Midway through 2009 my training had brought me to a point where I was starting to consider myself almost ready. Physically, I couldn’t expect a lot more improvement. At fifty two years of age, what I was achieving week after week was, to cast modesty to the side for a moment, quite amazing. I had never been an “athlete”, so had started this endeavor from a very basic starting point. I was now at a level where, with ten minutes warning, I could be on the road and walk a marathon with no problems at all, with enough food on my back to last a week.
With regards to the management of my diabetes, I had made enormous strides, pardon the pun. I was now settled on the food to eat during a day of walking. I was fine tuning the food to eat at the start of the day and at the end of the day. I still had some decisions to make there, but the general approach was now decided. I had learned about the need for electrolyte supplements and considered that subject now closed. I now had most of my final gear for the Sahara, with only some of the less important items to get. I did still need to get the sleeping bag, but had already found that it wasn’t going to be difficult to get that. So I considered now that almost all of my focus could be devoted purely to training.
Three weeks out of four I was now doing marathon distances combined with twenty or twenty five kilometres on the other day of the weekend. When I thought back to where I started at, when five kilometres was comfortable and ten was a long way, I knew I really had come a long way. On the fourth weekend of each month I was doing a Wilsons Prom lighthouse loop.
By now I had become sophisticated enough that I was carrying a satellite tracker with me on my Wilsons Prom trips. I had recently learned about these and had bought one and set it up so that anyone who had the web site could, at the click of a mouse, see where I was. I introduced these to the picture with a dual purpose. Firstly it brought an extra level of safety and comfort when I was doing the lighthouse loops on my own, as Robin didn’t always join me. The other was to fine tune how it worked for both myself and those who would be watching me progress across the Sahara. Modern technology is amazing. My team mate at work asked me one Monday after I had a done a loop, why I had stopped for about twenty minutes just after I had left Waterloo Bay. I was amazed. Yes I had stopped and it was because it was half way up the long climb out of Waterloo Bay and I was feeling tired. I sat down for a rest and dropped off to sleep for twenty minutes while sitting on a rock. He was also to ask me in the future, why I had turned off the tracker in Spain. But we’ll get to that much later.
My performance on the loops was getting consistently better and better. So was Robin’s. He didn’t come on every walk, missing about every second one. But he was there to share some memorable experiences. There was the time we were crossing over the low point to the lighthouse right at the moment that a thundery squall struck. For ninety seconds we were pounded by howling winds, thunder and lightning and general mayhem, dramatic enough that I nearly lost my poncho and backpack. We had to grab on to each other and help each other across to where we could shelter in rocks. Of course that was just in time for the squall to blow itself out.
Then there was the time that Robin, who was walking behind me, suddenly gave a shout of shock.
“Didn’t you see that?” he asked.
“See what?” I asked.
“The snake. You stepped over a snake!”
There was the time we were climbing out of Sealers Cove, heading for Refuge Cove. The weather was glorious sunshine and we were in high spirits. Suddenly we heard a sound coming from behind us and turned to see what it was. We couldn’t see anything until Robin pointed to the middle of the bay and yelled “Look! It’s a whale!” We stood there for the next ten minutes watching a whale blow through its blow hole, lift its enormous side flipper into the air and slap it down on the water surface with the sound of a cannon and generally make us glad to be alive and here to see it. Robin was like an excited, little boy for the rest of the day after that. He loves all creatures great and small. Which is why he nearly fainted with joy one night when we were just stepping down onto Norman Bay beach, just thirty minutes from the finish of our loop, when we were confronted in the light of our headlamps with a wombat, standing right in the middle of our path. We stood there and waited as it slowly waddled out of the way and we could keep going.
Robin was also with me the night that, at the fifty kilometre point of the loop, I started to feel quite strange. We’d been pushing along that day and, as we were on the fire track near Roaring Meg, I started to lose control of my legs. I was already suffering painful cramps, which was a regular aspect of these walks for me, but this time they got worse until I was having trouble walking. Finally, with great regret, I sat down on the track to give the cramps a chance to go away. I was feeling exhausted and Robin was a little concerned. So was I to be honest. Understandably I considered that my sugar might be going low, so I had an extra fruit strip and sports gel, but they didn’t seem to help. Eventually we got going again and I struggled along until we got to Halfway Hut, where we chose to have another good rest. I was worried about what might be going on, so I reluctantly agreed with Robin’s suggestion that we stay there in the hut for the rest of the night.
