HELEN THAYER
Adventurer
1937

World record-setting adventurer and top sportswoman

Imagine not knowing about Sir Edmund Hillary or Jean Batten? And yet many New Zealanders have never heard of one of our greatest adventurers - Helen Thayer, a woman who has set a number of world records, including being the first woman to walk solo to the Magnetic North Pole, the first woman to walk across the Sahara and the first woman to walk the Gobi Desert.

And she did all those things after the age of 50.

Born in Auckland in 1937, Thayer grew up in a sporting family, who were close friends with New Zealand's most famous adventurer, Sir Ed. Thayer climbed her first mountain - Mt Taranaki - with her parents and Sir Ed at the age of 9. As a teenager, she would regularly join the famed mountaineer on local climbs.

Thayer's parents were more progressive than most in 1950s New Zealand and encouraged their daughter to pursue whatever she put her mind to.

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"They told me at a very early age, just because you're a girl doesn't mean to say you can't do what you want. Decide what you want to do and do it right."

Thayer took their words to heart and excelled in a number of fields. In 1962, she represented New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games in Perth, coming sixth in the discus.

During this time, she also earned a degree in laboratory science before heading overseas with her new husband Bill, an American helicopter pilot.

Thayer spent the next few years focusing on her sport and by 1965, became the third-best discus thrower in America.

A few years later, she turned her hand to a new sport after watching a luge race on television. Within three years of taking up the fast-paced sport, she won the United States National Championship in 1975, aged 38.

No longer interested in competitive sport, Thayer decided to focus on achieving her own personal goals. She began mountain climbing again and, aged 50, became the first woman to travel solo to the Magnetic North Pole.

"It was very difficult," she recalls. "I was a pioneer for women in polar travel on foot and ski. There was no equipment available and little information. That made the challenge all the more worthwhile.

"Polar bears were a constant threat and to be alone among them on foot was a formidable challenge. However, I am very happy I made the journey. It opened up a whole new world of writing, public speaking and many other expeditions."

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These have included walking more than 6000km across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile River, walking more than 2500km across Mongolia's Gobi Desert, becoming the first non-indigenous woman to kayak the Amazon River, and living alongside a wolf den for more than six months in the Yukon - with just her husband and pet husky, Charlie, for company.

Despite leaving New Zealand as a young woman, Thayer says she absolutely considers herself a New Zealander and has regularly returned home, including once in 1999, when she walked the length of the country.

"I will always be a Kiwi and intensely proud of it," she told the Herald. "I have travelled, so far, to 36 countries and have decided that there is no better country in the world than our own."

Now aged 80, Thayer's adventuring is far from behind her and she is constantly plotting her next challenge.

"We are what we think we are. I think I'm still 38 going on 39. I still have many more hundreds of miles to walk and mountains to climb."