Eef De Boeck is a Belgian adventurer and sled dog guide, or ‘musher’, based in Sweden. After studying history and political science at Stockholm University in Sweden, Eef decided to move to Lapland, where she first encountered the magic of Scandinavia’s wintry north. In 2014, Eef and her partner Per Jonas, or ‘PJ’, decided to walk New Zealand’s rugged Te Araroa trail, 3000 kilometres from Cape Reinga on the North Island to Bluff on the South Island. The journey took Eef six months and proved to be a transformative experience in her life. Not yet thirty, Eef is hungry for more adventures, and plans to hike across Nepal from the eastern to western-most point in 2017. She is also an advocate for wider access to better quality outdoor gear and equipment made specifically for women. One day Eef hopes to run a mountain hiking company and have a team of her own sled dogs in Norway.
Did you get the sense as a child that there were expectations about how you should behave, based on your gender?
In kindergarten and primary school, all my friends were always boys. I didn’t get along with the girls so well. But as a kid, I never really reflected on why. I would get really upset sometimes, because my mum liked to cut my hair short, and the kids used to ask “oh, are you a girl or are you a boy?” I would get really angry, but I never really actively reflected on it, no.
What sort of role models did you have encouraging you as a child?
I don’t have a very adventurous family, so they are really puzzled about how ended up doing all of this. But in the household I grew up in, the traditional roles were the other way around. It was my mum that brought in the main income, my mum that had the high position in the company and my mum who had the high level of education. It was my mum who was in charge, really. So as a kid I always had this sense of mum as this strong, independent woman that had a big career. She was always there for my brother and I, but I never really thought about gender roles much because we didn’t really have that at home. When I think about that now, I think it’s a big part of who I am. I have to say it never mattered to my Dad whether I was a boy or a girl. He has always been the one encouraging me to keep going, regardless.
What was your environment like growing up in Belgium?
I grew up not really in a city, but Belgium is kind of a bit urban everywhere, because there are so many people. I always wanted to go on adventures when I was a kid. It didn’t matter what kind. I was always fascinated for hours watching National Geographic. I would think: “when I grow up, I want to go there.” I always wanted to travel.
When did you get to start having adventures?
I had travelled with my family, but it was always very safe. I always wanted to go to these places that nobody else went to.
When I was 18 and I could get my own passport, that’s the time when I went off by myself. I just went to Cuba with a few friends. As a student I travelled every year and gradually went more and more off the beaten track. When you go a little more outside of your comfort zone every year, then in the end, even taking a big step, you feel that it’s going to be ok.
After I finished uni in Belgium, I just said I’m moving to Sweden and left everything behind. I didn’t think: I don’t know anyone here, I don’t speak the language, I don’t have a house. I just left. And then once I was there I thought oh, yeah! That was maybe a bit impulsive.
You don’t have an inner voice of doubt?
I usually think after the deed, not before. So I will come up with an idea and say … oh, this will be amazing. I think a big advantage is that I travel a lot with my boyfriend, PJ, now and we are complete opposites. He starts thinking about all the practical stuff. He starts thinking in a much more realistic sense about logistics and possible problems, but I don’t think about that until we’re doing it.
I think it’s good, because if I wasn’t like that, I wouldn’t achieve what I want to.
What did you discover about yourself after you moved to Sweden?
I think I had to go to a country where there was still nature, because in the end this is what I was looking for. I never knew what I wanted to do with my life, and I never knew what kind of career I wanted, because this just never occurred to me, coming from Belgium. The outdoor life I lead now, and working as a guide with dogs pulling sleds, this was really an option that never existed before I left. When I finally got to Sweden, I made new friends and they were all really into the outdoors, so I guess this was something I was looking for. Then we started going to Lapland to go hiking, and from there it really grew. I went to the mountains several times. I decided I was going to move up and work as a guide driving huskies in Kiruna. It’s where I met PJ, and ever since, we have been travelling and working together.
What is it like working with huskies?
