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Always competitive and keen to push herself both physically and mentally, Gerry is embarking on her third charity bike ride to raise valuable funds for three women’s cancer charities – Breast Cancer Care, Ovarian Cancer Action and Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust.
“I started fund raising for Breast Cancer when I was 46, the same age my Mum was when she died of the disease. It was such a milestone for me to reach that age, perfectly fit and healthy, I felt I needed to do something positive to help other women suffering from cancer”.
This time she is heading to Tanzania to cycle 350km off-road over five days, starting at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro and ending at the Ngorongoro Crater.
Averaging 80 km per day on tough terrain and camping along the way with no running water, she is looking forward to the challenge and training hard. “I haven’t been to this part of Africa before so I’m very excited to have this opportunity. Those who know me well will verify that I don’t do camping so that will be even more challenging for me than the cycling! If I get a chance to see some wild animals and to experience the Maasai Mara that will definitely make up for it”.
If you would like to support Gerry and help her to raise £3000 for these amazing charities, please visit her justgiving page www.justgiving.com/GerryOneill2
Watch this page for further updates and, of course, for photos and a report after the trip in October.
London Heathrow to Kilimanjaro
Sitting on the plane ready to take off on my flight to Tanzania I can’t help but feel incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to experience such an amazing trip. I am fit and healthy, having trained hard for this challenge and I am determined to make the most of it!
This is my third cycling challenge and you may ask why I put myself through it. Believe me, camping after being on a bike all day, off road with dust and grit everywhere you can imagine and no running water does not fill me with much enthusiasm! However there are four reasons why I sign up for these challenges. I want to raise money for a great cause very close to my heart. I like to challenge myself physically; after all a fat, unfit physiotherapist isn’t a great role model for my patients! It’s a good opportunity to see part of the world I wouldn’t otherwise visit and finally, I get to meet like-minded people.
We had a training weekend in the Cotswolds where I met some of the ladies on the trip. It was tough but a good laugh too and I’m looking forward to meeting up with everyone when we arrive.
For various reasons I have chosen not to travel with the majority of the group, not least because I didn’t fancy an overnight flight to Nairobi followed by a 5 hour bus journey to Kilimanjaro! I have a daytime flight via Amsterdam straight to Kilimanjaro, arriving in the evening as everyone is taking off so I’m hoping to feel fresh, relaxed and raring to go by the time the others arrive!
Well, the plane is ready to take off and there’s not much else to say at this stage. I’ll check in again as soon as I have wifi – it may be a while…….!
Kilimakyaro Mountain Lodge, Moshi
After a comfortable but fairly uneventful flight I was pleased to see my luggage had arrived. I transferred to our lodge with another member of our group who had flown in on another flight. We were lucky – of the 8 people who chose to travel earlier than the majority we were the only two whose luggage had made it through to Kilimanjaro!
It had been a very long day, starting at 2:45 am so I had a quick shower, read a few pages of my book and fell straight to sleep to the sounds of the African bush.
I woke at 8am to a gloriously sunny day, opened the curtains and there was Mt Kilimanjaro right in front of my eyes! After another shower (got to make the most of it – I’m not sure when we’ll next have running water!) a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and omelette I took a wander round the gardens with my camera.
The majority of our group landed in Nairobi at 9am but, instead of a 5 hour transfer, they didn’t arrive at the lodge until almost 7pm, a 10 hour transfer. I counted my blessings that I had decided not to travel with them although I did feel a little guilty that I’d had a relaxing day instead of a long, hot and sweaty bus ride!
After a couple of beers, dinner and a quick debriefing we all climbed into bed.
Moshi to Olpopongi camp – 84km/52miles
The alarm went off at 6am which was a rather rude awakening! But we had a lot to sort out and a long day ahead on the bikes.
It was a tough day, 33*C and no shade. It was roughly 50/50 on and off-road with the last 25km very technical.
To add to the difficulty there had been a torrential rain storm causing a flash flood earlier in the day. Our bus with all the luggage got stuck in the mud, as did many of the cyclists, so by the time we arrived at the camp I have never been so filthy in my life!
However, just as we were becoming quite despondent, we came across several giraffes on the side of the road – a real bonus which perked up everyone’s spirits no end.
