40. Karen Espley: The Accidental Adventurer

Sue Stockdale talks to Karen Espley, who could be described as ‘the accidental adventurer’ about what encouraged her to travel to Antarctica, New Zealand and West Africa. After 15 years working in large businesses, clawing her way up the career ladder Karen Espley had a demanding job with almost unbearable levels of stress. With the cushion of having saved enough money to live without earning for a year, Karen realised that there must be more to life, and when an opportunity came for a life changing trip to the Antarctic in 2000, she took the plunge and began her journey to find a different way to live and to escape from the expectations she grew up with.

Karen went on to work in a business that grew from nothing to 150 employees and was bought out. She was also an owner and shareholder of a successful consultancy practice and has been a freelance consultant.  Karen also studied for an MBA to understand in more depth how business works and has learned (sometimes painful) lessons in her career. She has helped many businesses grow using her broad experience and the lessons she’s learned along the way and published a book  The Profitable Business to help small businesses grow and succeed.

She has also lived on a Russian base in the Antarctic and worked as a project manager in a rainforest in Ghana with Raleigh International. Karen then travelled back to the UK through West Africa via Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal using only public transport.  At 50 years old, she had a midlife crisis which pushed her to  travel around New Zealand and Australia in a camper van in 2013.

Since then Karen has written the first of three books about these adventures ‘The Impulsive Explorer’ about her trip to the Antarctic which will be followed by ‘The Curious Explorer’ and the ‘The Escaping Explorer’. These days Karen lives in West Sussex with her two cats, planning the next chapter in her life’s adventures!

Connect with Karen on LinkedIn and Facebook and Twitter or via her website 

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Karen Espley transcription – The accidental adventurer

Sue: [00:00:00] hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the access to inspiration podcast. The show where you can get inspiration from people who may be unalike you, we hope their stories and insights enable you to transcend your day-to-day challenges. and reflect on what you are capable of achieving. Our final episode of this series, explores, the subject of risk taking from the perspective of someone who might describe themselves as prudent and conservative.

Karen Espley’s adventures to Antarctica. West Africa and New Zealand. show How we can all try new things no matter our age. And one of the factors that helped her to take risks was a focus on saving and managing her finances. Well, I’m intrigued to find out more welcome to the podcast, Karen Espley.

Karen: [00:01:00] Thank you very much lovely to be here,

Sue: [00:01:02] Now you’ve got a really interesting list of experiences in your life to date. And I’m going to be fascinated to learn more about those and in the course of our conversation today, If I might start at the beginning of your career, it does sound like a traditional career that many people probably have identified with working in large businesses and working your way up the career ladder, and then getting to a point where the long hours or the stress was perhaps getting, taking its toll on you. I wonder if you could cast your mind back to that situation and give us a sense of at that moment, what caused you to take some different actions rather than just carrying on.

