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Belinda KirkWhy the UK needs an adventure revolution

By Leanne Downs26 June 2019

Adventures are proven to have a profound impact on people, helping them to develop self-esteem, confidence and resilience – yet we Britons have become more risk averse and are spending less time outside than ever before, compounding a mental-health epidemic. Belinda Kirk believes in the power of adventure to change lives for the better – so she’s triggering a revolution

Growing up on Alderney in the Channel Islands, Belinda Kirk had what most of us would consider an idyllic childhood; she would go off for hours on her own on her bike, building dens and climbing trees. “I had a lot of freedom to explore”, she tells me, joking that her childhood was practically ‘feral’ until she moved to Bristol on mainland Britain at the age of 10. After this, her only access to nature was through Duke of Edinburgh activities which enabled her to explore parts of the country and try activities such as kayaking and climbing a mountain for the first time.

Despite being city bound, Belinda nurtured a love for animals and nature. Influenced by her grandfather who was an animal behaviour lecturer, she had dreams of becoming David Attenborough’s assistant. This interest fuelled her first grand adventure, where at the age of just 18 she embarked on a 3-month solo trip to Africa to study black and white colobus monkeys with Frontier Expeditions. “My parents were not overly keen on the idea of me going to Africa on my own” she tells me, but they supported her desire to go regardless. Volunteering as a research biologist, she ended up staying there for over a year.

This experience was where she first discovered the benefits of facing her fears and pushing herself, as well as building valuable team skills. Meeting Belinda, it’s easy to assume that this strong and confident woman takes things in her stride, but this was not the case. “I was on my own and absolutely petrified, but I’d told everybody that this is what I was going to do “ she tells me “I guess it was a mixture of stubbornness and being too embarrassed to go home, having not done what I said I would do”.

Upon her return from Africa, Belinda continued her education by studying Biology at St John’s College, Oxford. Here she was encouraged to join the Expeditions Society to support her studies, which enabled her to benefit from grants and support from advisors including the legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger. This led her to plan and lead her first expedition to the Taklamakan Desert in China to study the Bactrian Camel at the age of 20. Although the expedition failed to find the elusive camels, it was a valuable part of Belinda’s development as an expedition leader, “The expedition overall was a success”, she remarks “…we all came back alive and had learned a lot in the process.”

Now hooked on big expeditions, Belinda became the youngest leader at the British Exploring Society, facilitating youth development expeditions and leading groups of teenagers as well as planning her own adventures. During these trips, she began to see the positive and often life-changing impact that adventure can have on young people. “One young girl, about 16/17 years of age comes to mind, [who] had a history of self-harm and all sorts of struggles,” Belinda begins. “I was doing a presentation at the Royal Geographic Society and in the queue outside, her mother came up to me and asked me what I’d done to her daughter. I was worried that I was about to receive a complaint or that there was some sort of issue, but then she went on to tell me that since [her daughter] had come back from the Amazon, the differences in her were clear to see, she was helping at home more, had made friends, received good reports from school – she’d really turned her life around.”

Belinda went on to develop a career in leading expeditions and facilitating adventure. She became a diving instructor and went to live in Egypt at the age of 23, setting up her own expedition company and diving school. The dream of working with David Attenborough was still there, so she took a film course and got a job as a runner with the BBC. Initially she was making tea but her unique skill set acquired from her expedition experiences enabled her to make rapid progress and soon she was leading film crews through remote jungles.

Her career became a mixture of TV work, personal challenges and running youth expeditions. She lived with friends in between her travels as her career meant that there was rarely in one place for long enough to live in a place of her own. Her career wasn’t lucrative but it enabled her to live a rich lifestyle full of remarkable experiences, including finally working with Sir David.

Seven years ago, Belinda left TV to concentrate on something that she was really passionate about – helping people go on expeditions through her not-for-profit organisation Explorers Connect. “I hold a belief that one big adventure has the power to change peoples lives.” She acknowledges that there were lots of opportunities out there for 16-25 year olds but not so much to make it easy for adults to have such experiences. Explorers Connect aims to bridge that gap. With the help of volunteers, freelancers and part-time team members, it has grown into a large community over the last 10 years. “Adventure is the most natural way we can develop coping mechanisms and expand our comfort zones. It empowers us to see the world and ourselves differently and there’s a need for it, which is why I set up EC.”

The project has naturally evolved Belinda’s view on adventure too. “People kept asking for smaller adventures, so ‘expeditions’ are now ‘adventures’ and I learned that these smaller adventures can have just as big an impact on people, and they’re more accessible which means that they can have a wider impact – and that’s what I want to do: make the maximum impact possible.”

This realisation has also led her to set up ‘Wild Night Out – Britain’s National Night of Adventure’ which is all about encouraging people to spend one night under the stars. “Explorers Connect helps adults whereas Wild Night Out is something a bit more for kids and families – it’s open to everyone and the idea is that by empowering families to do something together once, then they can do it again and again and again, positively influencing future generations.”

The change in direction to smaller family friendly adventures is a timely one, as Belinda is now mother to a lively toddler, Jackson. “My challenge now is allowing Jackson to grow up having adventures” she tells me, acknowledging the strong urge to keep him safe but accepting she has to accept the fear and let Jackson explore as she did at his age; it’s the risk averse, fear obsessed culture she is trying to counteract after all.

“I want to encourage more people to take risks. We always fear the worst, but adventure teaches us that often the worst is not so bad and it allows us to develop confidence to do more and achieve more. If I went back in time and told 16 year old me that I was going to do all that I have, I wouldn’t have believed me. I used to care so much about what people think, friends, family, people I’ve never even met. I’ve learnt it doesn’t matter, because I’ve developed self-confidence.” Belinda believes that society has got things wrong and that we need to go back and have a paradigm shift: “The number of people suffering from poor mental health today tells us that. These are modern diseases. The science is there: we just need to act on it – that’s why I’m starting an Adventure Revolution.”

Belinda will be publishing a book in the near future – a culmination of 25 years of taking people outdoors, full of science based research in order to communicate her message. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Wild Night Out is on the 29th June 2019 this year, to find out more about how to take part visit www.explorersconnect.com/wild-night-out

Leanne Downs

About Leanne Downs

Leanne Downs is the content editor for Thryve and works as an outdoor writer, blogger and photographer. She loves hiking, hillwalking and wild camping.

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Interview