I was to learn later that this was a flashing, screaming warning light, yelling at me that there was a problem. All I could think of was a sugar problem, maybe combined with exhaustion, so I pushed it aside. Oh how I wish I had taken more notice.
Finally it all got too much for Donna, who was living with immense pain every minute of every day. She called the hospital to find out the latest status for her operation and started crying as she spoke with one of the senior admin people. Fortunately he was one of those “can do” people who went to work to actually help people, not just shuffle papers, and started asking questions. He was able to determine that Donna’s case had indeed fallen between the cracks and her operation should have happened months previously. As a result, he organized not only for Donna to go to the top of the list, but also that she would be given the preeminent spinal doctor in all of Melbourne.
La Grande Adventure
After two years of hard work, training, planning and organising, I would have hoped that the last couple of weeks before leaving would have been calm. But alas, that was not the case. Right up to the moment of departure tickets were being printed, passports were being checked, final arrangements being made. Not least amongst this was the all essential backpack. The first “final” packing of that was two weeks prior to departure. The final “final” packing was the afternoon before departure. But at least, as I was to work out later, I didn’t forget anything.
At last it was time to leave for the airport. It would have been nice if I was calm by this stage but alas, this also was not to be. I was stressed and tense and just eager to be on the plane. Our friend Karen, who was going to prove to be a great help for Donna over the next few weeks, arrived early to pick us up and drive us. All of my family, brothers, mother and assorted others, were there to say good-bye, so it was a loud and jumbled farewell.
I wish I could say that the flight to London was boring, but unfortunately a small drama happened on the way. The flight to Doha was quite normal and comfortable, as was the connecting flight to London, up to the point that I asked for an orange juice. When I took my first sip of the juice I thought that maybe I’d been given mango juice instead. It tasted a little odd. I took another small taste and then I realised that something was definitely wrong. I mentioned to the hostess that there was something wrong with the juice and she went away to get a fresh one for me. Meanwhile my mouth started to tingle and I could feel a strange sensation in my mouth and throat.
Suddenly four hostesses came rushing up the aisle and asked me if I was OK. They urgently gave me an ice-cream, a fruit juice in a box and a bottle of water and were showing great concern about my welfare, which I found odd and strangely perplexing. My mouth was definitely feeling odd and now I had a sickening taste of chemicals in my mouth, throat, nose and sinuses.
The poor hostess, who I felt very sorry for, confirmed what had happened. The dishwasher used to clean the glasses had only been through half it’s cycle, leaving the glasses covered in the cleaning solution rather than being rinsed clean. And now all I could taste and smell was the nauseating affect of chemicals. This was to last until the next day in London before it finally went away. The rest of the trip to London went without any further dramas, luckily, leaving me standing out in the public area of Heathrow a few minutes early waiting for my ride. Tina, my sister-in-law who lives in London with her husband Ken, had been caught in traffic and was a little late arriving to pick me up. By the time she arrived I had created visions of me being stranded at Heathrow airport as night fell, not knowing where I was meant to be going. However they finally arrived and all was fine.
London – what can I say? There is something about London, and England in general, that makes Donna and I go a little funny. This was now my third trip to London, but I was still over-awed to be there. Donna and I have tried to work out what makes us go all mushy about being in London, and the best we can come to is some mystical sort of tribal memory. It’s either that or simply that Donna and I are just repressed Anglophiles. Who knows, but I now had that mushy feel again.
Over the next three days, as I played with my backpack and other luggage, and as the details of the Ryanair flight to Marrakesh became more clear through talking with Tina, it became apparent that a major rethink of my luggage requirements was in order. Having never flown with joyful airlines like Ryanair or Easyjet before, I wasn’t until then aware that they make their money by charging for absolutely everything. If my booked in luggage was even a few hundred grams over the 15kg that Tina had arranged for, it was going to cost me substantial amounts of money. And as this trip was already costing a lot of money, this was a “joy” that I could well do without.
