2017’s most epic, talked-about travels – Zafigo.com, December 26 2017

Every now and then, you hear about someone who explored the world in such a way that it makes you want to book your next trip right away. As 2017 draws to a close, we recall six inspiring women travellers and their epic journeys.

Expedition 196


Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica.

Cassie braved deathly cold temperatures at Paradise Bay in Antarctica. (Photo Credit: Cassie De Pecol)

Hands up if you have a travel bucket list that grows by the minute? If so, Cassie De Pecol is bound to make you green with envy. In February, the 27-year-old American jetsetter became the first woman on record to visit every sovereign nation on earth. On completion of her journey in 18 months and 26 days, she also set the record for the fastest time to complete the global trip, beating the previous record of three years and three months held by Yili Liu, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Cassie’s trip, which began in Palau in 2015, spans 196 countries and saw her crossing through some difficult and occasionally, unwelcoming terrain. Her adventure wasn’t just about smashing world records and gaining passport stamps; as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, she promoted sustainable tourism through meetings with dignitaries, tourism ministers and students across the globe.

Worldwide wheeler

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride.

Tackling the chaotic streets of Hanoi, Vietnam is no mean feat but Jin takes it in her stride. (Photo Credit: Jin Jeong)

Unless you have been hiding under a rock recently (unlikely behaviour for our adventurous Zafigo readers!), you’re sure to have heard of Jin Jeong. When she was 24, this South Korean solo cyclist set herself a goal: To spin around the world alone on two wheels. Many told her it was an impossible feat, others warned her that the ambitious plan could prove dangerous for a woman on her own. Yet, despite discouraging opinions and setbacks ranging from accidents to sexual harassment, the bold explorer hasn’t looked back since setting her wheels in motion six years ago.

Sixty-seven countries and 62,000 kilometres later, Jin is as eager to travel as ever, and aims to inspire others to follow their own dreams. She certainly left many of us motivated to get pedalling after her talk at this year’s ZafigoX, an event dedicated to women empowerment and travel.

Turning tragedy into triumph

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

When the phrase ‘bad things come in threes’ proved true for Megan Sullivan, she bit the bullet and decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. (Photo Credit: Megan Sullivan)

Receiving devastating news will either make or break you. For American native Megan Sullivan, a diagnosis of skin cancer was something that presented her with a new goal: to “live more now.” Her diagnosis, which occurred in the same month as a 50-feet fall in Yosemite and a road accident, encouraged her to embrace her wanderlust and embark on a long-awaited dream trip to the seven wonders of the world. Over 13 days, the 31-year-old made footprints in Chichen Itza in Mexico, Machu Picchu in Peru, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the 98-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, and the Roman Colosseum in Italy.

Documenting her journey on her personal website as well as her Instagram feed (@megthelegend), Megan invites the world to take inspiration from her whirlwind adventure. “The only regrets that I have in my life are from the missed opportunities that I never took a chance on. This year I took a chance and I will continue taking chances to experience the greatest adventure of all: My life,” she wrote.

Running for change

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

Claire getting to know some new friends in India before running together along the sandy shoreline. (Photo Credit: Claire MacFarlene)

At the age of 19, during a stint in Paris, every woman’s worst nightmare became a reality for Claire McFarlane. Raped and brutally attacked on the streets of one of Europe’s most popular travel destinations, the South Africa-born Australian was lucky to escape with her life. But 10 years later, she was forced to confront the traumatic experience when asked by French authorities to identify her suspected attacker. She did, and followed through with the legal proceedings that helped to put him behind bars.

Claire’s appalling experience, coupled with her fighting attitude, inspired her to make a change in the world. The result? Footsteps to Inspire, a challenge that will see Claire run 16 kilometres of beach in each country across the globe, to raise awareness for survivors of sexual violence. Though her endeavour hit the ground running – literally! – in July of last year, it was in 2017 that it really took off as Claire became a regular feature on the airwaves and in newspapers. At time of writing, she has run 33 countries across five continents, carrying her message every step of the way. In February, she visited Malaysia, where she ran 16km along Batu Ferringhi, Penang. Read Zafigo’s interview with Claire here.