Karen: [00:01:37] Well, I have you’re absolutely right. followed The traditional route. Went to university, actually trained as a nurse before I moved into the corporate world. And there was, I constantly to be an apprenticeship. So I started off as a very humble admin assistant and then worked my way up. I’ve always moved jobs regularly. I sort of work on the assumption that you need to move, to get paid, what you’re worth. So I used to regularly move between businesses. and worked in health insurance, but in four different health insurance organizations, over that time, I was encouraged to do an MBA. It was brilliant. That was all fully paid for, which was absolutely fantastic. So I’ve always been very conservative with a small C I’ve always done the thing that I feel I ought to largely to do with upbringing, but there’s always been that part of me. That’s a little bit bohemian that  wants to run through the fields barefoot and the shorts. And. Be unfettered by what is required of what I believe I was required to do. And I have always been very good at saving. And for years, every time I got promoted, I’ve always worked on the assumption that I never want to spend more than I earn.. And my life requirements are not, I’m not somebody who needs fast cars and you know, all the posh jewellery  and stuff like that. I just. Have lived a relatively simple life. So I’ve always been a saver. So I always saved. And every time I got promoted, I saved the difference between my salary and I was building my FOF  fund, which was the money that I was building up. And I [00:03:00] decided I was going to save enough money to last a year. And I’d worked out, down to my last packet of cigarettes,  I was still a smoker at those times. So I had worked at everything I needed to last a year financially, so that if at any stage in the future, I decided I was going to throw it all in and try a different way of living. I would have that money and not have to worry about was the mortgage being paid and anything like that. whilst I could go on holidays, but I had enough. So you don’t get the whiff of desperation that can come off. People who are desperately trying to find work. I had no idea when I was going to implement it, but coincidentally, it coincided with the trip to the Antarctic, which was my first big trip. I think by that stage I was running a project. It was super stressful. And really when I saw that leaflet saying, there’s a trip to the Antarctic apply. We send two people on this trip every year, which for me was like, this is massive light bulb just blew up in my head. I go, Oh my god. Visceral. I just have to go to the Antarctic. I don’t know what it was, but there it was. And really, it was my trip to the Antarctic and it opened my eyes to a different way of being that made me realize that actually at the tender age of whatever, I was 35, 36, the really was a different way that I could live my life. And I began to see that I could actually do it at that point. So that was probably a very long winded answer to your question.

Sue: [00:04:26] No, no. You’re, you’re filling in the gaps for us there. And tell us a little bit more about that Antarctica trip.

Karen: [00:04:31] Yes. Standard Life brilliantly gave me this opportunity. So Robert Swan, who you’re familiar with first chap to walk to the North and South pole was on the speaker circuit and he’d gone to a standard life talk. And he’d talked about his trip to the South pole. And the team element and with his passion, for the environment and stuff, Standard Life sponsored his Mission Antarctic trip to this Russian base for four years. So every year for the four year period, two members of the standard life would go down to this Russian base and work on the projects down there. I haven’t heard of it, but I turned up to work and literally there was a flyer on my seat because nobody in their right mind would ever put anything on my desk, which was tottering with piles of paper. And I literally saw this thing, this trip to the Antarctic. And honestly, I was just like, I ran into HR and said, please, may I have the application form? I’m thinking I’ve got to fight off everybody else. Cause I was absolutely convinced that everybody else would have been crowding in to get it to. So that was how it came about.

Sue: [00:05:31] And then having had that experience of seeing Antarctica, what did you do next?

Karen: [00:05:36] Well, I came back from there. Well, I’d already had chat with Bronco about subsequent trip to Antarctica when they were going to be taken down a whole load of young people to witness the removal of the waste from the base. And I had sort of stuck my hand up to go down as an assistant project manager to, to help support that. But I felt very strongly that I needed to get working with youth experience. So anyway, I was going, looking around, I did resign, I finished the [00:06:00] project, but I did take the courage to resign. And I had the pleasure of being introduced to you.

So as somebody who I define as a proper adventurer,  and like me as I sort of want to be adventure, really. So I had  a long chat with you, which was brilliant understanding what you had done. And you spoke to me about your experience with Raleigh  international or Operation Raleigh  as it was known at the time. And I thought that would be something really good for me to do only a three month expedition. So if I hated it, It was only a three month expedition. I was supposed to be the precursor to me, possibly doing VSO  the voluntary services overseas, wherever that was a two year commitment. So I was casting around as I was doing a lot of contract work. I was very lucky. I kept in touch with people. So I worked constantly as a freelance consultant after I left. And a year later went to go on or with Raleigh.

Sue: [00:06:48] So I can see that now that the adventures are racking up in your experience and you’re learning something from them, what then caused you to continue pursuing the adventurous side of your life? Or did you come back to think, well, that’s enough. I’ve had enough about, I’ll go back to a regular life and what’s expected of me in other ways.

