Trek for Hope: a golden opportunity to make a difference.


Monday December 30, 2013 | Abby White, WE C Hope CEO


As I look forward to our Africa Bush Trek marking Childhood Cancer Month 2014 and the beginning of our story 10 years ago, I recall with joy my first trek in June 2005.  I embarked on that incredible adventure across Tanzania’s remote Maasailand with the goal raising funds for treatment of a child whose retinoblastoma threatened her life.

The trek would take me through a region sculpted millennia ago by volcanic and seismic activity that formed the Great Rift Valley, a series of volcanic craters and soda lakes.  Known as “the Cradle of Mankind”, this area is home to the most revered of Africa’s nomadic tribes. The Maasai themselves would be our guides.  I couldn’t think of a better way to reflect the epic journey Rati was travelling, the only hope of saving her life.

Tracks through the bush on day two.

Tracks through the bush on day two.

I paid a deposit and committed to a minimum fundraising goal, a portion of which would cover the balance of my trek costs.  Over six months, I hosted various fundraising events, including a wine tasting evening and a series of car boot sales.  By the time I met my fellow trekkers at Heathrow, I had raised more than £3,000 for Rati’s medical care.

This was an Open Challenge, meaning each participant was fundraising for their chosen charity.  We met for the first time at Heathrow Airport.  We were warmly greeted at Check In by a Charity Challenge Rep, and conversation flowed naturally, as though we had always known one another.

Close encounters with Giraffe.

Close encounters with Giraffe.

Our overnight flight connected in Nairobi with a short hop to Kilimanjaro.  We carried our walking boots and day packs in hand luggage as we would begin our trek immediately, thus avoiding the scourge of jetlag.  Dry heat cast a soporific spell over us as we waited outside Kilimanjaro airport while our luggage was loaded onto a support vehicle.  The operation was overseen by Felix, our Tanzanian guide.  I wondered if my energy would hold up for the 80km drive and 10km hike, but a hearty lunch before leaving Arusha fortified me for the afternoon’s adventure.

The gently undulating path was a mix of red sun-baked earth and more challenging stony slopes.  My two trekking poles aided my balance on the more stony sections.  We passed young boys in traditional vivid red robes, herding treasured cattle and goats.  A vibrant welcome to the African bush.

Camping in the bush.

Camping in the bush.

We arrived at Big Rock Camp mid-afternoon, welcomed by our camp crew of 22.  The cold towels they handed us on arrival were delightfully refreshing after the hot, dusty hike.  Over cooling drinks, Felix gave us an overview of camp etiquette and the daily plan, and a safety briefing.  Each camp would be fully established and waiting for us at the end of a long hard trek.  Our tents were set out on either side of a central path, the Mess Tent at the head of the path. Two shower tents and toilet tents stood behind the sleeping tents.  We could use the satellite phone while in camp (for £1 per minute) to call family or friends back home.  The only man in our group called home every evening to read his daughter a bedtime story – though perhaps he wanted to remind the ladies that he was spoken for!

I “tented” with the oldest trekker (65), a wonderful lady who ran a retirement home in the Scottish Highlands and was fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Trust.  By the end of second day, Isabel’s ceaseless encouragement of the entire group had earned her the nickname The Energizer Bunny.

A Maasai Boma (village) at Kitumbeine.

A Maasai Boma (village) at Kitumbeine.

Before dinner (a tasty stew with rice, and fresh fruit), we enjoyed sundowners around the camp fire.  We decided among ourselves to shower every other night.  No one from the company asked us to do this.  We felt a collective responsibility to conserve water as we were hiking through an area in drought conditions.  The bowl of hot clean water on alternate nights would be adequate, and far more than most people living in the region would have.  I was awed by how easily we reached a unanimous decision.  Considering we’d met only the day before, we made a great team.

After an early night and surprisingly good sleep, my day began with a friendly “Jambo” outside our tent.  I returned the Swahili greeting and heard an enquiry of “tea or coffee?” as hot water was poured into the bowl on our wash table.  Breakfast was a spread of boiled eggs, toast, porridge, fruit, and fresh fruit juice.

