A Reflection on Human Understanding

I was recently diagnosed with osteo arthritis, a life long, incurable condition that will mean living with periods of pain and discomfort that can hopefully be managed.

A few days ago I was walking in the sunshine and just thinking about the diagnosis. No, I’m not angry or sad. In fact I’m sort of relieved to finally know what has been causing my pain and discomfort over the last months.

But the fact that I have yet another chronic condition, in addition to the type 1 diabetes and coeliac disease, led me to consider what other people know about living with chronic illness.

When I considered that osteo arthritis has a genetic component to it, it is clear that it came from my mother and suddenly I had a better understanding of why her hands were the way they were before she died. For her final 20 years, my mother’s hands were distinctive in that her knuckles were knobby and her fingers became slightly bent over time. I now know what was causing that and how painful it must have been for her.

But what did my brothers and I think about it at the time? Very little.

Now I don’t say this to make my brothers and I seem like insensitive devils. I say it as an observation of how humans work. Our thoughts of our mother’s condition were about the same as most people’s thoughts about my type 1 diabetes. We nodded when needed and made the correct noises when required. But did we really have any understanding of what she was living with? No we didn’t.

Now that I have only the beginnings of osteo arthritis, I have a hint of the pain and discomfort she had been enduring for years. But we didn’t understand.

I have finally come to the realisation that unless a person personally experiences something, and I mean they experience themselves, it is simply not possible for them to truly understand what it means to live with that condition. And I’m including in that life experiences such as the death of a husband or wife, the death of a child or even the birth of a child.

My wife has the best understanding of anybody of what it is for me to live with T1D, but it is simply not possible for her to truly understand what it is for me to live with this illness 24×7 for the last 46 years and the rest of my life. I say that NOT as a show of frustration or anger, but as a new found moment of clarity about all humans.

Unless you experience something personally, it is not possible to truly understand.

My daughter is a nurse, and a good one, so she understands the technicalities and mechanics of illness. But being a successful nurse also means she has a low level of empathy. That’s definitely required if she’s going to do her job well. No, she does not understand what it is to live 24×7 with the illnesses that she treats.

My team mate at work has helped me a couple of time over the years when I’ve had bad hypo episodes at work, where my blood sugar level drops to a dangerously low level. He knows the mechanical steps that he needs to follow to get me out of danger, but he has no understanding of what it feels like to actually be in that situation. That’s not a comment on him as a person, just the reality of him not having to manage T1D every minute of every day.

So as a result of my recent diagnosis with osteo arthritis, and the fact that my own mother lived with this condition, I now have a much more clear and healthy respect for the understanding of others to living with a chronic illness.

There’s no blame and there’s no shame. I just thank you if you help when it is required and don’t blame me when you don’t understand.

Saudi Arabia – The Empty Quarter

The Empty Quarter – January 1998   

     The planning was done and we were ready to go. I don’t think there was anyone who could accuse us of approaching this trip in a careless or thoughtless manner. It was now 16 months since the idea was first floated and there had been much discussion, many lists, much training and practice and many shopping trips in the preparation. But this was all for a good reason. This was going to be the most daring and potentially dangerous trip that we would be doing while in Saudi, or possibly forever. 

     The Empty Quarter is a part of the Arabian Peninsular that has been the source of many stories and the object of many adventures. It was The Empty Quarter that Thesinger crossed on camel, having only 1 pint of water per person per day. The Empty Quarter is as big as France, a fact that is often difficult for English or Europeans to comprehend. Nick and I had thought of all of this as we decided that we would attempt a trip into this unknown (to us) part of Saudi Arabia. 

     Part of the planning was to decide on what sort of trip it would be. A few decisions were made quite easily. There would need to be 2 vehicles, for safety reasons and for the ability to carry the provisions we would need. We would be staying on tracks, another safety precaution. We were under no illusions that we were explorers. We knew that we have limitations and did not intend to come unstuck dramatically by trying to outdo our limitations. Hence, we would stay to the tracks. This led us to investigate the existence of tracks. On the maps that we already had, there were a couple of scraggly looking tracks marked, one of which headed south towards Oman and another which headed essentially west towards the western side of Saudi. This second track would take us on a journey of 800 km or more and as we only had 5 days, it was decided that this track was not feasible. So we were down to the southerly track.  

     During this process, we had determined that it would be better if we had better maps. A hunt around Riyadh proved to us that we weren’t about to find better maps than we had, here in Riyadh. The friend who loaned us his apartment in London for our England trip is also a bit of a shopping buff for uncommon things. He suggested a particular map shop in London as a possible source for rare and exotic maps. While in London, we went to this map shop and found 2 rather large maps of The Empty Quarter. 

 One of the very important activities in the preparation was the gaining of sand-driving skills. We had learned that The Empty Quarter is largely sand and neither Nick or myself had any worthwhile experience driving in sand. Many trips were organized, the object of which was to gain experience with sand driving. 

     Eventually the day came. It was time to pack and go. The amount of stuff that we had was staggering. We had an abundance of food, mainly packaged or dried food, but also fresh food for the first couple of days. We had a box full of UHT milk, also dried soup, tins of vegetables and tuna, dried fruit. The list went on. We also had 5 boxes, or 60 bottles, of drinking water. This amounted to 90lt of drinking water. As it was winter, this was at least twice as much as we needed. For other use, we took 5 x 20lt plastic jerry cans of tap water. We also had 6 x 20lt plastic jerry cans for extra fuel. A seemingly insignificant item that we had gathered were 3 pieces of wood, intended for use in case we had to jack up a car in the sand. Scattered on the lounge room floor, this hoard of stuff looked amazing. I didn’t think we would be able to get it all into the cars, but with thoughtful packing, we managed it quite easily. 

     The next day, Tuesday the 27th of January, we were off. Nick came down at 08:30, we did the final check list and were on our way by 9 o’clock. The jumping off point was Hararrd, a terrible little grot hole on the edge of The Empty Quarter. It was from here that most of the few tracks left from. We had identified the beginnings of the track we needed 2 months previously on one of our many planning trips. 

     We rushed to Hararrd at 140 kph in order to get there before the lunch time prayer began. We had still to get the jerry cans of petrol and fill the tanks and we didn’t really want to wait around for a half an hour for the petrol station to open up again. 

     We filled the tanks and the jerry cans, much to the bemusement of the petrol station staff. We now had 120 lts of extra fuel, in addition to the 500 km worth in my tank and the 4 – 500 km worth in Nick’s. It was 11:30 and we were finally leaving the bitumen. We had also begun filling in the log sheets that we had on which we marked information such as time, odometer reading, direction etc. These log sheets would prove to be handy before the end of the trip. 

     The start of the track was a well graded and maintained track. We were heading East-South-East (ESE) and the weather was bright and sunny. By 12 o’clock, we were heading SSE. We had covered 13 km and the track was still the same graded track. I was a touch annoyed by the amazing quality. Weren’t we supposed to be heading into the wilderness? The countryside was sparse and relatively flat. But so far, there was nothing spectacular. Fifteen minutes later, we came onto a farm. A check of the maps helped us decide which way to go to progress around the farm. The readings we took at this point made me start to wonder a little. The direction was now SW. I confirmed this by carefully reading the compass well away from the cars. I had been warned that the metal body of a vehicle can effect the compass reading, so I moved well away. However, it was still SW, no matter how I did the reading. The map said we were supposed to be heading ESE. I wasn’t overly concerned though because the road / track was still very high quality. 

     Another 9 km down the track and it was now 12:30. We had reached a 4 way junction of tracks and were heading SW. It was time for lunch, so we pulled the cars over and ate in their shade. It was still Ramadan and we weren’t supposed to be eating. There wasn’t too much to worry about though because we were now 43km off the bitumen and the chance of having any passing traffic was diminishing rapidly. 

     After lunch, we decided on which one of the 4 tracks to follow and headed off down that track. Five km further and we came to a farm that did not seem to have a track to go around. We headed back to the junction. More thinking and checking of maps and then we decided on the southerly of the remaining 2 options. Very soon we found another track heading in the direction we wanted, or more close to it anyway, so we took a reading and updated the log and set off. This was now a 2 wheel rut track and was skirting the boundary of the farm we had been at. After 9 km it came onto a well defined track, onto which we turned and headed SSW. This section proved to be the most difficult for finding our way back. We were leaving plastic bags filled with rocks at the various track junctions, to aid with determining which track to take when we returned. We were now 55 km off road and it was 2:15. The weather was, to be expected, bright and sunny. 

     We were now on another high quality graded track that went as straight as an arrow, heading SSW. Our intention had been to travel SSE or SE, but who was I to argue. This was a quality track and was heading roughly in the direction we intended. Maybe the map was slightly off. Saudi maps don’t always bother to even have north pointing up the page, so maybe the north point was just a little inaccurate. 

     We motored along this stretch. Parts of it were fairly rough from the rocks, but we managed to get along at a good pace. The countryside was flat and featureless, utterly. All-of-a-sudden, this all changed. We could see some jebels (hills) developing over on the right and before we knew it, we were heading down hill into a small village. We stopped and took stock. We were now a long way from other people and the thought of driving straight into a difficult situation didn’t particular thrill us. We put our wallets under the seats (that’d fool them), identified a route around the village and set off.  

     The village appeared totally deserted. It was a live village as it was obvious that people lived there, but no-one could be seen. This suited us, so we drove past the village and into the sand dunes behind it. We had descended from the flat, featureless plain that we had been traveling on and were now into some interesting countryside. 

     The sand dunes weren’t all that big and there were a couple of well used tracks that went across. We took the lower of these, put the cars in low gear and went in. Five minutes later, after much weaving about and rock’n’roll and revving of motors, we emerged out the other side and onto a salt flat. This was starting to look like another planet. For the next couple of kilometres, it appeared to be very rough dried mud, covered with a crust of salt and with scraggly looking bushes growing. We bounced along this bit and across the following mud flats (dry), only to find ourselves confronted with a major major dirt road and a large village. The road was 4 lanes wide and was a constructed road. The village looked as if it was home to 2 or 3 hundred people with a mosque, power, the works. Who knows where they got the power from. We certainly hadn’t seen any power lines coming in and we were now 141 km from the bitumen. 

     We decided to take the left hand option, as this was heading  SSW. May as well remain consistent. We thundered along this road for the next 30 km or so, sometimes in 5th gear, sometimes having to leave the road and take to the wheel tracks beside it. This road was being built and there was much earth moving being done. I couldn’t figure out why they would be building a road like this or where the money was coming from. The only answer that made any sense was oil exploration. 

     Suddenly the road came to an end. However the line of survey pegs continued straight as an arrow. We continued following the wheel track that accompanied the survey pegs for another 15 kms, to find that it ran into a line of low dunes. There was low vegetation in this place, with a covering of sparse grass as well. We carefully followed the tracks to the top of the dunes, but were not able to see anything of importance on the other side. With the time now approaching 4 in the afternoon, we decided to camp for the night. We found a lovely spot away from the track and with access to plenty of fire wood. Fifteen minutes later we were settled. 

     For tea that night (dinner or supper for those who can’t understand Australian English), we cooked up one of our stews. This involves some meat in the pot with plenty of vegetables thrown in, then cook it up for a while and enjoy. This was a very pleasant evening and wasn’t too cold. We were wearing the cloaks that we had bought, the ones that smelled like horse blankets, and felt very warm and cozy. 

     The next day we headed over the dunes in an attempt to continue following the survey pegs. There were no problems getting over, but when we got there, there was nothing to follow. So we then decided to head back across the dunes and out into the huge flat area to the west. We thought that, if we didn’t have a track to follow or landmarks to mark the way, then we may as well follow the compass. We chose west, as this would lead us towards the centre of the Empty Quarter. 

     We drove out onto the flat land heading due west. Only one kilometre later, we crossed a substantial (2 wheel ruts) track that was heading SSW. As this was the direction we had been heading the whole of the previous afternoon, we decided to continue in this direction by following this track. Also, the last we saw of the survey pegs, they were still heading SSW. Sure enough, the track took us back to the dunes and through to the other side. That was OK. We were still on a track and still heading SSW. Off we went. 

     This is where we left civilization (as we know it) behind. We were now 189 km from the bitumen, across a line of dunes and heading into a wide open area. Hmm. 

 The 2 wheel ruts were still heading SSW, so we followed them. We found ourselves on a flat (as a tack) plain of small pebbles. Over to the left and behind us there were lines of low dunes. To the right, there was nothing but the same plain of pebbles. We continued on. We soon found that we could travel comfortably in 5th gear and at 90 kph. We also found that the track was diminishing. There were many wheel tracks criss-crossing our path, tracks where a single vehicle had passed maybe in the last 12 months. I began to wonder if we were doing the right thing. The compass was due SSW, so that was reassuring. Obviously there had been many vehicles pass over this ground during an indeterminate period of time. That was good (I supposed). However, I wondered why none of the vehicle tracks were heading in our direction. 

 We decided to continue. We crossed lowish areas which required 4th gear. We crossed low sand mounds, that required 2nd gear. We crossed many vehicle tracks at right angles. And we just kept going. I must have checked the compass 37,548 times, to make sure that we were still heading SSW and we were. We were now motoring at 90 kph, heading SSW. Lines of dunes came and went. I began to feel like that fellow in the movie ‘The Time Machine’, watching the world pass by while I remained sheltered from it. 

     Eventually we stopped for a reconnoiter. We had covered 80km in a dead straight line at 90 kph, and all we had seen were occasional lines of sand dunes. I was starting to feel like I was part of a Salvadore Darli painting. We decided to venture the 1 km across to the closest dunes and have some lunch. We made sure we knew where we were and how to get back there after lunch. This was becoming eerie. 

     While having lunch, I discovered that Nick was feeling similar to myself, although he did not have the benefit of having the compass with him. He was trusting me to know where we were. We decided that it was best to continue on the same line, which was about to take us over the line of dunes, so after our lunch we got back in the cars and looked for a way over. We found a low section and I went up and had a look. There was a small section that was appropriate to go over, so we aimed the cars up with me in front. 

