Sarah Marquis, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2014, spent 1,000 days and 1,000 nights walking from Siberia to Australia starting in 2010. She went through eight pairs of heavy walking boots, carried almost 70 pounds on her back and encountered wild animals, severe weather and less-than-well-intentioned humans.
In a Skype interview from her home country of Switzerland, Marquis told espnW about her three-year journey through extreme climates and conditions. She discusses her preparation, the dangers she faced along the way and her exploration of femininity. Marquis' book "Wild By Nature" goes on sale Tuesday. For an excerpt from the book, click here. This interview has been edited for length and grammar.
espnW: Why did you decide to do this?
Sarah Marquis: I've been doing this for the last 23 years. I was born an explorer. If you ask my mom, she would say, "That's Sarah! She's always does those big, long walks." Even when I was a little girl, I was always taking off, sleeping in a cave with my dog overnight, they were looking for me everywhere.
So I never really stopped having this curiosity and having this link with nature. I found my way of exploring this later on in my life, but I never really changed anything from who I was in the beginning.
espnW: But even going from exploring as a kid to taking this trek -- basically across the world -- what was in inside you that inspired you to do that?
Marquis: I think it's the curiosity. It's this link that I've got with nature. It's also the curiosity of being a woman in this world and the possibility to explore her potential, her strength -- from the mind, through the body and with the body. Walking, it's her space, it's her human space. This is what we're made for. We're supposed to walk, not go faster. The cars, cycling, it's too fast. For the eye to capture everything we need to capture with all of our five senses -- to see things, to smell things, to take in everything -- [you can't go faster than] walking speed.
espnW: How did you prepare physically and mentally?
Marquis: I've done two years of preparation. Those two years of preparation have been really crucial because you start to train your body to carry. I had 30 kilograms (66 pounds) in my backpack. So, it's not a matter of walking, it's walking with such a heavy backpack. You need to walk for two months with five kilograms, then 7 kilograms, then after 4 months you but 8 kilograms. And that's the only way of doing it because the pressure on your shoulders, on your feet, on your knees, on your ankles, it's has to be gentle and you have to get used to it.
espnW: What about mental preparation? That's a lot of time alone.
Marquis: I started doing big, long walks, in the States, actually, on the Pacific Crest Trail. Everything that happened to me on that trail was amazing.... That's where I started to love this really long-distance trail. From that, it got progressively a bit bigger. I went to Australia and I walked around Australia for 17 months. That was a really tough one -- that was in a realy remote area, not in a main city or main village. That was out in the bush. Then I walked in South America, from Santiago in Chile, I went all the way to the top of the Andes to Machu Picchu in Peru. I went from one big expedition to another big expedition. And then I finally got to this expedition.
espnW: In all of these expeditions, you've said the biggest danger you found was other humans, rather than nature. How did you prepare yourself from a safety perspective?
Marquis: I had a lot of problems regarding my safety. For example, for two months in Mongolia, I had these big Mongol guys on horses coming through my camp at nighttime. They were drunk, and they wanted to take my tent with me inside it. It was a disaster. Every night had been hectic really. I finally found a solution when I decided to sleep under the road. Those dirt roads, they have those big [drainage] pipes. I would sneak underneath, and I was safe there. There are solutions.
Regarding my clothes, I've got natural-colored clothes, like hiding colors, sand color, green color. And my clothes are one or two sizes bigger. Nothing tight, never. And then my hair would be under my big hat, and I've got another scarf on top of it and big goggle glasses. From far away you'd probably think that I'm a man.
As a female, you have to reinvent your world because you have to deal with your femininity, your woman's cycle, everything. There's no book for this -- you can't just read an explorer book because they don't explain that. There aren't many women out there doing that. Of course I did some martial arts because I wanted to take care of my safety. I never carry any firearm. In my vision, a firearm can be more harmful because you will be feeling secure. If you're too secure, then you won't do the right thing regarding your own safety.