Young explorer

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi getting cosy midway through her climb up Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. (Photo Credit: Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru)

Jaahnavi Sriperambaduru’s mountaineering feats have brought her more news headlines and world records than she has had birthdays. At only 15, the Indian adventurer has scaled the highest mountains in four of the world’s seven continents as part of her #Mission7summit challenge. She is the youngest girl in the world to scale Mount Elbrus, the youngest Indian girl to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, the youngest person to have reached the summit of Stok Kangri in the Himalayas… the list goes on.

She encourages others to aim high through her TED talks, guided treks, and involvement in worldwide campaigns. Jaahnavi now has her sights set on the final three: Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Vinson Massif in Antartica and Mount Everest. She plans to conquer the ultimate peak in April 2018 and has set up a crowdfunding campaign to help her to achieve her goal.

Flying high with the family

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: )

The Zapp family flying high in Tibet. (Photo Credit: Zapp Family)

It’s standard for most to plan their travels before we ‘settle down’, believing that footloose living and family life exist worlds apart. Yet when they hit international headlines this year, the Zapp family from Argentina proved to us all that it’s entirely possible to bring the whole family along for the adventure.

In 2000, inspirational couple Herman and Candelaria Zapp loaded their bags into their vintage car and set off on what they intended to be a six-month trip from Argentina to Alaska before starting their family. One might say that they took one heck of a detour, as 17 years and 80 countries later, the ambitious adventurers are still on the road, only now, with their four children in tow. Despite running out of money in the first six months of their journey, the couple have kept pushing ahead with their dream, thanks to sales of their paintings, their book Spark your Life and the kindness of strangers. In 2017, the family began the final leg of their journey across the Atlantic and will soon return to Argentina to begin the next chapter of their lives.

(First published on Zafigo.com on December 26 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/2017-epic-talked-about-travels/)


Taking Centre Stage – Bray People, September 10 2016

In part one of this special report, Amy Lewis looks at Wicklow’s role in the film industry – who works in it, what it means for the garden County and what can be done to improve it.

Wicklow has served as the backdrop for hundreds of big-name films and TV series and the county has certainly reaped the rewards.

It is estimated that the film industry is worth €70m to the Wicklow economy. However, Wicklow Film Commissioner Vibeke Delahunt reckons that the reality is much higher.

‘Unfortunately there is a lack of data available. We have heard very conservatively that it could be worth about €70m every year but I think it is much more,’ she explained. ‘The industry has a huge ripple effect across the county and its services.’

Following the construction of Ardmore Studios in 1958, more international and homegrown producers began to flock to the county. Recognising the county’s potential in the world of film, Wicklow County Council looked to our neighbours in the states for ideas on to harness it and allow it to flourish. The result was the establishment of the Wicklow Film Commission in 1992 – the first of its kind in the country.

‘Because Wicklow was unique in Ireland with Ardmore, and now also with Ashford, it was felt by the county manager at the time that setting one up would be good for economic development and promoting Wicklow.’

The Wicklow Film Commission’s roles include promoting the county as a film location, liaising with filmmakers and providing them with various services and facilities.

‘We have had up years as well as down years such as in the 1990s and even after 2000. But in the last five or six years, production based here has gone up,’ said Vibeke, who added the opening of Ashford Studios and additional Film Factory at Ardmore means that production is going up all of the time.

Wicklow’s long showreel of films includes ‘Braveheart’, ‘Michael Collins’, ‘Excalibar’, ‘The Guard’, ‘Dancing at Lunasa’ and ‘Breakfast on Pluto’, while TV shows ‘The Tudors’, ‘Penny Dreadful’, ‘Ripper Street’, ‘Mooneboy’ and ‘Raw’ have also used Wicklow as their stage. There are a number of reasons why film and TV producers flock from across the globe to Ireland’s Garden County.

