This photograph of my sandals, sprinkled with sand, lit by a Maputo winter sunset, seems just right for a post about golden years, footsteps and Africa. Let me explain…
Two years ago, Caralyn was facing “a significant birthday”. OK, it was her 50th – hence the reference to gold. She decided to celebrate by walking three marathons: Paris, London and New York. I thought she was absolutely bonkers. To do just one marathon seemed like more than enough of a challenge. Two years later I am facing the same significant birthday. I am not planning to celebrate it with three marathons. No, I will be celebrating it with three ultramarathons. That is, three events of 100km, each to be completed in one go (i.e. no sleeping) – ideally each one will be done in under 24 hours. Of course, Caralyn is the mastermind behind this ludicrous plan.
First off is the London to Brighton in May. As you may know, this is one we’ve done before, which makes it slightly easier as we know what to expect. Unfortunately, one of the things we can expect is mud and I will not be looking forward to that at all. July brings the rather enticingly-named “Race to the Stones“: 100km along the Ridgeway from Chinnor to Avebury. This is a completely new one for both of us and will probably be the most challenging in terms of terrain. Finally, September will herald the Thames Path Challenge. Caralyn did this last year and assures me it’s flat, footpath walking but I imagine that could be very wearing on the muscles: sometimes a bit of incline is a welcome break from monotony. Of course, all these plans will depend on our health, particularly our feet, but so far we are in good form and our training is going well. When I say “good form”, I should add that my toenails have seen better days. The training plans for these sorts of events suggest that you exercise frequently (up to 5 times a week). I would find this impossible: my job takes too much out of me and my current workload means I can no longer get up at 5 a.m. to walk before work as I used to do – I would be falling asleep in the afternoon. So we are sticking with the schedule we devised last year. We aim to meet once a month for a whole weekend of walking, usually covering around 50 miles, for endurance. On the other weekends I do a 10-12 mile walk, to keep up my general fitness and speed.
Over previous years, I have entered events through Walk the Walk, a charity that raises money for breast cancer research and treatment. I was happy to fundraise for such a good cause, but as I am fortunate enough not to have lost a close friend or family member to breast cancer, it was a cause that felt quite remote. This year, I am going to raise money for one of my favourite places: the children’s centre in Maputo, Mozambique where I used to live with my family. It’s home to around 260 orphaned and abandoned children, providing them with lots of love, really good care and hope for the future in the form of education and training. There are always financial needs, whether for the day to day running costs, community projects, education, medical needs and the inevitable crises that arise (e.g from extreme weather conditions or accidents). I am excited to think that this year I can make a difference by doing one of the things I love most: simply putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going until it’s time to stop.
I am also excited because on Saturday, I will be exchanging the cool, pale watercolours of an English winter for the vibrant fire of an African summer: I am off to Mozambique for a two week visit. I will start at the children’s centre and will then stay with friends who run a skills-training project, equipping young people and helping them find work. As well as this, I’ll be going to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, another place I love. (It’s really quite inconvenient having little bits of my heart scattered around the world but at least I get to find them again every so often). We’ll be staying overnight in the Kruger, though I would have been overjoyed to have even just five minutes there. We have been many times over the years – this will be visit number 17 – but there have also been times when we didn’t even go into the park. We would simply drive to the bridge at the Malelane entrance, get out of the car and take in the view at the gate. If I close my eyes, I can see it now:
The Crocodile River winds across a great plain, its waters studded with hippos, water buffalo and, unsurprisingly, the sinister curves of half-submerged crocodiles. Herons and storks stoop, hunched, on the rocks. Impala huddle by the acacia trees. In the hazy distance, the Lebombo mountains frame the horizon. Pied kingfishers hover, suspended in the air and suddenly plummet into the waters. Swallows swoop and dart in every direction. The landscape shimmers in the heat. The air hums with the sound of insects, with the sound of life.
Sigh. So many friends to hug. So many beautiful things to photograph. So many opportunities to practice newly-learned Portuguese phrases to explain to the over-zealous customs officials why my suitcase is full of gluten-free food… Ate logo and I’ll write again when I’m back!