Superwoman mellows out: John Arlidge joins Ffyona Campbell on the final lap of her round-the-world walk and encounters a softer spirit

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SIX O'CLOCK in the morning in Caithness and, as the sun rises over a coastline laid bare by the Highland clearances, Ffyona Campbell packs up her tent and starts the last full day of her round-the-world walk. After covering 200 miles a week for the last year, she will tread the final three miles from Canisbay to John o' Groats this morning and become the first woman to cross the globe on foot.

Eleven years ago Campbell left Scotland's most northerly point to become the youngest person to walk the length of Britain to Land's End. She carried on for 19,000 miles across the United States, Australia and Africa, before returning home last month. Now she is retracing her first steps. 'Most people go from home to work and back every day. It sounds odd but now, aged 27, I have finally gone back the way I first came when I was 16,' she says.

As she has plied up the A9 from Inverness, the cantankerous tone that characterised the earlier stages of her journey has disappeared. She admits she has been hurt by recent press criticism of her notorious stubborness and frequent tantrums and disappointed by her unflattering portrayal in a BBC documentary series that ends tonight. But, she says, she understands what her critics are on about and insists she that wants to make amends. Her tone is apologetic.

'I have been wrong about many of the things I have done in the past few years. People have been treated unfairly - particulary in Africa when the going got really tough - and I am ashamed of that.' The problem was, she says, that when she started her journey she was so single-minded she had no time for the people around her.

'I know this sounds odd, but you have to understand that when I set out, I did not really like other people. And I had no conception that they had feelings like me. It never occurred to me that they might be vulnerable.

'That's why when they did things I disagreed with at a time when I was doggedly pursuing my goal, I reacted in such a robust way. Emotional flare- ups are my speciality. I realise now that it creates tensions and means that people fall out, which is bad.'

She blames her upbringing for her dismissive attitude to others, which has shattered personal and business relations during her 11 years on the road. Former associates have condemned her variously as a 'vainglorious drama queen' and, simply 'a stroppy cow'.

Her father, Colin, was a helicopter pilot in the Royal Marines and the family moved 27 times in the first 16 years of her life, as he moved from country to country. 'This meant that as a child I never had the chance to make the kind of friends that 'normal' kids make. I didn't get to know others,' she says.

'At the same time my father, being a very strict military man, told us that to show our feelings was wet. He indirectly suppressed my emotions. All this meant that I grew into a bit of a freak, an outsider, and by the time I was a teenager I had become very inconsiderate.'

She concedes that criticism of her style and personality in the early and middle stages of her walk was justified. But she has been particularly upset by the latest battering because, she says, during the final European legs of her journey, she has changed. 'It really all began when I was in Africa but it got stronger in Europe. When I was in West Africa I saw for the first time, in one of my drivers, something vulnerable.

''I can't tell you what it was, but after hundreds of miles being supported by him and others, I realised that he was also dependent on me; that I could do something for him. At that point, I began to feel bad that I had taken so much from people in the pursuit of my own aim, without being able to give anything back. I knew then how self-centered I had become.'

The walk was the only way she felt she could make good the gaps in her upbringing. 'I had to do something to test myself. I had to be in an extreme situation to find out who I was and who I wanted to be.' But now the trek is at an end she feels 'comfortable with who I am' and is not planning any new physical challenges.

After a holiday in Greece with her 29-year-old sister Shuna and trips to Europe and South Afria to promote her book, On Foot Through Africa, she wants to build on the camaraderie that she has enjoyed on the British stage of her journey after years of travelling alone. And, unashamedly, she says she wants to get married and settle down.

'I don't know why, but when I say that, people think I have gone soft. They say, 'Ffyona Campbell - round- the-world walker - wants to have kids. Pah]' But it's true. As a society we have too often devalued the notion of motherhood.

'I know I am a long way off that point. Good God, I haven't even got the first bit - a boyfriend - sorted out and, sadly, they tell me that Tom Cruise has been snapped up while I've been away. But motherhood is the most important thing that anyone can do. A family may be some way away but, and you will have heard me say this before, I am determined to do it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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