‘Rich tax incentives here have a lot to do with foreign productions filming here,’ she explained. ‘They also need to work out of a studio and we have the main two in the country here. Wicklow also has well-trained, experienced and talented crew, along with a wide range of locations that can double up for other places in Europe. All of these elements come together and that is recognised internationally.’

It’s a case of a lot done, a lot more to do. The Wicklow Film Commission is currently working at addressing any skills gaps by consulting with people in the industry. A recent introductory course to ‘hairdressing on a film set’ marked the beginning of this. It saw twelve trained hairdressers get to grips with working on a film set under the instruction of Vikings hairdresser Dee Corcoran.

Developing Wicklow County Campus at Clermount by expanding the number of film-related courses on offer is the next step in addressing these skills shortages.

‘We are looking at different sectors at the moment,’ said Vibeke. ‘We have been told by people in the industry that we need more trained people in props, model-making, prosthetics and electricians for example.’

‘There’s also a lot of work we could do for schools to incorporate film into the school curriculum.’

Another welcome move is the application for expansion at Ashford Studios.

‘We are very excited about Joe looking to expand and we support him in his work. It’s great to have a local man looking to develop infrastructure which we badly need. They are turning away work because they don’t have the space,’ she said.

‘There are a lot of interesting projects at the moment,’ said Vibeke. ‘We have ‘Into the Badlands’ and ‘I Killed Giants’ filming at the moment.’

(First published in the Bray People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/braypeople/news/taking-centre-stage-35026806.html)

Angling boost for Wexford – Wexford People, September 3 2016

An estimated 240 competitors will hope to reel in some success this November when they flock to Wexford’s coastline for the 2016 World Shore Angling Championships.

Teams of anglers from countries across the globe will compete over a full week on beaches dotted along the Wexford coast. This year’s event, which is organised by the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers, will prove to be particularly significant as it is the first time that an Irish all-female team will take part.

Kilgorman, Ballinoulart, Morriscastle, Ballineskar, Curracloe, White Hole, Ballyhealy, Rostoontown, Rosslare Strand and Burrow have been earmarked as suitable beaches for the competition, along with Wicklow North beach and Woodstown in Waterford. Decisions on where competitors are to cast their lines will be determined according to tides on the day.

While competitors will arrive from faraway shores such as South Africa, Portugal and Spain, the Irish team will include some anglers from much closer to home. Killinick man Martin Howlin will serve as team captain while Courtown’s Joe Byrne is also one of the team members. On the women’s team, Jane Cantwell from Wexford town will fly the flag for her county.

Commenting on the upcoming championships, Martin Howlin said that Wexford were very lucky to get the opportunity to host it.

‘We had the bid against other parts of Ireland so it is great that we were awarded the opportunity to hold it in Wexford,’ said Martin, who will serve as team captain for the second time. ‘The beaches in Wexford are very suitable for hosting major championships as the beaches are very even so nobody has one real advantage against another.’

Martin and Joe also fished in the competition last year and helped the Irish team to take home a gold medal. Martin said that the Irish team should have a good chance of taking a medal this year.

Organised by the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers in association with Abbey Tours and hosted by the IFSA Leinster Branch, the championship will run for a full week from November 12 to 19, with many of the competitors and their families expected to arrive a week early to practice. This will be the second time that the Championships are to be held in Wexford, as the first one of its kind took place in the county.

Business Development Manager with Abbey Events Greg Carew said that their visit will provide a huge boost for the local economy.

‘We estimate that it will result in 3,000 bed nights for Wexford. Considering that it is midweek and mid-November, this will be fantastic for the town,’ he said. ‘We hope to make a good impression and hopefully, attract similar events here in the future.’

