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Inspirational women travellers: Diony Lalieu, founder of Surfers Pledge, competitive surfer, mother and writer


South African surfer and eco-warrior Diony Lalieu tells us all about her trip to Bhutan, and how it led her to make some life-changing decisions.

Diony Lalieu, 42, was born in Marbella, Spain, raised in South Africa but is Dutch by blood and parentals. When she was 6 years old, Diony moved to South Africa and embarked on a care-free existence of warm beaches and swimming with dolphins. Nowadays, she professes a deep love for nature and the ocean, and spends much of her time surfing the waves or in the mountains around Cape Town where she lives with her two little daughters.

Tell us about your life in travel!
My insatiable lust for travel is something I have grown up with. My mother was a gypsy spirit. She travelled as a tour guide through Greece, Spain, Morocco, South Africa.

“She could speak 7 different languages and her tales of Tuaregs and visits to the elusive Timbuktu captured the wildest of my imaginings.”

Having been born in one country, and raised in another, I was quickly exposed to the mysteries that each of these places keep and wanted to explore them all. Although as kids we seldom travelled anywhere other than to Europe to see the remainder of the family, my desire to see the rest of the world has always been a part of me. Losing my parents in my mid 20s soon strengthened this resolve even more – life is so short, you need to create meaning and use your time wisely.
What does travel mean to you?
Travel to me means freedom, freedom to explore, to ask questions, to gather knowledge, to broaden your mind, to engage in the planet that we have been given for such a short fragment of time.
You wrote about your recent Bhutan trip for us so let’s talk about that. Why Bhutan?
We chose Bhutan after considering many other options. First, we thought of the Camino de Santiago but this path felt a little too well worn. Next was the Lycian Way. The food and high cliffs held plenty of appeal. We also considered Japan. But ultimately, we settled for the Himalayas and a country that very few people have been exposed to. We opted for the path less travelled, as we do. And it was the best decision of my life.

“We opted for the path less travelled, as we do. And it was the best decision of my life.”

You wrote that trekking in Bhutan “instilled a new sense of confidence, allowing me to leave all sorts of quandaries behind.” Tell us more about these quandaries.
Just before I went to Bhutan, I tried to do a 360 on a finless surfboard and landed up in hospital undergoing a knee op on the day I was meant to fly out with Victoria and meet a friend from Canada and Cheltenham. I underwent many months of rehab and was only really allowed to start training for the hike 5 months later i.e. one month before the rescheduled trip took off. In this time I also suffered a severe bout of anaemia. It was a rotten patch. But somehow, very much part of the rite of passage I had requested. Had we have left on the first trip to Bhutan I would not have been aware of my low iron count which could have been quite serious at such high altitude. So, it turned out that my knee, was as much of a burden as it was my blessing.
Nevertheless, I went on the rescheduled trip lacking confidence and with many fears – which is not at all like me. I was worried about whether my knee would make it, whether I would mess it up for my friend again, etc (only two of us went on the rescheduled trip). There were many patches of stillness and contemplation, alone in our hoodies in the silence of the snow. That combined with the amazing spirituality of the country we visited got me to think about many things in my life. Especially how fear paradigms have prevented me from doing things. And I guess that realisation and bringing to the surface otherwise unconscious elements created a magnificent shift. I got what I asked for. A rite of passage and a changed set of DNA!
I now think about things very differently. My motto since I have returned is all about putting myself into awkward situations. And it truly has resulted in some great things.
Is that why you took the plunge into the world of competitive surfing?
One of the ‘awkward’ situations I opened myself up to was indeed competitive surfing. And it took a while to get over my own ego. Every time I stood up the idea of being watched/judged made me fall. But look where it got me. Not only do I now feel more comfortable in this zone, I actually enjoy it. And I received my first trophy ever at the ripe old age of 42, having made it to the finals at the South African Champs longboarding contest. I feel a great sense of accomplishment and ‘wow, I actually did that’! Moreover, my little girls think I am their hero. So, hopefully I am setting an empowering example for them too.

“My motto since I have returned is all about putting myself into awkward situations. And it truly has resulted in some great things.”

Not only did putting myself into that awkward situation get me into SA Champs, but it also opened the door into this new Ocean world I find myself in. At this contest I also applied for and won the Soul Surfer Ocean Watch Ambassador title. I wrote a poem for the ocean and the reason why I think I should be selected and it worked! I won a custom-made long board by South African shaper legend Spider Murphy. And my life changed forever more.
I now help to write articles related to critical issues affecting the sea. I was asked to attend the World Whale Conference earlier this year and have been sponsored on a course in Feature Writing which I am currently busy with.
In wondering what else I could do to give back to the ocean, I started this initiative called Surfers Pledge [more about that below]. Surfing is like travelling – it inspires a sense of freedom and wanderlust. It connects us to the ocean which connects us to the planet. The ocean is the air we breathe and like travel, the source of my inspiration.
Thelma & Louise is all about connecting women travel buddies. Please can you tell us a little more about your walking partner Victoria?
Victoria Liv Perry is a wonderful old friend of mine. She is an architect. She is considerate and kind. She is my opposite on the colour wheel in terms of personality type. And I guess that is why we work so brilliantly together.