I thought that was the highlight of my day until we arrived at the camp to be greeted by a welcome song and dance by the Maasai Mara who lived there. It was the first time I had experienced anything like that and I was overwhelmed by their hospitality.
The camp was basic but we did have 2 showers, even if they were open air and more of a trickle than power showers! As you can imagine they were extremely welcome.
After a couple of very well-received beers we were fed barbecued caribou with rice and veg, another first for everyone in the group. We were then treated to more entertainment by the Maasai tribe with singing and dancing, after which everyone was ready for a relatively early night.
Olpopongi camp to Arusha 81km/50miles
Today started early again with a really challenging 34km off-road. The terrain was very sandy and rocky and, because of the flash floods the previous day, the road had partly been washed away. I really had to concentrate on the track so didn’t get much chance to look at the scenery. As we approached the end of that section with our drink and snacks tent within view, the little group I was cycling with got quite excited! About 200m from the end I stupidly looked back to talk to my friend, slipped into some deep, soft sand and toppled into the rocks on the side of the road. Fortunately I wasn’t badly hurt, just a few cuts and bruises. I was so cross with myself for so nearly making it and just losing concentration right at the end.
There was still another 12.5 km to go until lunch and it was all uphill. By this time everyone was exhausted and starting to feel a bit low. It was a much tougher challenge than we had thought and there were several who had to resort to the backup bus. Quite a few had been struck with upset stomachs which, as you can imagine, didn’t help matters.
After lunch the terrain was much easier which was a huge relief. We were thrilled to see zebra in the distance about half way through the afternoon.
As we approached the end of the ride into Arusha, a fairly major town, it was rush hour so, to help keep us safe, we had a police escort to our accommodation! We had arrived late so didn’t have much time to relax and freshen up before dinner. Our debriefing for the following day was horrible – a 5am start and 106km to cycle! The itinerary had underestimated our route, we were actually cycling almost 50 km more over the 5 days than we were expecting. We were also visiting a local school in the morning and most of us had brought out gifts and essentials to give to the children. It was early to bed full of trepidation for the day ahead.
Arusha to Camp Zion Tarangire national park 106km/66.25 miles
It was still pitch black when we were woken at 5am but as we had such a long day ahead we needed the early start. Also we wanted to get as much mileage covered as possible before the temperature rose too high.
The road was much flatter than on previous days and we had cycled 46km by 9:30am! After some snacks and drinks we walked across the field to the school where the children and staff were waiting to greet us with a traditional welcome song. The head teacher told us a little about the school – it educated children from 4 to 13 and some had to walk 5km each way to get to school! The government funded some of the equipment but a lot of the stationary had to be provided by the parents, many of whom couldn’t afford it.
As we had been so warmly welcomed we decided to reply by singing the Hokey Cokey which the children absolutely loved! We then presented them with 3 large sacks full of stationary, toothbrushes, gifts and clothes that our own children had outgrown. The look of excitement on their faces was priceless and very moving. We spent some time with them in their classrooms, looking at the work they were doing and chatting to them individually. Some of the younger ones were very shy but had been taught some English for our visit. Every time we asked them a question, no matter what it was, their reply was “Good morning, how are you? My name is…….” !
After an early lunch we got back on our bikes. The temperature had risen to 40C and there was a very strong cross wind which became a head wind as we changed direction for the last 2km uphill! At our afternoon rest and snack stop a group of male Belgian cyclists came past and stopped to chat and have a drink with us. They were a great laugh and a welcome change from a large group of all women!
Despite cycling over 20km further than the previous two days, because the road was less challenging and we had started earlier, we made excellent time and arrived at the campsite in daylight with plenty of time to relax and chat to each other. Everyone was in much better spirit and, for the first time, we started to bond as a group. The previous days had been so long and tough there had been no time to get to know everyone. We tended to cycle each day with people of similar experience and level of fitness, which varied considerably throughout the group.
The toilet and washing facilities were very poor although there was a shower of sorts. After a few grumbles about the trickle of water we discovered there was a young boy actually using a foot pump to pump the water to the shower – no mean feat when there were 74 very sweaty and dirty women trying to get clean!!
