A Record-Breaking Walk by the Sea

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Ryan was gazing in fascination at a short winged conehead cricket. Ah, hang on, no it wasn’t. Victoria had spotted an orange bit (not the official anatomical term) on its body and so Joy from the Essex Wildlife Trust declared it  – drumroll  – a LONG winged conehead cricket. Everybody cheered.

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This was an off-piste moment on the pilot Stepping Out walk in Southend-on-Sea –  an event which broke all box office records for gathering group of carers and those they support in numbers even greater than Basildon’s turn out back in May. A grand total of 72. In fact 74, if you – and we do – count Roxy and Oscar, the guide dogs.

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The walks – long, long–ish, short and short-ish to suit all abilities – roamed through the nature reserve at Gunners Park in one direction and along the promenade from Shoeburyness towards Southend Pier in the other direction. The expert guides were drawn from two local Ramblers groups, South East Essex and Basildon Greenway. Co-walk organiser, Megan Potts, led the Sport For Confidence cavalcade and broke into impromptu dance moves where necessary. An array of volunteers and staff lent their support from every participating groups which included:

Project 49 (Ryan’s group) –  Southend day centre for adults with learning difficulties

Forget Me Not – providing disability support in Rochford

Action for Family Carers in Essex

Basis – Blind And Sight Impaired Society

Papworth Trust – Basildon centre for adults with physical and/or learning difficulties.

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Chief among the motivating factors was Billy. He has been declared an official”National Fitness Day Hero” only 24 hours earlier, awarded the title for his dedicated service to a vast array of sports and organisations including the recent Cricket World Cup and Active Essex. Just two years ago he has been lying in hospital stricken by fibromyalgia.

“I was practically dying,” he said.”When I came out I was determined to get better. So I took up multidisciplinary low impact exercise like cycling, swimming, yoga.  It’s made such a difference to my life. The thing I love is that it’s enabled me to empower others.

“The best thing about today was giving a bit of motivation to some of our walkers who really wanted to reach the mile mark but doubted they could do it. So we chatted, we keep going, we encouraged one another  and – with a few rests on benches in between – we made it. I loved that!”

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Being the sort of organisation believes in post-exercise lunch, Stepping Out had booked a massive order of cheese toasties and drinks for the returning hordes after the walks in unbroken sunshine. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the seaside cafe,  rose to the occasions spectacularly as did the Ramblers and Megan’s forces who were press-ganged into service as waitresses.

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QUOTES OF THE DAY

‘I love to the diversity of the age range. The pace was really good. It was accessible to everybody and the best thing about it is that it was fun. Mum and Dad had a great time,” Martin Crocombe, who raised £1500 for Pancreatic Cancer UK in the recent Prudential 100 cycle ride.

“Oh it was just wonderful meeting new people and walking along in the fresh air with nice views alongside like-minded people. We would definitely love to do it again.’ Ama Owusu and her daughter, also Ama, who regularly attend Sports For Confidence activities in Southend.

Geoffrey Forward,  the Basildon Greenway rambler who guided the long (long) walk with his usual meticulousness through clouds of butterflies and wild flowers in Gunners Park, quietly revealed that his mum and dad used to bring him to Uncle Tom’s Cabin for an ice cream 65 years ago.

“You’ve just knocked five years off…” exclaimed an overhearing Rambler, “you told me 70 just now!”

Jeff laughed slightly sheepishly and made no further comment.

If you would like to discover more about Stepping Out Walks and how you could join one of our walks email: hallosteppingout@gmail.com

 

Georgie Preston in Madagascar

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STEPPING OUT ambassador and GB rafter, Georgie Preston, surveyed the swirling torrents of the river they call the Mania in Madagascar and instantly diagnosed: ”Certain death”. What with the violent thrashing of the mud-brown water AND the Nile crocodiles. A little further on she and her fellow expeditionists decided: “Almost certain death.” That was fine. They’d go in the water there.

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To each their own adventure. This is the story of Georgie’s.

“Every adventure begins with the first step, as your motto says, and my first step on this particular expedition was a phone call I received at 3 AM in Galway nightclub. Between being slightly drunk and the booming music, it wasn’t easy to hear the voice.

“Oh Ben, it’s you,” I said, delighted to hear from a great friend and fellow kayaker,  one of two brothers,  hard-core adventurers, I’d met in Ecuador last year.

We talked about the trip he was planning with his brother and dad to tackle the infamous Mania for only the third time in human history, 191 miles east to west, in all its wildness. I couldn’t wait to tell him that my plans changed and now I was free to come.

“Are you sure?’ he asked.

“Yes of course,” I said without hesitation.

He called again the next day when he figured I’d be sober.

“How serious are you about Madagascar?”

“100%”.

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So here we were, carrying two rafts, two kayaks, 400 kg of gear in all, through the wilderness to the most practical start point of the Mania at Ambositria. Maybe ‘practical’ isn’t quite the right word. It’s not ‘practical” to invade the territory of 6 foot long crocodiles who launch themselves in such aggressive attack you can see the teeth glistening in their widening jaws as they tank towards you. Nor to shoot the crashing rapids where the siphons can suck you under and hold you trapped in tunnels of rock.

The river was high and fast just after the rainy season and boiling with turbulence. Choosing the right line to navigate was a tricky business. We’d argue sometimes. “Certain Death” – don’t do it. “Almost certain death” – ok. Once I remember there was a particularly difficult lateral move to cross from one side to the other where the line was easier. The kayaks went first and made it. But the raft wasn’t quite as agile. There were three of us in there. I was paddling at the front. We could tell we weren’t going to make it. I knew then we were in trouble. I didn’t say anything. I just paddled really hard. The worst thing you can do is panic and stop. Your whole life comes down to this pin-sharp moment. Do or die. Well, here I am so we didn’t die. But it was scary.