The thing about those countries, they are really foreign cultures. They don't have the same culture we have. It's really complicated, and you don't speak the same language. You have to use what you've got -- your vision, your senses, the feeling -- and you become like an animal. Feelings are all I've been using, and I'm alive today.
espnW: Where there any moments you felt like you wanted to give up?
Marquis: No, it didn't occur, because there is this progressive way of moving. You start your journey, and it takes nearly six months to feel comfortable with yourself and what you're doing. It's like being in the washing machine for six months -- your mind is all over the place, you can still hear your friends and family in your head, and your body is really painful, and you're going to hell. But slowly that goes away, and after six months you become one with nature. You wake up in the morning and you feel amazing. You don't feel pain anymore, and you're really centric. You're really in the present, now. You're in the moment.
So you don't go into this awful state of, "I'm not going to do this, it's too hard, I'm sweating, I'm hot, I'm not going to make it." That doesn't work anymore. You're busy surviving. Food. Water, shelter, shade. And then it's the end of the day. Then the sun is rising and it's the next morning. Then you have to go.
To do this, it's like peeling an onion. You have to get rid of those old brown skins. You have to go to the core of it, to the middle, to the really juicy bits.
espnW: Is there a moment when you were closest to death?
Marquis: There are a few of them. The one really close call was when I was in the Laos jungle. I had the dengue fever a week before, so I was a bit weaker, I was getting tired quite quickly. A few hours walking, it was just draining me down. And then I saw this lonely pond of water in the jungle, and next to the water was this really lovely clearing -- it was the perfect setting to put my tent.
This is golden rule No. 1: don't put your tent near the water. In the water you've got frogs. Frogs attract snakes. Snakes attract bigger animals. So you don't stay near the water. But I did that.
At night drug dealers passed through this water point because they were using it as a water source. There were like 15 of them with automatic guns. That was a disaster. I had my tracker, and on my tracker I've got this red button. And I've always thought, if anything happened to me, I would push this red button. Not to get saved, the rescue crew, they're not coming, you're in the middle of nowhere; but just the matter of telling the family where the body is so they can go through this death process, they can actually make closure. So I was in the tent I was thinking, I'm gonna push it, I have to push it.
espnW: How do you get yourself out of situations like that, when there's language barriers and cultural barriers? How do you navigate that?
Marquis: They came in the middle of the night, and I heard noises, I heard voices coming. And I wake up, they tried to lift my tent with me inside the tent, and I just open the door and say, "What is going on here?"
They're little guys, skinny, and they had headlamps. It's really hot and humid, so their skin was like perspiring. They've got flip flops on. They start to yell at me. So I say, "I'm sleeping here, go away!"
They start to carry me away again with the tent, so I think, "They're little, I'm tall. Size matters here." I stand up, and I start to yell at them in every language possible. I couldn't see -- I had my headlamp, and they had their headlamps, so I didn't see that they had machine guns. Everybody went quiet, so the guy lifts his gun and shoots into the air.
After that I decided I took the wrong road. So I sit in my tent again. I had this little dictionary about which language the tribes in the mountains speak. There was a few phrases I could pronounce per tribe, and I start to take one of those phrases. And I say to them really slowly, quietly, without looking at them in the eye, "My name is Sarah, I'm from Switzerland, do you understand me?" I started to say that phrase really slowly. I was doing that for three hours non-stop.
It's not about what you're doing, it's about getting in a rhythm. My voice was really calm, really low, getting them into a calm mode. And after doing that for three hours, I was thirsty, I was sick of myself, I was tired. And I needed to be really calm.
Finally I hear some footsteps and voices going away form my camp. And then I thought, "Holy s---, that's working." And finally, one guy said to me "Oh I'm really sorry about for this inconvenience -- have a really good night!" In perfect English. After that I was like, this is not happening.
It's about finding the right space of mind and right energy in that moment.