A former Oxford University secretary and her friend are set to become the first women to make a 650km dog-sled trek across the remote Norwegian Arctic.

Rona Cant, 55, who used to work for St Peter's College in New Inn Hall Street, and Cathy O'Dowd, 35, left Oxford yesterday to take part in the 2004 Nordkapp Dog-Sled Expedition in the far north of the country.

Ms Cant, of Hayfield Road, north Oxford, and Mrs O'Dowd, who lives in Andorra, will lead a team of eight husky dogs which will transport them and their expert Norwegian dog-handler Per-Thore Hansen across the frozen landscape.

Although Ms Cant has been dog-sledding in the Arctic once before - in March 2003 for Cancer Research UK - she admits to being very nervous about the challenge.

She said: "I was physically sick on Monday. I realised it was nerves and stress.

"I know what dog sledding is like. It's physically and mentally challenging.

"When you stop in the evening it's like you are facing another day's work as you have to prepare the dog's food, your own food, set up your tent.

"It's not like going skiing and then having dinner in a restaurant where it's all done for you."

Ms Cant said she was looking forward to what lies in store for the team during the next two weeks.

She said: "We're staying with Per-Thore and his family when we arrive and then we will be going off on Sunday.

"In the meantime, we will be checking the gear and making sure Cathy - who has never been on a dog sled before - knows what she's doing.

"We will be going up and down mountains and we don't know what we're going to come across. But that's part of the challenge."

Ms Cant said after completing the BT Global Challenge round-the-world yacht race in 2000 and 2001, she decided she did not want to return to the office.

She gave up her job and became a full-time motivational speaker, author and adven- turer.

Mrs O'Dowd became the first woman to scale Everest from both south and north sides in 1999.