The travelling vet – Rachel Nixon
Rachel Nixon (Girton 2012) has worked as a vet in countries across the world. Now, to support the causes she cares about most, she is attempting to circumnavigate the globe in an off-road ambulance.
We graduated from Cambridge qualified to treat any animal – farm, equine, exotics, zoo animals... It really gave me a lot of opportunities.
Since childhood, Rachel has loved biology, chemistry and being around animals. So, when the time came to apply for university, Veterinary Medicine seemed like the perfect combination of her interests. Only six UK schools offered the course she wanted, and Cambridge was one of them.
“I’d never been to Cambridge before I came for my interview,” Rachel says. “I remember going to the college, seeing the beautiful grounds and facilities, and thinking it was gorgeous.”
When Rachel was offered a place at Girton, she quickly accepted. She thoroughly enjoyed her time there, playing lots of rugby and eventually becoming captain of the Girton women’s team and a university blue. Her course was small, with just 66 fellow vets in her year.
“It really did make us a close-knit team. I think my course mates and friendship groups were probably the biggest asset I took from Cambridge.”
As part of her course Rachel got to work on local farms, helping with lambing in the spring, or milking on dairy farms. She also had placements at various veterinary clinics before a full year working at the University practice.
“We graduated from Cambridge qualified to treat any animal – farm, equine, exotics, zoo animals... It really gave me a lot of opportunities.”
And in the third year of her course, Rachel was lucky enough to go to Ghana on a research project.
“We were looking at a condition called African Swine Fever, which is spread by ticks. If it gets into the pig population, it can completely wipe out the swine in the area. We were trying to figure out how important warthogs were in spreading the virus. It was quite an amazing experience, walking around this huge, beautiful game reserve, hunting for ticks. That project was the first major travelling I’d done. It was such a great opportunity that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.”
Travelling the world
Through her professional career, Rachel soon had more chances to use her veterinary skills in countries across the world. After graduating, she worked as a mixed vet in a rural community in Wales, treating farm animals, horses, cats and dogs. She then moved to New Zealand for two years to work with small animals, where she met Lawrence – now her husband – on an ice climbing course.
That’s where the idea for an epic journey came from: conversations with Lawrence, back when the two were just friends. They had a shared fascination with the Mongol Rally, where contestants drive from the UK to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “We were going to do the rally together, but when planning the route, it gradually became more about all the places we wanted to go.”
Growing in scale with their enthusiasm, The Overlanding Ambulance journey now amounts to a full circumnavigation of the Earth.
“Our hope now is to go from Liverpool to Liverpool: we’ll leave from the Albert Dock in Liverpool, UK, and the end point will be Liverpool Football Club in Montevideo, Uruguay.”
In the years of planning between New Zealand and now, Rachel also worked in Fiji. Most recently though, she was back in the UK teaching Veterinary Medicine to students at the University of Liverpool.
“My favourite thing about being a vet is teaching. Supervising students is just brilliant. Teaching them to do surgery for the first time, you can really see how useful these skills will be for them in their future career. At Cambridge, we had some fabulous tutors who were really passionate about teaching, which I think gave me a real incentive to help newer vets.”
In 2020, Rachel and Lawrence thought it was finally time to embark on their journey of a lifetime. Rachel quit her lecturing job to prepare. But then, the expedition’s launch was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the delay, Rachel has worked as a locum vet (or ‘flexible vet’) – which requires her to switch between clinics, filling in the gaps where other vets are on leave. While they await their departure date, Rachel and Lawrence have been living in the ambulance already, giving them a taste of what’s to come in the next two years (or, in Rachel’s words: “useful experience for how to live in a shoebox”).
The Overlanding Ambulance
Rachel and Lawrence’s ambitious journey is in aid of two charities: Anthony Nolan and Vetlife.
“Anthony Nolan is a really important charity for Lawrence. His father was a lead researcher there until he passed away in 2008, and his mother still works for them. The charity was established by Shirley Nolan in memory of her son Anthony; it was the first register of bone marrow donors and conducts research into blood cancers.”
“Vetlife is close to both our hearts, as we’re both vets. Unfortunately, we’ve experienced colleagues suffering with their mental health, and lost a few to suicide, which is a remarkably big issue in the industry (the suicide rate in vets is twice that of doctors and dentists). Vetlife provide emotional and financial support for those working in the veterinary industry, including vets, students, nurses and receptionists, as well as their families.”
As part of planning for the trip, Rachel has also engaged the World Land Trust to offset carbon emissions for the entire journey. The pair would have preferred to make the journey in an electric vehicle, but this proved too costly.
“We found the vehicle on eBay; it was an off-road ambulance used for horse racing events. The company that owned it went into administration, so had to sell off their ambulances. Before you ask, it was an ambulance for humans, not animals!”
“We’d also planned to get married last year with wedding celebrations in France, but obviously COVID halted that plan – so we’re going to have the ceremony when we get back from the journey. We managed to have the formal registry office ceremony in Liverpool, but haven’t had the proper celebration yet.”
With any luck, the wedding festivities will also celebrate the setting of a world-record. If Rachel and Lawrence travel over 20,000km in the ambulance, on this honeymoon like no other, they’ll be official world-record holders.
“We contacted Guinness World Records – they’ll count it as a world-record if we manage it. The rules for our attempt say the vehicle has to look like and have the potential to function as an ambulance. We’re taking a stretcher, a fully-stocked first aid kit, even a dog first aid kit for our third passenger.” Peggy-Sue, the couple’s English Springer Spaniel, will be with the expedition until the ambulance crosses into Asia.
The many ocean crossings of the journey will be made via container ships – the first one departing from Vladivostok, Russia.
“I’ve been taking Russian lessons, so I can at least try and negotiate the passage. Both of us have also done some training in ‘bush mechanics’, which is mechanics on the fly, for when you don’t have a full garage set up.”