A Wanderful Life

Fiona McIntosh has seen and done it all. She’s travelled extensively, been an Olympic athlete, played hockey at an international level and even dabbled in the field of extreme kayaking. But she also knows how to slow down, and often takes the opportunity to stop and smell the roses.

Many people would consider competing in the Olympic Games as their crowning achievement. Not Fiona McIntosh. For her, being an Olympic fencer is but one in a string of impressive accomplishments. She’s also played international hockey, for example, and skied to both poles. Then there’s the mountaineering, the diving and the kayaking. “Do I sound like an adrenaline junkie?” she laughs. “I’ve always loved adventure. I think my wanderlust comes from my early days as an international fencer, which took me behind the Iron Curtain and to relatively unknown parts of the world like Cuba and Korea way back in the 1970s.” But unlike many other adventure junkies, Fiona knows how to slow down every once in a while. She loves hiking and walking. Indeed, many people probably know her name primarily because of her magazine articles and books on the topic. She’s written Slackpacking: A Guide to South Africa’s Top Leisure Trails and Hike Cape Town, for example. We spoke to her about her uniquely adventurous life.

What was your first car?
A little VW Chico.

What is the favourite car you’ve owned or driven?
My first ever ‘proper’ holiday was driving down the west coast of the USA. We had booked the cheapest car, but I somehow talked the rental guy into giving us a convertible, which he needed to get back from California. I don’t know what make it was, but it was red, fast, and super cool.

What are some of the more remarkable places you’ve visited?
Gosh, that’s a hard one. I’ve skied to the north and south poles, gone 120m deep into a massive cave system in Oman and spent a week in the jungle trying (in vain) to find the highest peak in Belize.

What defines an adventure?
Something that takes you out of your comfort zone. For me, an adventure is something that makes my heart beat faster and my soul soar higher.

How did you get into a life of adventure?
I think I was born an adventurer. My father was an adventurer who spent six months in hospital and lost most of his toes to frostbite after going for help, and being benighted, when a colleague had a heart attack in the remote Scottish mountains. He travelled the world, generally on horseback as he couldn’t walk well. He was killed in Iceland when he and his horse were swept over a waterfall when he was trying to cross a flooded river. There was a bridge a mile downstream, but he wanted to give it a go. I was three weeks old, so I never knew him, but my mother says that I have the same spirit.

What’s next?
I’m off to run 44 miles (71km) along the Normandy beaches to commemorate D-Day.

Can you switch off after an adventure or are you immediately planning your next big thing?
No, I don’t think I ever switch off. I’m very opportunist and spontaneous. My ears and eyes are always open trying to pick up on the next trip.

How do you keep motivated, especially on longer trips?
I’ve never found motivation an issue. I’m motivated by the excitement of being in new places or with new people. I love just being out in the wilderness experiencing different smells, sights and sounds.

What has been your scariest moment?
Getting snowed in on Mount Blackburn, a remote mountain in Alaska. Very, very few people ever climb this inaccessible peak so there is little in the way of a route guide. We got lost in a storm and had to dig our tents into a very unstable slope until it subsided. Every few hours we had to go out and clear the snow to prevent the tents from collapsing so that we didn’t suffocate. We ran out of food and then, when the weather finally improved, we had to make our way down in deep snow. We tied two ropes together and put one of our party out 70m ahead of us to set off the avalanches and find the crevasses while the rest of us acted as an anchor so that he didn’t disappear in a puff of snow or down a crevasse. It was a bit hair-raising.

Happiest moment?
Every day, when I hike up onto Table Mountain and see the views and exquisite fynbos and listen to the birds, I feel as if I’ve never been happier.

Any words of advice for armchair travellers to get them motivated?
Dream big. Nothing is beyond you if you set your mind to it. Logistics are always intimidating, but if you take baby steps, one thing at a time, even the most complicated expedition becomes manageable.

Any dream adventures you still want to complete?
Loads. I’d love to go to Angola and Bhutan; hike the Lycian Way and England’s South West Coast Path, dive the Philippines; visit Vietnam’s Son Doong cave, the biggest cave in the world… and that’s just for starters.

If money wasn’t a factor, what car would you be driving?
I’d have two. One: probably a Duster, that I could strap my mountain bike and surfski onto, and throw my climbing gear, dive gear and other toys into, and a BMW cabriolet for cruising around town.

In a (favourite) nutshell
Food Freshly baked bread.
Drink Bubbles. My favourite is South Africa’s first MCC, Kaapse Vonkel.
TV show Match of the Day.
Music Johnny Clegg.
Place on Earth Cape Town.
Holiday destination The European Alps. Mountaineering is my big passion and the Alps are so accessible and varied.

Text: Alan Valkenburg
Photos: Supplied