Long time no write! It has all been happening - so much so that I have barely known where to begin.
First of all, I have the rest of the funding I need - just as well, since I have had a last minute budget blowout of horrid proportions. Birkenstock shoes, makers of awesomely comfortable sandals, have agreed to fund me. Marcel, the head of Birkenstock Australia, met with me last Friday. He is modifying a couple of pairs of Birkenstocks specially for the walk, tailoring them for the conditions and my feet. It was absolutely brilliant to be talking with someone who understands feet - Marcel is an orthopoedic technician - and to feel that I will have shoes to rely on this stretch, so that I don't wind up with the aches and pains of last time.
Shortly after I heard from Marcel, I talked with Habib in Morocco, and we both worked out that due to some new restrictions on baggage and visas, we would have to drive down to Mauritania from Morocco - a long drive and an expensive process. This bumped my costs up by several thousand euro, and as I had already begun buying the electronic communications equipment I need for the next leg, I was suddenly in trouble once again. Back I went to Dove, with a new proposal based on working with the company after I finish the desert leg of the walk. To my utter shock, disbelief, and tremendous gratitude, they came back almost immediately with a "yes".
I think even the camels in the Sahara heard me scream with relief and excitement when I got that particular email.
So, for the first time since I began this walk, I have the finance to kit up the expedition as I need to. I will have absolutely nothing left to fall back on, but at least the equipment and running costs are actually covered in advance. After the last few months of diabolical worry and panic, this is more of a relief than I can possibly explain.
In addition, after I was on radio here a week or so ago, I received an email from a bloke by the name of Tom, based here in Melbourne. Tom runs a very cool website called www.feedtherat.com; this will shortly be featured on my main page. But for any adventure junkies out there, I suggest you have a look. He also runs the Lactic Factory, a hideaway off Punt Road in Melbourne, that has a quite amazing Rock Climbing wall, and a coterie of dedicated climbers and expeditioners lurking in its corners. Tom himself has spent his life doing expeditions and working in the great outdoors, and thus was a wonderful person for me to meet. He in turn put me in touch with Graeme Joy, one of life's really amazing achievers. Graeme has led over twenty expeditions world wide, including mountaineering, Arctic, and sea kayaking expeditions. He is now an in demand corporate speaker and expedition leader, and the best possible bloke I could have imagined meeting. He has been absolutely brilliant, assisting me with advice on everything from logistics to finance. More than anything, it has been just awesome to speak to someone with extensive experience in expeditioning - someone who understands the planning, frustrations, and actual experience of the whole process. At times it can be terribly isolating organising something like this, particularly when there are those who view it as little more than a holiday, and wonder why I think anyone would actually sponsor me to do it. But I have learned so very much through this entire process, and changed so much as a result, that despite the challenges, I feel more prepared and enthusiastic about the coming leg than I have for any of the other parts.
Perhaps at the beginning, Gary and I set off with a dream, and, whilst we thought we had planned, little real organisation (but a bucket load of determination). Then, on the first part of the desert trek, it was difficult to know exactly what or how to plan for everything; and it was certainly a massive learning curve, on every possible level. This time around, I feel that I know exactly what I am heading into, and for the first time I feel totally determined to be 100% organised and structured; this time it is a proper expedition, and the more I have had to define it for others (such as sponsors) the more it has helped me be totally disciplined and structured in myself.
As such, I have set myself up with an RBGAN unit - this is a remote broadband satellite connection, which means I can log on to the net anywhere in the desert, depending on the solar equipment being reliable. My main reason for this is that it negates the need to enter the larger towns - something that cost me a huge amount of money and trauma on the last leg. I had determined, after the endless hassle of contraband vehicles, hitchiking, and big town hassle, that my supplies would come solely from villages on the next leg, and that either that meant an RBGAN connection, or simply not updating the site or being in email contact. There was no way I was leaving myself open once again to the logistical nightmares that occurred last time on a monthly basis, where we would have to find a way to towns - and then out again. I want to be able to focus on, and enjoy, the process of walking, and minimise the risks associated with larger towns.
I have also finally caught up with the digital recording equipment I need to take some footage with an eye to a documentary at the end of the walk. I have always wanted to do this, but have had trouble both discovering what to buy, and affording it.
One thing I am very grateful for is that I have spent the last few years doing constant research on the best way to kit the expedition out, based on the experiences I have had and my understanding of the logistics involved. What this has meant is that when the funding finally turned up, I was ready to simply go and buy the stuff - I knew exactly what I needed. It has justified for me the many hours spent in front of the internet, talking with techies and learning about watts, amps, and voltage, gigabytes and megabytes, satellite connections and high definition digital video, fold up solar panels and quality audio. I have discovered a whole world of technical stuff that I always put into the too hard basket, hoping, I guess, that Gary would deal with it. Taking control of that side of things has been really empowering. It also means I can actually have a conversation with my brother in law and not feel a total imbecile. This may be the greatest accomplishment of all!
