I had a lot of expectations for 2023, but it turned out to be a bit of a difficult year, that threw up some challenges and realisations that I am still navigating. It’s forced me to rethink a lot of things in my life.
This is not a woe is me post. I know that in the whole scheme of things I’m very lucky. This is me processing what I’ve been through and what I’m still going through, to try and make sense of it and learn from it. And perhaps my experience can help other people too?
But even if not, it’s a good reminder to myself, not to take anything for granted.
2023 – In a Nutshell
- Countries Visited – 12 (Kenya x 2, Tanzania x 2, South Africa x 3, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia x 3, Botswana x 2, Zimbabwe x 2, Eswatini, Mozambique, Madagascar & Iceland)
- New Countries Visited – 0
- Flights – 28
- % of the Year Spent Travelling – 41 % (out of the UK)
- Physical Health – ok (minus my womb & 1 ovary)
- Mental Health – up and down
Let’s go back…
2020 – Covid & Fibroids
In terms of business, 2020 was a bit of a crappy year and due to Covid I had to cancel all but one of my tours. I ran a trip to Benin & Togo, in February, but I spent most of the trip in severe pain. What I didn’t know is that my fibroids were having a growth spurt.
In March 2020, in the same week that the world went into lockdown, I became really ill and I had to have an emergency myomectomy to remove the fibroids.
The recovery was hard, but once I did recover, I felt better than ever. I felt light – in mind and body. Fibroids are a real emotional burden and I’d lost weight – due to having a huge and heavy tumour removed (and not being able to eat from the pain) and whilst I don’t recommend this as a weight loss strategy, being slimmer, I felt better in myself.
I had pretty much been travelling for 6 months of the year, every year, since 2017 and I was tired and often stressed, which meant I didn’t look after myself very well. I was great at looking after other people on the tours (or so I’m told) but I couldn’t seem to apply that level of care to myself.
Covid was a chance to reset. I prioritised my health, took up yoga, got fitter and did my yoga teacher training. Not sure if I should say this, but I enjoyed lockdown. I hated not being able to see people I love and financially it wasn’t easy, but I also loved slowing down for a while.
2021 – More Covid
Business-wise, 2021 wasn’t much better. In the UK, we still couldn’t travel much, at least not without a forced and very expensive 2-week quarantine upon return, so I got temp jobs running a summer club for kids in the school holidays and working as a teaching assistant in a mental health school in term time.
Neither paid particularly well, but I loved working with the kids and having work colleagues/friends again. This is one of the things I miss most from my previous life. Working by yourself and for yourself can be extremely lonely. I really miss working in a team and having a boss to give me guidance or at least someone to bounce ideas off.
At that point, I was still hopeful that travel would come back soon, but it didn’t, at least not to Africa, so I spent most of my spare time, planning and then having to reschedule tours, refunding deposits and just wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. I think I did one tour that year and I didn’t run it because I couldn’t leave the UK.
2022 – Back to Normality?
In 2022, travel started to return and I ran my first tour in 2 years. It was the Kenya & Tanzania tour. It felt great. I threw myself back into work. But there was still so much uncertainty around everything and it was quite stressful. I remember us all having to do Covid tests at home to get into Kenya, then doing another Covid test in Kenya to get into Tanzania. Then having to do rapid tests at the border! It was nerve-wracking!
Luckily, after that trip, things started to relax. But whilst things were getting better, they weren’t really back to ‘normal’. The 2 years of Covid had taken a toll on me, my business and the travel industry. I still think things in Africa aren’t what they were pre-Covid (everything has gone up in price, many of my favourite places closed during the pandemic, things seem more disorganised etc).
But I was looking forward to 2023 and began to make plans. I decided that after the Kenya & Tanzania tour in January 2023, I would meet my husband and friends for a 2-week trip in Cape Town and along the Garden Route, then I would settle in Cape Town for 2 months and focus on my business. I would write, explore and get inspired! I was excited. I booked an apartment in Cape Town and everything.
But in June 2022, I began to notice that womb just wasn’t right. My periods got heavy again, my waist was getting bigger and when I lay down, I could literally feel what I presumed was another fibroid, sticking out of my lower belly. Here we go again… to be honest, at first, I didn’t think much of it. I’ve been through it all before. And surely it wouldn’t be as bad this time?