When huddled together, zebra tripes confuse predators.

When huddled together, zebra stripes confuse predators.

We prepared to leave camp at sunrise for an 8 hour hike.  The terrain ranged from sun-baked sand to more testing volcanic rocks.  Though cherishing my two trekking poles, I loaned one to a fellow trekker in the afternoon.  She sorely regretted not buying her own.  We revelled in our fist close encounters with the wildlife, zebra, giraffe, impala, Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelle and geranuk. We also had our first distant view of Ol Doinyo Lengai (2,878m), the most sacred Maasai Mountain.  The far blue hills held a mystical and peaceful beauty.

As we hiked, Felix introduced us to the local landscape, wildlife and Maasai life.  He had a deep knowledge and love for this region, especially for the animal and plant life we encountered.  He was a talented teacher and superb guide.

Thompson's Gazelle are identified by their black side stripe and straight antlers.

Thompson’s Gazelle are identified by their black side stripe and straight antlers.

Late morning, we reached a picnic site set up by our camp crew, and refuelled with delicious rice and pasta salads and fresh tropical fruit.  We rested through the highest heat of the day, before continuing on to Kitumbeine, our first immersion into the Maasai community.  Many people greeted us and wished us well.  Some who spoke English thanked us for supporting their communities.  Our camp crew were all Maassai, and their employment brings vital funds to the community.  Charity Challenge (our organising company) also makes a community donation for each trek.

At Kitumbeine Camp, I enjoyed my first bush shower.  What a treat.  A canvas bucket was mounted on the inner frame of the cubicle.  A lever on the bucket controlled the flow of deliciously hot water – plenty for very refreshing and unrushed bathing.  A handy pocket on the cubicle wall served to hold shower gel and shampoo.  Most wonderful was the ceiling – a velvet canopy flecked with bright stars.

Mount Kitumbeine at sunrise.

Mount Kitumbeine at sunrise.

The night sky was an outstanding feature of this trek experience.  Far from the light pollution of towns and cities, the stars seem much brighter and happier in their unadulterated heavenly abode – even I could see them.   I was enthralled by those stars and the sounds of the wild African night all around us.

On our third trekking day, we hiked up Mount Kitumbeine. In the higher slopes, we passed through very remote bomas (villages) of traditional mud and thatch houses surrounded by thorn hedges that keep hunting wildlife away.  Stunning views over the plains gave us a sense of the path ahead over the next few days.  We were welcomed into one boma where the residents proudly showed us their homes.  The children delighted In seeing their photographs and trying on our sunglasses, before playing an impromptu game of football (the beautiful game is truly universal).  The Elders shared their concerns about the threats modernity places on their culture, and again thanked us for supporting and respecting their way of life.  We were humbled by their simplicity.

The Maasai children enjoyed trying on our shades.

The Maasai children enjoyed trying on our shades.

We left Kitumbeine before sunrise, hiking north east across the Dustpans of Nagarirat to the foothills of Gelai.  This day was the most challenging so far, with many small hills of volcanic rock and temperatures approaching 32°C (90°F).  We did however have outstanding distractions in the super views of Mount Kilimanjaro and rich wildlife all around us.  Many zebra, antelope and giraffe in particular, barely metres from our path.  The day ended with a glorious sunset, traditional Maasai dancing and a beautiful birdsong serenade as we ate dinner under the stars.

From Gelai we crossed wide plains towards the Rift Valley escarpment and Ngorongoro Crater Highlands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We passed many extinct volcanic vents, and even enjoyed lunch on a crater rim after a short but scary ascent of the near vertical wall.  This was again our collective choice as a group, and the team excelled in mutual encouragement.  The spectacular – if windy – view was a magnificent reward.

Ol Doinyo Lengai (2,878m) at sunrise.

Ol Doinyo Lengai (2,878m) at sunrise.

I very much enjoyed lively conversations with my fellow trekkers, but I also relished the quiet times.  The act of mindful walking, focused on breathing and connecting with the vast world around me was so relaxing, grounding, healing.  An unrivalled opportunity to absorb Africa in peace with all my senses, to be uplifted by her beauty.

