Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is a British travel writer and broadcaster who specialises in solo journeys through remote regions. As well as being the author of critically acclaimed books such as Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains, she's also no stranger to pushing her limits and has travelled across the globe in search of stories by foot, motorbike and tuk tuk.
Before she joins us on Tour in Cheltenham to share tales about her travels in Northeast India, we catch up with Antonia to talk everything from Guinness World Records to the extraordinary liberation of unfamiliar places.
Q: Antonia, you’ve embarked on some incredible adventures. Your love of solo travel has seen you trekking across the Eastern Himalayas in search of Shangri-La; following the remains of the Ho Chi Minh Trail on a tiny motorcycle and interviewing Naga rebel commanders high in the mountains of the Indo-Myanmar border - to name just a few! How do you choose your projects?
A: I’ve always got my ears pricked for inspiration, and keep a constantly growing and evolving list of ideas for books, articles, radio programmes and expeditions. I find that ideas are like dough; some rise, while others don’t develop at all. I know when an idea has ‘risen’ as I find myself waking in the middle of the night thinking about it. The next thing I know, I’ve fired off those first few emails that set a project in motion. Nowadays, I am constantly seeking ways for my travels and storytelling to communicate issues relating to the Climate and Ecological Emergency and biodiversity loss. The time for solipsistic adventures is over - never has it been more important to engage people with the crisis we are all facing, to inspire people and agitate for positive change.
Q: Your love of extreme travel has seen you set an unlikely Guinness World Record for driving a tuk tuk 12,500 miles from Bangkok to Brighton. Why did you choose a tuk tuk as your mode of transport?
A: Because it was funny! Plus, it would have been far too easy in a nice comfy 4WD. Anyone can drive a 4WD halfway across the world - all you’ve got to do is turn the key in the ignition and not get lost. Where’s the challenge in that?
Q: Can you tell us about your latest project?
A: I’ve just returned from a two month trip to Northeast India, Thailand and Laos, where I was covering a number of environmental and humanitarian stories - about tiger trafficking, indigenous activism and the last animist tribe in the Himalayas - for the BBC Word Service, BBC Radio 4, The FT and The Guardian Environment. I’m now busy writing everything up and working on two radio documentaries, which will all be out in the next few months.
Q: Your travels have taken you all over the world, often alone. What draws you to solo exploration? Do you have any tips for women who want to travel to remote regions?
A: There’s nothing quite like finding yourself alone in a remote, unfamiliar place; it’s extraordinarily liberating. Freya Stark summed up this feeling perfectly when she said: “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure.” In our normal lives, we’re surrounded by familiarity - we rarely test ourselves, or work something challenging out without asking a friend or the internet - but when you’re alone, you have to work things out. Travelling alone is also more immersive: you whole-heartedly engage with your surroundings and people you meet. I love nothing more than sitting around a fire in a hut high in the eastern Himalayas, with a bunch of strangers from a completely different culture, hearing about their lives.
As for travelling alone as a woman; travelling solo can be hard irrespective of gender. However, the things that make travelling solo tough - like not having anyone to help you when things go wrong – are also what makes it so enriching. Travelling alone teaches you to be more resilient, to figure things out for yourself. It’s why I love it so much.
Q: You have mentioned having panic attacks in the past, most notably before the journey that became Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains. How did you find the courage to go on this journey in spite of these attacks?
A: Despite having suffered from panic attacks, I’ve always lived a life led more by curiosity than fear. I want to explore, to tell stories, to find out about other people’s lives and loves and losses, and I’m not going to let the fear stop me. Plus, as we all know, the fear of something is nearly always so much worse than the thing itself. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that ‘fear is a desiccated boneyard where our dreams go to die in the hot sun’ and she is so right. If we let fear stop us, we are boxing ourselves into an ever diminishing existence. We have to learn to accept and override our fears and, in doing so, make our lives bigger and brighter.
Q. How did you start writing? Who were the writers who influenced you?
A: I’ve loved writing for as long as I can remember. I used to make up stories when I was very young and always had my nose in a book as a child, so I’ve always had that love of words. When I was at school I wanted to become a journalist, then somehow got side-lined into making television programmes in my twenties. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I really started writing, and it snowballed from there. Words are how I make sense of the world, and when I’m not writing, I’m reading, or thinking about stories and ideas. During the pandemic, writing my diary (something I’ve done since I was ten) was one of the linchpins of my sanity. As well as being a valve for my frustrations, writing was my escape from all the grief and loss of Covid; a way of noticing, a way of nailing myself to the present moment. Writing is my lifeblood and I can’t imagine a life without it.
Q: Can you tell us one word that sums up what the outdoors means to you?