Sole Survivor

updated 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/14/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHAT WOULD MAKE A YOUNG woman, not yet out of her teens, begin walking...and walking...and walking...and walking until she had become the first woman to walk around the world? The explanation that Ffyona Campbell gives, now that she's done just that, seems a bit too offhand, even allowing for British understatement. "I thought," she says, "that I'd go for a long walk and figure out what I was going to do with my life."

And so she did. She set out on her trek of self-discovery in John O'Groats at the northern tip of Scotland in 1983, when she was just 16. Over the next 11 years she walked across North America, Australia, Africa and Europe—traversing the four continents that the Guinness Book of Records stipulates one must cross to qualify as having walked around the world (three men did it before her).

Campbell supported herself through odd jobs and the proceeds of two books she wrote about her experiences logging almost 20,000 miles. Along the way, she went through 100 pairs of running shoes, in part because she walks so fast—five miles an hour (most people walk three). She also nearly wore herself to a frazzle as well. In Australia, for example, she doubled her normal walk load to an average of 50 miles a day and suffered excruciating shinsplints as a result. "My feet were covered in blisters," she says. "I was pulling a liter of pus out a week."

In Africa she suffered near-constant diarrhea and bouts of malaria and typhoid. In the Sahara she injured her knee from the uneven sand. In Zambia—where an irate villager held a knife to her throat—she was mistaken for a spy. In Morocco she had to be guided through a minefield; at another point she had to fight off a would-be rapist. She twice had to be evacuated from countries because of political unrest. And then there was the segment from Zambia to Zaire. It took her 16 days to go four miles because she had to go around bandit country. "Everything says give up, stop," she says, "but I couldn't live with myself if I cheated."

One of the most formidable obstacles Campbell had to cope with was her own thorny personality. She made an impressive list of enemies—from corporate sponsors to the drivers who carried her food and supplies. In the United States she angered the Campbell Soup Company, which felt she wasn't doing enough to raise money for charity. She even ran afoul of journalists who went along from time to time. "It's true she's horrible," says BBC producer Stephen Scott. "Unless you're talking about her, she goes into a shell."

Campbell shrugs off the criticism: "Many people confuse determination with selfishness." Nevertheless the BBC documentary shows her ranting at the camera in language that her father's old messmates might have used. Her father, Colin, was a Royal Marine captain whose changing assignments took the family through two dozen homes and 15 schools by the time Ffyona was 16. They moved so often that Campbell described the occupation of their mother, Angela, as "she moves house basically."

Campbell says she got her blind determination from her father, who had a penchant for driving Ffyona and her sister Shuna, now 29, to the limits of their endurance. "The motto in our family was, 'One last-ditch effort,' " she says. "When you'd been on a particularly nasty camping trip, in muddy fields and with ice in the tent, and you hadn't complained, you earned your green beret."

That family expression took on a new meaning Oct. 14 after she crossed the finish line back in John O'Groats. Her father presented her with a green beret—the very one he'd worn as a member of the elite Royal Marines. It was the recognition she wanted, she says.

Now, after a short vacation, Campbell is on the road again—on a book tour. As for the criticism, that's behind her. "Stop fitting me into a round hole," she said. "I'm a square peg—and I'm quite happy being a square peg."


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