After a near-life-threatening diagnosis in 2009, Kiko Mathews decided to pack in her teaching job and embark on an adventure that would lead her to some extraordinary places. Finding her feet again whilst travelling in Africa, Kiko discovered her love of paddleboarding which became the catalyst for her various initiatives aiming to empower women and get people active.
Kiko’s life mantra is about letting nothing stand in the way of our dreams and goals, a mantra that she carried with her into her toughest challenge yet – solo rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. We caught up with this inspirational globetrotter to find out more about her expedition, why she's not a fan of souvenirs and why it’s important to challenge ourselves.
Kiko arriving at North Point, Barbados, ahead of schedule © Kiko Mathews
Where was your last trip?
This January I rowed solo and unsupported across the Atlantic, from Gran Canaria to Barbados. [Kiko completed the 3000-mile journey in a miraculous 49 days, beating the previous women’s world record.]
Where is your next trip?
What is your first travel-related memory?
My first independent travelling experience was going interrailing with three mates around Western Europe and Croatia when I was 17. At the time, Croatia was still emerging from the Yugoslav Wars and you could see remnants of bomb mortar in some places – it was an eye-opening experience.
Aged three, I remember trying to run away from home with my backpack and teddies; that was probably the start of my love of adventure.
The scars of its turbulent past can still be found along the city walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia © Dreamer4787 / Shutterstock
Aisle or window seat?
Window definitely. I like to lean against the window, so I can sleep – but you have to make sure you’ve gone to the loo before!
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I always pack the night before, I just chuck everything in. Then I’ll accidentally overpack because I'll worry I’ve forgotten something. Before a trip, I also have a recurring dream that I’ve left all my underwear at home.
Favourite city or country or region?
My favourite country is Uganda – it’s a very chilled place and as a traveller I felt very safe. I learnt to paddleboard there on the Nile, which is something I’ll never forget.
The River Nile running through Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda © Radek Borovka / Shutterstock
What has been your most unforgettable travel memory to date?
A few years ago, I spent six months driving from the UK to Cape Town with a guy who was tetraplegic. Our aim was to raise money and awareness for spinal injuries and spinal injury research – we raised half a million pounds! We wanted to show people that disabilities don’t mean you have to stop living your life to the full.
Tell us about your transatlantic expedition…
In January I rowed 3000 miles across the Atlantic to raise money for King’s College Hospital in London. King’s College Hospital saved my life in 2009 when I was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, an illness caused by a tumour on the pituitary gland. The tumour returned halfway through my training, which was very unexpected – but here I am today, having completed my expedition and having broken the world record for solo rowing the Atlantic.
As well as raising money, I wanted to prove that as humans and individuals we can do anything we set our minds to, regardless of potential barriers that stand in our way. It’s important to challenge ourselves as that’s what helps us grow and shows us what we’re capable of.
What were your favourite and most challenging aspects of the expedition?
My favourite part was the freedom from the hectic nature of life. I loved standing on the boat, looking around and wondering how far away the nearest person was to me – apparently, quite often it was in space!
The most challenging aspect was the monotony: 12-16 hours of rowing a day, for 49 days can get very, very boring. There were times when there was barely any wind which meant the only time I moved was when I was rowing. One day the wind went in completely the wrong direction so I actually went backwards.
All smiles as Kiko crosses the finish line! © Kiko Mathews
As well as physical strength, expeditions like these require a lot of mental endurance. Did you have any tools in place to help you get through those moments?
I’m a big believer that worrying is a complete waste of time, and there is little point trying to control certain situations. I can’t control the weather, I can’t control if the boat is broken; it’s far more effective for me to save my energy rather than tire myself out worrying about these things.
Why was it important to you as a woman to complete this challenge?
My whole expedition was funded by women. I think sometimes we forget what we’re capable of, and I wanted to show women, in particular, that they kick ass as much as men do. That being said, a lot of men have said they’ve been inspired by my adventure too, so it’s had this doubly positive effect to show both women and men that they can face these challenges. I don’t define myself as just a woman – I am Kiko – and this challenge was about trying to be the best that I am regardless of my gender.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to take on a similar challenge, or try a more extreme travel style?
Build a team. Having a group of people behind me meant I was then accountable for completing the expedition, and the support you get is amazing.
I would also say: have a purpose. Especially if you’re raising money or going down the sponsorship route, I think adventure needs to have a purpose. When I set out my objective was to get a world record, but that didn’t quite suit me as an isolated goal. Eventually, it became about championing my illness and showing others that they can do anything they set their minds to. Once I knew that was my purpose, I had to prove that it’s true, which gave me a strong foundation to keep going and see it through.
Paddleboarding has an almost therapeutic effect for Kiko © Kiko Mathews
Tell us about your other initiatives to empower women through adventure and education...
After recovering from Cushing’s in 2009, I went back into teaching but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was on borrowed time, so I packed my bags and went to Africa, where I discovered paddleboarding. I am a very hectic person and paddleboarding gave me that space to relax; it’s a very calm activity – when I’m out on the water, my brain can switch off.
When I came back to the UK, I wanted to set up a similar thing that focused around supporting women and sport. After my illness, I realised that I had had so many opportunities in life, so I set up a charity and subsequently a paddleboarding business to facilitate this. It was amazing, I was working harder than ever but I had all this energy because I was doing something I loved.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I stopped buying travel souvenirs when I realised that the minute you walked back onto home soil, they weren’t nearly as cool.
The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway of India in Mumbai © saiko3p / Shutterstock
What’s your biggest travel fail?
I don’t really recognise fails or mishaps, because anytime anything goes wrong I think it lends itself to a good story down the line.
That being said, I remember being in India, in Mumbai, and I’d gone out for some drinks with my passport on me and during the evening I must have dropped it. I woke up with the worst headache, freaking out that I had literally just started my mini round-the-world trip and lost my passport. A few hours later, when it reopened, I went back to the bar where we had been drinking only to discover that the cleaning lady had handed it in.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! What is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
The list of places I want to go is just insane. I think I’d go to Iceland or somewhere in Scandinavia. I’d go and live in a cabin in the wilderness, drink wine and eat stew by the fire, hang out in the sauna and plunge into cold pools or the snow.
What advice would you give a first-time traveller?
Buy a nice skinny pillow. My little pillow is my godsend for travel because it allows me to sleep whenever, wherever I can. If you can sleep on buses, trains or airplanes, your travel life becomes a hell of a lot easier. And hotel pillows can sometimes be awful, so if you’ve got your own little piece of comfort it makes the whole experience much better.
To find out more about Kiko and follow her adventures, check out her website kikomathews.co.uk.