Heroes of solo travel: the cancer survivor who became a paddleboarding crusader
The following story is part of our 'Heroes of Solo Travel' series - inspirational stories of people travelling by themselves. Travelzoo’s travel industry initiative #SoloSeptember is a campaign to provide better deals for solo travellers.
Meet Lizzie Carr. Giving her a traditional job title is tricky. Part adventurer, part vlogger, expert paddleboarder and committed environmentalist, she has quite the selection of professional hats on the rack. You might already know her by her social media handle Lizzie Outside or her website by the same name.
It hasn’t always been like this though. Just a few years ago, Lizzie was commuting into central London, climbing the corporate ladder at a creative agency; not hating it exactly, but occasionally wondering whether she was doing the right thing. It’s a story many of us can relate to.
But then in 2014, everything changed when she was diagnosed with cancer. The career went on hold while she underwent treatment and focused on getting better.
She was lucky enough to come through it, and during that crucial recovery period, she fell in love with paddleboarding. Out on the water, she realised she’d found a pursuit that worked like meditation, that gave her peace and tranquillity.
Fast forward to the present day and she has turned that love, along with her commitment to ridding our waterways of plastic, into a career. In 2016, she became the first woman to paddleboard the length of England on its waterways, covering a distance of 400 miles. She started an operation called Plastic Patrol through which she now runs regular plastic clean-up days; free, open-to-all get-togethers at which people join her for a day of paddleboarding tuition in return for helping her collect plastic.
This, in her own words, is her inspiring story...
The power of one
I get so much out of travelling on my own. I like the idea of challenging myself; seeing how I deal with situations that are alien to me and a bit tricky. The relationships you make along the way are that much deeper because you’re not relying on someone else.
I’ll happily be in my own company. If you can just overcome that initial fear, it’s very freeing. I’m also not a huge planner when I travel. I like to keep things fluid and do things at my own pace – I like not having to stick to anyone else’s timetable.
I remember the first time I travelled solo. I was in Vietnam and had travelled north to a place called Sapa. I decided to leave the people I had gone with and head over the border into the Yunnan Province of China. I had all my Vietnamese money confiscated by border officials and when I arrived in China, no one spoke a word of English. I had to communicate using sign language. Someone had given me this really small phrasebook before I left. It was a total godsend.
Travel has 100% reaffirmed my belief that people are inherently good. India is a great example – you can travel to the poorest areas and find that people with very little want to give you everything. Not just in terms of food or possessions, but in terms of love and kindness.
The diagnosis that changed my life
Four years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. It completely blindsided me. I had actually just returned from a trip and I’d come back thinking, OK, I’ve done that now, it’s time to knuckle down, get on with my job and climb that corporate ladder again. Then came the diagnosis.
About a year after I recovered I felt like I had survivor’s guilt. I’d been in hospital and met these women who didn’t survive, didn’t get through their treatment. But I did survive. I was really lucky and I’d just gone back into a life I was unfulfilled by. I felt disappointed in myself.
I knew then that I had to create a better life for myself – one that felt meaningful to me. I didn’t know what that really looked like. But I knew I’d been through the most difficult, darkest time in my life… if I could do that, quitting my job and making a change should be comparatively easy.
Paddleboards & plastic
In 2016, I set off on my first proper solo expedition, to paddleboard the length of England through the inland waterways. I started in Surrey (near where I live) and finished in the Lake District, covering 400 miles. I have travelled in a lot of places, but I can honestly, say, hands down, that was the greatest adventure of my life. I had my tent, my stove and all my kit on my paddleboard, and I just propelled myself along, camping along the way. It took 22 days and I was the first person to ever do it.
A big part of that journey was about plotting plastic. I learned to paddleboard in the Scilly Isles. My dad lives there and I went to recover there when I was ill. I saw someone paddleboarding and I decided to try it. I was hooked! I carried on when I got back to London, and I was so shocked by the amount of plastic I saw.
I took photos of every piece of plastic that I saw along my journey and plotted it on an interactive map [INSERT LINK]. I tagged everything I found with #plasticpatrol, and soon people were getting in touch to ask how they could help. So I just said, whatever you find, you tag it too. That then led to the development of the Plastic Patrol app, and because there was so much interest in getting involved, I started the Plastic Patrol clean-ups around the country.
I take a load of paddleboards with me and take people out on the water, and we pick up plastic along the way. It’s easy to get involved - you sign up on the website, then on the day you get a paddleboard, a litter pick, gloves and some expert tuition. And in return, you just have to pick up whatever plastic you can find on the day, take photos and log it. It’s a great experience and open to all - men, women, beginners, anyone.
A lot of people come on their own. In fact, I’d say most people come by themselves, so if you were looking for your first solo adventure, this could be it. It definitely gives people confidence. Paddleboarding can look intimidating, but once people have done it, they realise it’s much easier than they thought it would be. Lots of people who came on their own last year have one on to join local groups.
Facing your fears
Fear is the thing. In my experience, the one thing that really holds people back from starting their own adventures is fear of the unknown.
My advice is to not overthink things. If you dwell too long on something, fear will always win out and you’ll decide not to do it. The more I travel, the less fear I have. It’s not about being reckless, but I will force myself into situations that make me uncomfortable because I know how good I’ll feel when I’ve done it.
People often think of travel as going to far-flung destinations, but I genuinely believe you can have the best adventures in the world on your own doorstep. My best adventures, be it the waterways of England or crossing the Channel, have all been close to home.