Now she hopes to share that passion with the children of today, who she sees as far too urbanised and tied to computers, through the eventual creation of a virtual world that will give them a taste for the natural environment she loves.
“I think from a really early age, when I was 12 and first saw a National Geographic magazine, I just wanted to explore the world and experience it first hand,” she said in a recent phone interview from her home on Norfolk Island, a remote island in the Pacific.
“The adventure then was the thing that became essential to my life, the actual experiences.”
Determined at first to become a writer and photographer for the magazine that had inspired her, Wilby set out — without any special preparation — for an extended cycling tour of Japan in her early 20s. This led her to Tibet and her epic walk across it, immortalized in a book and photographs that did, in fact, make it into National Geographic.
“Walking across Tibet was just the most extraordinarily difficult, left-of-field out there things I ever did in my life. Every minute of that trip was cursed,” she said.
“It was really, really, really challenging but I think it made me who I am.”
One adventure followed another, including the world’s first complete traverse of the Himalayas and multiple trips to the mountainous kingdom of Bhutan, one of her favourite places.
“When you ride up high in the mountains and then you come down into the middle part of the country, you suddenly stand there and feel as if you’re caught in one of those Chinese watercolour paintings — massive mountains and magical forests and beautiful waterfalls all around you,” she said.
“For me, in mountains — the Himalayas in particular — it’s like the world just gets reduced to three colours: blue sky, white snow, and gray rock. And you.”
Sharing her adventures with others has recently taken a new twist, though, with the publication of the Let’s Go Wild series of natural fact books to counter what she views as an increasing disconnection from nature.
To bring children back to an understanding of both nature and the environment, she decided it all needed to be more fun — with the books part of broader efforts that will include the development of a “virtual world” that she hopes will engage the current computer-addicted generation of children.
This is especially true given the threats posed by global warming, which she feels requires children to value nature at the same time as it shadows the environment to such an extent that a sense of doom could actually be a bit off-putting.
“I don’t see that the virtual world I’m going to create is replacing a real, hands-on experience, but maybe it’ll inspire them to have a hands-on experience, and to go outside, and to experience life,” said Wilby, who has two children herself.
“I’m just tired of the ‘environmental movement being like overcooked Brussels Sprouts, it should be like the fairy bread of life, the sausage rolls… The natural world should feel like a party.”