Karen: [00:07:06] Well, yes, it’s been a reasonably turbulent sort of 10, 15 years since. So Ghana it was a bit bonkers because the Raleigh expedition was fantastic, but then five of us decided to try and travel back Overland through West Africa using public transport alone. And it was just exhausting. It was utterly exhausting. We took the Rough Guide and  we threw out the window, we just ignored everything. All the advice. We didn’t have very much money. So we were sleeping in brothels every day was hard. And I kind of got to the end of that. And I came back to the UK and you have no idea how much we take for granted in this country. I have to remind myself daily of the trials. I came back from that it was such an experience. It was way beyond anything that I could have ever anticipated. So I kind of settled down a little bit at that point, get the, I got a contract with a consultancy in the city and I ended up as a freelance working with them for about eight years.

And then I left there and became a director slash co-owner of a small testing consortium, four of us set up and we ran that pretty successfully for about 18 months, two years, and then due to an, a very unfortunate, legal battle, which I shouldn’t have to bore you with. The business got sold. And unfortunately I was the casualty of the sale because my background is ops. They were being sold to a bigger company. They did not need  my ops background. They already had plenty of that. It was a massive, massive shock to me. That was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a business, small business with a couple of other directors that we grew up for five to 10 years solid pension plan. Thank you very much. Beach shorts, fields, barefoot here I come  sort of thing. So 11 years after my return from Ghana and I had my midlife crisis at the grand old age of 50, and I’d had a terrible year in all sorts of ways. I decided the only thing to do was to run away and [00:09:00] running away from me, involved, going to the other side of the world.

So I rented out my flat in London, packed everything up, put it into a small storage space and off I went to Bali and New Zealand and Australia where I was never coming back from. After that stage in my life. And I hired a camper van and I can prevent my way around New Zealand, North Ireland to try and find somewhere that I might want to lead was looking at small businesses to buy. So, yeah, that was the next big one.

Sue: [00:09:27] And while you were on that adventure, Karen  in your mind, were you thinking about I’m in the process of running away from reality? Or did you see yourself as being, this was a new reality? So how were you thinking of that moment?

Karen: [00:09:41] I was running to a new reality. I had lots of friends in New Zealand and Australia working in the city in an it business. There were lots of antipodeans Aussies and Kiwis. So I had a lot of friends and it was my third trip. It wasn’t like I’d never been to New Zealand, third or fourth trip to New Zealand. I’ve been a few times. So I knew I liked New Zealand. I knew I had really good friends there. And that whole, there must be a business and outdoor business that I can buy that I can run that will give me that life that I’ve been looking for for all these years in a climate that suits me. It wasn’t running away, but it was, I needed to get my head straight. I was in an absolutely terrible place mentally, but I was running towards a new life. I was absolutely determined. I was not going to be coming back. I was going to find the business I wanted to buy, and I was going to emigrate to New Zealand

Sue: [00:10:34] with that clear focus that you had in mind, and then going through the experience of trying to find something what happened next?

Karen: [00:10:41] Well, I did look at lots  I looked at a wine cycling business on the South Island. I took various beach side businesses. I was very tempted by a bookstore. I love books the road from Auckland, and that was the one that gave me the most serious cause  for maybe this could be it, but for what I could afford to buy. It became quite clear to me digging into the finances and looking at these businesses that actually, I couldn’t see a way of making them more profitable than they were than were being supported by other halves or whatever. So it became quite daunting on so unless I had a lot more money or I applied for residency, which actually proved to be remarkably challenging, actually trying to master a hundred points. Even as somebody as qualified as me was actually remarkably difficult to do. I got to the point where I thought I can’t do this. I can’t, I’m going to move to the other side of the world and it  dawned on me the 12 hour difference, time difference to talk to my parents was actually quite challenging. I couldn’t find a business that was going to work. So the thought of moving to the other side of the world, that far away from my friends and family. Having to start again, literally start again from scratch, find somewhere to live by somewhere, get a business up and running. It [00:12:00] actually became overwhelming. And I realized that possibly that wasn’t the right thing to do.

Sue: [00:12:09] Hi, it’s Sue again. And if you’re enjoying this podcast and you may want to listen to other adventures stories. We’ve created several playlists themed around subjects like adventure, social impact, entrepreneurship and leadership. So go on over to the website at accesstoinspiration.org and click on the playlist.