     When the car got to the top, it was impossible to see what was directly in front, so I took it on blind faith that I was aiming for the section I had seen. Nick was close behind me and was following directly in my wheel tracks. I took the car over and found myself suddenly aiming down at a rather alarming angle. Nick was right behind me. I threw the car into first gear and planted my foot, because I had learned through our practice sessions over the previous 12 months that there are 2 requirements for getting through soft sand; forward momentum and high revs. The car came down dramatically and revved its way up and out of the dip on the other side. It almost got stuck but didn’t. What a relief. I was now driving across the sand flats on the other side. 

     But where was Nick? He wasn’t in the mirror or anywhere within a couple of hundred meters. ‘Oh no’ I thought. I stopped the car and could see Nick in the rear view mirror. He was at the base of the dune but didn’t appear to be moving. I drove back and stopped 50 metres away on a firm piece of ground. As I walked over, I could see that all was not well. It was not until I actually got to the car that I saw that it was on 3 wheels. The rear left wheel was hanging in mid air. ‘Oh no’ I thought, yet again. The angle that his car was on was almost picturesque. By now Nick was out of the car and had started to scrape away sand from the wheels. No problem, thought I. I shall get the trusty Jeep and we’ll have this car out in a jiffy.  

     I went back to my car and got in. I drove it towards Nick’s car, in a line that would enable us to hook up the tow ropes that we had and pull it out. That was the theory. The reality was that this sand was very slippery sand as well as being soft underfoot. I was no closer than 20m from Nicks car when my car just ground to a halt. I tried reversing out to no avail. I tried low ratio, which I have now concluded is not designed for sand driving, to no avail. I was now down to the floor pan. At this point I decided to stop. Within the space of less than 5 minutes, both cars were bogged to the floor in very soft sand. This required some thought. 

     The first thing we determined was that Nick’s car was the most likely to be freed. What you have to remember is that we were 90km from any track, in an almost featureless expanse of desert. For those in Victoria (Australia), 90km is from Melbourne almost to Ballarat. And that was only the distance to the closest track. The closest settlement was another 48km on top of that, and the bitumen was a total of 285km from where the cars languished in the sun, and that is almost from Melbourne to Albury. It was rapidly becoming very important to get at least one car free. 

     Nick asked me to drive and he would push. He was remembering back to the time many many trips ago, when we had become bogged in a puddle of sand and I had woken up in hospital the next day, largely due to the effort involved in pushing the car out. This was a worry that Nick had on top of the ones I had. I got in, put the diff lock on, and prepared to get the car out. 

     The first attempt was hopeless; not a budge. The second attempt, however, had the car lurching forward and onto a more reasonable angle. It advanced 8 metres before stopping again. Our training had taught us that it is not good to continue to rev the car when it is obviously not proceeding. It results in more harm than good. Therefore, when the car stopped this time and just revved, I stopped and turned it off. What to do? 

     We dug around the wheels with our hands and then tried again. No good. The car was down to the floor again. We had progressed into endurance mode, so we took plenty of breaks to eat and drink water. During one of these breaks, I suggested that we try our cloaks under the wheels to give some chance of grip. We discussed the pros and cons because neither of us wanted to wreck our cloaks. However, using the cloaks under the wheels won the day and so we tucked them under and tried again. IT WORKED, up to a point. The car progressed half a metre. This was all the convincing we needed that we were on to something. It was also the beginning of the breaking down of the barriers to survival thinking. 

     For the rest of the afternoon, until 5 o’clock, we scraped away at the wheels and used the cloaks underneath. We had also started to use the sleeping bags in the same way. There had been progress but the car was still utterly stuck, seemingly surrounded by a sea of sand. At 5 o’clock we decided that was it for the day. There was only a half an hour of light left and I was worried that our moods may dip if we worked into the gloom. It was time to set up camp. 

     We chose a spot on the leeward side of the cars. The wind was blowing in a gusty manner and we wanted to diminish its effect as much as possible. There wasn’t any chance of a wood fire that night, due to where we were, but we still had a pleasant evening, given the circumstances. While we were talking and joking and listening to Switzerland or Holland on the shortwave, we noticed a plane going directly over the top of us. We started discussing the possibility of signalling an oncoming plane using the torch that we had. We had no intentions of signalling that night, or probably even the night after, but we had to ensure that we had alternative ideas available. We were both becoming more aware of the risk of our moods dipping dramatically. 

     The next day we were ready to start work by 9 o’clock. Again, we were going to concentrate on Nick’s car, as that stood the best chance of getting out. During the previous evening, we had discussed many possibilities and had come up with 2 usable ones. They were to use the water boxes and the tarpaulin under the wheels. We emptied out the boxes of water and equipment and folded them appropriately. Then we prepared the space in front of the car for the tarpaulin. The boxes went in front of the wheels, covered by the cloaks and the sleeping bags, which, by the way, had shaken out very well the previous evening and had suffered no damage what-so-ever. I may just send a letter of gratitude to Colemans for their tough equipment. 

     When all was ready, I started the car and let it warm up. Then we tried it. Amazingly, the car would not budge. We checked everything. Each wheel was loose enough, the car wasn’t bedded on the floor pan. What was the problem? We wondered if the sand was such that it was more ‘slippery’ than we were used to and that, in combination with the slight incline that the car was on, was stopping it from getting a grip. Then came the next innovation. The jack. 

     What we decided to do was to jack each wheel of the car up and pack underneath with sand, cardboard, cloaks and sleeping bags. This was a long and laborious process. We had anticipated a situation like this, needing to jack the car up in the sand, and brought 3 pieces of wood to use as a base for the jack. But before they could be used, a space had to be dug out under the car for the wood and jack. This was hard work and took awhile.  

     After the first effort using this new found combination of ideas, being the cloaks, the cardboard boxes, the sleeping bags, the tarpaulin and jacking each wheel of the car up, we were not able to drive the car out, but it gave us much more confidence that this was going to eventually work. The next attempt, after more jacking and packing, we were able to drive the car out. This was elation material. It was now 12 midday and Nick’s car had been bogged for 23 hours. Suddenly, here I was driving it out and onto hard ground. We were thrilled, to put it mildly. 

     It was time for lunch and a much more upbeat chat. We were no longer in danger and we both knew it. Through this though, I couldn’t help but think about my car. It was still totally stuck and I didn’t relish the idea of leaving it there. Even if we did come back to get it, we may never find it again. 

     While we were eating and resting, we talked over the techniques we had used to get Nick’s car out and refined them further. With this knowledge and experience, after lunch it took us an hour to prepare my car and drive it out, almost as if it had never been bogged. As quick as the cars had been bogged, we were able to drive them around to the hard side of the dunes and park them. What a turn around. We had been bogged for a total of 25 hours. 

     We decided to camp right there that night and regain our balance for the challenge ahead; that of finding our way out.  

     I had a terrible night’s sleep that night, because I couldn’t help but think of the potential difficulties that we faced finding our way back. We were putting virtually total faith in our abilities to follow the compass back and find ourselves within a bulls roar of where we had left the track. If we were 20 km off, we might not even find any track. I tossed and turned and got some fitful sleep. At first light, I looked up to see a huge black bird of some sort, a carrion I suspect, hovering over me. I looked at it for a moment and then realized that it was one of many in a mob that was investigating us. I hissed at it and it took off with hilarious speed. It hadn’t realized that we were alive and so my hiss had scared it witless. 

     We packed the cars, discussed our strategy, and were prepared to leave by 9 o’clock. We back tracked to the point we had stopped 2 days previously, checked the compass and then set off. This was, in my mind, the greatest challenge; to find our way back. Then, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Even though we had had a fairly consistent wind blowing for 2 days, our tyre tracks stretched out in front of us, like a glowing train line. Because there were 2 of us and because there were no other tracks going in the same direction, I was able to follow our tracks easily. For the next 80km, my eyes never left our tracks. It seemed that the faster we drove, the easier it was to follow our own tracks. I would make blindingly fast checks of the compass to ensure we were traveling NNE, and even faster checks of the mirror to ensure Nick was still there. But apart from those fleeting moments, my eyes were glued to our 2 day old tracks. There was one point where a flurry of other tracks obliterated ours. But because of our speed and the fact that there were 2 sets of tracks I was following, I was able to readily find our tracks on the other side. By a quarter to eleven, we were back at the first camping spot. That was the first tough part of the return completed, but there was more to come. 

     That night was brilliant. We relaxed and laughed and had the best meal of the trip. We knew that we were only 25 or 30km from the village and it took a weight of our minds. 

     The next day was a long day. We found our way back to the salt flats without mishap and managed to traverse the sand easily. We nearly got lost in the small village, but found our way out and back onto the track we had come in on. Our next difficulty was going to be finding our way past the farm. Sure enough, we had a lot of trouble finding the track. We had left marker bags to show the way, but we couldn’t find one of these. So we had to trust the accuracy of the logs and turn off on a track that did not look right. Sure enough, within a couple of kilometres we found ourselves next to the farm. Five kilometres further and we found the 4 way intersection.  

     Twenty kilometres further and it was time for lunch. We pulled off the track and had a tuna salad. The food was there and we were about to re-enter the Saudi version of the modern world again, so why not live it up. It was just as we were packed and ready to hit the track that Nick saw that he had a flat tyre. How ironic. After all that we had been through, to have a flat tyre on a good section of gravel road, less than 20km from the bitumen. 

     Changing the flat was quick and easy and we were soon back in Hararrd, grot hole that it is. Three long hours later and we were back in Riyadh. We arrived back at ASASCO within 5 minutes of the time I had told Donna to expect us home. We had covered 5 days and over 1000km since we had left. 

     The Empty Quarter trip was over.

Marathon des Sables – Table of Contents

Marathon des Sables

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 – The Young Diabetic in Cubicle 3

Chapter 2 – A Year of Daze

Chapter 3 – The Magic Kingdom is Calling

Chapter 4 – The Magic Kingdom

Chapter 5 – The Desert – A Love Story

Chapter 6 – The Long and Winding Road

Chapter 7 – Murphy’s Law

Chapter 8 – Wilsons Prom Full On

Chapter 9 – La Grande Aventure

Chapter 10 – The Event Day 1

Chapter 11 – The Event Day 3

Chapter 12 – The Real World Beckons

Chapter 13 – To Marrakesh and Beyond

Chapter 14 – Tangier or Bust

Chapter 15 – The Train in Spain

Chapter 16 – In The Navy (Almost)

Chapter 17 – Homeward Bound

 

Living With T1D – Side Issues

Many, many years ago I experienced a near death experience because of my T1D. I was working shift work and my blood glucose level went dangerously low while I was sleeping and I ended up in intensive care for a week. Among the various results of this was mild brain damage that the doctors told me I would learn to live with.

Well, the doctors were correct. I did learn to live with the brain damage and I’m still here 35 years later to tell the story. But I’ve also come to realise that brain damage, even more so than Type 1 Diabetes, is impossible for people to understand if they haven’t had close experience with it. And yesterday I had an experience that gives me an opportunity to explain more about what it’s like to live with some sort of brain damage.

In my case, the brain damage has affected my memory. And you may be wondering what the connection is between T1D and brain damage. Well, when the level of glucose, let’s call it “sugar”, in the blood drops to a dangerous level, the brain, which uses 40% of the sugar that your body needs, doesn’t get enough to be able to function and keep the body alive. So it starts looking for energy in other places, and one of them is to start eating itself to get the required energy to keep the vital functions alive. Memory is not as important to staying alive as the part of the brain that controls breathing and the heart, so it gets sacrificed to keep the others alive. Hence the damage to my memory.

So what happened yesterday?

I was walking down the street I live in and saw one of my neighbours out in her front garden. I stopped to say hello and we chatted away for a good 10 minutes about local happenings, other people in the street, her magnificent grass on her nature strip etc. We have both lived in the street, about 3 houses from each other, for the last 5 years. We’ve both attended street Christmas parties, we’ve joked and laughed and tutted about silly local government decisions. Yesterday we even passed a little bit of gossip about somebody else in the street. It was a pleasant 10 minutes in the afternoon sun chatting with somebody I’ve known for over 5 years.

So what is my neighbours name?

I have no idea. After numerous Christmas parties, impromptu street chats, assorted bar-b-ques over the last 5 years, in which I’ve been told her name at least 20 times, yesterday I had no idea what it was. So how was I able to chat for 10 minutes? I simply called on the tips and tricks that the doctors referred to 35 years ago that I would learn to be able to navigate day-to-day life. And yesterday it worked.

As we were chatting, one of our common neighbours came up in the conversation. My neighbour referred to her by name at least 3 times as we were talking about various things. I’ve met this common neighbour at least as many times as the neighbour I was chatting with, and likely more. The common neighbour is a very friendly, outgoing young mother who has a couple of young children and is highly thought of by our section of the street. But when in our chat I needed to make reference to the same neighbour, the young mother, I couldn’t remember her name. Now keep in mind that the neighbour I was chatting with had mentioned her name only moments before, but I couldn’t remember it. So I pointed at the house, made a general reference and waited for the neighbour lady to fill in the blank with the name, which she did. So our conversation was able to proceed quite smoothly with only a fraction of a second of awkwardness.

But here’s the thing. After I finished chatting with my neighbour and was walking off toward my house, suddenly the young lady neighbour emerged from her front door as I was walking past her house. She had a couple of friends with her and the older of her children. So I stopped to chat. I praised the young daughter and played some word games with her. The young mother and I joked and chatted for a couple of minutes, in which she made reference to me by name to her friends that were there. I commented that she had a good memory, because there was I, who had been told this young lady’s name 3 times only minutes before by the other neighbour, completely oblivious to what her name was.

So I called on the tips and tricks that the doctors had made reference to 35 years ago and was able to navigate through the conversation with a minimum of angst. I praised the counting ability of the little girl, made a general throw away compliment to the young mother, then proceeded to my house and inside to my sanctuary.

And all of this was in a single 12 minute period.

Can you imagine the mental gymnastics I have to perform at the annual Christmas parties? The only names I know in the entire street, after living here for 5 years, are the neighbours on the down hill side of our house and the name of the lady who lives across the street. Who knows why I remember her name.

This is just one of many, many other potential aspects of living with T1D. We all know about the missing toes, feet, kidneys and eyes, but it’s not so obvious about the brain damage and missing memory.

