April 23, 2008

Positivity: The housewife explorers who climbed the Himalayas

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 5:50 am

From England:

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/04/2008

What possessed three 1950s housewives to defy convention and set off together for the forbidden reaches of the Himalayas? And what did they find when they got there? Sally Williams talks to the women today.

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Fifty years ago three English housewives set off on a remarkable adventure. Anne Davies, 35, Eve Sims, 25, and Antonia Deacock, 26, who had no previous experience of overland expeditions, embarked on a journey everyone said could not be done by women: a 16,000-mile drive to India and back, and a 300-mile trek on foot into Zanskar, the remote Tibetan Buddhist kingdom.

They were the first European women to venture into Zanskar, where foreigners were forbidden to travel for political reasons. Probably the first European women to cross Afghanistan unescorted, they even climbed a virgin peak and named it Biri Giri (Wives’ Peak). Yet the trip was the antithesis of professional exploration today. The women packed plimsolls, umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, and skipping-ropes to maintain fitness. They dressed in their husbands’ long johns, drank pints of Brooke Bond tea (Eve, by mistake, ordered enough ‘to keep a family going for 150 years’), and insisted their two Ladakhi guides have jam as part of a proper balanced diet. Moreover, at the planning stage, neither Sims nor Deacock could drive. (Both passed their tests just before departure.)

On 5 May 1958 the three women climbed into their long-wheelbase Land-Rover in London, and drove through ten countries in six weeks, then walked for 21 days to Padam, the capital of Zanskar, in the highest inhabited region in the world.

The women were subjected to great scrutiny. So were their zips. ‘They had never seen such a thing,’ wrote Antonia Deacock in No Purdah in Padam, her 1960 book about the expedition. ‘They pulled them to and fro, hissing amazement.’

Five months later the women returned to England and resumed their lives as diligent wives. They packed their adventure away, along with the maps, and these intrepid explorers were largely forgotten. There is no mention of them in the 1979 book Zanskar, the Hidden Kingdom, by the French explorer Michel Peissel, nor in many later books on the area.

Now, to mark the expedition’s 50th anniversary, the women are appearing in a short film. Made by the photographer Martin Salter, it draws on their own cine footage – the only visual record of Zanskar before 1975. One of the trip’s sponsors, Ovaltine, had given the women a cine camera to film an advertisement, but the result was too dark for commercial use. When Salter tracked down the women he found the film in a box on top of Davies’s wardrobe and persuaded them to bring their story up to date.

Deacock lives in Australia, but I met Davies and Sims in North Wales, where Davies had been living with her youngest son and his family since being diagnosed with cancer. (She died two weeks after our interview.)

So, who were these housewives and how did they become such unlikely pioneers? It all started in January 1958, with a lunch hosted by Sqn Ldr Lester Davies and his wife, Anne, in Oxted, Surrey. It was the men, at that time, who were planning an expedition. Lester Davies, Warwick Deacock and John Sims were all members of the British-Pakistani Forces Himalayan Expedition, and met that day to discuss plans to climb Rakaposhi, a mountain in Kashmir. Their wives simply tagged along. They hadn’t met before but soon discovered a bond: not only as service wives married to climbers, but also as resourceful women with independent natures.

Eve Sims, the daughter of a Wolverhampton fish merchant, had spent two years motor-biking around New Zealand and Australia, before meeting her husband back in Britain, in 1956, aged 24. Antonia Deacock, born in Johannesburg, where her father was astronomer royal and her mother an ambassador, got into rock climbing through her husband, Warwick, whom she had met in London, where she was an architectural assistant. But Anne Davies was the most experienced member of the team. The daughter of an officer serving with the Indian Army, Davies was fluent in Urdu and Hindi, having lived in India and Pakistan from the age of 11 to 22. She had trekked into remote Kashmiri passes with her husband and three-month-old baby, who was strapped on the back of a mule.

Anyway, after lunch the men went upstairs to discuss their expedition, and the wives talked about what they would do in the four months they would spend alone. Someone suggested they catch the bus from Liverpool to Delhi. From here, the idea snowballed, and when their husbands reappeared Davies announced, ‘We’re going to have an expedition of our own!’ ‘And to our amazement, they said, “What a good idea.”‘ …..
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