"I'm just a pretty standard Cape Town girl. We always did a lot of travelling as a family, but I’d never been a particularly active person, my sister was the athlete."
Tegan Phillips first appeared in the adventure space in 2014 as the girl that won Tom Allen’s bicycle. She had spent a gap year travelling in Europe and India, before going to university in South Africa to study law and politics. In her third year she was going to do a exchange term in the UK and had a few months free before the term started.
Then she saw Tom Allen's blog post, offering to give away his touring bike and all the associated gear. Thus began a journey that would culminate in her winning the 2016 Altumate Challenge adventure grant.
The interview answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So the Tom Allen cycle give-away triggered the adventure idea? You weren’t already looking for a project.
No, it had never occurred to me to go on a cycle tour. I planned to visit my sister in Spain. My dad had been thinking about doing a cycle tour. I was reading my dad’s twitter feed over his shoulder and saw Tom Allen’s tweet. It just said you can win a free bike and I thought, ‘oh well, why not?’
The competition entry deadlines closed on Sunday evening. That morning I woke up and thought, 'Okay, I'm going to enter this' even though my parents had advised me against it. I borrowed my then-boyfriend’s iPad and just drew some cartoons of my finger. My gran came over for dinner and she was very unimpressed with me because I was still drawing these stupid scribbles. I made it within an hour of the cut off time and then didn’t really think that anything would come of it.
It looks as if not all that many people applied for the bike.
Tom Allen told me that one guy had a good entry. It was one of his friends.
What's that moment like when you realise you have a bike and now have to do something with it?
I was really stoked. I remember jumping up and down in the kitchen, I felt really special. But now in hindsight, it was just getting a second-hand bike from a guy in England. But I remember just seeing that a few hundred people had seen my entry on YouTube and feeling like a total celebrity. I think the initial pull of getting into the adventuring life was ‘people are interested in me and I don’t know them’.
At the time I didn’t know that many people who were really interesting and doing different things with their lives. It felt like I was entering this slightly different world of cool people.
You picked up the bike in the UK. Presumably you had money set aside for the Spain trip and that’s what you used for the rest of the costs?
My parents helped a lot. They paid for my university studies. I’ve always been really strongly aware that none of this would be possible without huge amounts of help from my parents. That said, people often use money as an excuse to say why they can’t do something. Cycle touring can be really cheap.
I spend no money on unnecessary things here, so I can save up for adventuring. You do need money and it is a privilege to have access to money or have some sort of income that makes adventure possible, it’s not as much as people sometimes think. It’s not as much of as a barrier as people sometimes imagine.
It’s probably realistic to say that your emergency fall back plan, if any of the adventures go radically wrong …
Is mum and dad? Yes. That’s such a valuable point to mention, because having that safety net makes you feel safe to take risks that you wouldn’t otherwise. When you know that if you need an air lift, your family will pull together and pay for it.
So you grabbed your bike and took off through Spain. How did you share the journey?
Tom Allen said “oh you should keep the cartoons going”, so I had this cartoon blog. The name Unclipped Adventure came from me and my dad looking for a blog name. It was a really basic blog and I uploaded a couple of drawings every day.
Did that feel easy and fun or more like an obligation to find something to say?
It was really fun. I didn't have any obligation to upload, except to let my parents know that I was alive. If I felt tired at the end of the day, then I just wouldn’t upload anything. I still love doing it, drawing the cartoons and using it as a way to tell a story.
But adventuring is tiring. You think you are going to have all this time in the evenings to sit and draw. But you’ve got to put up your tent and socialise with whoever is there, cook food and you’re tired because you’ve been using your body the whole day. You think you’re going to have a lot more spare time than you do.
Any obligations on top of that, like with the New Zealand adventure where I had to be uploading these videos every day, that’s really exhausting. It can make something that’s normally fun turn into something that feels like a chore and you get the sense of ‘oh, I don’t feel like doing it’. In Spain and Africa, I wasn’t very good about uploading consistently, but I enjoyed it when I did upload. Later on it became less fun, just because of that pressure to do it.
How much response were you getting on your blog on the Spain trip?
I think because of Tom Allen’s sharing it, I ended up building this following in the UK. Then Alastair Humphries contacted me to be part of his adventure book… he’s obviously got a big following. It was quite ridiculous because I quickly developed a name. I had strangers contacting me as ‘oh you’re an adventurer’ when I’d literally just done three weeks of cycle touring.
I think the cartoons were a good USP (unique selling point).
How did you feel about that? Getting called an adventurer and been followed by strangers?
