Christina Franco is one of the UK’s most respected explorers. She started out as a guide working in Italy and Africa, which gave her great experience as well as allowing her to dedicate time to personal challenges such as climbing and racing in a variety of testing environments. After winning the Polar Race 2004 to the Magnetic North Pole with teammate Justin Packshaw, she started to focus on achieving her dream of reaching the True North Pole.
Through her expeditions, Christina raises money for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, Save the Rhino and the Wilderness Leadership School. In 2016 Christina will attempt what no other woman has achieved before (and only three men): reach the North Pole solo. In the meantime, she brings the spirit of exploration to South Kensington Club and curates a programme of once-in-a-lifetime adventures for members. This innovative Voyager Programme at South Kensington Club is designed to encourage club members to push boundaries, open their minds, do something different with their time.
For more information please visit http://www.southkensingtonclub.com/
What has been the most rewarding, and the most challenging, part of your Arctic expeditions?
An Arctic expedition is hell every moment of the way. The reward is surviving… but there is always a little daily reward. When you pull a sled that weighs 100kg over boulders of ice sometimes two stories high in -47 degrees you can never stop long enough to really enjoy it …. then you look up and you see the rainbows that are crated on either side of the low sun and you feel as if you are in the middle of a jewel and your heart swells.
You’ve described the Arctic as a real passion of yours. What is it about the Arctic and the North Pole that has truly captivated you?
We all have places that inspire us for no good reason. We all feel we arrive home in lands that are not our home, have places that make us dream from the moment we hear of them… I love Russia, Africa and the Arctic… who knows why, but I can’t get enough of any of them. I would be happy dividing the rest of my years between them and Europe (as my home) and discovering more and more every time I return.
Solo travel is something that many people find a somewhat daunting prospect, but it’s something that you’ve accomplished. We’re predicting an increase in solo travel in the coming year, but what do you think is the most rewarding aspect of solo travel?
Travelling on your own has pros and cons. When attempting an extreme challenge like walking to the North Pole it is very relaxing to go at your own pace. Taking complete responsibility for your safety, kit and well-being is an exercise in thoroughness. You can blame no one but yourself if you are not prepared or make poor decisions. The rewards are huge. We are mostly afraid of taking full responsibility for our actions; when you overcome these fears you realise that you have a great deal of control on your life, more than you generally give yourself credit for.
In the same vein, what one piece of advice would you offer solo travellers?
Don’t be afraid of being out of touch. Disconnect and enjoy the world without reaching out on social media or calls. Make friends with the locals and listen to their advice, ask as many questions before you go, do your research, speak as much expertise before you go…. then let go and immerse yourself in where you are.
What drives you to travel across some of the harshest terrain in the world?
I love the power of our minds both in the practical preparation and in how it is able to make us do the seemingly impossible. We are able to think our way to a solution and activate our bodies to achieve awesome physical feats… It is also a truly humbling experience to experience the juxtapositioning of our created civilisation and the magnificence of nature. We live with so many rules that are imposed on us, it’s very liberating to have to make your own, but you can only do this when you remove yourself from civilisation.
Tell us about your travel heroes. Who has been your biggest source of inspiration?
I love Jane Digby; she combined a truly saucy life with tremendous exploration at a time when it really was not the done thing for a woman. Unfortunately I did not learn of her until I was an adult, there are not enough women role models and there were certainly no stories of women breaking the old when I was growing up. I was inspired by the great Sir Richard Burton and his entering Mecca in disguise, by oats slipping into frozen sleeping bags. Luckily we now live in a time when many women are inspiring the new generation and I continue to be inspired by amazing adventures… Astro Samantha the Italian astronaut was the latest one. I have no desire to go to space, but her daily tweets and video kept me and my five year old riveted and dreaming of amazing things to do and places to go and another point of view to learn from.
If you could travel back in time, which expedition would you take part in? What would you do differently?
I would have liked to be one of the fore trekkers, landing in Africa when it was wild and unknown. When everyday was an expedition. Every day was a new discovery. No way back, every moment a complete unknown, no maps. I think I like the process of having to come up with a solution.
Do you have any more expeditions in the pipeline for 2016?
My next solo attempt in February has been delayed until 2017 so I will take advantage of the year to travel to some of the places I have always dreamt of going to but have not had time to do so. Mountain biking in Iran, visiting the northern lights in Finland and travelling to the deep Sahara to camp under the stars for my 50th birthday.
Finally, quick fire round:
Name the one place you’ve always wanted to go?
I would love to trek the Khyber pass but I am too afraid. I have a real attraction for dangerous and inaccessible places but there are still some places I will not go to as a western woman.
Where would you be happy to return back to time and time again?
Russia, Africa and the Arctic.
What’s the one travel souvenir you’d save in a fire?
I am a hoarder. I collect every stone, bone and book I find along the way. I love being surrounded by these memories but I am also very pragmatic; I would leave it all in a fire. The memories and love I carry in my heart will never be burnt away.
Who’s your ideal travel partner?
Oh, that’s the hardest question of all! Someone really competent, funny and who likes to do the driving because that is the part I like the least.
Watch Christina’s inspiring talk about exploring the wild Arctic here.