It had been a great day for many reasons and I think most fell into bed very satisfied and more enthusiastic about the remaining two days.
Tarangire National Park to Mto Wa Mbu 80km/50 miles
We had a lie-in this morning and didn’t have to get up until 6! Mainly because it was only just getting light by then and the campsite had no electricity. By this time more than half of the group were suffering from upset stomachs which was keeping the two doctors on the team very busy indeed. Fortunately for me I have the constitution of an ox and remained well throughout the challenge.
It was a day of two halves. In the morning the road was smooth and fairly fast. The landscape was very dry, dusty and exposed with a strong wind. We saw cattle drinking at a waterhole, tended by young boys who looked no older than 9 or 10! After 40 km we turned onto a sandy track for a further 7km before lunch.
The landscape and the terrain changed dramatically after lunch. The track was undulating and quite sandy with lush greenery and impressive mountains. We saw workers in the fields harvesting sugar cane and another crop with white flowers. I meant to find out what it was but forgot! We had spectacular views of an escarpment ridge and stopped many times to take photos.
Just as we were thoroughly enjoying the scenery and the terrain it became very rutted and uncomfortable for the final 20km. After a short while our already sore bottoms, shoulders and legs started screaming for mercy! I developed a nasty pain just below my left shoulder blade which gradually increased until it felt as if a red hot knife was being twisted into my back. To add to our discomfort the temperature rose to an unbearable 44C in the sun! The sight of several baboons in the trees and bushes provided a brief distraction but we were very thankful to see our bus at the end of the track which transported us to our destination a further 45 minutes away.
Again it was dark by the time we got to our accommodation and the euphoria of the previous day had evaporated with our exhaustion. Our debriefing that evening didn’t do much to improve matters as we were informed it was another 5am start for our final day on the bikes. We were also warned that, although it was a much shorter distance it was going to be a gruelling day of climbing. I couldn’t get to bed quickly enough!
Mto Wa Mbu to Ngorongora Crater 45km /29miles
Unfortunately I had a very poor night’s sleep. My roommate came to bed very late after a few too many beers then snored loudly most of the night! She had also left the door open so when the alarm went off at 5 and I switched on my torch there was an enormous cockroach, about 3 inches long snuggled up to me!!
Just because we had a much shorter distance today, don’t think it was easy. We climbed 4444ft/1355m with a gradient that, at times, was 17%. For those of you reading this who don’t cycle or mountain climb, that’s really steep! There were, of course, some flatter and downhill sections for our legs to recover but nevertheless, by the time we reached the final turn with the gate to the Ngorongora Crater in view our thighs were on fire!
Our little group of 8 who had become very close friends by this time, stuck together, supporting and encouraging one another and taking turns at the front – just like a real peloton! With plenty of stops to refuel our bodies and regroup we made it to the top in a total cycling time of 3 hours 6 minutes. Fortunately the weather had turned much cooler so we didn’t have the heat exhaustion of previous days. We were all quite emotional when we got off the bikes and, needless to say, there were group hugs and photos all round!
Everyone who had reached the summit then clapped, cheered and supported the rest of the cyclists as they gradually made it round the corner and up the final climb. Although quite a few had opted out of cycling the first 17km which was the steepest section, almost everyone managed the rest and it was wonderful to see the determination and sense of achievement on everyone’s face.
We had done it! Over 5 days we had cycled a total of 400km/250 miles, climbed 3740m/12,342 ft and, most importantly, raised £275,000 between us for Women V Cancer. After champagne, jam sandwiches and lots of singing and dancing, it was a very proud group of women who climbed the bus for the one hour journey to our hotel where we enjoyed a late lunch and an afternoon of relaxation.
Later that day when we were all clean and relaxed I looked in the mirror. I was quite a sight with a brown face, arms and legs but white hands and feet from cycling gloves and shoes. I felt like something out of the black and white minstrel show! I was still covered in scratches and bruises down my left arm and leg from the fall on the second day but I felt and looked strong and healthy.
There was an option to do a day safari into the Ngorongora Crater the following day which most people signed up for so, as that was an even earlier start than previous days, celebrations were muted and we had another early night in preparation for a 4:30am alarm call!!
