You do not begin a 5,000 mile challenge without expecting the unexpected. However, not even Ursula Martin could have predicted what would come next when she set off from Kiev in a bid to walk across Europe home to Llanidloes.

Bears and wolves were always something Ursula had expected she would encounter, and did. A global pandemic that would literally shut down Europe? Not so much.

Fast forward two years and some 5,000 miles since she set off, and Ursula has had to endure three lockdowns in two different countries, border closures and uncertainty about what the UK leaving the EU would mean for her challenge.

Still, one step at a time, she has pressed on with her mission, and is now on the final straight to her finish in Llanidloes on Sunday, June 6.

Asked whether she felt the challenge and uncertainty ever became too daunting, her answer is simple: “No, it’s just another part of it.”

While most people may not be able to fathom what inspires somebody to take on such a task, Ursula does not see the motivation as any different to what drives other people to do other things.

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“The idea was to walk across Europe and visit the places I wanted to visit. They were Bulgaria and the Balkans. I also thought, gosh I would love to do the Camino de Santiago, and I just thought, why not?  

“Everybody sits around having their morning cup of tea, and has a stupid little dream. I guess the difference with me is I have followed them through, and taken the really bizarre ones and turned them into a reality.

“I'm a stubborn person and even though it is a cliché, I think you can achieve anything you want to if you put your mind to it and you want to work really hard.

“I seek out the wilder sense of travel and I wouldn’t want to just go to the Canary Islands. I love the rough edges of those experiences and I like not having everything booked in advance.”

Of course, this is not Ursula’s first rodeo when it comes to a long distance challenge. After treatment for ovarian cancer, Ursula walked every long distance footpath in Wales, a journey published in her book ‘One Woman Walks Wales’.

She has also kayaked the length of the Danube River, however her current challenge has eclipsed everything she has achieved previously.

Unlike much of western and southern Europe, that has advanced infrastructure for long distance walking, countries in the east are far less trodden.

The National Wales: Prior to the pandemic, support from locals was a highlight.Prior to the pandemic, support from locals was a highlight.

For most people, the unpredictability and lack of forward planning would be an obstacle and raise concerns about safety. For Ursula however, letting go of the fear is a part of the challenge that is most liberating.

“For me it is about letting go, letting go of the safety, letting go of that fear of not walking into a bar because there may be dangerous people in there, or not going into that forest because there may be wolves.”

Ursula acknowledges that being a woman adds an additional layer of risk, however she believes it is not something that should stop her from doing what she wants to do.

“The fact you are a female affects you every day. Every woman has a mental timer of how long a man is staring at your breasts, and that timer has little alarms set, from a faint glance, to a psychotic large amount of time. That is when the alarm goes off and you act.

“I have trained myself to know how to let go, and know that I am more or less going to be fine. True self confidence comes not from having a knife, but knowing you don’t need a knife.”

For Ursula, it is that rawness and the unknown that has really delivered the sense of adventure. Language barriers, not knowing what lays around the next corner, and meeting people who lead very different lives are where she feels most in touch with her sense of adventure.

“I loved being in Serbia and the Balkans, and you are just much more in touch with nature.

“I was amazed how many butterflies there were in Serbia. Where you see one butterfly in the UK, there are 12 in Serbia.

“The poverty levels in eastern Europe compared to western Europe are incredible, but the people have been brilliant. In Ukraine, I had so many more conversations with people, and I had much more hospitality. The random spontaneous interactions were incredible.

“Interestingly, Slovenia marked the difference and the move to a more car based culture. That presented its own challenges as all of a sudden the shops in villages were less frequent.”

Walking across Europe over two years also means dealing with the variety of climates and terrains that the continent offers up.

From crossing the Carpathian mountain range to completing the Camino de Santiago in Spain, there has been no shortage of obstacles, but for Ursula, France has been the most diverse and at times the most difficult.

The National Wales: The remoteness of parts of the journey apply to day and night.The remoteness of parts of the journey apply to day and night.

“I started from the Alps in June and July, and in Provence in the summer it was 40 degrees in the afternoon. I had to stop and carry about two or three times the amount of water I normally would.

“Then, the Pyrenees was just the most physically gruelling part of the journey, 3,000 meters above sea level, and a 800 meter ascent in boulder fields in heavy snowfall every day. It literally went from 40 degrees in august, to snow in September.

As with everything, the last year has been heavily restricted and impacted by the pandemic. While conscious to put her experience into perspective, Ursula cannot help but reflect on how lockdowns, social distancing and the new normal has hampered her efforts.

“It has been awful. It has really cut down on the spontaneity and there is that constant fear.

“People are much less likely to open up to a complete stranger now. They no longer come and sit at my table and ask about what I am doing. I am much more of a shadowy figure who creeps into a bar and keeps herself to herself now.

The physical nature of stopping and starting as countries in Europe where locked down has also taken its toll physically and emotionally.

During the two and a half years since she set out, Ursula has been forced to be inactive for six months in total, locked down twice in France and once in Spain.

“It takes about five days to a week for the first pains to stop when you first get going again, and I have been in loads of pain with my calves really cramping up and my back really painful.

“The Camino was going to be a real highlight of the journey. When you walk alone for two years, you look forward to being with other people and listening to their stories, sharing their journeys and walking the same route people have walked for a thousand years.

“Yet, it was been completely empty for most of the time. It makes me feel like I am just ready to finish now as I am feeling it and I am ground down and tired of the pandemic.”

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Ursula is quick to play down any overemphasis on cancer being the main driving forces behind her sense of adventure, despite raising a vast sum of money for an ovarian cancer charity.

What she does acknowledge however is how her diagnosis put what she wants from life into perspective.

“It [cancer] probably fast forwarded me. All of a sudden there was a sense of, ‘I might die at any moment’ so screw it, let’s just do it.”

Asked what comes next, she is keen on marking ten years since her diagnosis. You can bet how she does that will be neither boring nor for the faint hearted.