A Little Bit of Self Indulgence

Until now, most of my posts have been focussed on showing how well people with T1D are able to live. I’ve talked about many of the difficulties we deal with but how with hard work, grit and determination, we can overcome these hurdles and triumph over the adversaries T1D throws up. I’ve spoken extensively about travel and extreme sports and adventure and how we can achieve most of that, again with that jaw jutting determination and grit.

However now I’m going to indulge myself a little and attempt to write about the brutal reality of our lives. Rather than sugar coat it, a little bit of tongue-in-cheek irony there, I’m going to tell what it’s really like living with this invisible illness.

And I believe that is one of the important causes of some of the difficulties associated with living with T1D; to most people, T1D is invisible.

When I was diagnosed back in 1974, when “diabetes” was mentioned in a conversation, the immediate thought that people had was of children suffering from the dreaded “sugar diabetes”. Back then, Type 1 Diabetes was officially known as Juvenile Onset Diabetes. It was generally understood that this was a sad death sentence imposed on an innocent child who may have eaten too much sugar, but was now doomed to a difficult life and premature death. Nobody openly spoke about the blindness and lost limbs. That was silently understood to be some of the consequences of this awful illness. The other “diabetes”, which wasn’t spoken about much because there wasn’t much of it, was known as Maturity Onset Diabetes. That was an older person’s illness and was understood to be not as drastic as the poor “kiddies diabetes”.

Of course, back in 1974, the medical knowledge of “diabetes” was nowhere near as advanced as it is today. The big advances made during the 20th century, prior to 1974, had been the discovery of insulin back in 1923, which was a game changer for everyone with Juvenile Onset Diabetes, and the ability to check the level of sugar in the system. In 1974 this was still rudimentary, being a pill in some wee that changed colour. It wasn’t at all accurate and rather cumbersome, but at least it gave a traffic light warning about whether we had high sugar. We used glass syringes that would jam, with needles that would quickly go blunt and hurt profusely. But at least we had insulin and so could keep ourselves alive.

That about sums up the knowledge and equipment we had back then for managing this illness. Any wonder one of the silent killers of people living with this illness was, and still is, depression and a slow death by severe mis-management of the illness.

Moving forward to the present, we have seen some momentous changes, both good and bad. Now I remind you that I am writing this solely from the perspective of someone who has lived for 42 years with T1D, ie Juvenile Onset Diabetes.

Let’s start with the positives. The medical knowledge is vastly superior now to what it was back then. The scientists have delved deep inside the cells and DNA to discover huge amounts about what happens when someone develops T1D. They are deep inside the molecular structure of proteins and genes and the immune system, trying to learn why the body’s immune system turns on the pancreas and destroys the vital cells that make insulin. They have made great advances, but have not yet discovered the answer.

The insulin we use now is highly scientific, being made using genetic engineering. It’s bleeding edge stuff that keeps 30 million people alive every single day. It truly is a mind boggling achievement that is not recognised enough for its brilliance. In ’74 we relied on the pancreas from slaughtered cattle and pigs to keep us alive. Now our insulin comes from a high tech factory.

What were once glass syringes that jammed, with tram-track needles that became blunt and hurt like heck, have become easy to use disposable syringes or injection pens, with tiny, fine needles that can be almost painless. Yes they can still bruise and cause the fat under the skin to go hard, but are a vast improvement on those glass syringes. In addition, insulin pumps are becoming more and more common, especially for those newly diagnosed. These make the controlling of the Blood Glucose Level (BGL) much more accurate, thereby lessening the long term consequences that come from T1D.

Let’s now have a look at some of the negative changes that have happened since 1974. The first, and to me most nonsensical, is that knowledge about T1D in the general medical community, media, and the community in general, has gone backwards. You would expect that a GP or nurse today would be better informed and more in tune with the realities of T1D than back in the days when a pill was dropped into a test tube of wee to see if the sugar was high. But instead we find that they are not. Stories abound of dangerous mismanagement in hospitals, of lack of understanding of food requirements and insulin requirements for inpatients, of assumption of T2D when visiting a new GP, of blame being used as a patient management tool in clinics, hospitals and pharmacies. So the modern world has regressed from the assumption of T1D and a feeling of sadness for the sufferer to an assumption of T2D and an underlying tendency to blame the sufferer.

Why? Why has this appalling situation developed? Shouldn’t we in the modern world be 42 years further advanced, not 100 years reversed?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, and I’m concerned that nobody seems to. I can make some guesses, but that’s all they are, educated guesses.

The best I can do in an attempt to make a difference to this sad, and to be honest, dangerous situation, is to describe what we with T1D endure each and every day of our lives. And I do this simply to try to bring some perspective to people’s thinking, so they can hopefully understand a little better what is an invisible illness, but is all too real to those who live with it, and their immediate family. And just to make sure that nothing to do with T1D is straight forward, this is my routine and experiences, not necessarily what every person with T1D goes through each day. Of the 120,000 Australians, and 30 million people world wide, who live with T1D, each have their own daily routine and requirements.

No two are exactly the same.

Let’s start by looking at how we got T1D. There are a number of common scenarios, but they all have one thing in common. We didn’t do anything to get T1D. Many of us were just babies or young children, so couldn’t possibly have made it happen. But none of us got it because of what we ate or our level of exercise or how much television we watched. This is one of the things that the scientists still don’t know; they still haven’t figured out what the true cause is. But what they do know for absolute certainty is that lifestyle had nothing at all to do with us developing T1D. They know for sure that something caused our immune system to turn on us and destroy part of the pancreas, but they don’t know what that was. So even accidentally or surreptitiously blaming us is akin to blaming a person with MS for them getting that devastating illness.

No, really; I’m dead serious.

Now I’ll have a look at the role of insulin in our lives. And the obvious first point to make is that insulin is not a medicine. It is not a drug, or a pill. It is also something that we canNOT go without. In very simple terms, insulin is a hormone that is naturally produced by every human and every animal, every minute of every day for the entirety of their life. The moment their body stops producing insulin naturally, they from that moment on have T1D and have joined our club, whether they be a human or a dog or a cow, mouse, monkey, whale or armadillo. So you could say that us having an insulin injection is actually hormone replacement. We are replacing what our body no longer produces on its own. Jump back to the previous paragraph and I’ll re-state – the experts don’t know why our immune system attacks the pancreas and stops it from making insulin.

What does insulin do for us? Well, it does exactly the same for us as it does for people who don’t have T1D, ie. you. It enables the glucose in the blood to cross over from the blood into each and every cell of the body, all 120 squillion of them. The glucose is what the cells use for the energy they need to live. So no insulin, no glucose in the cells, no energy, no life. Pretty brutal, huh? So give yourself a little pat about the bottom of your rib cage on the right hand side and say thank-you to your pancreas. And wish it well for the future, because anyone can develop T1D at any point in their life, and the scientists still don’t know why.

That made you sit up and think, didn’t it. Do you wee a lot? Are you constantly thirsty? Have you been losing a surprising amount of weight?

Let’s now have a brief look at a typical day living with T1D. As you read this, try to keep in the back of your mind that this is every single day for the rest of our lives. I’ve already done this about 15,540 times, which is around the number of days since I was diagnosed ( https://alexofoz.wordpress.com/2015/09/06/marathon-des-sables-chapter-1-the-young-diabetic-in-cubicle-3/ ).

The first consideration is whether you wake up at all. So your day with T1D begins before you are even awake. So long as the previous day was close to normal, your state of general health is reasonable, you ate the right amount of food the previous evening, didn’t do anything outrageous and your BGL was within an acceptable range before you went to bed, you should be waking up as normal in the morning. But it is not guaranteed. A well known situation known by the medical community that is mentioned in muted terms is “Dead-in-bed syndrome”, where a person with T1D experiences a dramatic dropping of the BGL overnight and passes from sleep to a state of hypoglycaemia, then into unconscious and a coma, before dying without waking up. I have experienced this myself a number of times in years gone past, obviously without progressing to the final step.

OK, so we’ve woken up and are preparing for the day. The first thing to do is to check the BGL, then have the first of a number of injections of insulin through the day. My routine says that I have 2 injections before breakfast. So after checking my BGL, which involves one of those pieces of modern technology I mention above, a finger prick and a drop of blood, I find that my level is a/ safe and b/ a little on the high side. This doesn’t present an immediate problem; I’m quite safe and won’t be collapsing from low BGL. That is the “a” part. But the “b” part is longer term. If my BGL is too high too often for too long, I am exposing myself to those horrible long term consequences that anybody with any form of “diabetes” is exposed to. And that is something that is constantly there in the back of my mind, tapping on my conscience every time I need to make a decision about food. Do I want to go blind, lose a foot or have kidney failure?

And people wonder why I can sometimes be a little stiff with my choices about food. Really?

But wait; what if the “a” part shows the BGL is low? Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Now we change our thinking from waffling off to some time in the future, instead to crashing into the present, into the here and now, to the very present danger that we now find ourselves. We have to take action now to stop ourselves rapidly going lower until we lose the ability to think and make decisions. We have minutes only to decide precisely what to do. In all the world except the USA, where the BGL is measured on a different scale, if the level shown on the modern, high tech meter is say 3, we need to immediately take remedial action to bring the level up. At 3 we have maybe less than 30 minutes until we’re unconscious. But we have less than that until we can no longer clearly, easily, quickly make life saving decisions. If we hesitate, we may not be able to take the necessary action within the next 15 or 20 minutes.

If the level glowing on that lovely, bright, high tech, modern BGL meter is closer to 2, stop reading now and go and have a fruit juice box. Oh, and you had better wake somebody else in the house up because you are now in very real danger. No, I am not joking and I am not exaggerating. Call out now to wake somebody else up. If you can’t find the fruit juice box, or you can’t manage the task of opening the box within the next minute or two, your time of being able to has almost passed. The next person you may see will likely be wearing a white overcoat and be looking down at you with extreme concern in their eyes.

All of this and you haven’t even changed out of your dressing gown yet.

We’ve had our finger prick test for the BGL and have concluded that we’re in a safe range. Now is the time for the 2 injections of insulin. Back when I was still using the disposable syringes, it was only 1 injection in the morning. That was because the syringe enabled me to combine the 2 insulins that I inject in the morning into one injection. I won’t bore you with the details, but there are many types of insulin, each designed with a specific purpose. Remember when I said above how the modern insulins are one of the amazing advances that have been made by modern science? Well this is where that plays it’s important part. The 2 that I have include one that has an action period over about 4 hours and another that has an action period over about 12 hours. The combination means I am covered for my vital insulin requirements until dinner time tonight.

Why would I choose to have 2 injections with the more modern pen, rather than one with the disposable syringe? Again, not wanting to bore you to tears with details, that’s because the needles used by the pens are immensely fine and less painful than the needles used by the syringes. Yes, there are reasons for that, but too boring for you to be bothered with.

So now, still in my dressing gown and not even having left the bathroom yet after climbing out of bed, I have the information I need to be able to prepare and have my morning injections. Considerations in the decision process include my expected level of activity for that upcoming day, my general state of health, the expected weather conditions for that day, the current season, the result obtained from the BGL test and least of all, how hungry I’m feeling.

Now, I could go on for paragraphs about the injection process, the difficulties encountered, how we learn to overcome the hesitation to stick a sharp piece of metal into ourselves, the occasional pain, avoiding the hard lumps that form under the skin over time, and the regular bruising that happens …. but I won’t. You would find it either squeamish, horrifying, off putting or boring, but unlikely would you find it interesting. So let’s just leave it that I now have 2 injections of insulin that mean I can remain healthy for the next 12 hours.

The next activity in the morning routine that requires diabetes consideration is breakfast. As I maintain the routine that I was trained for when I was diagnosed back in ’74, I have a set amount of carbohydrate for each meal. This can be adjusted to some extent, dependant on similar criteria as used when determining the amount of insulin for the injections. But generally speaking, breakfast is composed of 60g of carbohydrate, made from the appropriate combination of short, medium and long acting carbohydrate and healthy, nutritional food.

With the modern approach to managing T1D, we are supposedly free to choose almost anything we wish to eat, both in nutritional content and amount. But the “modern approach” is just the latest in an ongoing history of adjustment, based on the latest learning. For an old fart like myself, I’m more comfortable sticking with what I know until I have a compelling reason to change.

So we now find ourselves tested, injected and supped. It’s time to go to work.

I expect we just pick up our bag, close the door and walk to the station. Well, no, that would be way too easy. Living with type 1 diabetes means that we have to plan ahead for the coming day, ensure we have enough food with us for lunch and 2 snacks, ensure we have the blood testing meter with us and, most important of all, ensure we have enough emergency food. Really? Yes; let’s see if we need it.

One of the aspects of long term management of T1D is to have enough regular exercise. That applies to everybody of course, but it is even more important for someone living with T1D. No, it is not vital but I consider that, if I am to survive to see my grand children grow to adulthood, I need to ensure I do all within my power to stay as healthy as possible. There are so many ways that T1D is trying to shorten my life, or severely affect the quality of my life, that I need to actively push back against it. And my chosen way of doing that is walking. I love to walk, especially in the early morning.

Therefor on most mornings I get off the train a couple of stops before my work destination and walk in from there. It gives me a 40 minute walk through beautiful gardens and a good amount of fresh air and exercise. By the time I get to my office, I feel invigorated and I know that I’ve done a little bit to contribute to my long term health and vitality.

The humdrum of the work day proceeds and, take my word for it, nothing of great excitement happens. At 9 o’clock I have my morning snack that I packed before leaving home. It is a tub of yoghurt containing 23 grams of carbohydrate, which is close to the amount I need for that time of day. Yes, I know. It all sounds quite anal, doesn’t it? 9 o’clock? 23 grams? Really? Yes, it is that level of control that has kept me alive for 15,540’ish days so far.

The work day continues …. zero excitement entails.

An email comes in from Joe Blogs. It is 10:45. This email needs me to answer, to provide some technical information that I am the best to provide. So I start typing up the response.

Oops, I spelt that wrong – what was I saying? – Oh yeah, I remember – Hang on, what was the point I was aiming for? – Oh, I’ve typed the same thing twice – delete, delete, delete – I seem to have made a few mistakes, so I’d better read back over what I’ve written.