The event will kick off on Saturday November 12, with a parade of the nations through Wexford town and an opening ceremony at the National Opera House. This year, three new nations will take part: Poland, Cyprus and Turkey.

The parade will be followed by a dinner in Clayton White’s Hotel, where all of the participants will be based for the week. A training day will be held on Sunday before the lines are cast on Monday and the competition officially begins. Competitors will aim to land as many points as possible each evening during the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. as they fish for species such as dab, flounder, plaice, turbot, whiting, bass and cod, among others. They will be awarded points based on species, size and number of fish caught.

Along with assisting with the organisation of fishing event, Abbey Tours will also facilitate some local tours to sites of interest for visitors who wish to get a glimpse of the county.

In a written address to the competitors, President of the Irish Federation of Sea Anglers Pat Walsh said that the fishing in Wexford ‘is some of the best Europe can offer’.

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/angling-boost-for-wexford-35006837.html)

Wexford group raise an incredible €191,118 for Nepal victims – New Ross Standard, July 16 2016

Eight Wexford trekkers escaped with their lives when they were caught up in the devastating Nepal earthquake last year and in an effort to give something back, they raised €191,118.72 for its victims.

Following several large fundraisers including a concert in the National Opera House and a Midsummer’s Night Ball in Whites, the group donated the money to Trócaire, who pumped it back in to rebuilding Kathmandu. They soon got people from across the county on board and according to one of the eight trekkers Joan Etchingham, it was their generosity and goodwill that made the fundraising initiative as successful as it was.

‘We were completely blown away by the generosity of individuals, groups and businesses in Wexford,’ she said. ‘Everyone was overwhelmed with the amount of support from everyone in Wexford. They did everything, from giving us a fiver to putting on an event to donating their money from birthday parties. We couldn’t have done a fraction of it without their support.’

Concerts, sponsored walks, cake sales, garden parties and church collections were just some of the events that took place over the course of almost three months.

‘It took on a life of its own,’ said Joan. ‘Everyone just went hell for leather when they were hearing about the earthquake on the news. It took us a while to realise how much we had raised and it was only when it all came together that we realised how much of a success it was.’

The eight Wexford trekkers caught up in the quake, which killed more than 8,500 people and made hundreds of thousands homeless, were: Catherine Jordan, Mary Moran, John Nolan, Jimmy Morrissey, Fr. Tom Dalton, Jim McGillicuddy, Ger Colfer and Joan Etchingham.

On witnessing the devastation that occurred all around them, from which they escaped unharmed, they decided they needed to help.

‘We experienced extreme kindness and help from local people in Nepal,’ said Joan. ‘We wanted to repay the kindness that they had shown us.’

The money that the group raised has gone towards building wells for clean water, supplying tents for shelter and providing food, among other things.

The eight trekkers are considering returning to Nepal next year to see first hand where all of the money from Wexford has gone.

‘We would obviously be paying for it ourselves. All of the money has gone to the charity,’ stressed Joan. ‘We would like to go back and see how things are going.’

(First published in the New Ross Standard newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/news/wexford-group-raise-an-incredible-191118-for-nepal-victims-34875338.html)

Colm Neville on Brexit – Wexford People, July 9 2016

Chairperson of Visit Wexford Colm Neville believes that the recent Brexit decision is a source of huge concern for Wexford and the South East.

Exchange rates, economic uncertainty and the knock on effects of Brexit on the EU are three of the main concerns for Neville, who owns The Crown Bar, Riverside Park Hotel and the Portlaoise Heritage Hotel.

‘Possible recession in the British Economy would obviously affect the foreign travel choices of the British citizen and in turn potentially affect the number of British tourists coming to Ireland,’ he said.

‘There is nothing more disruptive and destabilising to markets and economics in general than uncertainty and the recent vote will have generated uncertainty in abundance. It’s impossible to know where this may lead and what the eventual ramifications it may have on the overall general Eurozone economy which is where our second biggest market comes from.’