Actually, the whole process of learning how to really set up an expedition, rather than setting off on a whim with a dream, has been a fantastic experience. It is as if all the years of slog and research have begun to pay off; I don't know at what point I realised that I was actually capable of doing all of this, but I do know that it has been an awesome discovery, and given me no end of confidence in my ability to succeed. On Graeme's advice, I set success criteria for this stage of the expedition, and whilst I always used to hate that kind of corporate speak, I have found it a tremendously useful and constructive thing to do this time. For the first time in my life, I have found that a lot of the stuff I always hated doing, has suddenly become interesting and absorbing - perhaps because I have a reason to apply it, and can see the benefits.
The site is about to undergo a transformation. A unique and very generous individual who shall remain known as cyberhobo , has taken over the running of constanttrek.com, and I hope you like what he has done with it. I certainly do.
Neil, Gary's brother, has patiently and without thought of payment, designed, administrated, and managed the site since before we began walking until now. He has done a brilliant job, and Gary and I are both very grateful to him for his ongoing support and patience with what has not always been an easy job. His time with the site may be at an end (stop cracking the champagne Neil) but my gratitude for his time and energy knows no bounds.
I am now down to the final two weeks before shipping out. It is utterly manic - I am actually planning every minute of every day, something I have never been any good at. I thought it was mad before I left England the first time - trust me, this is far, far worse, not least because I am trying to work out the practical realities of carting three camel's worth of baggage from Australia to England, then down to Morocco. My Dad is very kindly flying to Casablanca with me, to share some of the baggage load, and keep an eye on things whilst I sort out the visa stuff; Habib will meet me there and together we will drive down to mauritania to get the camels, guide, etc. I had to stop panicking about timing, since there is little I can do beyond move as fast as I can once I start walking.
In the meantime I have been able to catch up with everyone including my gorgeous sister Lisa and her wonderful family, including above-mentioned brother in law Wes, and the beautiful Kate and Emma. Little girls when I left Australia, they are now well and truly teenagers, and quite remarkably lovely ones at that! The drive up to their place in Wodonga is a real joy - especially as I had to go via my good old home town of Mansfield in order to buy the world's best swag from the Snowy Mountain rug company. I had forgotten how totally amazing the mountain country that I grew up in really is - I felt the tears well up as I drove over the hill and saw the big peaks rise up, still with white patches even though the ski season has been the most woeful in thirty years. I cut a few laps around the town and checked out the never-changing blokes with chest length beards and battered Akubras, and thought how lucky I am to have called such a beautiful place home for so many years.
I have adored being back in Australia. It is funny how with the passing of years, the memory of home fades, until all one can remember is the bad politics and drinking too much good wine. I had forgotten the incredible friendliness of Australians, and the ease of friendship here. The way that women are feisty and funny, dominating the airwaves and giving it straight back to the men. I have marvelled all over again at the truly awesome food, the way that it is simply impossible to buy a bad meal, or drink ordinary wine, and the fact that it is always presented beautifully by friendly staff. There are cafes and restuarants on every corner, and they are all charming and unpretentious, and blissfully affordable.
But it is more than all of those things. There is a light in the Australian sky that is totally unique; a kind of wild changeability that gives a sense of freedom that I have experienced nowhere else. Driving out on the highway, the huge eucalypts twist in paddocks, and the horizon stretches into infinity, the thick purple clouds of winter rolling across the sky chased by a brilliant sun - one second a violent storm flurry, followed in the next by a steamingly bright dazzle. The smells are so typically Australian, the soft wattles and sharp eucalypts, soft moist earth and something harder, some indefinable smell that is just for me the scent of home. I stopped by the roadside not far from Mansfield and sat on the bonnet a while, just breathing it in and thinking of how much I have missed, and how glad it is to finally be home. In a strange way it has given me the strength and energy to return to my walk with a renewed passion.
And that is another thing - I had forgotten the endless enthusiasm of people here. Nobody is trying to be cool, or critical; instead they happily call me up out of the blue, wiht offers of assistance or just for a beer, people I don't know and would never have met but who love the idea of the walk, and want to be involved. They are generous and interesting and passionate, and whilst I agree that Australians are the most laid back people on earth, I reckon they are also the most practical and innovative folk as well. No idea is too big, and their lust for adventure is huge; they can see possibilities, and like to make them happen. It is not suprising to me at all that it has been the Australian divisions of Dove and Birkenstock who have made this happen - they have that Australian ability to be excited, and the belief that anything is possible.
I am fostering dreams of walking across Australia one day. Being back here has made me think of how wonderful it would be to really walk my own country. But maybe I had better finish this one first!
Go and have a look at feed the rat, Tom's site, and get into the whole ratty philosophy. I am loving what these guys are into, and the whole passion they bring to life - it is the only way to live. I will hopefully upload another entry before I bail to the UK. Oh, and if anyone is around in Melbourne this Thursday, come down to the Birkenstock store in Collins street - I think there is a bit of a launch thingy happening.
And to all the UK crew - can't wait to have a beer in a couple of weeks! I will pack some decent Aussie red into the already vastly oversized baggage, and look forward to being with you all again.
Big lurrrrrve Miss Jo, and Steph and the whole Bromley Road crew, can't wait to give you all a big hug.