WHAT? That’s a bunch of badly worded, badly spelled jumbled jargon that doesn’t give a clear answer. Why have I written such a poor response?

Response to what?

I wonder if my sugar has dropped. How do I feel? My tongue is OK, but my lips feel a little tingly. Is that a warning sign?

Nah, I’m OK. How do I continue with the email? I think I have to use the mouse. WHOA, hang on! I think I’m low.

Over the course of 4 minutes, I’ve gone from perfectly normal to suddenly not able to write an email. At this point, my only option, while I am capable of still think logically, is to break out my pack of emergency food that I packed this morning and get out the fruit juice box. I’m fumbling with the silly straw as it’s difficult to get that silly plastic sheath off, which means I’m quickly getting worse. Quick, carefully push the straw through that little circle of silver stuff on the top. It’s difficult, isn’t it. The silly straw doesn’t want to break the silver cover. There, got it. Now suck that juice down.

KEEP GOING!

How do I feel? There’s no way I can do the email yet. I can’t even work out how to do the mouse thing. Shit I hate this.

Jelly beans. Get out the jelly beans. A small hand full. Man, they’re sweet. Another small hand full.

Slowly, over the next 10 minutes, I gradually come back to the world of the here-and-now. Now I know what the mouse is and can even figure out how to use it. I read back over what I’ve written and realise it isn’t as bad as I thought before I went low, but it certainly needs some work to finish before I send it off to the fellow in Bangalore.

Even though I’d had a preparatory fruit juice box before getting off the train, then another after arriving at work, the combination of the weather, the season, my activity the previous day, the quality of my sleep last night, my general state of health, how fast I walked through the park this morning, all conspired to send my sugar low later in the morning. If I mention this occurrence to anybody, which I’m apt to do as I don’t keep these things secret, I’m likely to receive helpful advice such as “You should eat more for breakfast”, or “Maybe go to bed earlier”. I need to be grateful, because they are at least showing some interest, but the advice provided does show that it is impossible for people not actually living with T1D to truly understand the complexity and difficulty of keeping everything balanced.

The routine continues throughout the rest of the day with testing, injections, eating and monitoring happening at the appropriate times. This means there is a test required at lunch time, followed by lunch consisting of the correct amount of carbohydrate – not too early and certainly not too late. Mustn’t forget the afternoon snack at around 3’ish, although that may not be required today because of the morning hypo and the juices and jelly beans I ate to fix that. We’ll see. Then another test at dinner time, followed by the 3rd injection, then dinner, with the appropriate amount of carbohydrate – not too early and certainly not too late. Finally, after a day of ups and downs, another test at supper time (late evening snack in Australia), followed by a carefully judged snack of carbohydrate. This snack is of vital importance, because it is the late evening snack that needs to take me through the night safely so I can start the whole merry-go-round again tomorrow.

Here’s an interesting aside. I can’t help but listen with interest when people around me are talking about food. Let’s say we’re out at a work lunch, or a lunch at a cafe, and people around do what is common and pass judgement on the menu or the food delivered or the service or the prices or the waitress’s hair. In this modern cafe culture, it seems that we have all become experts on everything culinary. However for the T1D person sitting at the table, there are only 2 things that are actually important. The first is that the food contains enough carbohydrate. The second is that it is delivered quickly enough. The taste, price and enjoyability fall into a distant third place compared to carbohydrate and timeliness.

There’s a bucket load of other considerations and complications, many of which only show up over an extended period of time and as with so much to do with T1D, affect some people and not others. For example, the wonderful improvement from the animal to the high tech insulin also had down sides. Firstly, there was a spike of deaths after it was introduced because the chance of having a major hypo suddenly increased, until people learned how to balance the new insulin with their food regime. Then some people suddenly found that their body weight went up inexplicably. The new insulin was unexpectedly providing more nutrients to the body which the body wasn’t prepared for. And for many, this leads to body image issues and possibly depression.

I dream of having the freedom to complain about the steak being slightly overdone and that being my only concern. So do 120,000 other Australians.

 

Wilsons Prom – 2016

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The history behind this trip to The Prom started a few years ago, when I was going through one of my reminiscent moments, thinking back to the glory days of training for the Sahara event. Back then, which is 7 or 8 years ago now, I was regularly doing the “Lighthouse Loop” at The Prom non-stop. Then it seemed reasonably easy, at least as much as bashing through the bush for 62km non-stop could be considered easy. And 2 or 3 years ago I took off again, without enough thought, to recreate those glory days.

It didn’t go well. I came very close to coming badly unstuck and dying in the beautiful wilderness that is Wilsons Promontory.

So the meaning behind this trip, which this time was well planned and thoroughly thought out, was to again experience the joy of the rugged Australian bush, but in a rather toned down manner when compared to the glory days. I’m 7 or 8 years older now and haven’t been doing the marathon distance training sessions, so there was no way that I could do the loop non-stop. Instead I chose to do achievable distances each day, spread over 5 nights / 6 days. But The Prom being a wild place, that meant that there were a couple of sections where I was locked into distances of 16 to 18km. All still way short of the 62km of the full loop.

As the trip got closer, a number of people were expressing their concern that I was going out there for multiple days and would be entirely on my own. To be honest, given the memory of my previous experience a couple of years ago, their concerns were striking home and causing me to relive the awful memories of what happened that time. So in an attempt to at least partly satisfy people’s concerns I loaded up a GPS tracker on my phone, bought a backup battery for the phone, bought a solar cell recharger that I could carry on the backpack, and accepted the kind offer from my manager at work of an emergency rescue beacon. He’s a bit of an ex-army action man and just happens to have spare rescue beacons sitting around. He asked me a very interesting question when he made the offer to loan me the beacon. He asked if I would be capable of activating it if necessary. That question tells me that he has either had experience of type 1 diabetes (T1D) close to him through family or friends, or has maybe experienced it in some way through his time in the army. At the time, after some consideration, I said that I thought I could activate it. But thinking about it now that I’m home safe’n’sound no, I don’t think I would have been able.

But that’s enough of the history. Let’s start the journey around the southern Prom.

Bad weather had been threatening Victoria for a week before my trip, and it didn’t disappoint. Maybe the most likely place in Victoria to get rain is the southern Prom, and when the whole state is being threatened with abnormal amounts of rain, it’s virtually guaranteed that The Prom will get it.

The first day was taken up with the walk from Tidal River, up to the car park at Telegraph Saddle, along the track to Windy Saddle, then down the long and muddy track to the boardwalk at the bottom of the valley. This section of the track is one of the reasons why the only sensible direction to do the lighthouse loop is clockwise. To do it the other way would mean having this awful, muddy slog up near the end of the 62km. I did that twice in the past before I learned the error of my ways and suffered the painful consequences.

The vista and sense of relief is huge as you emerge from the boardwalk and onto the beach at Sealers Cove, as the beautiful and serene sweep of the beach opens itself to you after more than an hour and a half of gruelling slog through mud. It is certainly better in summer when the mud isn’t there but at this time of the year, and with light rain falling the whole way?

With only half a dozen people already there, finding a good spot for the tent in the camp ground was no problem. Later though, when a couple of school groups turned up, where I was setup was an obvious place for them to put their tents. Fortunately for me they were a great group of 16 year old’s and the noise and general mayhem was well controlled.

Having arrived at 3 o’clock, I had to keep myself occupied for a good couple of hours. This was one of the important considerations during the planning. On my previous trip, the main issue had been that I had nothing to keep myself occupied at the destination and I had laid down in the tent and gone to sleep. That turned into a disastrous situation as I slept through my meal time and when I finally woke in the middle of the night, my blood sugar level (BSL) was dangerously low. It was vital that I didn’t allow that to happen on this trip, so I had brought along a book and a pack of cards for that express reason.

One of the young girls in the school group made me laugh. As I lay in my tent, listening to them get themselves organised, she suddenly made the bold statement that “If it keeps raining, I’m seriously leaving!”. I had to chuckle. Here we were at night, with light rain already falling, at least 2 hours of hard slog through mud uphill to the first chance of a motor vehicle, and this young lady is threatening to leave and go home. Of course she wasn’t serious, but it did sound funny.

Nothing untoward happened over night. My sugar level did not drop drastically and I was fully functional in the morning. If you have never had contact with T1D, this may not seem like such a big deal. But anyone who either lives with T1D, or has brushed with it, will understand the significance.

Day #2, Tuesday, and the goal was to get to Refuge Cove, 6.4km away. The morning routine of testing BSL, injections of insulin, arranging food all went smoothly, and I was ready to set off by 9 o’clock.

Another important part of the planning was the subject of water. For the whole 62km of the loop, there is only one source of fresh water, being at the lighthouse itself. That was approximately 40km from the start of the trek and in my schedule, day number 4. So I needed to carry enough water to be able to get me through to the lighthouse.

Water is heavy.

Early in the proceedings I started to consider that I wasn’t going to get through to the lighthouse with the water I had. If the weather was any warmer, that would definitely be the result. In my previous trip, running short of water had presented a bit of a problem. The high carbohydrate food that I need to eat to keep the BSL up requires a good amount of water to be able to eat, but also to be able to properly do the required job. It’s one of those quirky little unknown facts that high carbohydrate food requires a lot of water to digest and metabolise properly.

So before leaving Sealers Cove, I decided to throw modern caution to the wind and ignore the little information signs that were placed by the water supply in most of the camp sites. These signs clearly say that the creek water being piped to the tap is not of international quality, so should not be used for drinking without treating. But as I was facing a potential problem with water supply, I considered that this was the same water that we were using 30 years ago. The only thing that had changed in that time was public expectation and the little information signs. So I filled my bottles with the creek water and ignored the interesting brown colour.

Refuge Cove is aptly named in my opinion. It is such a beautiful little cove that I consider it to be a refuge from humanity. It’s too far for even the most adventurous of day trippers to get to, so the only people you might see are properly serious hikers.

Twenty minutes after arriving in the camp ground, and no more than 5 minutes after getting the tent up, the first hint of light rain started to fall. Oh well; it was only very light and could stop at any moment.

It didn’t. The light rain kept falling for the next 15 hours, with occasional short breaks. To fill my time and stay awake, I slowly walked up and down the beautiful beach, enjoying the overwhelming solitude that it brought. With the sky overcast and the light rain falling, I remembered back to a time back in those glory days when my training buddy, Robin, and I burst down onto the beach to find a couple of impressive ocean going boats moored in the bay. On that day the sun was shining, a couple of the boat people were swimming in the pristine waters of the bay and Refuge Cove was heaven on earth.

Today was not quite so pristine.

Another small school group came through as I was preparing my late lunch. Part of my efforts to avoid the dramas of the previous trip was that I had a cooked lunch each day, providing me with more substantial food that should help reduce the danger of going low over night. I do not claim to be a technical expert, but my experience through the training, and then the Sahara event, appear to show that the body – keep in mind that this is not technical fact – maintains a base level of stored energy. Maybe it’s the fat stored around the liver. After extreme exercise it seems that no matter how well the immediate BSL is replenished with fast acting carbohydrate, such as the fruit pulp strips and sports gels that I was eating, the body’s base level will still use some of that as it attempts to rebuild itself. And it is this process that causes the overnight BSL to drop. Obviously there is no way of stopping the body from rebuilding its base store; the body is going to do what the body is going to do. So one way of working with this process is to ensure that the lunch and dinner contained a good amount of meaningful carbohydrate of the longer acting variety. In modern parlance that is known as low GI. The dehydrated meals I was having at lunch and at dinner were for that purpose.

That was my thinking at least. Once again, for those who have no knowledge of living with T1D, you might just think that going without food would be unfortunate but doable. Sure, you’ll be hungry, but that’s not the end of the world. Unfortunately for a person living with T1D it is the end of the world. A healthy person could, if they had to, go through the entire 6 days of my Wilsons Prom trip without once eating. Yes, they would be a wreck at the end of it, but after some food and a lot of whining they would have a story to tell for the rest of their lives. But a person living with T1D will be dead before the sun comes up on day #2. Exaggerating? Sadly, no.

As I was eating my noodles for lunch, the 2 “responsible adults” with the school group came over to say hello. I highlight that they were the ones in charge as to my eye they hardly looked much older than the students themselves. One of the ladies had dreadlocks and a bandana, so I asked her how she got her hair like that. Apparently it takes a lot of combing, knotting, braiding, beads, crocheting and pain to get it to that point. But, she said, it had been like that for 4 months now and in that time she hadn’t needed to do anything to it. Then the other lady lifted her beanie to show a recently shaved head. Her hair used to be braided in a similar way she said, but she had recently taken on a charity thing for cancer awareness and had shaved it all off.

We spent another pleasant 10 minutes chatting as the ladies took full advantage of the time away from the constant trill of 16 year old teenagers. I told them in all honesty that I didn’t know how they could maintain so much patience. I couldn’t do it. And the same goes for all of the “responsible adults” with the various school groups I came across on my journey. My hat is off to you.

An interesting little aside, to do with the school groups, came about when I had walked past one of the groups after leaving Sealers Cove. They had stopped for some reason back on the track. I already knew from my previous trips of a rock overlooking the bay that had a pocket of phone signal available, right there on the rock at the edge of the cliff. This was important for me simply because of the number of people who were a little anxious that I was still alive. I had promised my wife that I would call each morning if I had any phone signal, to let her know that I was still alive and how I was doing.

Sure enough, when I got to the rock I heard my phone indicate that it suddenly had signal, so I immediately stopped and took off my pack. As I was standing there trying to get a call through to my wife’s phone, the school group came along and also stopped. I turned and waved as I spoke briefly with my wife, assuring her that everything was still on track. After the call was finished, I announced to the group of teenagers and responsible adults that there was a rare pocket of signal right at that spot. Surprisingly the teenagers dropped their eyes and the responsible adults looked sternly at me for the briefest moment. I found this a tiny bit odd. Then one of the young fellows asked if I would take a group photo of them, as they all grouped with their back to the spectacular view behind them. He then handed me a small camera and instructed me on which button to push. After that had been accomplished and everyone was happy, I packed myself up, said goodbye then moved on.

