Expedition and Wilderness Medicine provides medical support for BBC Blue Peter Presenter Helen Skelton as she attempts to be the first woman to kayak solo the Amazon.

Expedition and Wilderness Medicine provides remote media medical support for BBC Blue Peter Presenter Helen Skelton as she attempts to be the first woman to kayak solo the Amazon. Source: Telegraph Newspaper

A terrible thought crosses Helen Skelton’s mind. “I am going to need seven bottles of shampoo,” she says, aghast.

It is indeed scary news for the 26-year-old Blue Peter presenter, but not perhaps the worry that would be uppermost in the minds of most people setting off on a world record-breaking ordeal.

Her task over the next six weeks is to kayak solo for 2,010 miles down the Amazon. No woman has ever done that before, let alone one with no paddling experience.

On route she can expect to encounter 20ft anacondas and shoals of piranhas; hideous blisters and sores are guaranteed.

As she steers her 15-kilo boat along the crocodile-infested river, there is also a likelihood that she will contract a disease such as yellow fever or malaria.

But, with the glorious optimism of youth, it is her bottle-assisted blonde hair that she is fretting about.

Meeting her in the primary-coloured Blue Peter studio at the BBC before her departure, every inch of 5ft 3″, Skelton looks perfect for the life the programme’s presenters used to lead – caring for animals, making Tracy Island with sticky-backed plastic – in the days before the producers decided to beat Top Gear at its own game.

Sparkly silver eye liner, a short skirt and a red bow in her hair, make her appear every 7-year-old’s dream role model.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate Skelton. “I’m a kids TV presenter. I use hair straighteners every day.

“But just because I am a girlie girl doesn’t mean I can’t be gritty,” she says with the steely glint that has already taken her a long way in her short life.

Last year, she proved her point when, in April, she became the second woman to complete the 78-mile ultra-marathon in Namibia, running the three consecutive marathons in 23 hours and 50 minutes.

So this year, when Blue Peter decided to stage a stunt to raise awareness for Sport Relief, Skelton wanted even more of a challenge.

She was at the hairdressers when Greg Whyte, the Olympic sports scientist who trained David Walliams to swim the Channel, rang to suggest she swam the 51-mile Panama Canal.

“Great, but not tough enough,” she replied, “and it must appeal to kids.” He then suggested a section of the Amazon, to which she replied: “Why do a bit, when you can do the whole thing?”

James Cracknell, the double Olympic gold medallist, was asked his opinion. Having nearly died during his attempt to row the Atlantic with Sunday Telegraph columnist Ben Fogle, he was blunt.

“You can’t do this,” he told her. “You don’t know me,” replied Helen.

She arrived at the start of her journey a week ago, after visiting two of the many charities assisted by Sport Relief: What4, a drop-in centre to keep young people off the streets in Cheriton, Kent, and Proceso Social, which works with the families who live on the rubbish tips of Peru’s capital, Lima.

The charity projects were inspiring, but she was soon in tears when she arrived at the Amazon last week.

“Everything went wrong. We didn’t have a boat to take us out, so I only managed half a day on Wednesday, the first day, and on Thursday we started late so already I’m behind,” she admitted via satellite phone from the river.

“Within two hours of paddling, my hands were so badly blistered that they had to be taped up, I took a wrong direction and had fight the current; it was exhausting. The heat here is so intense that it really drains you.”

It sounds like she might almost be ready to give up. “Oh no,” she shrieks, “It’s pure comedy and there are pink dolphins – really pink, not grey – that come close to the boat. I still reckon that if I manage 60 miles a day – just a little more than the 58 I managed on Thursday – I can make it.”

The secret of her iron will is the desire, as a child, to keep up with her sporty elder brother, Gavin, who now plays football for Kilmarnock.

As children on their parents’ dairy farm in Cumbria, she would be left behind if she didn’t run, bike and play as fast as boys two years’ older.

Over the years, her family has learnt not to talk sense into her when a certain look appears on her face. “Good Luck” is all they dare say, for fear of adding to her determination.

Helen will need luck over the next six weeks because a punishing schedule lies ahead.

For six out of seven days each week, she will paddle for at least ten hours, from 5.30am until dark, with only a short break for lunch when the heat and 100 per cent humidity become unbearable.

On the seventh day, she will make films to inform Blue Peter’s 750,000 viewers about the flora and fauna of the world biggest river, and write a weekly column for the Sunday Telegraph‘s Travel section about her adventures.

This is a genuinely risky assignment. Even Google is baffled by trying to find a route from Natua in Peru, where the rivers Maranon and Ucayli join to form the Amazon, down to Almeirim in Brazil where the river becomes tidal.

There are no roads, no towns, only rainforest and the river, often wider than the English Channel, along which she must navigate. If she falls ill, it will take around 11-hours to fly her to safety.

To make life still more stressful, she is paddling against the clock because the BBC – mindful of the licence fee payer, its schedules, and Sports Relief weekend starting on March 19th – has booked her a non-transferable flight home on March 5th.

Nor is the BBC wasting money on frills. Prior to her departure, the Blue Peter studio was piled high with boxes of filming equipment, mosquito repellent and sunscreen, but Helen’s personal comfort comes second.

“I’ve only got one seamless bra, which shouldn’t chafe, because they cost £50 each,” she says, and some special pants that will act as a wick to remove the sweat.

Surely it would be better to paddle naked, as Cracknell and Fogle did on the Atlantic, to avoid clothes rubbing?

She shakes her head vigorously. “I can’t do that because there will be four men on the other boat – producer, cameraman, doctor and fixer – watching me all the time.”

Nothing in her life so far has prepared her for the gruelling journey – not being an extra on Coronation Street, nor being an qualified tap-dancer, certainly not her degree in journalism from the Cumbria Institute of Arts, or her pre-Blue Peter experience presenting a breakfast programme on Radio Cumbria.

On November 1st, when she was given the go-ahead for the Amazon trip, she had only ever been kayaking once before, this summer.

“I was in a New York hotel room, having run a marathon. Immediately I took hold of a broom handle and started paddling on my bed.”

From then until she left for Peru just over a week ago, she struggled to train for four hours each day. She can now manage 300 press-ups in a row, but still most wiseacres believe the Amazon challenge will defeat her.

If she does make it, it will partly because she is listening to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” on her iPod, and partly because children all over the country are emailing her their encouragement.

“Who am I to let them down?” says Miss Grit. “It would be like saying the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.”

If you’re inspired by Helen’s efforts, you can raise money by signing up for the Sport Relief Mile. Go to www.sportrelief.com for details.


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