32-year old Matt Kettlewell has overcome bullying, depression and anxiety by transforming his love for the outdoors into a new lifestyle. Now an expedition leader and adventurer based in the Dales, he inspires others to get outside.
What sparked your passion for spending time in nature?
I was born in Yorkshire Dales, in a family of hill farmers. I had a wonderful childhood there. Farming on a hill means we can’t grow crops, but we had a few sheep and cows. That left a lot of land for me to explore; 500 acres of woodland and moorland with big rivers and an abundance of color.
I spent my days walking around with my pet cat, Steven, who would follow me everywhere. Even as young as six, I’d disappear all day and only come back for dinner, thirsty and hungry. It was amazing. Nature didn’t have a real value for me at that age, it was my reality. When I look back now, the outdoors mean everything to me.
Sadly, your love for nature also left you vulnerable to bullying as a child.
I was so used to being alone as a child, that going to school felt a bit weird to me. They picked on me because of my passion for nature and animals. I mean, my best friend was a cat. Funny looks transformed into severe bullying and I struggled a lot with depression in my teens. I nearly took my own life. By the time I left for college, I was a quiet, isolated, anxious kid with crippling self-doubt.
How did you get out of this dark period?
The only way I got over all the trauma, was by changing my life completely. I moved to South Africa, left everything behind and started working in a rehabilitation center for animals in Kruger National Park. I lived in the middle of nowhere with just a small group of colleagues.
The change in scenery and landscape opened my eyes to the world, because I had never been anywhere. It was a restart for my mind; a massive change during which I only became stronger. Being in the wild helped me develop my own coping mechanisms to deal with mental health and anxiety.
What is your biggest coping mechanism?
If anyone ever asks me for tips, I tell them to get into walking. I don’t know why, but anyone who goes hiking, feels the stress just fading away. It’s amazing. I have a tendency to overthink things. Hiking gives me the headspace to sort everything out. Even better is spending a night under the stars. It de-stresses you completely.
Anxiety will always be part of me, but through my adventures in nature, I’ve learnt how to deal with it. Whenever I feel downhearted, I go for a walk to figure out what’s been affecting me.
You’ve returned home after your adventure in South Africa and now often travel throughout the UK.
I found myself always coming back to Yorkshire, so I currently live only 20 minutes away from where I grew up. Here, on the edges of the national park, I’ve been able to turn my passion into my livelihood. As a guide, I take groups hiking and help them navigate.
During your training as a mountain leader you learn to talk about the landscape to entertain your group, but I always find myself talking about wildlife. Birds, endangered species or any forms of wildlife – that’s my passion. It also helps that this area has always been in my life. I know a lot of local myths and legends and can pass on the local customs.
You’re also sharing your adventures on social media, where you’ve become quite popular. What do you try to get across on your platform?
I love sharing the things I’ve learnt whilst walking or traveling hundreds of miles. But apart from sharing my personal growth and raising awareness on mental health, I advocate campaigns that encourage people to get outside.
I don’t want to endorse the newest jacket or bag. I usually wear the cheapest stuff I can get. People always assume you need the best gear – and outdoor gear is often expensive. It’s important to share that you don’t need to spend thousands on rucksacks and walking shoes – that’s just the stereotype of a white middle-class adventurer. It’s important to me not to fall into this trap. I don’t take offers from clothing brands unless it fits into something else I’m doing.
Matt in a nutshell:
FAVORITE NATIONAL PARK:
Yorkshire Dales, England
LOOKING FORWARD TO:
Getting outside with group again, after the Covid-19 measures