Thinking about the interaction as I walked away, I came to realise that part of the experience for the school group was that mobile phones were banned on their adventure. No phones, no care for phone signal. No phones, no phone to whip out to take a photo. Ahhhh, the modern world we live in. Thirty years ago, who would have even imagined.

Day #3 and after a night of light rain, everything was very dim and damp. My gear inside the tent was mostly still dry, but everything outside was saturated. And the light rain was still falling.

The first thing I did each morning after waking and gathering my wits was to do a BSL test. And so far the result had been similar. A good high reading of 6 or 7 or 8 (108 / 126 / 144 in the USA) you might assume? Well, isn’t that what you would expect after having a double sized dehydrated camp meal for dinner the night before, containing at least 80g of carbohydrate, plus a couple of safety fruit pulp strips? Surely that would be the case. Well, no. As with most things to do with T1D, you can plan and expect anything you like. Reality is where it’s all at. That morning the test was 2.9. If this was a normal day at home under standard conditions, a reading of 2.9 would be something of note. Some might even post it to Facebook on one of the dedicated T1D sites, exclaiming how they had done everything right and had this horrible low in the morning. “Isn’t T1D a terrible bother!”

T1D never lets you forget that life is a balancing act, between food (carbohydrate), energy used (exercise / rest) and medication (amount of insulin). At no point can you rest on the balance, because as soon as you do the BSL will either go up or it will go down. Up at least gives you time to consider what to do. But when it goes down, and 2.9 is pretty much down there, you don’t have the benefit of time on your side. You have mere minutes to react and get it back up. Cruelly, one of the first things to happen when low is to lose the ability to think clearly and make decisions.

So after doing the test and finding a level of 2.9, instinct from doing this for 42 years kicked in and told me to grab one of the sports gels and get it down my neck. This was followed by the normal insulin injection routine, then by the breakfast routine I had decided on for that day. Today it was powdered milk with some of the brown water – yumm – one of the sesame seed bars I had brought for this precise purpose, each of which contained 26 grams of carbohydrate, then a couple of the fruit pulp strips.

Finally, after all of that diabetes related stuff, it was time to consider packing up camp and moving on to the next destination, which was Little Waterloo Bay, 7km further along the track.

But it was still raining lightly.

I really didn’t relish the prospect of packing up camp in the rain, no matter how light it was. As that night was meant to be only 7km further along, I decided to give the rain a chance to stop, so I walked down to the beach to kill time and look for a possible signal. Do you know how much time you burn by slowly walking up and down a beautiful, secluded beach, contemplating every bird, every rock, every breaking wave? Do you know? Not much, let me tell you. No matter how angelic the setting, how tranquil the scene, how pristine the scenery and the natural environment, boredom soon sets in when you can’t even sit on the sand without getting yourself thoroughly damp from the rain and the wet sand.

After a couple of slow trips down to the beach, and even sitting on the little veranda thing outside the toilet, underneath the little overhanging roof, to read a few pages of book, the rain eventually backed off. I gave it a couple of minutes to change its mind but when it seemed to be determined to stay away, seized the opportunity to break camp quickly and get everything packed.

Little Waterloo Bay, here I come.

Surprisingly, it seemed that the rain had actually finished for now, as it didn’t rain again as I slogged to Little Waterloo Bay. After the last couple of days, this was a very pleasant change. Especially as the last time I was at Little Waterloo Bay, which was where my last very bad episode had occurred a couple of years previously, most of the camp ground was under water. If the rain had kept on falling this time, I doubted that I’d be able to find a place to camp that night.

The final hurdle you face when you get to Little Waterloo from Refuge Cove is an outlet stream from the lagoon which forms the back boundary of the camp ground. Depending on the tide, this can be a case of acrobatic stepping from rock to rock across the rushing water, through to a pants off, pack held high wade across 5m of water. Luckily today was the former.

Concerningly, much of the camp was indeed under water, however there was one section that, while quite damp, didn’t actually have water sitting on it. And there was only one tent there already, so I had my choice of spots.

With the time being about 13:00, the first activity was to prepare a lunch of noodles, before the laborious activity of filling in time. The fellow who was there, while polite, was obviously not looking for a deep and meaningful, soul searching chat session. If he was then he was definitely in the wrong place and in the wrong circumstances. He was like me, there on his own, and we were at least 20km and 6 hour’s brisk slog to the next closest human being. So if it was a chat he was looking for, he should have turned left a lot earlier.

After I’d finished setting up camp and having lunch, my quiet companion and myself both found ourselves down on the beach, where the weather was a big improvement from the last few days. The sky was blue with a few clouds, the sun shining with a very gentle breeze blowing. If Refuge Cove is paradise on earth, Little Waterloo Bay is its close cousin. This gave me an opportunity to get some warm into my chilled bones and hopefully get some dry into my damp clothes.

For the next hour and a half, my silent friend and I lazed in the sun. I stripped off all the clothes I could and laid them out in the bright sunshine, hoping to make some impact on their dryness. My boots were quite saturated, as were both pairs of socks and coat. I may have looked a little silly as I paced up and down the beach letting my damp trousers “get some air” while waving my handkerchiefs around to try to dry them off. And thankfully the effort paid off. By the time the cloud covered our beauty spot, my gear was noticeably drier.

That night was a standard night, with the exception that it didn’t rain. I had the same food and the same routine and was down to sleep by dark. All very exciting stuff. What was playing a little ditty in the back of my mind was the fact that my tent was setup in the same spot as it was last time, when my BSL had dropped drastically after I had fallen asleep early and had missed my evening meal. The nightmare that I endured that night was enough reminder for me to be extra vigilant this night to ensure it didn’t happen again.

Day #4 and the same routine morning routine again. One humorous variation this time was when I had chosen to make mashed potato with the instant mashed potato I had brought with me. As there was a dribble of brown water available at Little Waterloo Bay, I chose to live it up for breakfast and have something with a bit more body than the powdered milk and that required water. Also it was still cold this morning, so the mashed potato gave me an excuse to heat some water and get benefit from that.

At one point I needed to duck over to the tent from where I was sitting. I cannot have been moved from the stump I was sitting on for more than 8 seconds when I turned around back to my spot and saw that a crow had taken that opportunity to raid my breakfast setting and steal the plastic bag of dried mashed potato. What the! I quickly shooed him away but I was too late to save the bag of mashed potato. He had torn the bag, tasted the contents and decided that instant mashed potato powder isn’t his chosen cuisine. And all that in less than 8 seconds. Fortunately, my planning meant that I had backups of backups, so the loss of half a bag of instant mashed potato powder did not mark the end of the world. Bloody arrogant crow.

Today marked an important point in my trip. Soon after leaving Little Waterloo Bay I would be passing a point where I could choose to change my route. The planned route had me heading left and continuing to the lighthouse. But if I headed right, I could cut off the southern section of The Prom and head straight across to Halfway Hut, Oberon Bay, and back to Tidal River a day or two early. Even though today was not raining most of the previous time on the track, with the exception of the last 18 hours, had been raining or threatening to rain. Did I want to remain open to the vagaries of the weather, or did I want to assume the worst and cut my losses?

Piling homily on cliché, when push came to shove, I didn’t even pause when I got to the decision point 20 minutes after leaving camp. I mean, I had put in months of planning for this expedition. I was here for a serious set of reasons, not the least being to again experience the joy of seeing the lighthouse, which is at the southern most point of mainland Australia. If I was to choose the easy option, I would be undercutting everything that this trip stood for. Plus, let’s be honest, I would never be happy with my decision in the future.

So when I got to the decision point, I stopped to call my wife to give her an update of my situation, then immediately turned left and continued on into the longest day of the whole trip; 18.1km.

The climb out of Waterloo Bay is teeth gritting. I’ve done it many times in the past, during my training for the Sahara, but none of those occasions diminishes the experience for the current occasion. It is long, relentless and painful. However, the jewel in the crown of that hard climb is that within 30 minutes of getting to the top, you get your first glimpse of the focus of your effort; the lighthouse. I relish the thought that very few people have ever seen that view of the lighthouse. Yes, many people visit The Prom. Yes, almost as many people walk to places like Sealers Cove and Oberon Bay. Yes it’s true that quite a few people make the trek to the lighthouse down the 4WD track down the middle. But very few people ever get to see the lighthouse from this point on the track out of Waterloo Bay. It is a very special view that is afforded to only a few people; and I am one of them.

I’m very proud of that fact.

Now for the fly in the ointment. When choosing to leave the main track and walk the 1km to visit the lighthouse, the last 300m is the stuff of legends. Raise the subject of the walk to the lighthouse with anybody who has been there and they will ask you about the final climb. It is the last, final bit before you are at the lighthouse itself and it is almost hands and knees climbing up what feels like a 45 degree hill of relentless, breath sucking effort. And when you are doing what I was doing and have 22kg of pack on your back, multiply the effort by 3.

But after only 6 or 7 gasping stops of knee holding as I pushed myself up, suddenly there I was. Almost as if the climb was but an illusion, the path levels out and the historical buildings present themselves to you, dressed in their pristine whitewash.

And there was nobody to be seen.

Out of the dozen or so times that I’ve been to the lighthouse, only once have I seen another human. That was during the period of training for The Sahara. And even more surprisingly, when I saw that lady park ranger back then, and she asked out of interest how I got there, she said “Oh, you’re Alex the diabetic.” I kid you not. Those years ago, my training efforts had become known through the Wilsons Prom park ranger community and this lady who I bumped into in such a remote place knew who I was. This latest visit was not so well publicised. I was entirely on my own.

A toilet stop, a water stop at the only clean water tap in the southern prom to refill water bottles, and cooking lunch out of the breeze in the doorway of one of the accommodation buildings, filled the hour that I spent at the lighthouse. That and a couple of photos, then it was time to head back down the (steep) hill and off in the direction of Roaring Meg.

Nothing at all extraordinary happened on the trek to Roaring Meg. One interesting little aspect of Roaring Meg is that of all the camping sites in the southern prom, Roaring meg is the only one that I had never actually seen. I’d walked past it many times on the many training walks those years ago, but the closest I’d ever got was the toilet, which happens to be right on the main 4WD track. Other than that, I’d never laid eyes on the camp ground.

Arriving there at 4:30 in the afternoon gave me time to have a look around. Many people have told me over the years that Roaring Meg, which is named after the creek that rushes past, is a very nice place to camp, so I needed to take the opportunity to find out for myself. I set the tent up in the top section of the camp ground, easy distance to the toilet, then went exploring. Down the hill, toward the swift flowing creek that was easy to hear, a whole new section of camp ground existed. I can now see easily why people like Roaring Meg.

The evening routine as usual, complete with the crow with the eye on my food. This time, however, I was ahead of him and he went to bed hungry. I was lucky in that there was no rain threatening, but I had the hint of another concern in my mind.

The day had been the most arduous so far on this trip, having covered 18km since leaving Little Waterloo Bay. With the evening BSL test showing a level of only slightly above normal, my niggling hint prompted me to set my alarm for midnight and layout 2 of the fruit pulp strips within easy reach. At midnight, when the alarm went off, I quickly and easily ate the 2 fruit strips then laid back down to sleep.

“Where am I?” “What is this?” “Wha…………?” I could see that it was no longer dark, so concluded that it must be morning. But where I was and what I was doing was beyond me.

That was when 42 years of raw animal instinct kicked in. The fact that I couldn’t figure anything out told me to eat something. All I knew in the whole world at that moment was to eat something. I reached for the leg pockets of my pants and pulled out a sports gel. Luckily they are easy to eat and I was able to squeeze one out in my mouth. The animal instinct prompted me to test my BSL and, much to my surprise now, I was able to rely on muscle memory to take me through the process. I looked at the resulting number and knew that it wasn’t good. At 1.6 (29 in the USA), this was the lowest reading I’d ever had and I was probably fortunate to still be conscious, so again the animal instinct told me to have another sports gel. But I knew that wouldn’t be enough, so before finally running out of brain power I managed to quickly push a fruit pulp strip into my mouth. At that point my mental power was exhausted so I laid down.

I find it surprising now, but my brain seemed to be working on 2 levels. At one level, probably the most basic, my body was floundering around. My arms were flaying in the air as I tried repeatedly to sit up, only to over balance and run out of energy and flop down again on the floor of the tent. But on another level I knew what was happening. I knew that my sugar was dangerously low and that I needed to bring it up. I also knew that I had already eaten enough carbohydrate of the fast acting kind, the sports gels, to bring it up at least partly towards where it needed to be. The fruit pulp strip would take a little longer and kick in after the sports gel had done the best of its work. So for the next 20 minutes I lay on the floor of the tent flaying around, talking to myself, waiting for my emergency actions to save my life.

Finally, after maybe 20 harrowing minutes of being as vulnerable as a new born baby, my emergency actions took effect and I was able to start taking back control. This led to the next part of what could be termed “An unfortunate morning”.

The next step was to have my morning injections of insulin. I have 2; a short acting insulin and a long acting insulin. Just as with the “muscle memory” mentioned above, I follow the same actions when doing my injections. However this time I was not only sitting on the floor of a tent, but I was also still recovering from a low sugar episode that almost knocked my socks off.

The injection of the short acting went as normal. However as I was doing the second injection, this time of the long acting insulin, I realised that the spot I was injecting in to was getting unexpectedly wet. An injection is not meant to get wet like that. Remember the muscle memory? It was then that I came to realise that the tip of the needle had either not been pushed into my skin, or it had come out as I was pushing the plunger. Either way, I now had no idea how much of the injection had actually gone in. All I knew was how much was still left to go in; in this case 10 units.

Even in my slightly befuddled state of post low BSL mind, I knew this was serious. For those readers who do not have any association with T1D, too much insulin in the system will definitely lead to significant trouble within minutes or hours, depending on how much extra there is. On the other hand, too little will lead to a requirement to rebalance later in the day, and over the following days, to bring everything back under proper control. So, working as if in remote control, my slightly befuddled brain needed to quickly decide what to do. I chose the safest of the 2 options and dialled up an extra 4 units on top of the 10 that I knew were still to be done. This would give me a guaranteed 14 units out of a requirement for 29. I would potentially miss out on a maximum of 15 units but, with the amount of insulin that had obviously not been injected because it was sitting on my skin, plus the 4 extra I dialled in, I was not risking going over the required amount. That option was unthinkable. The potential affect of not having enough was that I would have low energy later in the morning as I was slogging along the track.