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But I don’t love adventures for their crazy dangers. I think that is more of a bi-product. What I truly love is bonding as a team with people who look out for you just as you look out for them. I was the only girl on this particular trip amongst six boys and that didn’t matter at all. (Although I did wash more – and with soap.) We were in this together whether it was negotiating with the wonderful local people in sign language to help us carry our stuff or just playing with the children and the women with games like ”head, shoulders, knees and toes” for fun. Communication, you realise, can go way beyond words, although I did learn Malagasy for ‘tree”.

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And ‘train’. Because there is a universal fact applied to river adventures. You never want them to end. So having survived the Mania, we altered our plans to include one more river that we could apparently reach by steam train through the jungle. Who could turn that down? It seemed to be going so well as we discovered this platform and a little hut right in the middle of a wilderness but then we learnt the snag. The train didn’t stop. It just chugged past while we ran hopelessly alongside. Someone local consoled us with the thought that there would be another train along at 5am and locked us in a little hut for safety on the platform to wait for it. It was still pitch dark when it came into view and we stood on the track waving torches to flag it down. It was an oil tanker. No seats. Just clinging to grills on top of each rounded oil tank screaming “DUCK!” “TUNNEL!” “TREE” to each other as we steamed through the jungle dodging all the overhanging dangers.  Very James Bond.

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We were rewarded with a clear water river of great beauty with no crocodiles. The surface was so flat and gentle that you could paddle right up to the lip of a waterfall and look over without tipping to your doom.

I love this way of life. I don’t really know why it’s so addictive but it has something to do with living in nature, living WITH nature, respecting it and belonging in it without exploiting it. Living very simply, sleeping outside at night, travelling by river. Sometimes I find cities overwhelming with their noise, lights, concrete, people although it would be hypocritical to claim I don’t enjoy a browse around camping shops.

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I’m at my happiest on these adventures although I’m aware of the invasion of sadness on the last two or three days of every trip knowing it must come to an end. But there’s always a next time. Another incoming phone call at 3 AM in a nightclub, not necessarily in Galway.

Would I be in?

“100%”.

A word from Georgie about Stepping Out: “I get it. I get completely why carers and the people they care for love being outdoors with new friends in nature, seeing beautiful things, learning to rely on one another, laughing together, coping together, eating together. Good luck to you on your adventures and I look forward to seeing you again soon.

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Leeds Castle Walk

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On a glorious spring day in March, we arrived at Leeds Castle, Kent in anticipation of the latest Carers Stepping Out walk. It was the first time I had ventured out on one of the walks since starting to work with Sue Mott and team with social media support. I brought my mum along as she was staying with me for a few days – she was absolutely  delighted. The last time I visited Leeds Castle was over 5 years ago and this glorious Castle was  as wonderful as I remembered.

With the walk starting at 10.45am many carers and those in their charge starting arriving, gathering at the entrance excited about the day ahead. The Carers groups that joined our walk included The Friendly Faces of Kent, a support group to bust loneliness and isolation (founded in Sheppey by one of our carers, Lesley Nowell. Touch base Care, Folkestone, joined us too and SOBS Margate – Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide.

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The sun was shining as the carers decided whether to join the 1 mile or 3 mile walk around the grounds – both guided by volunteers from White Cliffs Ramblers, including ex regimental Sergeant Major Les Preston who has experience of this kind of thing from years in the army where he trained soldiers in climbing and kayaking. Les and two volunteers from the Samaritans led a group on the longer route and Sue and Bernard the caring Cockapoo and mascot led the rest of us on the shorter walk meandering alongside the castle and an array of beautiful spring flowers.

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My mum, Marion walked with a lovely lady, Hilary who is a volunteer with The Ramblers as a treasurer, and this was also her first time on a walk with the Stepping Out project. It was heartening to see how they both talked about their lives and shared experiences.  Hilary stayed with my mum who is unable to walk very far these days. We later discovered that Hilary had planned to do the longer walk, but decided to walk with my mum – so lovely. We later stopped for coffee for a while, soaking up the sunshine whilst waiting for those who had taken the longer route. Then making our way to the  restaurant for a delicious lunch. I was able to catch up with Les and hear all about  the work he does with the White Cliff Ramblers. Around the room there were many happy people who had shared experiences and made memories.

As I walked and photographed the glorious scenery and the carers enjoying well needed respite from their normal daily routines, it struck me how there were over 50 people who had come along many as complete strangers, getting to know each other – who rarely having the chance to enjoy the outdoors – with all the worry taken out of organising a day out, this was a poignant moment for me. A real insight into the importance of being able to have access to open spaces, something most of us take for granted.

Along the way I spoke to some of the carers and their lovely charges too, all with their own stories who all agreed that these walks offer a lifeline, something to look forward to, sociable, fun and carefree!

One of the carers who now cares for her partner, talked about happier times when they could enjoy walks like this one, spontaneously whenever they wanted to get out to the countryside. The Stepping Out walks help to keep those memories alive and make new ones; a connection from the past in the present. I feel privileged to be a small part of this project, helping to grow the popularity of the walks through social media, funded by the national lottery through Sports England and in partnership with The Ramblers.

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A huge thank you to the wonderful carers,  fabulous staff at Leeds Castle, Kent who made the day so memorable for us all, especially the extraordinarily helpful attitude of the restaurant staff, including Chris who also works, he told us, as cabin crew for BA. Not forgetting ‘Bernard’ @Bernardlovessteppingout, our caring Cockapoo who puts a smile on everyone’s face.

If you care for someone and want to be part of something quite special, then you too could join one of these walks.