What I’m hearing you describing that many of the examples you’ve given us so far, Kevin is your perspective on risk taking and maybe where others might perceive themselves sometimes as being risk averse. It seems like you’re willing to take the risk to see what is possible and what can be gained. Is that how you were seeing it at that time?

Karen: [00:12:53] Well, I do have a tendency to impulsiveness. Something seems like a brilliant idea in the moment and I’ll just grab it with both hands and then I’ll worry about what I’ve done later, but for something as big as moving overseas, whilst it was an impulse. Yes, that’s it. I’m going. I’m never coming back. It’s hinged with the sensible part of me, which is useful, which has, okay, Karen, this is all very well, but what needs to happen? And does this actually make sense to do, I mean, a proper risk taker would have gone ‘sod it’ . I’m going to do it and worked out the details later. And I do get a bit grumpy with myself that I have that opportunities slip through my hands because that sensible part of me has then gone. No, Karen, no, no, no.

That it’s too dangerous. I mean, I nearly bought a boutique hotel in Bali, which I wish I had done now because land values went up so much. I would be a millionaire, but yet again, we’ve gone through the process. The sensible part of me said, Whoa, hold the horses, Karen, this is not a sensible idea. So. Risk-taker but then in massive dose of reality, working this out and then worry, and then going, Oh, that’s too scary. And possibly tip back away from something.

Sue: [00:14:05] Is that how you saw your decision then not to settle in New Zealand? Did you see it as a success that you’d thought it through carefully and come up with that? Or was that a failure because you hadn’t made it happen.

Karen: [00:14:16] It was a mixture. Now with the current situation in New Zealand, having quite a lovely time down there, one could regret it. I don’t like to regret decisions. I did think it through. And actually at the time that I, was lonely  a lot of the time driving around in a camper van in New Zealand and winter in a very small camper, van exposes quite a lot about what it’s like to be totally alone. I’m very happy being by myself, but I couldn’t see. How it was going to work. And I realized actually the distance gives you some perspective is that I realized I already had a perfectly good family and perfectly good friends back in the UK. What was I thinking at 50 to throw that all away when I already have that stuff [00:15:00] back home. So it actually gave me that perspective. So the decision to come home was the right decision and I’ve never regretted that decision to come home. You just can’t regret. Stuff like that. It was too big. I think I’d done enough research. I’d done enough work to go, actually. Do you know what. I think I need to go home and that’s fine.

Sue: [00:15:18] Then what you’re saying there about making a conscious choice to come back rather than it being the net result of you not finding anything in New Zealand. I just want to take you back a little bit to what you were talking about being on your own and New Zealand. Tell us about that sense of being alone. And I’m wondering whether you ever felt lonely during those times?

Karen: [00:15:35] Well, terribly lonely at times I am by nature, quite reclusive person. I am introverted, and I know that can be hard to believe, but I am actually an introvert. I need my own space to recuperate and stuff. So . From that perspective, I’m young, I’m very independent. I’ve been very independent from the age of 18, so I can look after myself perfectly well, but I remember being in Bali and being in my. barong or  whatever they’re called and sitting there at this table by that was a very small, only three little cottages and the owners, crying over my noodles.  I’m getting quite emotional now because I just felt that what have I done? Why at 50 , excuse me, am I here? What is my life come to that I haven’t got the scooter. The cottages were in the middle of nowhere. Typical of me banged myself in the middle of nowhere. And the beach was quite perilous to walk down to where the restaurants and stuff were involved a perilous crossing a bit of a river, which nearly drowned me one day. So I was stuck there and I was just beside myself.  And it was a bit the same in New Zealand and I hate to be a stereotype, but there is that fear of the single white woman, single white female. Right. People wouldn’t talk to me, this strange woman with an English accent has turned up at a site in a pretty rubbish camper van, quite frankly, and people wouldn’t talk to me. I just thought old travelers of the world, you know, will unite in the kitchen. If nothing else, we’ll say, Oh, where have you been? What was good? What was bad? Where should I go? You think you’d at least have those conversations, but most of the time people avoided me.