I was never a dog person before, I always had a cat!
Huskies are very unlike pet dogs. They’re tougher and rougher around the edges. Also they’re used to living outside, and they are very independent animals. They don’t expect you to entertain them all the time. You also have to divide your attention between all those dogs. When we get up in the morning, we feed them and pick up all the poop, and two hours later we can take them for a run. We have 36 dogs here, so you won’t get an equal bond with them all, but with some you really get this close friendship going. It’s kind of like with people – some you click with.
It’s a tough job. It’s a lot of physical work, and now it’s the dark period, it is pitch black by 2.30pm. So you spend long hours outside in the dark with your head-lamp on in the cold and it doesn’t matter if it’s -35 because you have to get outside with the dogs and make sure that they are ok. A lot of the time you’re working from early in the morning until late in the evening. In a lot of ways it is a dream job, but there’s a really harsh side to it as well.
What does it take to become a good musher?
Practice, patience and determination. You just keep doing it. Most of the time, when everything goes as planned, it’s really nice to be on the sleds. But when it doesn’t go to plan, it can be extremely frustrating. When that happens, you need to remain calm and patient, because the dogs pick up on your mood. As long as you’re calm, they will be too. This is very important.
If you’re a really great musher who can win races and go all over the world, and put your name on the podium, then you can make that your whole business. To win races, you also need a very strategic mind. Unfortunately this is only the case for a tiny minority of the top athletes in mushing.
I’m doing this work because I love the nature and I love the roughness and I love the dogs, but it’s not something that I can keep doing indefinitely—or at least not working for someone else. To continue, I’ll have to find a way to do it by myself.
What drew you from Lapland to New Zealand?
I had been thinking about it for a long time before coming to Lapland. I heard about Te Araroa from a friend, and I thought wow, this is something I have to do. I really felt like I wanted to go to NZ and do this trail, so I kind of talked PJ into it.
What is the reality involved in walking 3,000 kilometres?
I didn’t really understand the scope of it until we were standing at the start, and then I looked south, and I thought “oh shit. We’re going to walk 3,000 kilometres that way”, and it’s not like I didn’t know the number, or understand the distance, but it just never practically dawned on me.
At the beginning, it was really tough. I think for the first two months, it was a mental and physical assault on everything that you are. Because even though we tried to train and we tried to go hiking and we tried to get used to the weight, if you have to do it for such a long time on end, then … In the beginning, we were just slammed. Most of the people that we met on the trail at that time felt the same.
A lot of the time you’re just stuck in your own thoughts. I found that quite hard, because there’s a lot of things at that time that were maybe bothering me, or that I was confused about, and you want to stop thinking about all of that, but you can’t. In the end, I just had to let my mind roll and let it do whatever it wants to do. When I was done, I felt like my life made so much sense, because I was able to put everything that had bothered me in the past few years into some kind of perspective.
The whole thing took us six months. It took us so long because by the time we were coming to the end, we didn’t want to finish it. There were four of us at the time, and all of us felt the same way. We were really just enjoying living on the trail.
You were transformed?
Yes, I became really hard in my mind. You get what I call this ‘iron will’. We were going to go to the end of it and it didn’t matter how long it took us and it didn’t matter how tough it was, it didn’t matter whatever might come our way— we were going to get there, and that was final. We were so fit and so strong. Of course you still get tired, but I’ve never felt happier or healthier than when I was on the trail.
What were the challenges you faced throughout the walk?
I got injured on day three. We had a really long walk along the beach, which is tough, because it’s hard and it’s soft at the same time, and very abrasive. I started having so much pain in my Achilles that by the time we got to where camp was on day three, I was just hobbling, I could barely walk. You don’t want to quit on day three! You don’t even want to say let’s take a day off. I felt weak, but I had to, and in the end it was good that we stopped. These are things we learned along the way–that you need to give your body the time to heal. It happened several times after
When you’re really in this mindset of going for something, and you’ve decided on it, I think I practically had to be dying in order to quit what I was doing.
