Mingulay, 24 May – 3 June 2010
In 2009 I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer, which had also spread to my right femur. After two major operations, radiotherapy, several months learning to walk again – and a not very hopeful prognosis – I was forced to retire from work.
The battle with cancer left me with a hip/femur replacement – I would never again climb Munros on holidays in Scotland. More sadly, I would never again see the remote island in Zambia where I had worked as a medical history researcher for many years and where I had joined traditional dance teams as they spread very modern health messages about HIV/ AIDS, malaria and cholera. I would never again paddle across the lake in a local ‘banana boat’ to hear the old people talk about their youth or see the orphans I was supporting in school successfully complete their studies.
Then I discovered Challenge Cancer through Adventure, in a leaflet at Blythe House hospice in Chapel-en-le-Frith. Just
the fact that such an organisation existed raised my hopes of seeing the island in Zambia again. With their advice, I designed an adventure a bit closer to home, as a stepping stone to Zambia – a stepping stone in the renewal of self confidence and physical strength for living in the remote and difficult environments I would experience in Zambia.
So from 27 May to 3 June 2010, I travelled to the Western Isles of Scotland, to camp on the uninhabited island of Mingulay. I travelled in a small boat that threaded its way through the narrow channels and rough seas between the southern Hebridean islands, to a beach crowded with seals, and a scramble upwards through rocks and dunes from a landing site that was little more than a weed-covered stone pounded flat by the sea.
Accompanying me were friends to help with equipment and give me a hand negotiating the rough ground – one of them my Zambian research colleague, Timothy, another an artist from Derbyshire, Caro. Caro took amazing photos of Mingulay’s variegated terrain, including the ground under our feet – gem-like close-ups of stone, lichens, sand, water, vegetation – all of special interest to me, because my struggle with balance whenever I walked forced me to keep my eyes on the ground!
I met many personal challenges during this trip: It took me three hours to climb the gentle slope to the top of the cliffs to see puffins and other seabirds nesting there, a walk that takes a non-disabled person less than an hour. I proved I could camp in frontier conditions, without running water or other amenities. I also learned to use a satellite phone, a useful skill if I return to Zambia’s remotest districts. I may yet be defeated in that goal – the attitude of travel insurance companies to cancer is not as enlightened as that of the people who organise Challenge Cancer. The mere mention of metastatic cancer, even in remission, boosts insurance quotations into thousands of pounds. But I still hope to return – and the islanders in Zambia have thatched my house in the belief that I will.
There was one ‘failure’ during my stay on Mingulay, though it was one that showed me that human kindness is as essential as individual self-confidence. When we were leaving the island, the scramble down the rocks to meet the boat proved too much for me. But the people from the Northumbrian Mountaineering Club, who were rock-climbing on the island, volunteered to help. They were thoughtful, patient and kind, as well as impressively well balanced, as they carried me across the slippery rocks leading down to the boat!
And for another act of great human kindness, I will always remember Challenge Cancer through Adventure. They’ve helped me to take the first step towards my dream of a return to Zambia.