According to Mr Neville, nobody can be certain what the outcome of Britain’s exit will be. He believes the most important thing to do is ‘stay calm’.

‘I believe that central Government should use the next couple of months as a cooling down period during which it should set up a dedicated taskforce of tourism industry and economic leaders with the express task of analysing the future and deciding how best to protect our tourism industry against the potential negative impact of Brexit,’ he said.

‘Losing our value for money is clearly one of our biggest threats and so we as an industry need to try and keep our costs of doing business under control and in turn remain price competitive.’

(First published in the Wexford People: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/business/chairperson-of-visit-wexford-colm-neville-34870373.html)

Wexford woman was moments away from bomb blasts – Wexford People, March 29 2015

A Wexford woman living in Brussels was only moments away from the devastating bombings in Maalbeek metro station as she made her daily commute to work last Tuesday.

Sarah Cooke O’Dowd from Glenville Road, Wexford left her home on the outskirts of the city at 9 a.m. just before news of the terrorist attacks broke. However, in what could only be described as an incredible moment of luck, she was running late for work that day.

‘Yesterday morning I was trying to get in on time but because I had a meeting, I went back to change my shirt. Then some of my friends started messaging me asking was I okay so that held me up a bit,’ she explained.

Unaware of what was taking place further down along her metro line, Sarah walked to her station and headed to work in the city. After four stops, the train came to a halt and everyone was asked to evacuate.

‘They didn’t give us any explanation. My friends were on Whatsapp telling me that there had been explosions at the airport,’ she said. ‘When we left, the police were outside and told everyone to move on. In the beginning I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if it was a terrorist attack or not. It was very confusing.’

‘I started walking to the next station and then one of my colleagues rang me. She was closer to where the bombing took place and was very stressed and very panicked. We both started crying. She just said, “Sarah go home”‘.

Sarah was relieved to find that everyone she knew was safe after the attacks.

‘They were telling us not to be using telephones but of course, everyone was on Facebook right away. I was glad to see that nobody I knew had been hurt.’

With the metro service brought to a halt following the attacks last week, Sarah was forced to work from home for several days. Speaking on Wednesday afternoon, she said she hadn’t left her house since the attacks.

‘I haven’t been into town since yesterday so I don’t know what the mood is like in there at the moment. But from what I could see from people yesterday, they were very shocked and surprised,’ she said. ‘There has been an outpouring of solidarity and unity since it happened. When people couldn’t leave their offices to go to lunch, people put their stuff together. I know in my work they were trying to figure out how to get people who lived far away home.’

‘Everyone wants to show that we will face it together.’

Although she doesn’t believe that the problems in Brussels are over, Sarah said that she hopes the authorities begin to ‘get their act together’.

‘The problem has been going on for a long time and was never tackled very well. The Belgium system is very complicated with different communes and areas so a lot of information probably fell through the cracks and it was easy for people to get away with things.’

As an employee with Equinet – European Network of Equality Bodies, Sarah works to counteract discrimination on a range of grounds, including religion and ethnicity. She feels that any racial hatred against Muslim people in the aftermath of these attacks is ‘very unfair’.

‘I think people who have a certain message to send about closing borders will use this [the attacks] as an excuse. Muslim people are very peaceful and wouldn’t hurt a fly. It certainly isn’t their fault and it’s very unfair to point the finger. They are being used as scapegoats,’ she said.

‘The people behind these attacks want to create fear. But to stop living life is giving in. Belgian’s are very fun-loving people and I don’t think they are going to give that up.’

(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/wexford-woman-was-moments-away-from-bomb-blasts-34581962.html)

Evening of movie magic at Brooklyn premiere – Enniscorthy Guardian, November 7 2015

Make it happen.