So I started to get a little bit paranoid about it until I met another lovely Canadian lady on a canoeing thing that we did. And she had have exactly the same problem. There were a couple of places where I did meet. And there were some, couple of couples who were just delight to me and they saved me. And what actually saved me from my loneliness was writing my blog in cookaburras , Kiwis and Kazza  travel tales of an old bird, which was remarkably witty of me. And that was really useful because that kept me. So thank goodness for the internet. It kept me in touch with the world and it made me look and observe places far more closely than if I was just there on my own road. So I ended up doing a lot of research, the places I’ve gone and why they were there and what had happened and information and lots of photographs, I love writing. So it was really nice for me to write my blog quite challenging [00:18:00] on a small tablet. And I was getting really good feedback from it. So people were loving it. So that kind of kept me in touch with the world. And I felt less lonely as a consequence of doing that.

Sue: [00:18:11] Did you see that as a bigger reason for your travels, that you were learning something and sharing that learning with others? So it wasn’t just a more of a personal thing.

Karen: [00:18:19] When I was in Ghana the rainforest daily, I rate my diary. It was just really good. I’ve got terrible memory. So actually it’s a really good way of report is a partly, it was selfish. It’s a blog, but it’s equivalent of a diary. I like to entertain a lot of my earlier life, I might say earlier, but still in my forties, getting up to shenanigans. And people loving the fact that, Oh, what’s Karen doing  now, because I’m quite a good writer, is that part of it is that I’m the entertainer.

I need to entertain my audience, but equally people are interested. People like stories, people are interested to know about other bits of the world. And I was quite happy to share that with them. So a mixture of both partly selfish, partly helping other people understand blogs, being looked at by all sorts of people, which will help them when they travel.

Sue: [00:19:06] I imagine other people were able to sit in their armchairs and have a sense of your experience through your eyes, through your writing.

Karen: [00:19:13] I would hope so when I published my business book,  my brother who lives in Wales got back to me and said, it was like, you were in the room with me, that language so that if I can connect with people, they go, yeah. I feel like I’m sitting with Karen  we’re having a chat and a cup of tea. And she’s telling yet another ridiculous story of her mishaps then. Great. So everyone’s a winner as far as I’m concerned.

Sue: [00:19:33] How do you describe yourself now? Karen, if you were to meet somebody new in the street and say, Oh, and what do you do? What sort of identity do you have for yourself these days?

Karen: [00:19:43] Very interesting question. I’m still on the quest to find that bit where I feel like I found the right place more there than I was. I run my own business. So I have a lot of freedom from that respect. It’s entirely up to me how often, and when I work and I really like that, I’m a lot poorer than I was when I worked in the city, but I have freedoms that I didn’t have before. There’s another adventure in me. It’s like a 10 year cycle. So it’s coming towards me. When was it? 2013? Yes, I’ve got another couple of years before I burst out again. I really want to get to that place, but say I’m sort of half way. There I’m much more comfortable in my skin than I was. I’m still pretty conservative with a small C there’s still that. Doubt and fear holding me back from the sort of conventional life that I generally still live. To be honest, I still think I need some bravery in that and to grasp the thorn and go, I’m just going to let go of all those chains, which I think still hold me back and go for it. I still haven’t quite worked out what that shape looks like. But I’m still on that quest and I’m feeling making steps towards, I think I will get there. I just need to be patient and keep working towards it.

Sue: [00:20:55] And if you were giving our listener some insights, [00:21:00] If they were thinking about taking a step into the unknown, perhaps doing what you did back when you had to go to Antarctica, doing something that’s out of the ordinary of what other people’s expectations of their maybe what insights would you offer to them?