I've always wanted to communicate ideas to inspire people to see life differently - to have fun and love each other more. I love to communicate that in my own style with the cartoons. To be able to put a message out there and then have somebody respond - ‘you’ve inspired me to buy a bicycle’ or ‘ I really like the thing you said’ or just‘you made me smile today’ - that feeling was really good. It gave me a feeling that I definitely wasn’t getting in my law studies.
Did you ever feel like an imposter, being called an adventurer?
Yes, kind of. But I also thought it was funny. The way that we glorify adventure is unnecessary. Cycle touring is fun, it’s way more fun than people who work in an office job. People say ‘oh your Africa cycle trip … it’s so brave’ but really you’re just living quite a nice life. You eat your meals and you ride your bicycle.
Did you get any negative attention?
I’ve been lucky, I’ve never really had to deal with any negative things. I think possibly because I do portray myself as the clumsy idiot that I generally am. All the interaction I’ve had with people has been positive.
What happened next?
I did a short internship at a corporate law firm and realised it was not for me. My sister had just finished her first gap year. My parents were planning a cycle tour. We said, ‘okay, we’ll take this year to think about where we want to go after this’. The internship finished on the Friday and on Monday morning, we set off on our Africa tour. That took about eleven months [in 2015].
That trip was presumably self-funded by the family?
Yes, my dad had his own business and sold it. He got a little lump sum out of that. A lot of people advised him to put it into retirement. We all just felt, you’ve got to live while you’re alive. I'm very proud of him for putting it into the trip.
Did you do any brand ambassadorship or product sponsorship?
We did think about that type of stuff, not so much the brand ambassadorship but maybe doing it for charity. My dad researched it quite a bit. In the end we felt as a family it would be better to just do it for us. We wanted it to be our trip.
On the first day I got hit by a car as we were heading out of Muizenberg. We thought, do we go to hospital, do we cancel this, was the whole thing a mistake? It could’ve gone wrong. When you’ve got sponsors, that adds a whole other element of stress.
You continued to blog during that trip?
Yes, I’d enjoyed the cartooning in Spain, I kept the blog going up and then when we left for Africa I got a new website made. I thought I just want to see where this goes. Initially I was trying to draw lots of cartoons but after half way I started to slow down. I was always feeling stressed to try and do it. I also saw it as a bit of an investment in myself, to have the opportunity to work on something that you like is special, I didn’t want to waste it.
Who was following you at this point?
I don’t think that there was any media involved. It was just the Unclipped Adventure followers. Friends and family but mostly people from the UK - a smallish batch of people with a very specific sense of humour. They were really encouraging, so that was great.
What did you decide to do next?
My parents in their amazingness persuaded me to take one or two years to really work on doing this cartooning/ adventuring thing. I got some part time jobs in Cape Town and started looking into adventure grants and doing some cartoon work. Compared to the UK, South Africa’s got nothing in the adventure industry.
I searched online, I remember using this list of adventure grants compiled by Matt Prior. I applied to Adventure Travel Film Festival (ATFF), they gave grants to young adventurers. Then there was Tim Moss’s The Next Challenge. And the Altum one. I didn’t get Tim’s grant, I got the Altum one pretty soon after applying for it and I withdrew from the ATFF.
How did you come up with the idea that you pitched for the grant applications - the New Zealand triathlon?
It was similar to the bike thing. I found the Altum grant. I was home with my mum, dad and sister Carla. I said ‘I think really want to enter this grant because it’s a lot of money and it looks like nice people. What should I do?’ We sat and chatted for half an hour. I did want to go to New Zealand because I’d heard that it’s a beautiful adventure place and my aunt lives there and I’d never been. I didn’t want just do a cycle tour, I wanted to push myself a bit. I had done one mini triathlon before and was really bad at swimming and not that great at running, so I thought that will be a real challenge.
My foresight isn’t fantastic, which is how I often end up in the really ridiculous scenarios that I depict in my cartoon stories. I just made a snap decision and thought ‘oh a triathlon, go round New Zealand, ten iron mans … yes why not?’
I entered the next day which was again the day before the deadline.
So you went looking for adventure as a general idea, then researched funding and then you created a project once you’d found an adventure grant that sounded promising?
Yes. If you want to win something, you have to try to figure what it is they want and then offer it to them. You can have the best idea ever, but they’re not offering to sponsor people’s ideas because they’re being nice. They have their own motivations. With Tom Allen, he said very clearly in his brief that he wanted somebody who hadn’t got a lot of experience and he wanted the entry to be creative and different. I specifically geared my entry to meet those requirements.
