Paula Constant is a brave woman, for she walked the Sahara Desert all by herself. Meandering through various countries, cultures, languages, tribes, landscapes, and most importantly her own mind. I read both her books Slow Journey South and Sahara. And then had the pleasure of being a part of the release of her books in Pune earlier this year. It was a delight to meet Paula Constant – despite being such a big achiever, she was this simple down-to-earth girl next door kind of person with air ease around her. We had a formal interview-style chat during the release, followed by informal chats at dinner and breakfast. This interview has been long due since then.
Paula Constant interview
Tell us about your growing up – where were you born, what did you study and what do you do now for a living?
Paula Constant: I grew up in a small country town (population 2000) called Mansfield. It is located in the alpine area of South Eastern Australia. And is a small farming town at the base of a ski resort. It was a very rural upbringing – I rode horses, skied, and we had several acres of land. I was sent to boarding school at Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne during my teenage years, as the local school was of a poor standard. I then went on to study first a Bachelor of Arts in Melbourne. Then changed to a Bachelor of Education by long-distance education from the University of New England. I was living in North Western Australia by then and working in indigenous communities so it was impossible to attend university in person.
I taught in schools in Australia and England before I began walking. Now I own a business in Australia, Sowilo Soul Centre, which focuses on programs that empower women to become the best they can be. We utilize modern and ancient practices, from yoga and meditation to current psychological practices to assist people to become more mindful and relaxed as they pursue the life of their choice.
What attracted you to walking in the desert in the first place? Do you remember your first long walk and what did it do to you?
I was drawn to walking as a result of living in North Western Australia. I would go for long walks along our magnificent beaches – Cable Beach in Broome runs for 80 kilometers, so one can walk a long way. And I felt that I could never quite walk far enough – I wanted to walk into the horizon and never stop, just to continue that beautiful process of rhythmic meditation.
When you decided to walk across Sahara – did you ever have a doubt that you may not be able to do it or there may be unseen obstacles that might pose a challenge?
Oddly enough, I never doubted my ability to do it. I was more concerned about the financial aspects. I was worried there would be unseen costs, and those fears proved to be found! Most of my concerns otherwise revolved around my ability to learn navigation and camel handling, but those things proved to be less of a challenge than I anticipated.
In your first book ‘Slow Journey South’ you focus a lot on the preparation you did for the Long Walk. What are your top few tips for people planning an expedition?
- Triple your imagined budget.
- Find a way to fund it yourself – save or sell what you own rather than seeking sponsorship, particularly in the opening stages.
- Set a date and leave on that date no matter what.
You learned Arabic for your walk. How important is it the language for big expeditions and how do you manage with one language when you are traversing regions with different languages?
I believe language is vital. Take the time to learn at least the basics, or arrive at your destination with enough time to learn before you set off. Language is your passport. It makes a strange land a familiar one. And your daily interactions are immensely easier. Traveling with only one language puts you at a disadvantage that is very difficult to overcome. Different regions can be managed if you either learn a few basic words and phrases and/or work with local guides. It is easier to engage a local guide who has the language if you know you are likely to face challenging situations.
For walking in the desert for 35-40 km every day, how much physical and mental endurance do you need?
Physically, you need to look after yourself – rest well during the heat, sleep early, and eat lots of protein. Mentally, break it into chunks: “I just need to put one foot in front of another.” I banned myself from looking at the ‘big’ map more than once a week. If you focus on the big picture, it is so overwhelming you are tempted to give up. When you focus on the inch you have walked that day, you feel a sense of achievement and optimism.
Being a single white woman walking through the African desert – what were the most challenging parts? Were there any advantages too?
The most tiring aspect was constantly being an object of fascination for EVERYONE I encountered. Answering the same questions for the tenth time in one day was exhausting. And at times, demoralizing. Finding every man looking at me as a potential marriage option was also wearing. On the upside, I was tremendously supported and protected by men as a woman, and treated with respect I would not have enjoyed were I a man. I was also given access to the world of women. The world is hidden from male travelers and one where I found a great deal of solace and wisdom.
What part of walking/traveling was most insightful for you? What are the insights that long periods of travel gave you?
The gift of sinking into deep contemplation and meditation as a result of long periods of isolation and repetitive walking was a blessing that has resonated through my life ever since. The need for constant self-examination and awareness also made me far more aware of the flaws in my character. As well as my strengths, and forced an honesty that I may not have discovered otherwise. I loved the long periods of solitude for the opportunity for self-reflection. But perhaps most of all, I loved walking in the natural world day after day and seeing the miracle of dawn every morning, or the wonder of the midnight stars. The journey through the natural landscape was my greatest privilege and gift for the whole walk.
How has your life changed after this big adventure? Has it impacted you as a person?
The walk still resonates within me every day. It has greatly enhanced my comprehension of the global village, as well as the common human experience. It has also left me feeling capable – that there is nothing I cannot do if I put my mind to it. I love this feeling; as well as the knowledge that I DID that. I did manage to walk all that way, through incredibly tough circumstances. Knowing I managed that has helped me navigate many harder scenarios since.
Did you maintain a daily journal during your walk or did you take writing breaks in between? Did you re-live the walk when you sat down to write your books?
I maintained a daily journal throughout Europe. But lost the practice in the Sahara. Although I did log my progress, with a few comments on each location. I barely referred to that, however, when it came to writing Sahara. I simply closed my eyes and was back there, living it again, as you say. It was hard to do that, but therapeutic, too.
What is the most common response to your adventure or your books? Any interesting anecdotes to share?
Most people ask the following questions:
- Why did you want to do it?
- Why did you walk all the time and not ride the camels?
- I can’t understand why anyone would want to do that.
I find that some people can be very challenged by my decision to walk. And feel that I must have some kind of unresolved psychological issue that prompted me to go. I will usually explain that I wasn’t necessarily aware of any grand psychological problem. But I had the opportunity for a lot of self-development both during the walk and afterward. If they persist – which they often do – I ask them what they dream of. Then, if they have an answer, which often they do, I ask them why they haven’t tried to make their dream happen yet. Generally, they will respond with “because I can’t see how I could make it happen – it’s impossible.” Then I have the opportunity to say: “Well, I decided to find a way to make the impossible possible because I believed in my dream.”
Are you planning any more expeditions – big or small? If yes, please share the idea with us.
I would love to bring together a group of women from religions and countries around the world to do a united walk through the Thar desert of India. To promote women’s strength and spiritual and religious harmony. I haven’t begun to organize it yet. But it is in my mind. And I will begin to organize it when I feel ready.