So where I am impulsive, she is prepared to look things through. She will be the one to research and plan the journey so we get the most of our trip. I am more the kind of person that just rocks up and goes with the flow, trying to steer the path into wayward avenues when I get the chance. She is quiet and creative. She focuses on the artistic side of capturing moments while I jump in to having lengthy discussions with strangers around their cultural beliefs.

“While she is shy, I try to encourage her to look into the eyes of people we meet or pass by to catch a glimpse of their soul.”

Although this is not her nature apparently she appreciates this exposure. And while I find the attention to detail painstaking myself I could not be more thankful that someone else is willing to go down that route otherwise we may have missed all the best things. So I think we complement each other as travel partners very much.
That being said, there are many things we do have in common otherwise we wouldn’t share the journey in the first place.  And that is our love for adventure, our love for nature and our love for being together in both. Interestingly I had put this trip up on Thelma and Louise to see if anyone was keen to join but had no response. And it turned out perfectly exactly the way it was. As things do.
You hiked with 10 other women through Fish River Canyon. Was it special to do that with other women?
I am part of a women’s hiking group called the ‘bergbokkies’. We have developed close friendships and ties by walking on and over mountains and we were all up for sharing this adventure together hiking the Fish River Canyon. One of the girls booked it about a year ago and the rest all jumped right in.
Fish River Canyon
Fish River Canyon
The trip together was quite something as we all have different strengths and weaknesses and carrying our own backpacks with food, tents, camping equipment was a first for us all. Thankfully one of the ladies happened to be a physiotherapist who really came in handy at the best of times.
The dynamic was magnificent. We are a great crazy bunch of wild women (some more than others) who enjoy eating, laughing and sleeping under the stars it seems. There was quite some apprehension before the trip about whether we could pull this off in terms of carrying, the extreme terrain, our varying fitness levels etc but it all panned out perfectly.
There was one moment in which there was some tension. Our wildest woman felt a little held back by the rest of us. While the rest of the group were completely OK with her greater need for independence, we weren’t that keen (or able) to keep up with her, we were also somewhat hesitant in sending her off into the wild entirely on her own for fear of her losing her path. But, as women, we chatted it through, we communicated what it brought up in those of us who felt affected, and ultimately that we trusted her if she really wanted to go up ahead as she was more capable to do so. And just that conversation in itself totally shifted all energy back to the equilibrium of the group.
We spent our nights chatting, cooking together, washing, stargazing and just feeling the freedom of this magnificent space. It was an incredible shared adventure and particularly empowering for those who started off the with biggest concerns. Women have an unbelievable ability to empathise and hold space for others. They are nurturing and I believe far more capable of reasonable communication that addresses everyone’s needs. I think these are all vital ingredients in sharing an adventure together in which things can otherwise go wrong. That of course and the streaks of wild abandon, skinny dipping in hot springs under the stars… women really know how to enjoy a good moment like no other.
Tell us about Surfers Pledge.
Surfers Pledge is an initiative that focused on raising awareness around the plight of the ocean. It harnesses the community of surfers (which include all ocean lovers) and, by raising awareness around critical issues effecting the oceans, hopes to empower surfers as more conscious consumers. It looks to highlight who is doing what on the ocean-related front both locally and abroad e.g. which recycling projects are relevant, who is making ocean-friendly surfboards/wax/westuits, which beach clean ups are on the go. It looks to promote retailers that are getting it right (i.e. banning plastic or microbeads) in the hope that positivity will breed more positivity.
Surfers Pledge also hopes to become the guiding principle to assist surf contests in how to create events that are more ocean friendly. Although it only started out 2 months ago, the idea is to obtain corporate sponsorship so as to assist lesser advantaged ocean communities that are making a difference e.g. one community is sending all the little children out to gather all plastic. This is then handed in to a house on a Monday morning in exchange for ‘Mula points’. The ‘Mula points’ are accumulated and exchanged for various items ranging from soaps/toothpaste/school shoes to bicycles and skateboards. This not only empowers the children but engages the rest of the community while at the same time changing the paradigm of plastic as waste to becomes plastic as value – a very critical shift in trying to address this global problem.
What can we do to support your Surfers Pledge initiative?
How can Thelma and Louise members help? First and foremost is to get as many people following the cause. It is about raising awareness ultimately. Secondly, active involvement would be amazing. Perhaps there are other women out there who feel as passionately about the ocean and making a difference as I do and want to jump on board. We need to think up initiatives, help to educate and ultimately drive funding or sponsorship for the beach communities that are making the difference who most need our help.
What advice do you have for women who want to make a difference like you are doing?
Place every step in the direction of your dreams. Speak about things – put your dreams out there. Where energy goes energy flows. Speaking about things is the first step to making things real. It is amazing the energy and feedback you get back once you start putting the ball in motion. Do your research.
My husband always says:

“Creativity belong to those who create.”

So get out there and make something happen. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as this is where we learn most and life is way more forgiving than we think. People get on with things. At least you have tried. If you spend every day doing or being what you want to do or be, eventually you will become that thing entirely. That is the beauty of life and why people say it is never too late to change.
Find out more about Diony’s project Surfers Pledge.
Read Diony’s Trekking in Bhutan trip review.