The same with the Altum challenge. They put a little trailer of the guys who won the year before. They said they wanted something epic, with charity fund raising. I tried to meet every single one of their requirements in my entry. I think that a lot of better ideas in both competitions maybe weren’t selected because the idea wasn’t presented in the right way.
So you made the Altum shortlist of three, right?
I went for an interview in London. Luckily I was on my way to the UK to do a Wales cycle tour. It’s a small company and this was a new thing for them. They talked to us to get a better sense of why we were doing it and whether we could do it.
I think the reason that I ended up getting it was because the passion I showed was very genuine. Probably the most important thing when dealing with sponsors to be really, really genuine and really, really honest. I said ‘I really want to do this, you don’t have to choose me, but if you do choose me, I’d be so happy’.
When did you know you had the grant and what happened next?
They told me about two weeks after I first entered, it all happened very quickly. They put the money in my Spanish bank account. They were really involved every single step of the way. There wasn’t a day that I didn't report back with an update or with photos of kit. They are a recruitment agency, they have about thirty people in their team, and every single one of them was following. I met them all, they would send me encouraging emails, they did personal donations to the fundraising. There was a huge human element in it which was really nice.
How long did you have to get ready and what needed to be done in that time?
The conditions of the grant were that it had to be finished by the end of the year. I found out that I had it at the end of June and my plan was to start on 1 November and finish by my birthday, on the 25th. I had four months to do everything.
When they told me I was on the Wales cycle tour, which I had to finish swiftly. I stayed with some friends but I was a guest in a foreign country, trying to organise things that weren’t in themselves especially difficult, but I had absolutely no experience. The process of figuring out what I had to do, at the same time as actually doing it, was challenging. I’ve never really struggled with anxiety. I’ve always been happy go lucky. For the first time in my life I was waking up and crying and just questioning what have I done? Feeling like I just didn't want to let anyone down … parents and Altum and everyone who had been so supportive.
It's hard because you don’t have any real external validation. You can’t compare yourself to anything. There’s lots of adventurers doing things in their own way. There’s people with more experience doing it better, getting more coverage, fundraising more money. That was an intense three months.
I had a month in New Zealand just to get ready. I wasn’t super fit – but I suddenly had to learn how to swim and run and do this whole endurance thing. Then the PR, trying to organise press coverage, Altum helped with that. My friend Niela came on as a support driver, she helped a lot with organising interviews. The logistics from the trip, I pretty much did that was a big solo effort - contacting people all along the route, planning and research the route. It’s hard when you’ve never been there before … the terrain, the places to stay, the wind … all these sort of things turn out to be important.
Then there was the charity fundraising. I had very eagerly said ‘I'm going to draw cartoons for everybody who donates money’ – that turned out to be quite a lot of people. I started getting more and more perfectionist with the cartoons and there was this money coming in and all these other things to do and I was just winging it.
I didn't realise how much stuff it would be and it was a lot.
The Altum grant you received was £5,000. Were you having to top this up with your own money?
The £5,000 did go quite far, but my living expenses while I was getting ready, that was my own. Afterwards I had no money.
You picked a charity, World Bicycle Relief, which focuses on helping to get bikes to third world kids based on an experience you’d had on the Africa trip. Did you research different charities before you picked that one?
I don’t remember actually even making that decision, that’s just something that I immediately felt passionate about. I would’ve also loved to have raise money for the NGO where my mum works. But I realised that it would be easier to have one charity, one story. My motivation behind getting involved with that charity was 100% genuine pure passion for the cause. It was also a great way to link up my previous adventure experience.
On the charity fundraising website, you set yourself a target of 250 bicycles. In the end (at the time of writing) you raised 86 bicycles. How did you pick the target figure?
I was upfront with Altum about this, I would never have set that target. Part of Altum’s conditions was that they would give £5,000 if you attempted to fundraise £20,000. Initially I was very hesitant to enter because there was no way - that’s like ZAR400,000. That amount of money, I can’t even conceive it. If I’d had to set the goal, it would probably have been a quarter of what I’d actually raised.
South Africa doesn’t have a culture of sponsoring people to do things like a marathon. I told Altum I can only promise to do my best and get what I can, I was very cautious. The reason that they set it at that amount was because the boys who’d won the year before me managed to raise about £25,000. £10,000 of that came from an event that they hosted after their adventure at Lords Cricket Club. They were friends with the Captain of the English Cricket team, they were was two guys who’d gone to really posh universities, they were next door neighbours of Mark Beaumont. Fantastic guys, but they had connections and resources that I didn't have. So I didn’t manage to raise the same amount of money as them.