No, living with T1D is not like having a cold. It is a non-stop juggling act with potential death hiding behind every dropped ball.

So after all this drama, I was packed and ready to leave Roaring Meg by 8:30.

I’ve done the 4WD track from Roaring Meg to the turnoff to Oberon Bay many times, and the part from the turn off to the Telegraph Saddle carpark once. From Roaring Meg to the turnoff was more often in the dark, back in the time when I was doing the non-stop lighthouse loop for my training for the Sahara.

The 4WD track is reasonably easy, not requiring much mental effort. It rolls along for somewhere between 12 and 15km, with a few reasonable hills and some soaring vistas. During one of my earlier training walks, I came over a rise in the track to be presented with a wide, shallow valley down to Oberon bay. Rolling across the valley were fierce looking thunder clouds with that slightly grey / green colour that spelled trouble in the form of hail. Luckily for me on that occasion, the hail passed close by without actually going over. This time the vista was equally vast, but happily without the looming threat of hail.

I was now well into endurance mode. My pack was down to around 20kg, as I ate my way through my food and drank my way through the water, but my energy level was way down. This was now day #5 of my adventure and I had walked approximately 50km through rain, cold, mud and sand and the effort was taking its toll. And of course my misadventure with the second of my injections this morning was starting to have a mild affect as my energy level sagged further. With no other choice available, the only way to compensate for the sagging energy level was with more physical effort. I was hurting and I hadn’t even got to the cruel and relentless climb up the last couple of kilometres of 4WD track to Telegraph Saddle. Having done that once previously, I was girding my mental loins in preparation for that onslaught.

After an hour or so, I got to Halfway Hut. This was where Robin and I had spent a long and very cold night curled up on the wooden floor, trying not to freeze to death back in the training days. On that occasion I had succumbed to the excruciating waves of cramps associated with low potassium, but which we had misinterpreted as being associated with low BSL. The cramps were crippling, so on that occasion we chose to spend the night resting in the hut. It was that experience that finally led me to adopt the electrolyte hydration supplements for the water that did so well in helping me in the desert. Sadly it was also them that, because I didn’t know the story behind my need for them, were what forced me to pull out of the Sahara event when I concluded that I hadn’t taken enough with me to Morocco.

That is a sad day that I will never forget.

After a brief rest at Halfway Hut, I set off on the next leg of the final trek. The morning’s scare with the low sugar had put paid to any thought at all of continuing on to the final scheduled day of the round trip, being to turn left and head to Oberon Bay. That would have been an irresponsible step too far down a dangerous path. So when the left turn to Oberon Bay came up, I didn’t even break step; I simply kept plodding along the 4WD track toward Telegraph Saddle.

It was at around this point that I saw my first humans for a couple of days, since leaving Little Waterloo Bay. There in the distance, marching slowly but resolutely toward me, were a perfectly outfitted older husband and wife. They would have been middle to late 60’s in age and were perfectly dressed in the latest in must have outdoor gear for the young-at-heart wilderness wanderer.  I salute them for their willingness to get out into the wilds of Wilsons Prom and for their resoluteness to get to the accommodation at the lighthouse. However their questions and tone of voice made me wonder if they thought the lighthouse was just over the next hill, at which point a cup of Earl Grey would be waiting.

I gently helped them to a little clarity in their undertaking, telling them that they had about 12km of the 4WD track to go before they would then have about 3km of “goat track” before arriving at the base of the hill that the lighthouse sits on. It was then that the lady mentioned that she had heard that there was a bit of a climb up to the lighthouse. I quickly decided not to alarm them too much, so gave them the watered down version of reality.

“Yes, it’s a killer. The track is almost 45 degrees, goes for 300m and you’ll be almost on hands and knees before you get to the top.”

Silence from both.

I had successfully opened them to the idea that this was not a walk in the park and that they had some work ahead of them. I followed by reassuring them that it sounds worse than it really is, but is worse than they had been led to believe. After getting their breath back, and them giving each other reassuring words, we said our farewells and parted company.

I really do hope they made it to the lighthouse.

After this pleasant encounter, a number of weekend groups walked past in the general direction of the lighthouse. We all waved and smiled and said “Hello”, with none of them realising that my smile was starting to become a grimace. The distance was getting me. And the worst of it was that I knew from prior experience that the worst was yet to come, in the hell climb to the carpark, followed immediately by the painful trek on the road down the hill to Tidal River. I had prepared myself for the climb by telling myself over and over to just take it slow, stop if necessary and just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And finally, the time arrived.

There it was at last. The only other time I had done this climb was after I had a very bad low sugar experience at Little Waterloo Bay a couple of years before. On that occasion I was right at the end of my choices, even contemplating calling for emergency assistance. At least this time I had more control of the situation. I had plenty of water, plenty of food, my pack was well packed and balanced, I had time on my side, I was medically in a much better place and the weather was OK.

What a sorry state of self-delusion that was. By the time I got to the top almost an hour later, I was close to giving up from the relentless exertion and mind bending nature of the track. At no point can you see more than 50m ahead, so each turn you go around simply presents you with the next section of climb without any let up in between. And this seems to go on and on and on. I followed my own instructions and ate fruit strips and gels regularly, stopped quite a few times, sat on rocks a couple of times, adjusted my pack and jacket to ease the numerous stress points that developed. But every time I thought the end was around the bend, the track would twist away cruelly into another hump to climb. Minus 55km, 5 days and 20kg of gear, the climb would no doubt have been easier. But I didn’t have the benefit of those details. I had the reality of that hill.

As the philosophers say, all good things must come to an end. After what seemed like far too long, I rounded the latest bend and was finally looking at the first sign of the carpark. A couple of minutes later and I was stomping across and heading down the carpark access road, heading towards Tidal River.

Now, you may think that the deal was done and the rest is just fluff. That’s what I was hoping for as well but, no, that was not to be. The moment my feet met the down hill slope of the road down to Tidal River, they started to yell loudly at me.

“AY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? STOP YOU FOOL AND SIT DOWN!”

Tidal River was still more than 2.5km down the hill, and that 2.5km wasn’t going to walk itself. So instead of stopping and resting, I chose to maintain my state of numb brain and simply keep going, without even breaking pace. But my feet were now hurting like they hadn’t hurt during the whole expedition. And as the road down the hill is non-stop downward slope, I needed to walk very slowly with small steps. I couldn’t believe the pain in my feet, but it was just the next hurdle to overcome.

Forty minutes later and the most painful part of the walk back was happening. Isn’t it funny that the closer to the finish you get, the more painful every step becomes. My very slow steps finally brought me to the main carpark and there it was; the car I had been dreaming of for the past few hours was there obediently waiting for me.

Suddenly the pain in my feet multiplied three fold.

With lots of stumbling and grimacing, I finally got myself organised under the nearby picnic shelter where, for the first time in 48 hours and 25km, I took off my boots and swapped them for more comfortable shoes. I was really surprised at just how painful my feet had suddenly become. I was keen to get prepared for the careful drive home, so I simply swapped my shoes, had some food, called my wife to give her an update, then sat in the luxurious comfort of the car and set off for home.

It wasn’t for another 2.5 hours, when I had made it home and finally took off my socks, that I realised that the walk up that hill, then down to Tidal River, had bruised two of my toes almost black and I was going to lose 3 toe nails. No wonder my feet were hurting.

My Lighthouse adventure was over.

This trip has finally convinced me that this type of dangerous undertaking is now over for me. My age, my changed body chemistry regarding the T1D and the very real danger I had exposed myself to, and had almost succumbed to, has finally convinced me that after 42 years, it’s time I stop waving the middle finger at death. I have not used the word “fear” in the story above, but I now accept that there was an unspoken fear underlying many aspects of this trip. My wife and I have agreed that we will find a safer way for me to wave the middle finger at type 1 diabetes.

To paraphrase a recent famous person – WILLIAMS OUT.

 

 

The Difference Between Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes – An Analogy

I’ve been trying to come up with a simple analogy that helps explain the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, in a way that the average person might be able to understand.

Type 2 diabetes is like a car that is badly out of tune. It burns through more fuel than it should, but doesn’t produce enough power. It is rough taking off at the lights and blows a little bit of smoke. It runs rough, uses more oil and occasionally stalls. It is sometimes difficult to start.

Type 1 diabetes is like a car that has run out of fuel and is stopped by the side of the road. It might be a normal family sedan, a high powered sports car or a 4WD. Regardless, without fuel in the tank it simply stops.

Bangalore – An Expat Lunch With Extreme Weather

It is Friday the 27th of May, 2005 and today is Donna’s last day here. So I have decided to be very clever and show her the enormous contrasts that are to be found in Bangalore. This will be a lasting memory that she takes back to Oz with her.

The morning is taken up with standard stuff, like a late breakfast, nipping next door for some grocery items, showers etc. Then at half past twelve we left the apartment and took an Autorik to The Taj West End Hotel. The Taj West End is the five star hotel where most of the Melbourne staff stays when they visit Bangalore. Like all of the “nice” hotels in Bangalore, it is hideously expensive but, at a stretch, its service justifies its cost – almost.

The Taj West End is across the road from the racecourse, so the landmark that is used for when taking an Autorik to “The Taj”, as us clever dick expats know it as, is “racecourse”. It seems that all of the Autorik drivers know the racecourse. Directly across the road from the main entrance to the racecourse is the entrance to The Taj.

Once you enter the grounds of The Taj you are in glorious tropical gardens, with enormous, old rainforest trees, hanging vines and giant flowering trees. There are even exotic sounding jungle birds in the trees and throughout the extensive gardens. You can hear them making their exotic calls as you stroll around the beautiful ponds along the well-manicured pathways. Also in the gardens is a large gazebo, in which one of the top nightspots in Bangalore for the air kissing “in crowd” to mix and mingle and buy outrageously expensive cocktails sits. This is the “Blue Bar”. Beside the Blue Bar is “Blue Ginger”, a magnificent Vietnamese restaurant, on the edge of the pond which has fountains and exotic lilies. The whole setting is simply superb.

Donna and I had a very laid back and enjoyable lunch. I explained to her why I had left this place until last, being that I wanted her to learn about the real Bangalore before experiencing the five star service which is available anywhere in the world. Donna understood why, but also said that she liked the five star service and wouldn’t have minded having that from the start. I think most people would say the same thing.

Once we had wined, dined and generally supped ourselves silly, we strolled around the gardens and through the hotel, before leaving for Bangalore Central for one last visit. Donna needed to get a top for her mother, or a bag for someone. We wandered out to the road, where the real Bangalore was flowing past with their hand firmly on the hooter, and took an Autorik. I find it quite funny now when I get an Autorik driver who isn’t sure where he is going and I end up directing him. I have learned that much about Bangalore.

Oh, a side story. Last Thursday night Donna and I were at the great steak restaurant that I told you about. A bunch of other people from work had been invited along as well. We were all talking and joking and having a good time and I was talking with a local fellow, one of the managers, whose name I should remember but don’t. He is a wonderful fellow whom everyone in the office admires. Anyway, he was asking about what Donna and I had been up to over the past two weeks and so I rattled off a summary list of where we had been and what we had seen. As I progressed through the list he was surprised at some of the things we had done. It seems that either he didn’t expect westerners to go to some of these places and do some of these things, or generally speaking westerners don’t. Either way he was truely amazed and said so. And then when I told him that we were in Commercial St, a place where the more adventurous western visitor may go to, but usually with a local escort, and I was doing a reasonable job at reading, though not necessarily understanding, an Arabic sign outside a Mosque, he was speechless. When I told him that we had also gone to City Market and Chikpeet he was flabbergasted. He had never known a westerner to go there, ever.

Back to the story.

So, we went to Bangalore Central so Donna could get that last-minute purchase and decided to have one last cup of coffee in the café while there. All of this took about an hour, after which we went back to the ground floor to leave. As we approached the door I looked out and thought that something looked odd. There wasn’t enough light coming through the door from outside. Then I saw why. The sky outside was black, broken every now and then by a burst of thunder and lightening. And the accompanying rain was awesome. It was belting down as if someone had a bucket and was throwing water at the front door. That explained the hundred or so people who were milling around the door. This became a hundred and two.

We stood there for a few minutes, with no change to the turmoil outside. Donna wandered off to have a look at shoes or something. I looked outside. Then I wandered off to find Donna. We repeated this exercise for the next hour, waiting for the world to pull itself together. Finally it did and the many people standing inside began to get brave and risk the weather outside.

When we eventually decided to take the plunge, we girded our loins, made sure all of our bags and things were well gripped, then went looking for an Autorik. Now of course in these conditions an Autorik has the benefit of it being a definite seller’s market, so I was expecting to get ripped off. We saw an Auto going past, carefully negotiating the torrent of water that was flooding down the road, so I took off after it. There were so many people in the front of Bangalore Central wanting Autos that it was a case of the quick and moist, or the slow and wet. Moist seemed better than wet, so action was required.

The driver and I spent 3 seconds negotiating. I said to him “Does the meter work?” He looked at me and asked “Where are you going?” Now usually at this juncture I’d get indignant and insist that the meter works, but common sense tapped me on the shoulder. I told him that we were going to The Forum, which is the landmark for our apartment, and he said “Rs50”. I knew it was a case of take-it-or-leave-it-and-get-wet, so I took it happily. I was actually surprised he hadn’t insisted on Rs100. We climbed into the Auto and arranged ourselves.

The trip home took an hour, when it normally takes less than 15 minutes. The traffic was all over the place. The conditions were awful, with roads flooded, drainage canals flooded, trees down all over the place, two wheelers broken down, cars broken down, trucks broken down. There were ladies wading through knee deep water holding their Saris above the flow. There were many guys wearing plastic bags on their heads to keep their hair dry. Interestingly I did not see a single woman with a plastic bag on her head. Meanwhile, through all of this, the traffic police were huddled under cover somewhere. Many of the traffic lights were out, but the police were not directing traffic. I saw cars traveling through water that they couldn’t possibly know what was underneath, but they drove through fast enough to send up a spray onto all of the vehicles they were driving past, be they push bikes, cars, trucks, two wheelers. We saw cars that had tried the same and gone nose down into a ditch. The whole affair was amazing.