So I packed and unpacked, packed again then repacked. I tried nearly every combination of checked in and cabin luggage I could think of, eventually finding the right combination of what goes where and what to discard and leave behind. This meant that my race backpack needed to have some contents transferred across to my cabin luggage bag and the race backpack became my booked in luggage. It also meant that I needed something lightweight to protect my backpack from damage. As I sat there in London, the most important thing in my field-of-view at that moment in time was my backpack.
The next day I took myself off to the centre of London on the tube. I simply cannot go to London and not spend at least one day wandering around the city, travelling on the tube, seeing Buck House etc. My goals for the day were to find something that would protect my backpack as it travelled to Marrakesh and to see some of the famous sites of London. The first was achieved with a visit to an outdoor shop in Oxford St. There I found a tough, adaptable and light weight bag that I could use, so that job was now half complete.
As I was walking up Oxford St, calling into Marks and Spencer to browse around and be astounded at the range and quality of the food available for lunch down in the basement, I experienced the first bout of low sugar since leaving Melbourne. As I had left Melbourne thirty six or forty eight hours ago, I’d lost count, I was actually doing quite well. It was not far off lunch time and it quickly became obvious that I didn’t have time to buy lunch to get rid of the low. With rapidly diminishing options, I stopped and pulled out a packet of emergency biscuits from my backpack. The sugar was dropping rapidly, so I ate quite a lot of biscuits to catch it and bring it back up. Even though this was the first low I had experienced since leaving home, I wasn’t happy that it had happened. Here I was on my own in the centre of London. A major low was not a good idea.
The rest of the day was filled with activities that are, in my opinion, a must for anyone visiting London infrequently. These included a walk from Leicester Square down to Buck House past Nelson’s Column, around St James Park, up through some amazing buildings with beautiful architecture, past 10 Downing St, back up to Trafalgar Square, where I then sat and watched all the people for a while, then back to Leicester Square and the tube back to Tina’s place. In Paris you visit the Eiffel Tower. In London you visit these places.
The next day, Tuesday the 30th of March, was the last day in London before I left for Morocco. A visit to Harrods was a great way to see another side of London and an opportunity to buy a few small presents for the family. Over the years, Donna has accumulated a number of bags from Harrods, and now she had one more. While there, Tina and I got talking to a nice couple who were amazed by what I was about to do in the Sahara. The fellow was himself a type 1 diabetic, so he understood the danger I was facing and the difficulties I had been working with through the training and the event itself. It is conversations such as this which make all of the hard work seem more worthwhile.
Finally it was Wednesday the 31st of March and the day to leave London and fly to Marrakesh. This was the start of a whole new challenge. I was leaving the relative safety and comfort of London and travelling to a new and exotic country, a city I’d never been to before but had grown up with songs on the radio about. And not only that but I was starting an extreme adventure. Was I nervous? Me? What do you think?
Ken drove me down the M-whatever motorway to Luton airport, getting me there only half an hour before departure time. Having never been to Luton before, I found it to be a cavernous building simply full of people, all lined up for their various flights. I eventually found the RyanAir queue for Morocco at the farthest end of the building and rushed to join it, only to discover it was moving at a rate that would have us all booked in by around midday. As the plane left at 5:25am, less than half an hour away, that could have been a problem.
And so it was. With a lot of hand wringing on my part, and shuffling from foot to foot, I finally got booked in five minutes AFTER the plane was scheduled to leave. With a smile on her face, the girl behind the counter suggested to me very politely that the plane was waiting to leave “So I’d hurry if I was you.” After running for what seemed like forever to the departure gate with my bags, and risking tripping and breaking my neck, they closed the door as soon as I was on the plane. Then RyanAir, in all their audacious ingenuity, offered to sell me a beer so I could get my breath back after running to the departure gate. That’s what the bright and sparky recorded Irish voice said over the PA. The rotten mongrels had it all planned.
I will never fly with Ryanair again if I can avoid it.