Safari in the Ngorongora Crater and celebration dinner.
The reason for the horribly early start was that we wanted to get to the gate of the crater as it opened. The best chance to see as many animals as possible is early morning or late evening as they tend to rest in the shade in the heat of the day.
As we retraced our route of the previous day we were very thankful to be travelling by jeep this time! As the jeeps only fitted 6 people our group of friends split into two jeeps.
The weather had turned and it was cold and raining with a heavy mist when we got to the gate of the crater. We were very despondent – had we paid a lot of money and got up at silly o’clock to see nothing? However, as we descended into the bowl the rain stopped and the mist lifted. Our driver Emanuel (Ema) raised the roof of the jeep so that we could stand up and have an uninterrupted panoramic view of the plains. The crater is enormous – 8292km2 and 90km at the widest point. It is a large volcanic caldera and is now a UNESCO world heritage site and conservation area. Ngorongoro was named by the Maasai and means gift of life.
Almost immediately there were squeals of excitement as Cape Buffalo, one of the “Big Five” came into view. I had fortunately brought my good camera with the zoom lens which was invaluable. I was able to take some great close up shots of almost everything we saw.
Buffalo were followed by ostriches which made us laugh with their comical faces and the ungainly way they run. The ostriches were followed by Thompson gazelles, jackals, grand gazelles, a couple of herons and a beautiful coloured bird called a crowned plover. This was all in the space of about 15 minutes so our earlier misgivings about not being able to see anything completely disappeared.
Next, we came across a herd of zebras, a group of hyenas, hundreds of wildebeest and some hilarious warthogs. We all burst into songs from The Lion King and were in very high spirits.
In the distance Emanuel spotted a black rhino, the second of the Big Five. There aren’t many in the crater so we were lucky to spot him. Unfortunately he was a bit shy and didn’t come close enough for a good photo, the only animal I didn’t manage to get a close up of. We also saw a lone old male elephant near the rhino. Ema explained that the old males are driven out of the herd by the younger males and lead a solitary existence at the end of their life. We felt a bit sad as we thought elephants were a caring community who looked after each other.
Very soon after, Ema became excited as he spotted a group of lionesses and cubs camouflaged amongst the long grasses. We edged up as close as possible to watch them and counted 11 in total, just sitting quietly and watching from their slightly elevated position. We had now spotted four of the “Big Five” which are buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard.
A huge herd of buffalo crossed just behind us at top speed. There must have been several hundred and their thunderous hooves were quite deafening. We noticed that numerous white birds called Cattle Egrets were flying amongst them. Ema explained that they have a symbolic relationship. The dust created when they run disturbs all the bugs and flies. The birds get their meal and prevent the bugs pestering the buffalo! We noticed that at the back there was an old buffalo who wasn’t moving well and feared he probably wouldn’t last much longer.
Having watched the lionesses for some time we moved on as we heard there was a male lion further up the ridge. We spotted him sleeping in the shade and took some photos. We also saw vultures in the tree tops and marvelled at their effortless flight.
All of a sudden there was tremendous excitement; Ema turned the jeep round and thundered down the hill at top speed. Three of the lionesses had taken down a buffalo!! We didn’t actually see the kill but got there shortly afterwards. Some of our group in another jeep saw the whole thing which took about four minutes from the first attack until they killed it. They said it was a very calculated, instinctive execution as they separated and circled the enormous beast before one of them attacked from behind and another leapt at its throat. All the time the cubs sat back, watching closely and learning until the buffalo was down, then they came in and started feeding. By this time I think almost every jeep in the crater had heard about the kill and had congregated to watch. Some of the buffalo were trying to move in closer, as if trying to help their friend. We were completely in awe at the incredible opportunity to be a part of this barbaric but natural event. It really brought home that it is survival of the fittest in nature and that the lion is King. Meanwhile one of the lionesses moved away, crossed our path and sat in the long grass. A lone gazelle came into view, far too close to the lioness for our comfort and we were willing it to move away. The lioness pricked her ears and watched closely, slowly stalking the tiny creature who, all the time, kept her distance. Ema explained that the lioness wasn’t likely to attack, partly as she had just fed and also because she was on her own at this point and the gazelle was too fast. It was as if the gazelle knew this and was taunting her. However we felt it was flirting with danger too much for our liking!