The heat on our last two trek days was intense.  There was little shade, and we drank plenty (our support car carried a constant supply of cold water).  I cherished my platypus.  This 3 litre water bag sits in my day pack, connected to a tube that alligator clips to my shoulder strap.  Biting the end of the tube causes the water to flow, so I didn’t have to bother with carrying a bottle.  Taking a sip every minute or two ensured my body had sufficient water, but never more than needed – any excess evaporated through my skin.  I almost didn’t sign up for the trek, worried about what one would do if needing to pee without any trees to hide behind.  I drank 9 litres on the last day, but not once did I need to pee.  A water bladder is an essential piece of kit!

Trekking across the lava plains to Lengai.

Trekking across the lava plains to Lengai.

Tears of accomplishment were shared as we walked into our last camp, reveling in our individual and collective achievements.  Even our camp crew shed tears with us.  We were sad this would be our last night in their company – they looked after us with great care.

Our game drive the following day was a well-earned reward.  610m (2,000ft) deep and covering 260km2 (100m2), Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest inactive, intact, and unfilled volcanic caldera.  We saw bountiful wildlife, including elephant, a black rhino, buffalo, wildebeest, flamingo and a pride of lion with very playful cubs – a joy to watch.

Lion. the king and queen of Ngorongoro Crater.

Lion. the king and queen of Ngorongoro Crater.

We enjoyed a night of celebration and luxury at the Manyara Serena Lodge.  My last day began with a leisurely sunrise swim in the infinity pool with a heart-stopping view across the Rift Valley.  Then a relaxed breakfast, shopping in Arusha town and a last glimpse of mount Kilimanjaro before driving to the airport.

This was a most challenging and rewarding experience. Knowing that every aching step made a difference to a child fuelled my stubborn determination to succeed.  I confess that my training mostly consisted of listening to Harry Potter books while walking to nowhere on a treadmill, though I am thankful for the long practice walks along the Thames Path in the month before my trek.

Lone elephant ambling through the bush.

Lone elephant ambling through the bush.

In 2014, I will undertake this trek again.  This time, our party will have the shared goal of building better care for children with eye cancer.  We will have an additional flight recovery and acclimatisation day as well as visiting our projects in Nairobi – inspiration for tired limbs in the days to come.

Would you like to be part of this unique opportunity?  This rare adventure is great for novices but will also thrill the most seasoned hiker.  If you have general physical fitness and an easy-going attitude, this trek will give you an outstanding authentic experience of Africa’s great wilderness, while you bring hope to others in a region where barely 1 in 10 children survive retinoblastoma.

Ngorongoro Crater

The world’s largest intact volcanic crater, Ngorongoro is rich in wildlife.

Wherever you are in the world, you can join our trek for hope and make a difference.  Trekkers are already committed from Australia, Canada and the USA, as well as the UK.  We are delighted that our medical director, Prof. Brenda Gallie, will join the trek from Toronto.

Here is a summary of the exciting trek itinerary, September 25-October 05, 2014:

Day 1: International overnight flight from London Heathrow to Nairobi.

Day 2: Arrival in Kenya: acclimatisation day, relax and optional sightseeing.

Day 3: Project Visits in Nairobi

Day 4: Drive to Tanzania & Trek to Big Rock, Longido – approx 10kms trek.

Day 5: Longido to Kitumbeine – 22kms.

Day 6: Kitumbeine to Nagarirat – approx 10kms.

Day 7: Across Dustpans of Nagarirat to Gelai – approx 10kms.

Day 8: Sunken Crater & the Lava Plains – approx 22kms.

Day 9: Ngorongoro Crater celebration safari.

Day 10: Transfer to Kilimanjaro airport for overnight flight home.

Day 11: Arrive at London Heathrow.

Learn more about our Africa Bush Trek and sign up to make 204 amazing. If you have any questions, please contact Abby, our chief executive on abby@wechope.org. To explore a wide array of alternative open challenges such as trekking to Everest Base Camp or Pachu Pichu, or cycling across Cuba or Iceland, please visit www.charitychallenge.com.

Flamingo and zebra on Lake Magadi in Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Flamingo and zebra on Lake Magadi in Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

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