Our driver negotiated through all of this, getting us relatively dryly and safely to our apartment. It was a great effort under very trying circumstances, so I gave him Rs70 instead of the agreed Rs50. He was most thankful and did what I have seen now on a number of occasions. He held the money between his hands and held it up to his forehead and bowed slightly to me in thanks.

Can you imagine a Melbourne taxi driver doing that?

That is India as I, and Donna, have seen it.

Marathon des Sables – Chapter 17 – Homeward Bound

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Homeward Bound

Friday at last and a beautiful, nautical morning. After a very peaceful morning of sailing, singing “Yo ho ho and a cup of coffee”, the ferry docked at Plymouth around 11:30. After an orderly disembarkation and passport check, we discovered that the British railway people had put on buses to take the passengers to the local train station. I was quite happy about this, as it simplified what would have been a mad rush to catch the train that we were booked on. Nick, on the other hand, was dumb founded, as the train people had thought of a way to actually help us poor wandering travellers as we finally got back to Blighty from our traumatic, volcano induced, meanderings. Since riding across Spain at 300kph on a modern, sleek train, Nick’s opinion of British railways had taken a huge hit. So for a bus to be there waiting was a big surprise for him.

After getting to the station and having a cup of coffee, we boarded the first of two trains needed to get us north to Carlisle. This one took us to Birmingham, where we had to change to another for the final leg.

Even though I was now approaching brain dead after all the travelling, I was never-the-less enthralled to watch the English countryside rush past. There’s something about England that I will never get used to; it’s was like we were travelling across a postcard. The English countryside is so quaint and beautiful and, coming from Australia, lush and green.

Apart from an extraordinary number of people travelling on the trains, nothing too devastating happened as we travelled north. Nick arranged with his friend that he would pick us up at Penrith, which is the station just before Carlisle. So as we finally disembarked and dragged our bags across to the exit gate, there was Russell with a big grin on his face. Hands were shaken and backs were slapped, before we piled into the car for the exciting twenty minute trip to Nick’s home in Cockermouth. Now for those nitty picky people out there in reader land, Nick doesn’t actually live in Cockermouth. I have come to learn that he lives in a tiny little village ten minutes walk from Cockermouth called Papcastle. Regardless, it was all utterly beautiful.

After much to do in Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain and England, Nick was finally home and we both could relax for a couple of days. It would still be another four days before I’d be home.

*   *   *   *   *

The main activity on Saturday was to go for a serious walk in the hills of the Lakes district. I learned from Nick and Russell that they’re not called hills in the Lakes district, but instead are known as “Fels”. This is an old Viking word that translates to ….. hill. So we went walking on a magnificent track that took us from a valley of stunning beauty up into the hills, along some spectacular ridges past patches of snow, then down to a small lake and back to the car. Russell volunteers for the local search’n’rescue group and had some amazing stories to tell of people that they’ve rescued over the years. This part of the country is more than beautiful; it is also potentially dangerous for wanna be adventurers who don’t properly prepare themselves.

That night we walked down to Cockermouth where I was able to see the incredible damage caused by the recent floods. The main street had been two metres under water and the evidence was there to be seen. Many of the shops and other buildings on the main street were boarded up waiting for resurrection. We went to one of Nick and Russell’s local pubs for a drink and to meet some of the local characters.

I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was walking through a movie set, so different was it to what we have in Oz.

*   *   *   *   *

Sunday was a relatively quiet day. We visited with one of Nick’s neighbours, a charming older couple of late eightees. He was a veteran of the British army in colonial India, complete with footmen and butler. She was a survivor of the German concentration camps and between them they had many fascinating stories to listen to.

We went for a drive into a different part of the Lakes district to see a conservation project to protect a breeding pair of Osprey. These are hunting birds, very rare in this part of England. Some very dedicated people, including Nick, volunteer to protect the birds and enable visitors to experience this rare event.

Afterwards, on the way back to Cockermouth, we stopped at a country pub for a drink. This is another thing about England that fascinates me; the ceiling in the pub was so low that it felt like it was falling on me. A tall man would be only just under the ceiling. It is all very enchanting.

Finally we did the ubiquitous trip to a supermarket so I could stock up for my long trip the next day, back to Melbourne. This was the last opportunity I would have to buy my “just-in-case” and travelling food, so I needed to be careful what I bought. I stocked up on fruit juice, gluten free energy bars and biscuits.

A roast leg of lamb for dinner and this day was now complete.

*   *   *   *   *

Today, my last day in England and the first day of my trip home, started at 5 o’clock. I was booked on to the 6:49 train to London from Carlisle.

Nick, who works in Carlisle, was all dressed up in his suit ready for work as he dropped me off at the station. This was an emotional time for both of us as it had been ten years since we had seen each other and now it was coming to an end. Not only that but we had together just completed an adventure trip the like of which doesn’t happen very often, and we had survived the experience. We had begun making loose plans for Donna and myself, Nick and some other friends to recreate this whole experience in four years from now, but for now we needed to say good-bye.

As I was in Melbourne when I left, I was revved up for the upcoming trip. But for Nick, this was the final end of the whole experience. It was an emotional farewell between two friends who have experienced a lot of adventure together. It was Nick with whom I was stuck in The Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia for 26 hours back in 1999 when our cars got bogged to the floor in the sea of sand. When the train came and I was on board and seated, Nick stayed until the train was out of sight.

It was on this trip to London that I learned an interesting thing about booking a ticket on British trains. I didn’t know it when I booked the ticket, but you can buy a ticket without reserving a seat. Reserving the seat involves an extra charge. As I didn’t understand this when booking the ticket a couple of months previously, before the trip was over I found myself standing in the aisle. The person who had reserved the seat I was using got onto the train and then, in a very English way, politely informed me that they “thought I may have been in the seat that they had reserved”. By now I had figured out the way it all worked so vacated the seat without question. I simply found another empty seat and sat there, hoping that this one wasn’t also reserved. Fortunately I was able to sit there undisturbed until we arrived in Euston.

I had arranged to meet Tina at Euston so she could give me the suitcase that I had left at her place. Ken came as well and we said our good-byes, then Tina kindly drove me to Heathrow. It seemed to take a lot of time to get there, but then I’m clueless about the geography of London.

After saying good-bye to Tina at Heathrow, I was now on my own for the rest of my journey home. As I prefer, I was about three hours early for my flight, which gave me time to calm down, check my baggage, take time having some lunch and generally just taking things easy. At least that’s how it was meant to go, but my very first official duty turned that on it’s head. An interesting journey home had just begun.

As I was going through the baggage scanner that checks all hand luggage before entering the passenger area of the terminal, the scanner operator asked me if I had any containers of liquid in my luggage larger than 100ml. I had my emergency fruit juice which, in my slightly stressed state of mine, I couldn’t remember if it was bigger than 100ml. I took them out to see and saw that they were 200ml each. The operator told me that I would need to discard them in the bin as they were too big to go on the plane. I explained to him that I was diabetic and that these were my emergency source of carbohydrate if I needed it on the plane. Entirely dispassionately, he asked me if I had a letter from my doctor. I told him that yes, I did have a doctor’s letter. Then he asked me the most unthinking, uncaring, foolish question I think I have ever been asked in relation to my diabetes. He asked me if the letter stated specifically and clearly that I must take the fruit juice on board because it was my emergency source of carbohydrate. Well of course the letter didn’t say that. When I told him that, he said in the same unflinching and unemotional tone of voice that I would need to discard the fruit juice.

I was dumb founded. As I dumped the fruit juice in the bin, I asked the fellow if there was a doctor on board the plane. He said he didn’t know and asked me why. I told him that because I had to dump my fruit juice, “The chances are quite good that I will need the doctor before the flight is finished”. The dispassionate, uninterested look in his eye didn’t change a jot. The ultimate irony of this transaction will become more clear soon.

After this joy was a relatively calm couple of hours as I whiled away the time waiting for departure. Eventually we all filed onto the plane as normal and waited to take off. And we waited ….. and we waited. Eventually the captain came over the intercom, telling us in his overly calm Captain’s voice that “Due to heavy traffic at Heathrow today, we’re going to be a little delayed with takeoff”. Oh great. I had less than an hour between this flight arriving in Doha and my next flight leaving for Melbourne.

We sat on the tarmac, with me slowly but surely going quietly around the twist, for 50 minutes before the captain told us that we had been cleared for takeoff. So before we even left Heathrow we were 50 minutes behind schedule.

The flight itself went OK. Surprisingly, and quite happily I must add, I didn’t get poisoned on this leg of the flight, so that left only one more chance for them to try again. I hope they forgot on that leg as well. J The flight from London headed east and we had taken off at about 4pm, so it wasn’t long before the sun went down and we were flying in the dark.

As we descended into Doha, I got everything ready for a mad dash through the terminal to get to my connecting flight. And we’ve all been in the situation where, just because you’re in a hurry, everything else seems to be going slow. Like rushing down the footpath on Collins St, dashing to make the train at Flinders St; you can guarantee that there are hordes of slow moving tourists not only scattered on the footpath, but actually lined up military style across the footpath, so that you almost have to step out onto the road to get past them. Well that’s how it seemed now.

Finally they let us off the plane. Once into the tunnel thing, another lady who was trying to make a connection to Hong Kong and myself, started running. I didn’t care quite so much now about “doing an ankle”; I just wanted to get to my flight.

We quickly made it to the line up for the x-ray baggage check. Doha is a strange terminal because, even though we were simply swapping from one plane to another, and would be in the terminal for only minutes, we still had to put our cabin luggage through the x-ray machine. I couldn’t believe it. And to add insult to injury, the line was huge.

The lady from Hong Kong was urging me, almost insisting, that we duck under the tapes and push ourselves to the front of the line. I was caught between a rock and a hard place because my polite Australian sensibilities were telling me to take my position and wait my turn. But as the lady was saying, I would definitely miss my flight. So in a rush of decision I ducked under the tapes and pushed through the crowd to the front. As you would expect, there were lots of complaints and just a little loud muttering from those already in the queue, but my choices were limited.

I pushed to the front then had a choice of two x-ray machines. As I stood there impatiently, waiting to see which machine would free up first, I could feel the daggers being mentally thrust into my back from those behind me. It was only a matter of time before a meaty hand landed on my shoulder to haul me backwards to the back of the line.

Luckily, the machine in front of me came free, so I rushed forward. The operator of this machine was a large and very serious looking lady who looked like she’d been doing this job for a long, long time, so when I rushed forward, bleating that my flight was in the process of leaving, she looked entirely dis-interested. Of course I was hoping that she would wave me through but no, I had to do the right thing and put my bags through. In hindsight, of course that was totally understandable. But what happened next was just one of life’s cruelties.

As I was grabbing my bag and about to rush off for the plane, the operator stopped me and said something about the contents of my bag. I didn’t clearly hear what she said, but obviously she wasn’t happy about something, so to save time I immediately started tearing my bag open. I think I was mouthing off to her a little bit, but she sat there entirely dispassionately waiting for me to bring out the contents. She again mentioned what it was she wasn’t happy about and I was able to pick up something about a knife. I was about to scoff and waffle on about “How could there be a knife in my luggage? I’ve just come from Heathrow”, when it hit me like a ton of bricks. While I was at Heathrow and swapping over contents from my cabin luggage, backpack and the suitcase that Tina had brought me, I had accidentally left my Swiss army knife in the plastic bag that it had been in since I’d left Melbourne. My mistake was that at Heathrow I had unthinkingly put that plastic bag, which contained all of my emergency gear for the Sahara, into my cabin luggage. The only reason for that choice was “just in case I might need something” during the trip back to Melbourne. At no point did it even occur to me that I had a knife in there. Heathrow either didn’t see it or chose to let it through but here at Doha, where I would be for a grand total of five minutes and running the whole time, the lady was making a big deal about it. And before you say it, yes I know she was correct in what she was saying.

Well, with moments left until the plane left, I simply ripped the knife out of the plastic bag and gave it to her, stuffed the bag and everything else back into my cabin luggage, hurled an ill-chosen and none-too-clever sarcastic remark over my shoulder and grabbed my bag and ran.

With the adrenalin surging and all of my senses screaming along on hyper, I quickly found where I had to go and ran down the stairs to the departure lounge. I was there for only a couple of minutes before the transfer bus came and we all filed on for the short trip to the plane. Everyone in the departure lounge and on the bus seemed so calm and patient. My adrenalin still hadn’t stopped surging, so I started to breathe calmly to bring myself back down. Then, of course, I needed to consider that, after the stress and rushing and turmoil of the last 30 minutes, my sugar was soon to drop. As I have said many times previously in this story, type 1 diabetes never ever let’s you forget, so as well as making sure I had my required papers and documents available and safe, and my bag with me, and was following instructions from the various airline people, I also had to eat some of my “just-in-case” food that I still carried in my pockets.

Finally I was on the plane. It was only fifteen or twenty minutes since my London flight had pulled into the docking bay and now I was sitting on my final flight to Melbourne. At last I could begin to relax.

But as with almost every step of this fantastic voyage, the surprises were not yet over. As we sat on the tarmac, still in the docking bay, with me slowly calming down and settling in the for the twelve or thirteen hour flight, the plane jolted slightly as it began to pull out, then stopped. No big deal. So far that didn’t even raise any interest. As we waited and the seconds, then the minutes ticked by, I realised that this had now been elevated to the abnormal bucket. After a few minutes the captain came over the intercom and informed us, in his calm captain voice, that while pushing us out of our docking bay, the push truck, you know, the squat little tractor vehicles with the huge wheels had, wait for it, “bent the push rod. I’ve never known this to happen before, so you’re the lucky first”. He then went on to tell us that they were bringing a replacement push rod and it would take about 45 minutes.

I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t really matter in the big scheme of things, because I didn’t have any ongoing flights to catch, but after five weeks of uproar I was keen on getting home to Melbourne. And now we were sitting in the departure bay of Doha airport in Qatar at midnight, waiting for a pushrod thingy that never breaks to be replaced, because it had broken. That sort of summed up my whole trip.

I smiled.

