km river itself.
Sarah Davis is probably better equipped than most to embark on such a journey. With a day job in risk and project management, a lifelong love of physical challenges, and a fierce streak of tenacity, she appears to have been born for this exact challenge.
“It was about two years ago ... I was living the dream in Bondi and I loved my work but it was that need for more fulfilment,” the UK born Sydneysider said.
“I just knew the status quo wasn't going to give it to me. I think I knew I didn't really want the — well there's no thing as an ordinary life — but I knew I wanted a life less ordinary.”
EYEING THE TARGET
So the hunt for what would, began. Around this time a few people who'd completed “firsts” caught her attention. One of them was Damien Rider, who paddled 800km from Coolangatta on a prone board. The other was UK television presenter Helen Skelton who was the first woman to paddle the Amazon. Davis, experienced in ocean paddling and racing and a member of North Bondi Surf Lifesaving Club, said seeing those two expeditions struck something in her.
“I knew it was something I wanted to do — kayaking based — because that is my sport, that's what I love doing. Then it was a case of looking at what has or hasn't been done. I Googled to see what the longest river is — because my geography's terrible — and that's where I came up with this.”
Once the destination was decided it was then time to plan the expedition, and this is where Davis' day job skills came into play.
“There was a lot of reading books, then getting in touch with the people I read about,” she said.
“One chap called Pete Meredith, he did a navigation of the Nile in 2004. He has been involved in a lot of expeditions as a rafting instructor. So he's been a great advisor and one of the first people I spoke to.”
A few reconnaissance trips to Africa were also necessary, as Davis said she needed to “sit with it (the idea) for a while”.
“I can come up with new ideas and get massively excited,” she said.
“So I went to Uganda and went white water kayaking on the Nile there. I got to speak to people and get a bit more of an idea of what was involved. I came away from that saying, I absolutely 100 per cent want to do this, and I'm also absolutely terrified.
If the seed of the idea had been planted before, these trips overseas had fertilised it and Davis began managing the project in earnest. Expected to take seven months, it will travel through Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt. One of the key concerns for the expedition is monitoring the situation in South Sudan.
“Obviously there's a fair amount of conflict there and things have been improving, but in that region, things can change so quickly,” she said.
“I'm getting advice on security and intelligence and that will continue right up until the departure date and during the expedition. If we think it's going to be too dangerous to go through South Sudan, once I get to the border it'll be across to Ethiopia to pick up the blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile.”
A company based out of the UK will be the central communications point to provide intelligence.
“They are the people I will speak to if I feel I'm coming down ill or if there's an issue,” Davis said.
“They'll have doctors online that I can talk to, and then if it gets to the point of evacuation from a medical or security perspective, then they're the ones coordinating all of that.”
Preparing for the risks is already underway here in Australia though, with Davis undergoing Remote First Aid training, Swiftwater Rescue training and Wilderness survival training along with weekly Krav Maga self-defence sessions. With so much planning and fundraising to do, she tips the current departure date should be sometime after May.
While this is essentially a solo achievement, it is also a massive team effort with a huge support network helping Davis behind the scenes as well as a team who will be with her in often dangerous waters.
“In Rwanda and Uganda and Tanzania, it will be rafting, so you've got some big rapids with crocodiles and hippos in there. I won't be on my own at any point, I'll have people with me the whole way.
“When we're rafting there's a team of people on the really big sections, and safety kayakers as well. On the kayaking sections there will be security as needed and local paddlers.”
As part of her preparations, Davis travelled to Egypt and Sudan last year to speak directly to the head of tourism for both countries.
“They were brilliant, really keen to get behind this, and help. I also met kayakers there so I've got people lined up who are keen to and will be, joining the expedition.”
An experienced paddler, Davis said she won't be doing any massive distances immediately prior to the expedition, so not to risk over training and “just being over it before I leave”.
“You build your fitness and endurance up as you go. I'm obviously not going to start off doing eight hours' paddling a day. But what I am doing right now is trying to increase my muscle mass and I've spent the past year dealing with residual injuries with Brett Campbell who works with some of the Olympic kayak team.”
2017 was an eventful year race wise for Davis, competing in the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in Hong Kong and the Molokai Challenge in Hawaii.
“Now those are done, it's really time to up the strength part of it, and get my nutrition right too,” she said.
THE GREATER GOOD
Aside from obviously achieving a 'first', and having the experience of a lifetime, it was important to Davis that the expedition have a larger meaning.
“I wanted to try to use it … to try to make a little bit of a difference,” she said.
“So I'm raising money for Care Australia. I'm aiming for $100,000 for them. I want to raise awareness of what Care are doing, and the challenges faced by people who live in these countries. It's not just about the money."
Davis said she is also creating a community called Winning Women, “to encourage and inspire each other to go out and dream big on adventures”.
It is already in the pipeline, with Sarah speaking to Year 10 girls at local high schools, to inspire them to see just what they're capable of.
“You know, I saw people who'd done firsts that inspired me and sparked my imagination,” she said.
“They didn't make me realise what I wanted to do, they made me realise what I can do.
“They are ordinary people with just a really big dream and a tonne of tenacity behind it.”
For more information on Sarah's Nile expedition, visit: www.paddlethenile.com
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