Karen: [00:21:14] I think, yeah. I love Richard Branson’s quote, which is like, if somebody asks you to do something that you can’t do, just say yes, and then work out how to do it afterwards. I’m very much of these opportunities really don’t come along very often to go on a fully expenses, paid trip to the Antarctic and live on a Russian base. Oh my goodness. But apart from the travels through West Africa, which were ridiculously stupidly dangerous, generally what I’ve done is not dangerous, right? I’ve not gone into war zones. I’ve not done mass things like you and walked across Greenland where there are real chances of death. It’s do it. I know people have got families and I get that. It’s more challenging for people. Who’ve got those kinds of commitments, but my trip to the Antarctic was only six weeks in total. So people going, Oh, I couldn’t go. Really. I used to go out with somebody in the Navy. He used to disappear off to sea for three to six months. Right. You can do this. You need to make changes. I mean, I was supposed to be going away for an eight week contract last year. Putting your life on hold is actually, there’s a lot of stuff. When you get to our age for putting your life on hold, there’s a lot involved, but that shouldn’t stop me from doing it. It really shouldn’t. So my advice is to seize the day you have a great opportunity comes up. Say yes. And then work out. Yes. There is stuff you have to work out. Yes. You have to weigh out the balance of probabilities of what that involves, but really don’t miss out on stuff. Don’t get your deathbed and go. I wish I had done.

Sue: [00:22:38] I also get the sense that planning or considering finance and how that can help to make those decisions a little bit easier is another important facet that you’ve chosen to consider from an early age, Karen?

Yeah. I mean,

Karen: [00:22:52] I said I’ve always been a saver. My cunning  plan is to keep my current account with the minimum amount of money in it as possible. That covers my costs, everything else I hide away. And it’s a great psychological ploy because if you can’t see it, even though, you know, this stuff I had about five or six accounts at one station, just money stuffed into all of it. So I’ve always been a really good saver. It’s one thing that I’ve been. Really lucky with when I went to Australia and New Zealand, I had got some share options from the it company I’ve been working for. So when they got sold, I had a nice pot of money and I use that to fund it. I’m a great advocate of saving and it doesn’t matter how little it is. Open  a business account. What do I get paid? There’s a book called Profit First by Mike Michalowicz and he talks about every month, its  that religious, even it’s only a pound put some money away. Getting into that savings habit has enabled me to do things that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do.

Sue: [00:23:49] That sounds like wise advice. It’s been great to speak to, you know, Karen,  if people want to learn more about the books that you’ve written, and I know you’ve got an upcoming book as well, how might they be able to do that [00:24:00] and find out more about you.

Well, I am on LinkedIn. So if you’re going to LinkedIn per Karen Espley  will come up. I do have a website called the Chameleon Guide  as in the lizard, that changes color. If you go onto Amazon and you put into the search bar, the profitable business, how to create a thriving business that works for you in seven shortish steps will pop up. It’s a great read. It’s really useful. If you’re a small business owner and you want to get your business working really efficiently, it’s a really good. Handy work to do that. I am on Twitter, the chameleon guide too. .

And what about your latest book that you’re working on about your adventures?

Karen: [00:24:38] The first one is hopefully coming out this March, I called The Impulsive Explorer, which is the story of my trip to the Antarctic and everything that led up to me, going there to about my upbringing and my career and how the Antarctic it changed my life.

Sue: [00:24:54] It’s been great to speak to you, Karen. And I hope that your experiences inspired our listener to do a little bit more saving and manage their finances.

Karen: [00:25:02] Absolutely. And go for it. Just do it.

Sue: [00:25:05] Thanks for listening. Karen’s  story reminded me that we can all be adventurous. And it’s about the mindset that you have that enables you to explore what you’re capable of in different ways. I wonder what Karen has inspired you to reflect on in regards to your capabilities. Remember, you can keep up to date with all our news by signing up to the newsletter at the foot of the website homepage. And you’ll also find transcriptions of all our episodes on the website too. So hop on over to access to inspiration.org. That’s the end of this series. We will be back soon with plenty more episodes of access to inspiration.