The rest of the flight went according to plan. I didn’t get poisoned, which came as a relief. The food situation passed without too much hassle. I got restless, as I’m apt to do on long flights, and walked up and down the aisle like a drifting ghost. Everybody else was snoring away peacefully while I paced. An interesting thing about the flight, which I touched on earlier, was that we were heading east. The plane took of from Doha at about 1 o’clock in the morning and went for twelve or thirteen hours. You would think that we would land in Melbourne in the early afternoon and it would be broad daylight. But because we were heading east and going against the direction of the sun, the daylight outside the window lasted for only a short number of hours, then it was again night. It was 10 o’clock at night when we landed in Melbourne, so in one flight we’d gone from night to day to night. That was a bit weird.

There was only one small interesting thing happening at the airport. The passport check, baggage collection and customs checks all went as smoothly as you could hope for. The interesting little thing was that Channel 7, a local TV station, had signs up saying that they were recording an episode of Border Security at the airport that night. That wasn’t a big deal, but did fit in with the general pattern of the whole trip. Nothing was simple and nothing was normal.

Finally outside in the public area and there was the family waiting for me. Hugs and kisses from all and life was good.

My journey was over. 2014 here I come.

Post Scripts:

1/         I discovered after my return to Melbourne and visiting the doctor and then a specialist that my wobbles, and agonising cramps that took me out of the event, had nothing to do with the diabetes and carbohydrate. After doing some tests it was discovered that I also live with a condition known as hypokaleamia. This is when the body is unable to maintain a healthy level of potassium in the blood and can be very dangerous. I found that I also have this condition only due to the extremes that I was pushing my body to during the training and the event itself. The famous footage of the lady marathon runner in the 1984 LA Olympics, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, is an example that most people have seen of this condition.

2/         Throughout the story I make mention of entering the event again in 2014. I did embark on achieving just that, but early in the training I found that the biology around the type 1 diabetes had changed since 2008. Whether it was because of the 2010 event, or my age, or even just the constant guessing work associated with living with type 1 diabetes, I soon encountered a serious of serious medical mishaps involving ambulances and much consternation for both Donna and myself. I reassessed my situation and decided that the new risk was too great for me to justify, so I dropped the hope of trying the MdS again. I was not happy, but type 1 diabetes never lets you forget or get complacent. With type 1 diabetes, complacency leads to death.

Marathon des Sables – Chapter 16 – In The Navy (Almost)

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In The Navy
(Almost)

Early on Tuesday morning we were down stairs at the station, ready for the train to leave. The news on the TV had continued to tell us that there was growing concern that car hire companies were taking unfair advantage of the crisis and that the ferries all along the French coast were booked out for a week. So we were glad that we were waiting for the train to leave for new fields.

As we were coming to expect, the train left precisely on time. My brief experience with the Spanish railways is that they are brilliant, with modern clean trains, good service and uncanny timeliness.

The countryside between Madrid and Santander was more hilly than the previous day, as there are a line of mountains that run across the northern coast of Spain. We needed to cross these mountains before we got to Santander, so the maximum speed we reached on the whole trip was, when compared to the previous day, a rather ambling 230kph. I have to say that the Spanish countryside is beautiful and I can strongly recommend a train holiday.

After arriving in Santander, Nick and I quickly made our way downhill from the train station. We had no idea where we were going but knew that the port had to be downhill from the station. It wasn’t long before we saw the ocean, so knew we were heading in the right direction.

As we scampered along with as much dignity as we could maintain, we came to realise that we were leading roughly twenty other desperate looking tourists with bags as we all rushed hopefully towards the navy ship. Now you need to remember that none of us actually knew that the ship was still here. Not only that but none of us knew where on earth the ship was docked. It could have been kilometres up the coast for all we knew, as we hurried along looking like the Keystone Kops.

But it wasn’t; it was right there in front of us in all it’s glory as we turned the corner. There was a huge, grey, very impressive looking navy ship, complete with guns and all sorts of navy stuff, and it was right here in the heart of Santander. So the Keystone Kops, with us in the lead, stepped up the dignified pace a notch.

We all raced for the gate in the fence where there were guards standing. As we got there they were saying something in an unhopeful sounding voice. Everyone behind us started shouting their questions together as desperation to get home replaced dignity, so I concentrated intently on what the guards were saying. For those who were listening, which added up to Nick and I, we soon learned that this ship wasn’t taking any of us anywhere. I turned to Nick and said “This isn’t going to work. We need to get to the ferry terminal.” Nick said “I agree. The ferry terminal is up this way; I saw it as we came down.”

So Nick and I turned on our heels and, as rapidly as we could without actually breaking into a run, rushed up the port area for 200m to the ferry terminal office, with out bags bouncing along joyfully behind us on their tiny little wheels. The Keystone Kops soon came to the same realisation as we had, but now they didn’t need to decide which way to go; they simply followed us, so we were losing our “advantage”. (Can you feel the desperation in the air? So could we.) We rushed into the ferry office, took two seconds to do a reconnoitre, then rushed to the end of the line waiting to buy tickets. We were the first of the recent train arrivals to make it to the ferry line. Mwa ha ha haaaa!

This line was moving slowly but steadily. The ladies behind the desk were looking amazingly calm considering they were dealing with a bunch of desperate tourists ready to sell their first born if the sale secured a spot on The Ferry. Nick and I kept our ears peeled (I’m writing this story, so I’ll mix metaphors if I want to) so we could learn everything to be learned. And what we learned was that indeed there was a ferry on Thursday that was travelling to Plymouth in England. However, all seats and cabins were fully booked, but the ferry operators were prepared to let in a certain number of extra passengers who would need to sleep where ever they could find a spot.

The line of people was beginning to take on a party atmosphere as everyone exchanged their volcano stories. So’n’so had travelled from Somewhere on Such’n’such bus to be here. Oh the drama, oh the cost. But they were all struck dumb when Nick and I told them our story. The usual response we got was a pause, then a tentative “Really? You’ve come cross-country from Marrakesh?” We had so far crossed two countries, a British outpost and made a water crossing from one continent to another.

Finally it was our turn to buy tickets. I was nervously hopeful as we took our spot at the desk. The nice lady, who spoke very good English, explained the situation to us then sold us two tickets. I was thrilled to finally have ferry tickets to England for the day after next so, as we walked back past the line of waiting people, I did a little happy dance, waving my tickets in the air.

I found out two days later that the people immediately behind us in the queue were the last to get tickets for the Thursday ferry as it was then full. Oops. [Symbol]

Now the next race was on. Sure, we had tickets for the ferry, but we still didn’t have a room for the night. We stepped outside the ferry office and looked around. There, across the road was a good looking hotel, the Hotel Bahia. Because we were still in front of the Keystone Kops, we still considered that we needed to hurry, so with hardly a word Nick and I dragged our bags across the road to the hotel and booked in for two nights. And a lovely hotel it was too.

Now was the first chance since leaving Marrakesh for us to be able to simply relax. We didn’t have any commitments from now, which was two o’clock in the afternoon, until one o’clock Thursday afternoon when the ferry was loading. So we lounged around for a bit, watching the BBC to keep up with the news. From our window we were able to watch the navy ship leave. It was very impressive but also rather galling because, for a brief moment it had seemed that we may have been able to come swanning back into England in style, but that moment had soon passed. Reality had smacked us as we, and the rest of the Keystone Kops, had been left on the dock. And now we could stand and watch as it slowly pulled out and left us all behind.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with doing emails, going to the supermarket for the bags of emergency food, exploring the beautiful city of Santander and amazing at the architecture. Being from Oz I’ve never heard of The Bank of Santander, but apparently in Europe it is an important bank. Well guess where the beautiful head office is? That’s right; Santander. It was just behind the hotel we were in.

Exploring a new city is one of the joys of travelling. It is wonderful to be wandering slowly down a street then suddenly come across a building that has a market inside selling a range of exotic salamis and cheeses. There were all sorts of cafes, bars and restaurants. There was too much to take in in one afternoon. Next to the hotel was a lovely garden area with a café and a children’s play area. In the play area was a beautiful and classic carousal, with the lights and the bobbing horses. Doting parents could sit at the outdoor café drinking coffee and eating cakes while the children went round and round on the carousal. To be honest, I was struggling to comprehend how Spain could be caught up in the deep financial problems sweeping through Europe. It certainly didn’t look like it from our perspective as we explored this prosperous looking city.

That night we wandered off looking for a café or restaurant to have dinner. Because we were in Spain, Nick had a desire to have a typically Spanish dish called Paella, which we came to learn is pronounced “Paaya”. Plus he considered that there was a good chance that paella would be gluten free, which meant that I could also have it for dinner.

We walked up the road checking out the various cafes and restaurants, finally settling on one that looked like it would fit the bill, Café Te. The main waitress was a small lady who was full of life, laughing and cajoling customers in a loud voice. When it came time for us to order, it was fun as we decided with her whether the paella in the picture was gluten free. Her English was, well, nil and my Spanish was, well, virtually nil. However Nick, with his combination of reasonable French and slight Spanish was able to translate and understand much of what she was describing. So between us we decided that the paella in the picture was worth the small risk for me. Fortunately this was another example of how the Spanish are well aware of gluten free, so our charming waitress knew why it was important for me to know what was in the dish. It was all good fun deciding all of this, with lots of laughing and joking.

The evening went on with her yelling incomprehensible jokes in our direction and, after a little more of the red grape juice, us yelling back at her with lots of laughing. But finally it was time to leave and for us to wander back to the hotel. A quick catch-up of the latest news on the Beeb and we called the day over.

*   *   *   *   *

The next day, Wednesday, was a rest day as we waited for the ferry. Of course we kept a close eye on the volcano updates, which were going from bad to worse. We heard that now the recriminations had started, with airlines and others saying that the governments had over reacted by closing down the airspace. I was in two minds; firstly I don’t like the way western governments are rapidly becoming nanny states, but then I don’t relish the idea of falling out of the sky because the engines of the plane got clogged. I think sometimes there are situations where there simply isn’t an easy option.

So Nick and I pushed all of that to the back of our minds and set out to explore Santander. I won’t bore you with the details, so I’ll just say that Santander is a city that would be a good addition to any travel schedule in Spain. It’s an attractive, clean city with beautiful architecture and great restaurants.

We did take the opportunity to call into a number of cafés throughout the day to sit and watch the people. One observation is that the Spanish are yet to embrace the idea of giving up cigarettes. It seems that every second person has a cigarette in their mouth, as it used to be at home. Because it has changed so much in Melbourne over the last 20 years, seeing the Spanish reality was a bit surprising.

That night we returned to the same café as the previous night to have the meal that I knew was good for me. Aside from the food, it was good fun there. I have to be honest and tell you that this night we were a little more free’n’easy with the grape juice and were again the last to leave before they closed the doors.

This was a quiet day of rest, cafes and exploring.

*   *   *   *   *

Finally it was the day when, all going well, we were heading back to England. The morning went as normal, with no great surprises. The Beeb was still telling us about the throngs of stranded travellers and were focussing particularly on the main train station in Madrid. Apparently this had become a focal point for tourists coming from all over southern Europe and it was becoming rather chaotic. As we had been there only two days previously, we were again surprisingly pleased that we had managed to stay ahead of the main mob. Call it good planning, thinking outside the square or just dumb luck, we’d had a good dollop of all of it to get us to northern Spain and a ferry this afternoon.

One of our important tasks was to buy emergency food to get us through that night on the ferry and two train trips once we got to England. So we spent a little bit of time ensuring we had more than enough to get us through.

I’ll break here and take the opportunity to explain the potential consequences of me not having my bags of emergency food. Admittedly, it is a little more detailed for me than for a person with type 1 diabetes who does not also live with coeliacs disease (gluten free), but the importance and urgency are the same.

Maintaining the balance between the three balls that people with type 1 diabetes must juggle non-stop for their whole lives to stay alive, being insulin, carbohydrate and exercise/rest, requires a ready supply of carbohydrate at all times. The balance between the three factors (balls) can and does change for many reasons. The weather, stress levels, exercise, state of health and many other things have an impact on the blood sugar level. If you stub your toe, making you momentarily whince in pain, your BSL can easily be affected. So these bags of emergency food are not just a point of comfort; they are a point of life or death.

At last it was time to book out of the hotel and make our way across the road to the ferry terminal, where we found a substantial line of people already queued up. We joined the queue and waited patiently as more and more people joined after us. The room became full of people and their suitcases. There were families with babies and old people and young people; there were backpackers and business men. It seemed as if half the world was on the move.

While waiting for the queue to move, we got talking with those around us and swapping war stories … again. During this enjoyable and intriguing activity, we came to learn that two days before, when we had been buying our tickets, the people further back in the line behind us then had missed out. The next ferry for them wasn’t until the following Saturday, that is two days from now. I crouched down a little, remembering back to my little victory dance as we walked past the rest of the line. Oh dear.

Unfortunately it took at least an hour of queuing before the line even started to move. Then once it did, it took another 45 minutes of slow, slow lava flow before we were finally on the ship.

When we did finally get on board we saw, to our amazement, what a brilliant little ship this was. It looked like it was almost brand new, with restaurants, a cinema, coffee shops, you name it. We explored merrily for half an hour before finally deciding where we were going to spend the night. People were finding whatever seat they could find, and we chose some in a reasonably quiet area, sharing with a couple of ladies from New Zealand, a husband and wife couple from England, who were nice enough to make a donation to my chosen charity, JDRF, after they finally got home, and a quiet backpacker from South America who mainly kept his own counsel.

Of course, because we were on a ship going across the ocean from Spain to England, I was as excited as a kid. But if you overlook this detail, this was one of the worst night’s sleep I have ever had. I simply could not get comfortable and spent much of the night wandering around the ferry, trying not to disturb the lucky people who were sleeping. Some chose to party almost all night in one of the pub areas, but even they eventually quietened down and went to sleep. I know, because I was there to see it. It was an awful night’s sleep.

Not only could I not get to sleep, but as I was coming back to my seat at one point, walking without my shoes on, I stubbed my toe on a chrome upright that was so polished and shiny that I couldn’t see it. I heard a crack and knew then that I’d broken my toe. Sure enough, five weeks later and it’s still a little bruised and swollen.

And so the night passed.

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