Meet the adventurer: Interview with Crista Cullen MBE

After teaming up with Exodus Travels to raise awareness of female porters in Tanzania, Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player and conservationist Crista Cullen MBE tells us what adventure means to her following her recent trek up Mount KilimanjaroWednesday, April 3, 2019

By Tamsin Wressell
Crista Cullen stands atop Mount Kilimanjaro

First up, aisle or window seat?

Window. 

Favourite place?

Sumara, in Kenya. I’m Kenyan, and we have the most amazing wildlife right on our doorstep, which I love.

Biggest travel fail?

I drove round the southern part of Africa in 2009, taking in Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi. When we were in Namibia, our car got completely stuck in the desert. There are no trees, so you can’t tie the winch onto anything. We were there a fair while trying to dig ourselves out of the sand, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. An epic trip.

Favourite book, film or podcast?

The Ghost and the Darkness, which is a film about the conflict between humans and wildlife. I do a lot of conservation work, so it’s where my heart lies. The film was produced a long time ago, but the conflict is still a massive issue today because humans are taking over more and more of the countryside. Especially in Africa. There’s simply no capacity to provide homes for everyone, so we’re increasingly encroaching on what was traditionally wildlife space. The film has got some great scary bits where the lion is stalking people. Note: I wouldn’t go camping straight after watching it. 

Worst piece of travel advice?

‘Just go with the flow’. I think it’s best to have some form of plan in place when you’re on the road, in case something goes wrong. Just keeping some element of control, but in a free-spirited way. People always ‘feel free’, and I love that — that’s really what I want —but there’s a little element of me that’s possibly a bit controlling, just so I can look after myself.  

Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met?

I’m always inspired by the doers. In the film I’m in about female porters in Tanzania, Ruth and Olivia and the ladies all have their own stories and their reasons for doing this physically challenging and demanding role every day. Most of them were doing the job for money, of course, so they could give their children a better head start in life than they had. And that, I think, is inspiring.

This film and initiative with Exodus Travel isn’t a male-bashing exercise. This is about the women who climb Kilimanjaro yet only make up 18% of the porters because they’re deemed incapable. And that’s where I have a problem. It’s the unfair lack of opportunity. These women need opportunities to secure employment too.

The one place you keep going back to?

Kenya. I’m third-generation Kenyan and I work on a conservancy called Galana Wildlife Conservancy. It’s really rural and arid. It’s just so different and I love it for that. There are so many places all over the world where there’s so much perfection, I love the rustic wilderness that Africa offers.

First thing you do in a new city?

Leave it!

Oddest circumstance you’ve found yourself in?

I was in Myanmar on a sleeper train between cities. Every hour or two, people would come on to sell you curries. Trying to eat a curry as the train is wobbling around is hilarious. So I spent much of the time either covered in curry or hitting the roof. 

Most looking forward to eating on your next adventure?

I’m militantly experimental when it comes to food. Wherever I’m lucky enough to go, I always try the local delicacies. I’m looking to do the Adventure Race World Championships in Sri Lanka in December for the Tofauti Foundation. It’s an endurance race, so I’ll probably be sticking to stuff I do know and lots of carbohydrates.  

Favourite adventurers?

I wouldn’t say I have any. I’m very aware of all the established adventurers who have achieved amazing things. I’ve always tried to appreciate the people who are there already rather than the people who have gone to try and take on a challenge. What I want to try and do is engross myself in understanding the how and why. What are the people doing who have traditionally been there for years?

That’s what the porter project enabled me to do — understand why women have this scepticism placed upon them because it was deemed they were incapable of the challenge. That resonates with me more — the more on-the-ground stories. The people who live it and do it every day rather than someone who comes in to have a specific experience, and then leave. They’re more inspiring to me.  

Adventure is…

An opportunity to explore. And find out more about the amazing facets of this world. We get so stuck in jobs, in the rat race, in all these things that matter to us in the moment, but everything is about experience and memories — and having the opportunity to do that is an adventure. 

Interview: Tamsin Wressell

To find out more about the Exodus Travels Foundation visit: exodus.co.uk/foundation