Walking in the Footsteps of Iron History
From Finnish tundra via thriving Baltic State cities to the crumbling buildings of Romania, Justine Gosling walked and cycled the length of the old Iron Curtain
Interview by Rupert Watkins
Taking a break from work to walk and cycle 3,700 miles the length of Europe is not perhaps the obvious sabbatical but Justine Gosling is not one’s standard NHS employee. Having her idea to walk the length of the old Iron Curtain taken up by the Mumm Cordon Rouge Explorers Club, the second half of 2015 saw Justine hike and cycle from Northern Norway to the Black Sea overcoming northern wilderness, customs, rabid dogs and a traffic accident in Poland that saw her in hospital for a fortnight.
From a young age, Justine has loved travelling and the outdoors. She had become a member of the Royal Geographical Society and when the Iron Curtain opportunity arose, “just couldn’t think of a decent reason not to do it.” Her long term fascination with history and the events in early 2015 in the Ukraine also inspired her in planning the expedition. Interestingly, as the momentous events of 1989 and the fall of the wall have begun to fade into the past, Justine found she had to tell some friends about the Iron Curtain. She aims to, “inspire and engage” people with history and the human stories intertwined with great events – not just last year but also in future expeditions.
In many ways packing up her life prior to departure proved to be the hardest and most complex activity. Everything from mortgage arrangements to training was frantically packed into a very short time period. That said, the longest training hike Justine did was only 32km. As she comments, “I knew I’d get fitter as I went through the expedition, I did the whole thing at my pace.” Her focus was always on the places, the experiences and the mental resilience of doing such an immersive solo trek.
Before departure and then whilst trekking or cycling between cities, Justine emailed all the museums and historical and travel societies in each country to explain what she was doing and to gain advice on accommodation. With very few exceptions, she was struck with how good the responses were and how friendly and hospitable the welcome she received was. Being self-funded, Justine tended to stay in small hostels and hotels as well in Finland in the specialist trekking lodges on routes like the Kevo Wilderness Trail. She carried what kit she needed.
One of Justine’s major motivations was to see how the historical and psychological effects of the Iron Curtain and USSR still affected the countries she travelled through and people she met. Of all the eastern European countries she found Romania still most haunted by its past. There is still grinding poverty, “it’s like stepping into another world”; the roads were appalling if not non-existent. There was a continuous problem with rabid dogs who chased her bike at least a dozen times a day and throughout the country she sensed utter helplessness. The country’s dictator Nicolae Ceausescu paid off the country’s foreign debt at the expense of its people who are still suffering. Other countries though have been able to free themselves from their past more successfully. Estonia has become a very forward thinking, buoyant tech hub and Justine found Poland to be very driven and optimistic as she cycled through. Yet despite many advances, Russia’s recent bellicose actions have undoubtedly stirred ancient concerns. When chatting with people in Finland, Justine found them to be very wary of Russia once again.
Throughout the trip, Justine met some remarkable people, from the Lithuanian woman who smuggled aid to the Soviet gulags through to a Romanian woman who lived with her seven children in a shipping container – however, all chores were shared out and done and the children were all thriving at school. A tale of human determination in adversity. With both her adventure and physio background, Justine is fascinated by the, “the power of determination” as she puts it. She comments, “the body is a machine… it will do what you tell it to.” Moving quite quickly from a normal young professional’s life – with a mortgage, social life and so forth – to the middle of the Finnish wilderness, dependant on herself only, reinforced to her that people don’t realise how strong they are. They have little need to tap into their full reserves of willpower and spirit. Certainly she showed this herself when disaster struck in Poland. Hit by a passing truck’s wing mirror, the medic in her kicked in and she was able to get off the road and analyse herself. Despite an eventually diagnosed fractured coccyx, after two weeks laid up she was back in the saddle. Raw “anger” and the desire to not give up got her through the remainder of Poland and then onward into Germany to continue.
Away from expeditions, Justine has a BSc in Physiotherapy, specialising in in-patient care and first phase basic movement. Given her adventurous streak, she is also on the International Emergency Response register. With spinal and amputation injuries being a major proportion of casualties in any major catastrophic incident, there is an urgent and very early need for physiotherapy in that situation. To that end, Justine – along with other health professionals – has received specialist training on working with crude kit and in basic environments.
From the beginning, many of Justine’s friends and family did not quite appreciate the enormity of the task she had set herself. The sheer scale – both practical and historical – is still sinking in as she chatted for this interview, weeks after her return. Her parents came out to see her on parts of the route, in Helsinki, St Petersburg and the finish at the Black Sea. Piecing together her experience, Justine absolutely believes it has been a life changing expedition; her friendships have evolved, her belief in herself and the desire to make the most of time have been heightened. Off the back of the expedition, she has begun to throw herself into the adventure and obstacle racing arena; incidentally becoming friends with Claire Miller and Danny Bent, the stars of BBC2’s recent Special Forces Ultimate Hell Week.
Justine has been “humbled” by the interest she has generated, she praises the NHS for being hugely supportive of her endeavours and says her boss at work was a constant source of encouragement. She has been invited to present on her adventures now a couple of times – one to a charity event held by Northcote Global, the security tracking service that monitored her on route across Europe. She has been approached to become one of the Discovery Chanel’s ambassadors and, with so many stories to tell, is considering writing a book.
Would she do it again? Justine truly loved being in the wilderness – she loved trekking the Kevo Trail in Finland absolutely on her own and enthuses she’d love to go back to experience the region in different seasons. Whilst she treasured every second, she is perhaps looking to further ideas that do not include 10 hours in the saddle every day month in month out! She clearly loves the buzz, “the heighted senses” that come of being on your own and relying on yourself. “You notice the little things – even something like there’s no smell in cars back here” she mentions.
Since returning she has not stopped. She went back to Lapland in January to experience more of the Sami culture and spend more time with reindeer. Justine’s new project, inspired by her interest in Tudor history, is a 240 mile run from Bosworth to London. Covering the major points of the period from the famous 1485 battle site at Bosworth, past Richard III’s new resting place and Hampton Court to Westminster Abbey where Elizabeth I, the final Tudor, rests, she hopes friends and supporters will join her as she now shines her spotlight on this country’s history.
Further details: http://www.justinegosling.com/