I continued working in the school until the summer when I began running tours again full time. I knew I should probably go an see a doctor, but I didn’t, instead I ignored what my body was telling me and flew to Africa in July to run the Uganda & Rwanda tour. By the end of that trip, I knew I needed to go home.
I ran the Malawi, Zambia & Botswana tour and then flew back to the UK – leaving another tour leader to run the Kenya & Tanzania tour for me. It was a couple of weeks before I managed to see a doctor, who referred me for an ultrasound and blood tests. A few days later, I flew to Namibia to run a tour there.
Due to my crazy travel schedule, by the time I got in for the ultrasound, it was early October. The doctor couldn’t say anything at the time of the scan – they need to analyse it first, but I could see on his face that he’d seen something that shouldn’t have been there.
The day before I flew out to run the Madagascar tour, on Halloween night, I got a phone call from the doctor to tell me that there was another large mass in my womb. Most likely another fibroid and I got referred to the hospital for an MRI scan on the urgent 2-week pathway.
But I was flying to Madagascar in a few hours and couldn’t not go, so they said I’d need to wait until I got home to book in the appointment, as I could be called in at any time and I needed to be available or else I’d have to re-start the process.
By the time I got home it was mid-November. They referred me for the MRI straight away, but with Christmas, I couldn’t get an appointment until the New Year and I spent Christmas 2022 in quite a lot of pain.
2023 – Cancer Scare, IVF, Hysterectomy & Burn Out
So I started 2023 (4th Jan) with a trip to the hospital for an MRI scan and I got the results back a few weeks later, a couple of days before I flew out to Kenya .
The scan confirmed it was a large fibroid, but this time, there was an area of ‘suspicious’ tissue inside the fibroid that could be malignant. The doctor told me not to worry yet, my lymph nodes looked normal and whatever it was appeared to be contained, but to be prepared that it might be a leiomyosarcoma – a rare type of chemo resistant cancer that grows in smooth muscle.
I hadn’t expected that. He advised that I would probably have to have hysterectomy. They gave me the details for the cancer support workers. He said that I would be ok to go on my trip, but that the sooner I acted, the better – just in case. So I made the decision to lead the tour and do the 2-week trip (I’d already booked and paid for everything and didn’t want to let my friends down), but then I would come home and get it sorted.
So off I went to Kenya and Tanzania. We had an awesome group and the trip was amazing! But in the back of my mind I was worried about what was happening inside my body. The thought that I might have cancer was with me all the time.
Then I went to Cape Town, met up with the gang, drove along the Garden Route – I wanted to make the most of it, in case it was the last holiday I’d be able to take for a while. It turned out to be an amazing trip and a lot of fun!
I came home at the beginning of March and what followed was a whirlwind of doctors appointments, scans and blood tests. I asked about a biopsy, but they said that due to the location of the suspicious tissue, a biopsy wouldn’t be possible. Despite everything, I really didn’t want to part with my womb. We’d been through a lot together.
Not to mention that in most ancient cultures, the womb is supposed to be the source of creativity, wisdom and feminine energy. Who and what would I be without it?
So I had another MRI scan but the results were the same. Suspicious and inconclusive. They told me another myomectomy wasn’t an option (the fibroid was right in there, so my womb would have been pretty destroyed in the process anyway) and a hysterectomy was the only realistic solution. They said that my hysterectomy would likely be sometime in May.
What I haven’t mentioned, is that prior to finding out about the fibroid, we had been trying for a baby. I was ovulating normally, but nothing was happening. I guess a combination of my age, the massive fibroid and all the scar tissue in my womb from the last operation. I’d always thought I had all the time in the world, but I’d left it too late.
I was offered a free round of IVF treatment on the NHS. At 42, I was just young enough to qualify. Having a hysterectomy I knew I’d not be able to carry a baby myself (you’d be surprised how many people ask you whether you can still have a baby after you’ve had your womb removed), but there are options.
IVF is not a pleasant process, either physically or mentally and I’m glad I only went through it once. The process usually lasts for a couple of weeks. During this time you inject yourself (Matt did it – I couldn’t face it) with hormones twice a day to stimulate the ovaries into producing eggs. You also have to go in for ultrasounds (both vaginal and abdominal) every couple of days where they check to see how your ovaries are responding.