Eventually we moved off and resumed singing songs from The Lion King like a bunch of schoolgirls! We noticed that the vultures had started circling round the dead buffalo, waiting for the lions to finish feeding before they helped themselves to the leftovers.
Because of all the excitement we were running late for our lunch stop by the hippo pool, the only time we were able to get out of the jeep. This area of the crater was much wetter with numerous small pools and marshy areas. We saw many hippos with just the tops of their heads out of the water and a flock of flamingos in the distance.
As we approached the lunch stop a herd of charging wildebeest ran straight across the track in front of our jeep. Like the buffaloes before, there were hundreds of them which delayed us at least five minutes. We spotted another lone elephant and wondered if it was the same one we had seen earlier but as we turned a corner there were four or five more, partly hidden in the marshes but much closer than the previous one and we were able to take some good photos. Eventually we arrived at the hippo pool, the last of our convoy of jeeps. At that point we realised we had the packed lunches for everyone in our jeep so I think the others were slightly miffed that we had kept them waiting! The hippo pool was stunningly beautiful and I was amazed that we were able to walk up so close to the hippos. It was good to get out of the jeep and stretch our legs for a bit.
After lunch we clambered back into the jeeps and made our way up and out of the crater, stopping occasionally to see a black-billed bustard, a couple of huge Marabou storks and some common waterbucks.
It had been the most incredible day. By the time we started our descent down the hill all of us were asleep in the jeep and slept soundly until we reached the hotel. From there we picked up our luggage, transferred to the larger buses and drove the 1 1/2 hours back to Arusha where we were to enjoy our celebration dinner and last night all together in Tanzania.
En route we encountered an incredible dust storm. The sky turned orange which was very eerie and the intense wind buffeted our bus. We saw a lorry on the side of the road with its windscreen blown in and the local people battling their way through the storm with scarves over their faces to protect them from the dust, their robes billowing out behind them.
The celebration dinner that evening was a very emotional event. Wine was in plentiful supply and everyone relaxed and let their hair down. There were awards presented to the best dressed cyclist, most improved cyclist and the most supportive cyclist as well as speeches from the organisers. This challenge is the fourth one organised by Action for Charity. Next year they are going to Vietnam and it was announced at the dinner that in 2017 they have just confirmed the challenge will be in Brazil! Emily, who was representing the three charities gave a speech explaining how the money we had raised would be used to help fund research and to care for women suffering from these cancers. Everyone was in tears at the end and gave her a standing ovation. Before I knew it, it was 12:30am and we called it a night. I think everyone was asleep as soon as their heads touched the pillow.
Shopping and home
Our little group of 10 met for breakfast at 8:30. Four were going on to Zanzibar for a week of R and R, five were leaving at midday for the bus journey to Nairobi where they would pick up their flight home and I had until 5:30pm until my transfer to Kilimanjaro airport.
We have already planned to meet up again. Firstly we are all going to see The Lion King in London! We are also hoping to organise a cycling holiday in Italy next year, but not camping! I will have the opportunity to meet up with Lesley and Sonya when I go to visit my daughter Georgia at Bath university and to see Emily in Cardiff when I visit my older daughter Caitlin who is working there.
We all did some shopping to buy gifts for our families and mementos of Tanzania. When the others left I had a few hours to myself to continue shopping and to start writing up this blog. Luckily I had made notes along the way or I would have forgotten some important events; such a lot has happened! I had originally hoped to stay on and have a few days holiday but I am ready to go home.
As I sit on the plane on the last leg of my journey, typing up the last section of this blog I have time to reflect on the last 9 days:
A group of women coming together with the same aims, to raise as much money as possible and to challenge ourselves to the limit is extremely powerful. Most of us have been touched personally by the three cancer charities, either we have lost family members or close friends and some have battled the disease themselves.
I feel incredibly privileged to be healthy and fit enough to do this and to be able to do something really positive to help other women. I know I can’t take my health for granted so I’ll continue to live my life to the max for as long as I can! I am determined that this won’t be my last event – look out Brazil!!!