"I had never wild camped on my own before that first night," Philippa Cox says, with a little hesitation that betrays some of the fears that she must have felt on that night in June, alone in her tiny tent in the northernmost tip of Norway. She had packed her bicycle and the bare essentials and flown to Nordkapp, an incredibly desolate part of the world, snugly tucked inside the Arctic Circle. Surrounded on three sides by snow-capped peaks, and on the other by slate-grey water that slowly freezes as it flows northwards, it was a brave place to pitch a tent.
This was day one of what would turn out to be a 101-day marathon of over 5,000 miles, all travelled by bicycle, taking Philippa from the most northern part of Norway to the most Southern tip of Spain. She travelled alone and without support, carrying everything she needed and relying on her wits and determination to get her through to the end.
"I’d done a few long-distance cycle trips," Philippa says, as we talk about her inspiration for this feat of physical endurance. ‘I’d done Land’s End to John O’Groats, and cycled the length of the Rhine – I always seem to have a good start and end point to my journeys. But this time, I wanted a bigger challenge, and to defy some of the stereotypes about women travelling and cycling on their own.
"As a woman in my mid-40s, I feel like there are social stereotypes of what people think you should be doing at this age. I felt strongly that if I don’t do it now, I never would, and I was lucky to have a huge amount of encouragement from friends and family. They all saw it as positive for me, and gave me the encouragement to fulfil my dream."
Philippa made her preparations, training for the physical intensity of the challenge at the weekends – even cycling to a friend’s London wedding so as not to disrupt her training schedule. As the days ticked down, the enormity of the challenge began to feel real, she says. She quit her job and got on a flight, soaring over Norway’s fjords with her bicycle in pieces in the aeroplane’s hold. There was no going back.
"I had flung myself to the furthest point of Europe," Philippa says. "It was cold and desolate, with little habitation. I looked south and wondered how on earth I would do it – it was a really overwhelming feeling."
But the first night of wild camping went smoothly, and the days soon began to find a rhythm, though they certainly weren’t easy. "I was cycling for up to eight hours a day, five or six days a week, and on really challenging terrain – up and down mountains," Philippa says. "The physical aspect was really tough at the start." In addition, the lifestyle of being on the road was itself difficult – especially in this wild and desolate landscape. "We live in a country that is so densely populated," Philippa muses, "but in Norway I could travel for miles upon miles on my own, with few cars going past and even fewer signs of civilisation. I’m a very sociable person, so spending so much time on my own was a challenge."
As Philippa pedalled ever southwards, she began to develop a physical problem with her arm. ‘It was a repetitive strain injury,’ she explains. ‘As I got into Denmark, my left arm wasn’t working well. It was a nerve problem, so it essentially felt like it was paralysed.’ But she pressed on regardless, blocking out the physical discomfort, and with time, warmer weather, and a kind friend who came to cycle a few miles with her for moral support, it got better. Lesser people would have given up – but not Philippa.
"It was really interesting to see the cultural changes as I travelled South," Philippa says of racking up European countries with the constant turn of her bicycle wheels - Sweden, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, France. "Europe is on the doorstep, but the cultural changes are so distinct; each country has its own personality. It was so interesting to see as I went along. Plus, there were so many other differences. The weather got much warmer as I went south, and I saw so many different landscapes, from the barren mountains of Norway to the vineyards of France. Some of the challenges in the north were completely the opposite to those of the south."
As she entered Spain in the heat of September (‘like a hairdryer’ is how she describes cycling through the hot, dry air), the prospect she might actually make it to the end of the journey began to dawn on Philippa. "At the start I thought I’d never get there," she says. "Then, as time wore on, I knew there was a possibility that I would make it, and it felt daunting. As I got further south, I’d get emotional thinking about how I’d feel when I arrived, wondering if it would really happen."
Spain was also the place that she encountered the most incredulity from locals, who just didn’t understand what she was doing. "The middle of Spain is beautiful in a really desolate way, and I was on rural routes so I wouldn’t accidentally end up on the motorway, so I often didn’t see many cars. When I did come across Spanish people, they often just didn’t understand what I was doing," Philippa says. "Culturally, travelling solo just isn’t common for Spanish women – whereas, in the Scandinavian countries, there are adventurous people doing adventurous things everywhere, so bumping into me on the road wasn’t such a surprise."
"Social stereotypes and the media create fear around women travelling alone. But generally, throughout the trip, people responded really positively to me because I was female and travelling on my own. They wanted to protect me, and went out of their way to help."
Telling other people about the life lessons she learned during her adventure is very much at the heart of what Philippa wants to do, now that she is home. "It was really surreal to finish the journey," she says, reliving the moment she cycled into Tarifa, with North Africa visible across the Strait of Gibraltar. "Some of my friends had flown out to welcome me, and it was so amazing to see familiar faces. It wasn’t relief as much as a real sense of achievement. I had done it – and I realised I was capable of a hell of a lot more than I thought I was. I didn’t want to lose that feeling."
In the pipeline are several exciting projects to spread the word about her adventure, including some dates to go into school assemblies and talk to teenage girls. "I want to encourage them to find their own challenge and just go for it," Philippa says passionately.
The adventure has also led to significant changes in other aspects of Philippa’s life. Throughout the trip she fundraised for two charities, ultimately raising £5,000 apiece for Re-Cycle, who restore old bicycles and send them to Africa, and for the Youth Adventure Trust, who give young people the chance to try adventurous activities. Philippa now works for the latter, in a role that aligned perfectly with her skills, interests and values.
Ultimately, Philippa’s trip wasn’t about the physical and mental hardship of cycling 5,000 miles, or the experience of seeing eight countries in the sort of detail few tourists have time for. "The strongest thing to come from the trip was the spirit of human kindness and generosity that people demonstrated in helping me to achieve my goal," she reflects. "I stayed with incredible interesting people that I’m still in touch with today. They were so kind, and they really opened up their houses and their lives to me. It restores your faith in human nature when you’re the beneficiary of so much support."
"The fear you have are just demons in your head. There were time that I was lying in my tent at night, worrying that someone would find me and chop me up into little bits, but nothing ever happened. Be rational - the likelihood is so small," she continues. "I did end up in one ditch after falling off my bike, but that could happen to you in Bristol, let alone a hamlet in Norway. It should never put someone off."
This Warrior Woman is a true survivor, who believed in a goal and went out and achieved it, despite the pain and hardship. May her adventurous spirit never leave her, and may her stories go on to inspire a generation.
Keep up to date with Philippa’s microadventures via her blog: www.cycleodyssey.org