When you’re ‘ready’, you go in for collection. Because of the fibroid, they said that they might need to go through my abdomen (which would lengthen the healing process and delay my hysterectomy), but luckily they didn’t have to and it wasn’t bad at all. It was very straightforward actually. They put me to sleep with a sedative (not anaesthetic) and I woke up feeling well rested and had no pain whatsoever.
They collected a good amount of eggs for a woman my age and made embryos. Every couple of days, they call you to tell you how your embryos are progressing. I was quite optimistic.
But to cut a long story short, the IVF didn’t work and the embryos fragmented – which is common. And they said that due to my age (I turned 43 a few days before the procedure) I wouldn’t be eligible for any more. I could pay for another round, but they told me the outcome would probably be the same.
So that was it. I would never be able to have a child of my own. At least not biologically.
And to make it just that little bit worse, all of a sudden, my Instagram feed was full of babies. Everybody I know was having babies. Everybody I didn’t know was having babies. The algorithms can be pretty cruel sometimes. Thankfully now, my feed has gone back to less triggering things… safari animals, hikes and the northern lights.
I had my hysterectomy at the end of May. It all went well. They cut over my previous scar. My surgeon said that the fibroid looked like a rugby ball. They also had to remove my left ovary as it was so badly damaged from the fibroid. Now I have one little ovary left, pumping out a few hormones and stopping me going straight into medical menopause. I am very grateful for that little ovary.
I thought the recovering from the hysterectomy would be worse than the myomectomy, but it was actually easier and this time I was out of bed and walking a full 24 hours earlier than I had been for the previous op. A myomectomy is a notoriously painful operation, but I also didn’t need a blood transfusion this time which I think helped!
Full recovery for a hysterectomy usually takes around 6 weeks, especially when you’ve been cut top to bottom like me. However… I had Glastonbury festival tickets. And I was determined to go. It was exactly 3.5 weeks to Glastonbury from the day of my operation.
Everyone thought I was nuts to even contemplate going to a festival (especially a huge 5-day festival) so soon after a huge operation. But I was determined and remained positive. It was touch and go, but with the help of my friends, I got there. And it was fine (although I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone). But that’s typical of me, keeping busy and distracting myself.
The worst bit about the recovery process was having to be injected daily in the leg with anti-clotting medication. These injections were horrible. The injection itself wasn’t pleasant, but whatever is in them stings. I even had to take the last few injections with me to Glastonbury and bless her, my friend Becki took over nurse duty! That is above and beyond!
But I did get some good news whilst I was at Glastonbury. I got the all-clear. The fibroid wasn’t cancerous. When I told the doctor where I was, I expected him to be like “What on earth are you doing there?” But instead he said “Are you going to see the Arctic Monkeys tonight?”
After Glasto, I was home for a few days, then I went to Devon for a short holiday with my husband and then I was on a plane to Uganda on the 7th July. Exactly 43 days after my operation. Crazy? Yep.
I met up with my Uganda & Rwanda group for a few days, before leaving them in the capable hands of my friend Laura, and then I went on to Malawi to lead the Malawi, Zambia & Botswana trip. Then I spent some time in Zambia & Zimbabwe. Then I ran a trip through Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Then I flew home for 10 days, unpacked, repacked, caught up on work, saw family and then flew back to Africa to run back to back tours in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Eswatini, Mozambique and Madagascar.
By the time I got to Madagascar, I was exhausted. I was suffering from severe burnout. I’d done pretty much everything I could to distract myself from everything I was going through and it all started to hit me.
I loved the trip (we got to swim with whale sharks, turtles and dolphins), I love Madagascar and I knew most of the people on the tour already, which was great, but I just didn’t feel like myself at all. It was like an out of body experience.
I felt sad, heavy (mentally and physically) and energy-less . And I was hot – ALL THE TIME. I guess that’s the perimenopause kicking in.
I was supposed to stay on in Madagascar for an extra couple of weeks to travel with my friend Laura, but I just couldn’t face it (that’s not like me). So I went home as soon as the trip was over.
I love what I do. I love blogging. I love meeting new people. I love showing Africa to people. I love helping people to have life-changing adventures. I love having my own adventures. I love writing about those adventures. I love the freedom my job gives me.
But, it’s exhausting. Especially when I run trips back to back (which is generally what I have been doing for the last few years). It’s fun, but it’s not a holiday and it is hard work. It requires an awful lot of energy. And patience. Especially in Africa.