How did you deal with your adventure coming to an end?
It had become our life. We had gone out into the bush, we had gone out into the mountains, and we came to love it so much, because life is so uncomplicated when you’re out there. As I said, I’ve never been happier than when I was out on that trail. So of course, when you come to the finish, you’ve accomplished something huge. But then suddenly it’s over, and you feel sad and empty.
You think back on everything that’s happened, and you can’t even imagine that it was you doing it, all those hard times, all those hours that you ploughed through the rain and the mud, all those hours that you spent climbing some peak, half dying under the load of your backpack, but you think no, we just have to keep going! Suddenly that whole sense of purpose falls off you. After being out there for so long, it took a really long time before I felt ok with normal life again.
Where do you think you’ll find fulfillment next?
I don’t really know. I would like my own dogs at some point, but only when circumstances are right. I would like to become a mountain guide. I would like to start my own hiking company, as well as a hiking education centre. I have so many things that I would like to do! I just haven’t figured out which one next.
What about the next adventure?
We want to walk from the eastern-most point to the western-most point of Nepal, through the Himalayas. There are so many trails in Nepal, so you can take high ones or you can take low ones, depending on the weather. In terms of distance, we’re talking 1,700km, half of what I did in New Zealand, but in height, and in terms of physical strain and the effort it will take, I think the task is double.
Do you ever have people tell you not to try things like this, things that carry risks and dangers?
Less and less. I had this a lot in the beginning. When I came to Lapland, most people said that I was entirely mental. When I went to New Zealand my mum actually told me that I was not going to be able to do it. I don’t think that anybody that I knew, except for a few, actually thought that I would pull it off, to walk all the way.
Now, after all these things, I think people probably think: yeah, she will do it.
Things are also different for girls and for boys. For example, when my brother went to Nicaragua, it was no problem. It was fine, because he was a boy. When I left for certain places, people were so worried. I always asked why? What’s the difference? People said, you’re a girl, so many more things can happen to you.
I think sure, things can happen to you as a girl, but things can happen to you as a boy as well. I just have this inner voice that says: “no, I’ll show you that I can do it anyway,” but not everybody has this.
What would your advice be to young girls who are trying to develop that inner voice?
Just keep going. You have to think for yourself when you’re young. You have dreams, you have goals and you have ambitions and maybe they are far away from what your peer groups and what your relatives and your friends think is ordinary or normal or accepted. But it doesn’t matter, because they are your dreams, and your ambitions and your goals, and you just have to do them. You have to make hard choices.
You wrote a piece recently about the lack of high-quality adventure and outdoor gear made specifically for women. What do you think might start to change the commercial approach that caters so heavily to men?
I think it’s high time to change the way things are. When I meet people in the mountains, of course it is often mostly guys, I feel like I’m walking around in the 1960s. I still meet guys who say “oh, girls are so slow”, and if there aren’t as many women out there, it’s not because they don’t have that interest, but because somebody told them that they were weaker, and that they can’t be adventurous.
I think in Sweden and Norway it’s a lot better, because these countries are much more equal. But in Belgium for example, qualities like being adventurous, competitive and driven and ambitious, are all really seen as things that men have, and not women. Also for me, my entire adult life I’ve heard from many of my male friends, that I was ‘not a real girl’, but why wouldn’t I be? The comparisons my strength draws with being more like a man or boy doesn’t acknowledge who I am as a woman.
Plus, the reality is that there are so many women out there. When I was walking in New Zealand, I think I met almost an equal amount of men and women. They were all extremely tough and strong and they had done other great things as well, but somehow they are overlooked. It’s like we’re not there. We have to make ourselves as visible as we can.
There are a lot of women now who are doing a great job in saying that “I am here”. I think Sisu Girl, Anna Frost, is definitely one of them, putting herself out there. But then a lot of the time when it comes to women we have to expect comments about ‘how she looks’ and things like that. I hope that this will change. If I can make a contribution to this, then I think that would be awesome.