“People have humoured me, you can see it in their eyes. They’re thinking ‘You don’t look like a polar explorer’” and he’s spot on. Dawyne Fields doesn’t fit the polar adventurer mould. Born in Jamaica and raised in Hackney, northeast London, from the age of six, he grew up on one of the toughest inner-city housing estates. Yet he was the first black Briton to journey to the North Pole back in 2010.
“I was uncomfortable for a lot of my childhood,” Dwayne tells me. “I felt like I should be somewhere else. Back in Jamaica I was a feral child, 90% of my time was spent outdoors because I loved nature and wildlife. We called where we lived ‘the back of the bush’ as it really was rural. There was no electricity, no TV, just an oil lamp and it was my responsibility to blow it out each night. When we moved to London I instantly became stressed. The police sirens, the shouting, there was so much noise. I didn’t recognise any of the food in the school canteen and I had no idea which cartoons I was supposed to be into.”
Dwayne grew up trying to conform to his peers on the estate, until a life-threatening incident nearly cut his young life short. He’d built a moped from scratch and let his little brother test drive it for the first time. “A gang of lads from the estate pushed my little brother off and stole the bike. I went crazy; I marched onto the estate to demand it back. When I found the bike, the lads started smashing it up so I pushed one of them and he fell to the floor. Clearly embarrassed, he disappeared for a couple of minutes, returning with a loaded gun. I’m crouched down, collecting up the pieces of my broken bike. He’s no more than five metres away from me, gun pointed at my head. My little brother’s right next to me. His friends are shouting, “don’t do it” and I hear the trigger click once. Then twice. I’m waiting for the pain but the gun had misfired. Twice.” The hours that followed prompted Dwayne to change his life. “Within minutes everyone on the estate knew what had happened. Everyone wanted retaliation and I was under pressure from my friends to do something. I locked myself away, I became a recluse. I didn’t want any part of it.”
Dwayne regularly took himself off to Epping Forest for some peace and quiet. “We’re all living in a constant state of stress and it’s only when you get out into the natural environment that we realise this. Without the ambient noise that surrounds us every day there’s clarity of thought. I finally felt calm; I’ve taken others there and they’ve had the same reaction.”
It’s one thing to enjoy the tranquility of Epping Forest, another to trek 370 miles to the North Pole, in turn adding his name to a legendary list of polar explorers and adventurers. I wonder where the idea came from? “On BBC Breakfast Ben Fogle and James Cracknell were talking about their upcoming trek to the South Pole. They were looking for a third person to join the team, I approached them and they asked me to consider a North Pole expedition instead.”
“I’m a realist and a fact is a fact. There are fewer black and ethnic minorities doing what I’m doing than white women. But that’s changing.” Indeed it is. In November 2019 Dwayne and his new teammate, travel writer Phoebe Smith, will travel along Shackleton’s planned route to the South Pole under the team name #TeamWeTwo. “I haven’t asked Phoebe many questions. We’ll need lots to talk about during the adventure!” But this isn’t about planting flags according to Dwayne. “It’s about planting seeds in the minds of our young people. And breaking the mould of ‘middle aged white guys’ dominating exploration”.
So how does a Jamaican cope in coldest of temperatures? “I barely slept as a child, I was so stressed. One night I looked out of my window and the sky was white. The floor was white. I thought the sky was falling in and I cried myself back to sleep. No one ever told me that ice comes out of the sky. No one had ever explained snow to me. On my North Pole trek I’d pee in a bottle and stuff it into my sleeping bag for warmth. I soon discovered that a positive mind set keeps you warmer than an extra jumper. Staying dry and hydrated is also essential!”
I wonder what is harder? The mental endurance of lone polar adventures or the physical requirements? “Before I went to the North Pole, some of my mates would say ‘Why don’t you just walk around Hackney?’ and out there on the ice, negative thoughts do start to creep in. ‘Maybe this is why black people don’t do this’ I sometimes thought to myself.” It’s easy to imagine how, in all that space with very little visual stimulation, there’s more time to think. “In a nutshell, if you can’t manage it mentally, you won’t make it physically” Dwayne believes.
In between plotting polar adventures, speaking at events such as the Women’s Adventure Expo and being an ambassador for the UK Scouting Association, Dwayne’s mission is to inspire young people nationwide to explore the great outdoors. “We’re living in a state of constant hyper-alert in permanent ‘fight or flight’ mode and it’s causing mental health issues for our younger generation. I wake kids up at 5.30am and take them up Ben Nevis. They live in fear of violence back home, but in the outdoors they don’t have to look over their shoulder or fear for their lives. The change is incredible to watch and so inspiring”. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that Dwayne was the youngest black person in history to be awarded the Freedom of the City of London award for his work with young people.
“I want to send a message to those that feel downtrodden and disconnected and that message is this: A bad postcode area or growing up in a council tower block does not, and must not, dictate your future” believes Dwayne. And with that, he’s off and sirens wail in the background.
Find out more about what Dwayne gets up to at dwayne-fields.com or follow him on Instagram.