“It’s like being on a frozen desert on the moon”

26 May 2022
“It’s like being on a frozen desert on the moon”

Is Tegan Neale, 26, the first Romany Gypsy explorer to cross the Arctic Circle by foot?

“It’s like being on a frozen desert on the moon and the drifting snow, which was dry, was like frozen sand. When the frozen air hits your lungs, it takes your breath away and it was a struggle to breathe sometimes and it could feel like sharp stabs in your chest when you do. When we were walking towards the wind, you would have crystalised ice form across your face from the beads of sweat which would then freeze immediately; it was magical to look at because everyone looked like they were sparkling in the sun, but also quite brutal on the skin. It was like being on a different world, and probably the most beautiful I have ever seen.”


Tegan Neale, 26, is 5’ 2”, weighs 7 ½ stone and has travelled the world as an adventurer and professional expedition leader and has just assisted-led an expedition across the Arctic Circle and raised £30k for a cancer charity in the process. “It’s in my blood to escape what otherwise could be a life in what feels like a claustrophobic society,” says Tegan.

Growing up in Somerset on her grandma and grandpa’s piece of ground in Hewish, Somerset, and then in Weston-Super-Mare, Tegan was always told to follow her dreams and for Tegan this meant exploring the world.

Tegan says that her grandmother was an inspiration to her when she was growing up on their piece of land in Hewish, Somerset. Both her grandmother and grandfather were Romany Gypsies and her grandfather came from a family of 14 siblings, her grandmother from a family of five siblings.  Tegan’s grandad and the rest of the men would sleep in a tent. The women and the children would sleep in the wagon.

Tegan was always told to follow her dreams

“My grandma always pushed me,” says Tegan. “She was scared for me on my travels, but she always pushed me.” However, Tegan waited until her grandmother had died before she came out as LGBT at the age of 18. “I felt like it was the right thing to do,” says Tegan.

Tegan was also encouraged by her mum, Maria. “I was brought up very old-fashioned and felt a bit restricted, but I told my children that as long as they got a ‘bread and butter career’ they should follow their dreams,” says Maria Neale. “Tegan has partial hearing but gets by with lip reading and reading body language so you would never know. She’s a real role model and lots of Travelling girls need to know there is a whole world out there. My other daughter is a pharmacist but she’s travelled to Bolivia before.”

"My grandma always pushed me"

With her gran and mum’s encouragement, at the age of 16 Tegan ventured to South Africa and at 18 to Nigeria, and since then she’s been to Iceland and the Panama Jungle, where she was listed as a ‘pioneer’ after scaling a mountain using a route never used before. And leading expeditions, for which she gets paid, is fast becoming Tegan’s “bread and butter” career, although Tegan continues to work at an agency back in the UK when she is not walking through snow hurricanes or trekking through jungles.

Tegan’s latest adventure, completed two months ago, saw her cross the Arctic Circle in snow shoes leading a team of ten. The expedition was “brutal”, says Tegan. The pain of the sub-zero Arctic trek hit on the second day, continues Tegan, and only got worse when she sprained her ankle on the third day. Yet the surrounding vista of the snow- and ice-covered mountains was stunning.

The expedition to cross the Arctic Circle that Tegan helped to lead

But it’s a dangerous beauty that is hostile to humans, and the dangers can include attacks from wild animals, falling down hidden crevasses, getting lost, frostbite and fatigue, says Tegan. “The weather is extreme; the temperature was between -50 to -70 degrees centigrade. That far into the Arctic Circle, you are on your own, there is no one else around and you are surviving off your own back. The toughest challenge was on the fifth day when we had to walk through a snow-storm which, I think, was only five knots away from a hurricane, so a snow hurricane,” adds Tegan. “We had to walk face-on towards the snow and the wind and keep our heads down and follow the person in front which was as far as we could see.”

Tegan and her team of ten had to carry everything with them that they needed to survive the ten-day trek – and more in case an emergency delayed the arrival at their destination – and civilisation. Most of their provisions were loaded onto sledges that they took turns to pull themselves, leaving 22kg of their own kit to carry on their back. They had to use snow shoes otherwise they would have been ploughing through the snow rather than on top of it.

A dangerous beauty - the expedition ploughs on through a blizzard

Some of the magical moments for Tegan was when she met people from the indigenous nomadic Sami tribe that live in and around the Arctic region. “There would be little Sami camps dotted around as we walked,” says Tegan. They would travel around like that with their dogs. They were very community-orientated, very nomadic. They are incredible people and they remind you that there is a much simpler and beautiful way of life. For me, that’s what the Travelling culture is about, it’s also a simple and beautiful way of life and it’s also very family orientated with the same sense of knowing and belonging. The Sami tribe were very welcoming. We would meet them when they were out hunting with their dog-sleds, out with their stock, or digging ice-holes.”

A Sami camp circa 1910 by By Granbergs Nya Aktiebolag - Old Photography from 1900 -1920, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4558053

“My main reason, other than training for my leadership skills, was to go and see the Northern Lights,” adds Tegan. “The Sami gave me a piece of reindeer skin to sit on to watch them. The reindeer are very special to the Sami – a bit like how Travellers are with their horses. The Sami only use the skin once the reindeer has lived a full and healthy, happy life. For the Sami there are lots of legends and myths about how the Northern Lights are the souls that we have loved and lost and that dance around in the sky to remind us they are still there, and it makes me think about my gran, so that was a big part of my trip and it was the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. It just made me think that in a world full of sunsets – be the Northern Lights.”

Tegan’s Arctic Circle expedition made it to their destination on time seven days after starting out and raised nearly £30,000 for a cancer charity in the process. “A lot of the people I assisted-led had been affected by cancer, and I lost my grandma to cancer when I was eighteen, so it seemed like the right charity to raise money for,” says Tegan.

Stock photo: A team of huskies head towards the Northern Lights by Photo by Thomas Lipke on Unsplash

The next adventure for Tegan is to lead an expedition to Kathmandu in Nepal near the end of the summer, but then what?

“I want to lead an expedition to find the Lost City of El Dorado in the Amazon jungle in South America, or Paititi, as it is also known,” answers Tegan. “We have already discussed it with the other researchers and it’s in the pipeline and being planned. Hopefully we set off at the end of 2023.”

Many explorers have died searching for Paititi: the Lost City of Gold, and many became convinced that the city was hidden in the last undiscovered regions of the Amazon.

"I want to lead an expedition to find the Lost City of Gold"

“It’s somewhere in the Amazon, and I want to explore that area and find that legendary city,” adds Tegan. “To be an explorer is hard today, there are not many new places to find and not many challenges left to conquer. Your team is your life out there, so thank you to mine. I’m wishing the world was twice as big and half of it still unexplored. When you are away from civilisation, society and any forms of communication with the outside world, it very much brings you back to you and the natural world and just reminds you of what the important things are in life.”

"Your team is your life out there" Tegan with Eric Blonigen, her "right hand man" in the jungle

Words by Mike Doherty for TT Features

(All pictures courtesy of Tegan Neale unless otherwise stated)