herald

Tuesday 17 October 2017

In the footsteps of the Camino women

On a charity pilgrimage, you get fit, make friends and do your bit for others. arlene harris meets two women after their mammoth treks

IRISH people love to walk. There isn't a highway or byway around the country without someone pounding the roads in order to keep in shape, clear the head or simply get out of the house for a while. But some people take it a little further – and embark on mammoth treks to soothe their souls, raise funds for charity or just to achieve a lifetime goal.

We spoke to two Dublin women who have undertaken part of the famous Camino walk, which starts in St Jean-Pied-de-Port near Biarritz, France, and finishes 800km later at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Both did part of the walk in order to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) and both said they would do it again in a heartbeat.

Gemma Connolly is 39 and works as facilities manager for the ICS. She lives in Cabinteeley and undertook 116km of the Camino in June.

"Having done Kilimanjaro in aid of the ICS last year, I just knew that I wanted to do something more. It was my first ever trek. I had lost about five stone over the previous two years, after a number of incidents spurred me on to lose weight. I joined a gym and met new friends, and took on Kilimanjaro with one of them.

"So after that, my fitness levels were quite good as I had kept up my love of hill walking and that, along with my regular gym sessions, was my training for Camino.

"We departed for Spain on Saturday, June 22 and began the next morning, walking every day for six days. Some days were full days but others were much shorter, which broke up the distance perfectly.

"On arrival, a guide gives you your Camino passport, which is proof that you have walked Camino and at most stops and in all churches you obtain stamps which show your progress.

"Generally, we started out with breakfast around 7am and then headed off for 7.30ish. The scenery is spectacular. It's so green and lush. We walked through a lot of forest areas, which would open out into hamlets with beautiful little houses and communities – then we would stop for a nice long lunch that our guides had pre-arranged.

"Every evening we would arrive at our lodge and again our guides looked after all the checking in for us while we relaxed. Then we would have a few hours to ourselves to go out exploring or just relax before dinner. After that, you could either go for a drink or get a good night's rest before an early start the next day.

"Luggage is collected by the guides and transported on to each stop, so all you have to carry is your own day-bag with water, nibbles and rain gear. The guides the ICS use are excellent and assess every individual to ensure the pace is set and everyone feels comfortable. Some days the group would spread out with the faster walkers going on ahead, but the guides would always ensure we would meet back up as a group before the end of the day.

"Nothing prepares you for your first view of the cathedral – it's breathtaking. For a lot of people it's quite emotional. There is a celebratory dinner and the following day you need to arrange your certificate from the cathedral.

"All-in-all the trek was great and nothing that anybody who is generally fit and healthy couldn't do. Some of the days are long, but our guides ensured we had plenty of stops along the way.

"When we started out we were all more or less strangers and by the time we arrived back in Dublin Airport we were all firm friends. Whether you are doing it alone or with a friend or group of people, a trek is a wonderful experience.

SMILE

"But in Camino you also have time if you like to walk alone and reflect – on a trek everyone is there for a different reason, so the guides would be aware of that, and ensure time alone is given if wanted.

"Every day you fall into step with different people both in your group and other trekkers. All along the way you hear the famous "Buen Camino" from all different nationalities, and it just makes you smile. Everyone there wants to be there and it's just a lovely experience."

Georgina Noble, from Tallaght, has three grown-up daughters and runs a creche in Walkinstown. She has always been involved in fundraising and in 2005 undertook a trek in South America. But after her dying mother was looked after by a Daffodil Nurse in her last few days, the Dublin woman vowed to help raise funds for the ICS and when the opportunity to walk the Camino arose, she didn't hesitate for a moment.

"I have always done fundraising events, whether it was taking part in mini marathons or doing little events with the children in the pre-school – it was just something I did. In 2005, I took part in a trek in Brazil to raise money for Barretstown and I loved the whole experience so much that I said I would definitely do it again.

"While I was fundraising for that trip, my Mam was very ill, but wanted to help as well. So her favourite paper was always The Herald and she decided to raise money by not reading it for five days. She was unable to move as she was so sick and every day the paper was placed beside her on the couch and she wouldn't allow herself to read it. Then on the fifth day, she collected her donations and read all five copies one after the other.

"When she was dying, all of us were gathered around her and it was obviously a very sad occasion. But the ICS sent over a lovely Daffodil nurse called Carmel who made the last few days so wonderful – our instinct would have been to be quiet and prayerful, but she had music on, made us cups of tea and we laughed and cried – it was lovely for Mam.

"I vowed that I would give something back to the ICS. I had seen the film, The Way, and then saw an advert looking for people to take part in the trek to raise funds, so I put my name down.

EXPERIENCE

"They prepared us beforehand by taking us on small treks in places like Glendalough and when we arrived on the Camino, we were looked after every step of the way. I have a bad back but I was allowed to go at my own pace.

"People do the Camino for different reasons and for a lot of us it was a very emotional journey. I decided to walk by myself and it was an incredible experience – the dam really broke for me on a couple of occasions and I had tears pouring down my face. "I raised €3,200 for the ICS and I would encourage everyone to do the Camino.

"I would say to anyone who has the Camino on their Bucket List – just do it – and not only will you be fulfilling an ambition, but you will also help to raise funds – everyone in the country is affected by cancer and this is an amazing way to help."

For further information on Trek4Life, or to register for a trek contact CallSave 1850 60 60 60, visit www.cancer.ie or email fundraising@irishcancer.ie. I'VE MADE IT: Gemma Connolly celebrates reaching her destination. Right: Georgina Noble on the Camino trail

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