Having lead 5 back-to-back 2-week trips this year, I’ve realised that being ‘on’, to that level, for that amount of time, isn’t sustainable. I need to take more breaks so that I can be the best I can be and just balance out my life a little. So going forward, I’m spreading things out a little and building in more downtime.
When I’m on tour, I’m with people all the time and I LOVE it. But there’s very little time for anything else, for the other aspects of my life such as keeping in touch with my loved ones, writing, planning, life/tour admin, posting on social media or even rest – I’m generally the first up and the last to go to bed.
When I get back to the UK, I’m knackered, my social battery is drained and I’m constantly playing catch up. Before I’ve had time to process (or write/post about) all the cool stuff I’ve just done on one trip, I’m on to the next! I’m doing my dream job, but I’m not always able to appreciate that because I’m so damn busy.
I used to think that the more I travelled, the better, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I travelled too much this this year. At least too much at once. I was out of the country for 41% of the year. And I need to slow it down. It would be different if I was on a sabbatical for 6 months with no responsibilities, but this is my normal life.
I’ve been so focussed on getting to my destination (I guess that would be some sort of ‘success’ – which I haven’t really defined) over the last few years that I’ve stopped enjoying the journey. I rarely look back to see how far I’ve come and I’m always looking ahead. This leads to living in a constant state of stress, chronic overwhelm and disappointment.
But isn’t life supposed to be about the journey? And the appreciating the small moments. Isn’t that what I always tell people about travel? And what even is success? It should be mostly be about happiness, right? What the point if you’re not having fun?
I’ve not looked after myself very well and it’s taken its toll on my mental and physical health. I should have learned my lesson after the first lot of fibroids. I exercise and eat ok, but I believe that my busy, stressful lifestyle has at least contributed to making me ill.
Sometimes I still can’t believe that I don’t have a womb any more and that I’ll never be able to have children. But, its done now. That’s the way the cookie crumbles and all that. I can’t change the past. But I can have some influence over my future.
After Madagascar, I knew things had to change, so in the last few weeks I’ve taken things a lot easier. I’ve spent time with people I love. I’ve been having clear outs at home. I’ve outsourced things. I’ve started walking more. And I can feel my creativity coming back (and my stress levels decreasing).
Looking forward to 2024…
This year has been a year of loss, and we’ve had to say goodbye to a few people – far too soon. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that life is short and fleeting and there are no guarantees. So you have to look after yourself and make the most of it.
Now as I look forwards to 2024, I know I need to make some long-term changes to the way I live my life, otherwise I’m going to be writing some variation of this post this time next year. And I really don’t want that.
What I need is community. I need rest. I need to slow down. I need to be consistent. I need to practice more gratitude. I need a better work life balance. I need to spend more time in nature (when I’m at home – I’m in nature all the time in Africa and that’s when I’m happiest). I need help at work. I need routine. I need to exercise more and eat better and look after myself. I need to stop caring what people think of me. I need to believe in myself and my abilities. I need to stop the negative self-talk. I need to just bloody go for it.
So I’m going to:
- prioritise my health.
- stop pushing myself too hard and over-committing.
- attend more events with like-minded people (blogger friends/outdoor enthusiasts etc).
- spend more time with friends and family.
- slow down and be more present.
- celebrate the small wins.
- spend more time in outside in nature (hiking, wild swimming, cycling etc).
- climb all the Wainwrights (no set time limit or rush) – I’ve already gotten a head start on that one if you want to read about it.
- cut down on alcohol.
- set stronger boundaries.
- exercise at least 3 times per week.
- eat well and drink plenty of water.
- be kind to myself.
- get help with work when needed (I’ve already hired another tour leader and an admin assistant – so there’s a start).
- write at least 2 blog posts a week.
- post on social media more – something is better than nothing.
- limit time on social media.
- remember that done is better than perfect.
I guess you could call these New Years Resolutions. Or SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goals. Or healthy habits. Whatever they are, it’s a bit of a plan and should be achievable.
And maybe if I stick to them, the ‘success’ will follow.
So has it been the worst year of my life? So far, probably, yes. But I’ve learned a lot in the process so it’s not all bad and there’s been so many amazing moments too, which I’m able to appreciate now that I’ve slowed down.
So if you’re still here, thanks for reading my jumbled thoughts. Here’s to 2024…
Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it’s been clear
Here comes the sun, doo-doo-doo-doo
Here comes the sun
And I say it’s all right