Interview by Justine Curgenven
It’s October in Ireland, and a chill wind blows spray into my eyes as I wait for a wave to ride into the beach. I’m barely warm enough in my drysuit, but as I’m drying out a slim girl rides up on her bicycle, wearing a light jacket, tiny shorts and flip-flops. Cramming crackers and cream cheese into her mouth, Tara Mulvany declines my offer of a down jacket, saying she “likes being slightly cold.” Perhaps that explains why she chose to paddle around the South Island of her native New Zealand in winter. Barefoot.
Mulvany, 26, set off on that first big trip in 2012 with her boyfriend and, when the relationship ended midway ‘round the island, finished the expedition alone. The following year she wrote a book about the adventure and still found time to paddle solo and barefoot around the rest of New Zealand and Vancouver Island. Last summer she completed the first kayak circumnavigation of Svalbard with Jaime Sharp and Per Gustav Porsanger. Afterwards she flew to London, bought a bike (but not shoes) on Ebay and cycled to Ireland. We spoke before she took off on her next adventure, sea kayak guiding in Antarctica for five months. She just bought a pair of shoes for that.
Doing the South Island in winter was a pretty stupid idea. The days were short and we were paddling out through the surf in the dark. It was pretty hard going up the west coast with big storms coming in. I guess we were quite naïve.
I get quite seasick which has been one of my bigger challenges. We were coming down the east coast and the swell started getting bigger and bigger. I started throwing up right away, and it was 17 hours before we landed in the dark.
I think that the intensity of those moments always fades pretty quickly and when you can laugh about it, it never seems so bad. It’s good character building.
It didn’t seem like a big deal parting ways with Sim and going off on my own. I’m comfortable making decisions on my own.
When it’s quite rough and stormy and it’s quite wild on the water, I prefer to be by myself. I’m focused on what I’m doing and I don’t have to worry about anyone else.
It’s not that I’m against going with other people but often if you wait for other people you’re never going to do stuff. If I decide I’m going to do something, I like to think that I just go and do it.
I really enjoy wilderness trips. I’m not overly driven by paddling fast or getting any speed records—unless it’s slowest. I just enjoy being in wild places.
Vancouver Island was a nice trip because you aren’t forced to land through the surf. It’s quite easy and it’s still a wilderness trip. I was trying to camp on small islands because I thought there would be no bears and wolves, but I woke up one morning and a wolf was right outside my tent.
I was on this small island and I stayed a day and just devoured all these strawberries.
Jaime Sharp asked me if I wanted to circumnavigate Svalbard, and I was like ‘Sure!’ But I didn’t actually know where it was. So I jumped on Google and there were just heaps of photos of polar bears.
It didn’t put me off because I’d already said yes.
The actual paddling conditions were really easy. The weather was surprisingly good but it was probably one of the harder trips mentally.
It was pretty radical team dynamics.
PG, our Norwegian team member, was highly competitive and had a really narrow military mindset that I found really challenging. I found myself falling into a place where I was just following, and so the sense of satisfaction that I felt at the end was a whole lot less than I typically would feel from a big trip.
It taught me to chose my teammates wisely and I think it also strengthened my desire to do more trips by myself and not go with any Norwegians.
Apart from Svalbard, I haven’t had any real sponsors. I’ve lived cheaply and saved money so I can go and do those trips. It doesn’t have to cost much. You don’t need flash gear. I usually just paddle in bare feet with rolled up thermal bottoms and just a jacket. Svalbard was the first time I’d ever worn a drysuit.
I’m usually wet all the time. I have really big muscles so it keeps me warm.
— This story first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Canoe & Kayak
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