'I've been hunted by snakes and stalked by a jaguar – danger is addictive'

'I've been hunted by snakes and stalked by a jaguar – danger is addictive'

July 15, 2020

From a very early age, Lucy Shepherd knew that she belonged outdoors – it was where she always felt most like herself.

Adults described her as an ‘adventurous’ child, and she loved showing off her no-fear attitude. A trait that she carried into adulthood, and even made a career out of.

Now, the 27-year-old adventurer is a leader in her field and has experienced things most of is could only dream of. She wants

‘Aged sixteen, I saw an advert in the paper and it was from an arm of the Royal Geographical Society, where I am now a Fellow,’ Lucy tells Metro.co.uk.

‘The advert was looking for ten, 18-25-year-olds to take part in a scientific Arctic expedition in Svalbard for ten weeks. This was my first opportunity to join an expedition and I jumped at the chance.

‘I went through interviews, training and had to learn how to fundraise fast (a skill I still have to constantly do). To my amazement, I got in and so aged 18 I set off to the extreme Arctic to climb, explore, map and research the Svalbard landscape. 

‘It was here that, as cliché as it sounds, I realised who I was again. I felt like that happy ten-year-old kid up the rope.’

Lucy says that most people go on these adventures as teenagers or young adults and quickly label them as an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience. But she wasn’t ready to accept that this was something she would only get to feel once.

‘If it was, then surely it’d be all downhill from then on?! No. This was just the start, and from then on I made it my mission to carve myself a path in the adventure and discovery world,’ says Lucy. ‘It’s hard and relentless but 100% worth it.’

For Lucy, expeditions can be anywhere in the world. She loves them all, from the Arctic to the high mountains to the remote jungles.

‘They need to be extreme, remote and often places very few go to and I tell the story through film,’ she explains.

‘I go solo or team up with indigenous people if the expedition lends itself to that and if I do go with others I don’t go with large teams but prefer either a small team of four or just my climbing partner (and romantic partner!) Tim.’

Earlier this year, she was was in the Amazon jungle where she and five Americans crossed the Kanuku mountains in Guyana. The terrain is notoriously hard and unknown, and very few people have ventured as deep into the jungle as they went.

‘Navigation in the jungle is as hard as you can imagine,’ says Lucy. ‘It’s all too easy to go off your bearing whilst you weave through the vegetation and obstacles, watching your step for snakes, wasp nests and ridiculously spikey branches.

‘Going into that expedition, everyone thought I’d gone in too deep. The dangers were too great, rescue was almost impossible and there was not enough information on the landscape to make a good enough plan. But that’s exactly what drew me to it and made it what it was.’

But the dangers were real, and Lucy lived through some terrifying moments during her trip – including coming face to face with some of the most deadly and hostile inhabitants of the jungle.

‘We had to stop to make camp at 3pm because that’s the time when the dangerous animals – like snakes – wake up, ready for hunting at night fall.

‘It seemed rather abstract, this timing but I went with it because the guys had always followed this rule. However one day we are going so incredibly slowly and we found ourselves on a steep descent in the thickest jungle I’ve ever been in.

‘There was nowhere to put up our hammocks so we had to keep going past the dreaded hour of 3pm.

‘Almost on the dot we stop in our tracks. The man leading our group puts up his hand. We grind to a hault.

‘There’s a jaguar nearby, we’d seen two the days before, but this is not the place to bump into the sabretooth, skull crunching cat.

‘We can’t see it, but its smell is overpowering. It feels like its watching us, we are on high alert as we continue on.

‘Suddenly, there’s an almighty loud whistle. Once again, we all stop. The colour in the men’s faces drain away, they look petrified.

I don’t know what the whistle is and am keen to get out of the area where the jaguar is. I ask what the whistle is and one of the guys reply ‘Bushmaster’.

‘The Bushmaster is the most feared snake by the Amerindians. It is known to track human scent, wait underneath sleeping humans in their hammocks and strike when they least expect it. It is large and deadly and makes this whistle which the guys told me means they know you are there and they are coming to hunt you… Charming right?’

That wasn’t the end of it. Quickly, Lucy and her team began hearing the ominous whistles all around them. They were being surrounded by the terrifying Bushmaster snakes.

‘We tried to push on past the closest ones, but then we saw a snake just ahead of us.

‘We had no option but to try our best and put up camp in this part of the jungle. At least then we can clear the ground and see what is approaching.

‘As we began to clear this space, not one but two of the team were stung by bullet ants (a bullet ant sting is one of the worst pains in the world). Now two of our team of six will be in pain and have a fever for 24 hours.

‘So here we are, in this dense jungle, with jaguars, snakes and ants around us and on top of this, my only emergency device to the outside world has stopped working.

‘It was a reality check and the scale of what we were doing as a small team really hit home. We only had each other to get us through the night and we had to stay focused, calm and together.’