Those were the words of author Colm Toibín when the chances of pulling off the Brooklyn premiere in his hometown appeared slim. Yet, make it happen they did. After months of lengthy discussions, problem-solving, technical issues and ballroom renovations, crowds of people finally converged on Enniscorthy to witness Brooklyn make its return home.

However, the true homecoming was the arrival of Colm himself, who served as guest of honour at the important event. For the proud Enniscorthy native, bringing the story back to his hometown was extremely important.

‘It’s just amazing coming back down here with the film and it’s great to see how the audience feels about it,’ he said. ‘It feels great to see places such as Johns Street, Court Street and the Athenaeum and to see the way that it’s captured and lit.’

Colm’s sense of pride in Enniscorthy was evident throughout the evening as he spoke to hordes of reporters and fans about his novel during numerous interviews and panel discussions.

‘First and foremost, the book is for people you know and the place you’re from,’ he said. ‘I think that really matters to everyone and it certainly matters to me.’

Although the novel version of Brooklyn is based in Enniscorthy, shooting the film in the town was not always a certainty. However, when Colm told the director to take a look at the place, the decision was soon made to set up the cameras there.

‘They had to pick the place that would work best for filmmaking,’ he explained. ‘The director went down on his own and drove around. He then said that we can shoot in the town and not only that, but we can shoot the beach scene in Curracloe. It looks absolutely fantastic. People all over the world will want to know if they can come to that beach.’

According to Colm, the Enniscorthy community couldn’t have been more welcoming to the film crew when they arrived to shoot the scenes. Brooklyn and its stars attracted plenty of attention from the local and wider community, particularly Saoirse Ronan, who plays Eilis in the film. Although she was unable to attend the premiere last week, Colm was quick to sing her praises as an actress.

‘She’s not anyone’s girlfriend, daughter or sister in this film. It’s her film and it’s a great part for her,’ said Colm. ‘We were really lucky that she was free to do it. She can do something in a second with her face that it takes me 30 pages to do. It’s been wonderful working with her.’

Based in 1950s Ireland, the film follows Eilis as she makes the journey from Enniscorthy to Brooklyn in search of a new life. Pervading throughout much of the movie is the theme of homesickness, which is partially based on the author’s own experiences.

‘I went to Texas and was there teaching for 14 weeks and I got a bit lonely. So, when I came back, the whole idea of what it is like for so many Irish people going away was on my mind. I then started the book,’ he explained. ‘It was my own life in that I had those feelings of wishing I was home and wanting to go home.’

The idea of experiencing and getting over homesickness is one that many people can relate to. Although Brooklyn is set in 1950s Ireland, Colm believes that it is just as relevant today

‘I don’t think it makes any difference whether you get a letter from home or Skype home. When the Skype is over and you close the computer, the feeling of “I’m here and they’re there” is still the same.’

Colm was not the only star to grace the red carpet at the Riverside Park Hotel for the occasion. Also present on the night was actress Eve Macklin, who plays Diana, and Gary Lydon, who stars as Mr Farrell in the film. Commenting on his involvement with Brooklyn, Gary said that he was honoured to be part of it.

‘There’s a sense of pride that people are talking about your home place,’ said Gary, who grew up in Wexford.

According to Gary, who came to the event with his two sons, the film should be commended for its bravery.

‘It stays with the characters and doesn’t feel the need to be brash or try to sell the film. It trusts the characters and trusts the story and that will make it successful,’ he added.

Chairman of Enniscorthy Municipal District Cllr Paddy Kavanagh echoed the thoughts of all in attendance when he said that he was ‘immensely proud’ of Colm.

‘I’m delighted that he brought it back to his own,’ he said. ‘The reviews so far are all positive. Wouldn’t it be fabulous for Enniscorthy if Brooklyn won an Oscar? It’s mindboggling, actually, the potential that it has if it goes to the top.’

(First published in the Enniscorthy Guardian: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/news/evening-of-movie-magic-at-brooklyn-premiere-34163198.html)