From our interview with David McDowell, Director of Altum (this interview will be published later in 2017):
When we put the competition out there in the second year , we worked on the basis of what Gareth and Joe raised in their first year, which was between £20,000 - £25,000. We said the [2016 Altum Challenge winner] needs to raise £20,000. In hindsight, that's not the key driver. We wanted to put a significant amount, because we don't want someone that plans an epic trip, but doesn't prioritise fundraising.
For us, the raising of money for charity is significant, and people will give money to the charity because it is such an epic adventure. For me, the fact Tegan raised around £13,000 - that was still an epic thing. This year  we took the specific charity amount off, we were then just judging individuals on how important was it for them to be raising money for charity.
You promised to draw cartoons for every donation, when did you realise that it was all more work than you’d anticipated?
It was as the time grew close to doing the adventure, my ‘to do’ list was much longer than hours in the day. I had to email people and say ‘when I'm finished the adventure, I’ll get on it’. Then when I got back I had a lot of cartoons to draw, but I had also to earn money.
People were really understanding about it. I think that honesty has helped me a lot. The whole thing with adventure is it’s about doing stuff that you don’t know how to do. Promising to do something that you may or may not accomplish can be risky.
During the adventure, how did you manage to keep media and social media updates going?
I had an idea of what I wanted for the social media - determined, optimistic, honest, not trying to make out that it was all fun and wonderful, showing that it was tough but also just phenomenally beautiful.
My support team was Niela, who was joined by my aunt Jill five days in. Altum had a person pretty much just doing the challenge. She was letting us know what they were hoping for. Then once the adventure was actually going we learned as we went along. We did try to do regular Instagram and Facebook posts every evening.
This was something that I didn't anticipate, that during the actual event I was spending a lot of time every day doing a little video update, doing a piece of written text. I think that that was really important. Sponsorship isn’t a reward, it’s an exchange. The social media part was really, really important for Altum. It was something that we prioritised as a team.
The team and I, we didn't have one disagreement. We were all tired, under a lot of pressure, in a new place every day. There was huge time pressure and that was stressful. We got on so well.
Were they travelling next to you?
They were in the support vehicle. When I was cycling or running I would meet them every half an hour to an hour; sometimes longer if they needed to go do shopping. Niela is a filmmaker and she was making these five minute videos and releasing them every day. She would be sitting in this vehicle, editing and editing while Jill was driving. She managed to put together some amazing clips which were great for Altum and for us.
Once it was over, what did the post-expedition process look like?
To be honest, I really fell short in terms of the wrap-up process. I was just so emotionally and physically finished. I was still doing a lot of cartoons and I did some talks in South Africa about the trip but not any big fundraising things. I don’t even have an excuse, I just didn't do it.
I was feeling intense pressure to figure out what I was doing with my life. I was trying a lot of different things as quickly as possible. I think I was a bit depressed.Various health professionals said that I’d been in fight or flight mode for quite a long time - feeling very scared to let people down, which ultimately led to letting people down.
That was the point that I realised that I don’t have the personality to become a professional adventurer.
You always have this sense of ‘oh if you can get more money you should get it’ but things like your privacy are sometimes worth sacrificing a bit a money. With the adventuring stuff you are putting stuff out there which is just about you. It feels arrogant and it is scary. I’ve learnt now that there’s not really such a thing as free money.
As a professional adventurer, you have to realise you’re a brand with a financial value. It’s not that you yourself are inherently valuable. People are not interested in you because you are a great person. It's lonely too. Even though you can chat to your friends or ask professionals for advice, there’s nobody who’s going to be going through the whole process with you.
I feel I don’t have the presence and eloquence to go up to somebody and say ‘yes, I'm great’. I’d rather earn money doing something that I am more comfortable with selling - merchandising my cartoons. I'm aiming to get an income coming in, and then using my own money to fund the adventure habit.
Read on for Tegan’s guest post on 5 Top Tips for what it takes to be a Professional Adventurer.
Related blog posts:
- Tegan Phillips gives her 5 Tips for Aspiring Professional Adventurers
- Tegan's support crew and videographer Niela Gie shares her behind-the-scenes story
- An interview with the founder of The Altumate Challenge - what are they looking for in a winner?
To hear more from Tegan, listen to her podcast interview with Adelaide Goodeve on The Lilly Wild Show, talking about Adventure and Fighting Fear.