Lucy says that in overwhelming moments like these, mental preparation is everything.

‘I knew that there would be times where I would feel out of my depth, like I was in a nightmare and out of control,’ explains Lucy. ‘But the key is to fool yourself into thinking you do have control.

‘You control what you can and accept what you can’t. I think that’s the best way of looking at it.’

And making it through these scary and stressful moments feels like nothing else. It is no wonder that the danger has become almost addictive for Lucy.

Crossing the Kanukus – when so many told me it was near impossible – was the most wonderful moment,’ she says.

‘We had been in the dense, dark and claustrophobic jungle for the entire time and finally we reached the other side.

‘We came out of the mountains and the jungle opened up into the most incredible river, filled with wildlife, fish and birds. It was like something out of a fairy-tale and I automatically felt safe and a wave of relief swept across me.

‘Then, without warning, I broke into tears. I had had to be so strong and fearless in the jungle that now I could acknowledge what we had been through and reflect on the experience. I was overwhelmed with pride and relief.’

For Lucy, being fit and active isn’t just a way of making her feel good, it’s her career too.

‘It’s not crazy for me to say that it comes down to life and death sometimes,’ she adds.

‘The feeling after an expedition, when I’ve been so active for weeks, sometimes months, is a feeling like no other. There is an energy that I can’t replicate anywhere else. It’s a euphoric, content and happiness feeling that I think is addictive.’

Lucy’s first love was the great outdoors, and it is her passion for the natural world that spurs her on and pushes her to achieve the impossible. Everything she does is about working towards awareness and greater understanding of environmental issues.

‘We live in paradise. I think people forget how great we have it,’ says Lucy.

‘We live on a ball of rock floating in space with everything we need on it… As long as we look after and work with nature.

‘I think it’s key to understand how everything is connected from the smallest fungi to the largest mammal to the coral in the sea. When I’m in these environments, I am insignificant and have to work with my surroundings rather than against.

‘By having this relationship with the planet I feel this huge duty of care and responsibility for it. I think it would help if more felt this same responsibility.’

Lucy says that while the travel industry does have its environmental faults, but she does believe that travel and sustainability can work hand in hand.

‘It’s easy to criticise someone for flying to another country whilst at the same time saying they are a climate activist, I believe it’s called “flight shaming”‘, she explains.

‘Of course flying increases your carbon foot print, but it only accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions. The bigger culprits are the clothing, residential, agriculture industries.

‘Travelling not only educates and inspires us to care for our planet but provides help for communities that without tourists, may not have as much incentive to protect their natural wonders.’

She adds that the travel and tourism industry can help a country with conservation and sustainable efforts – whether they be to maintain or create National protected parks, or for conservation and education efforts.

‘I think more and more countries are realising many people love to come to see another country for their wildernesses, so it benefits them economically to keep them wild,’ says Lucy. ‘The key is making sure that communities and organisations are not green washing people, meaning they use the term eco-tourism loosely and are not actually doing good.’

Lucy says she will never let the fact that she is woman stand in the way of an adventure. She wants young girls to feel empowered to get outdoors and face their fears. She says she is still often the only female member of her expeditions, but she is gradually seeing improvements.

But she is aware that travel and adventure is still a pursuit that is reserved for the privileged.

‘There’s no getting away from it, travelling costs money,’ says Lucy. ‘But even when done on a shoe string (which almost all my trips are) it’s still unattainable to some.

‘Travelling far away from home is seen as a privilege and I feel privileged because of what it gives me and what I get out of it, even if it does mean getting close to death. I’ve made that choice to be there. It’s on me.

‘It’s not like it’s easy, I put every effort and penny  and make constant sacrifices (sometimes too many) so that these expeditions happen. It is most definitely something I cannot take for granted.’ 

She says microadventures – smaller-scale trips that happen closer to home – could be one way to bridge the privilege gap and make this field slightly more accessible to people from different backgrounds.

‘They are a great way to find out whether you love adventure and whether you want to go all-in, to then looking on how to make a larger one happen,’ says Lucy.

‘For the larger ones, learning the skill sets so you don’t need to rely on guides or expensive tour organisations – will cut the price dramatically. (As long as you can do so safely!)’

Lucy says she has learnt invaluable lessons from her travels, and she just wants as many people – and women specifically – to feel part of this world.

‘Adventure is my life and I was lucky enough to fall in love with it at such a young age so I will continue to gradually pick away at my dream,’ says Lucy.

‘The wilderness is not sexist, it doesn’t care where you’re from, how much money you make, what job you do or who you love. It’s for everyone and I just wish everyone could appreciate just how wonderful we have it on this planet.

‘Life is so very precious, so go out there and see what you’re made of and see what the Earth has to offer. You won’t regret it.’

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