Epilepsy Action’s overseas events are a brilliant way of both raising funds and undertaking a truly life-changing trip. Peter Fox speaks to Lara Salem and her daughter Antonia – who last year climbed the dizzying heights of Kilimanjaro
“To be at the summit at sunrise is amazing, it’s such as sense of achievement. You’re way above the clouds, it’s incredible.”
Unless you’re really lucky, real life can be a bit… well, a bit boring.
Work and school have their moments, but the fact that they make you go takes the fun out of it. Your ‘to do’ list reads: housework and grocery shopping. Spreadsheets and exam revision. Then there’s that infuriating friend who gets dumped once a week, ruining more of your best shirts with her mascara.
Life can feel like such a bind. Sometimes – just sometimes – wouldn’t we all love to be hundreds of miles from anywhere, literally looking down from the top of the world…?
Once in a lifetime
Escaping the mundane in favour of an incredible trip to far-off climes is a tempting goal for anyone. For mother and daughter Lara and Antonia Salem, it was an opportunity to celebrate Antonia’s coming of age at 12 years old.
Antonia explains: “I wanted to do something instead of having a Bar Mitzvah party. My mum came up with the idea of going on some sort of trip.”
Lara continues: “We were looking for something that would combine a challenge with an opportunity to do some fundraising. It had to be something both memorable and challenging.”
Epilepsy Action overseas events offer both those things. In deciding to fundraise for the charity, you get to be involved in helping provide vital services to the 600,000 people in the UK with epilepsy. Still, the overseas events offer you so much more than that.
They offer you the chance to see the Grand Canyon or the Sahara Desert. Everest or the Great Wall of China. The snows of Lapland or Peru’s incredible lost city of the Incas, Machu Pichu.
You might even – as Lara and Antonia did – decide to climb the famous Kilimanjaro.
Lara continues: “I had climbed Kilimanjaro about 16 years ago and I thought it was something that Antonia would really enjoy.”
It was something Antonia thought she would really enjoy, too – so the decision was made. Still, although the date was in the diary there was plenty to do before setting off for Tanzania. The first was to collect sponsorship for not one but two charities.
Lara explains: “My brother-in-law died as a result of a seizure two years ago. We thought this would be something good to do for him. Still, we knew that we wanted to fundraise for two charities – one at home and one in Africa. So we raised money for both Epilepsy Action and Amani Children’s Home, a home for children in Moshi at the bottom of Kilimanjaro.”
Aside from the organisational aspects of planning the trip, this mother and daughter climbing combo also had to make sure their bodies were prepared. The Kilimanjaro trek is intended for anyone to be able to handle – but that doesn’t mean getting off the couch and onto the plane. The Kilimanjaro trek is hard work – so you have to make sure that you are relatively fit before you begin. In turn, that means doing some training in advance of the event.
Lara says: “As a family, we’ve never been camping or hiking or that kind of thing. Antonia’s very fit, she does a lot of running and swimming. She’s certainly active, but not in an ‘outdoor survival’ kind of way.
“I visited the gym three or four times a week. I also just tried to incorporate more walking into every day. We also did two quite long hikes beforehand just to really use the equipment that we’d bought and that kind of thing.”
Antonia continues: “I went running quite a lot. I run for a club called the Highgate Harriers. I used to swim a lot as well and went running with my dad.”
A certain level of fitness is certainly going to improve the chances of enjoying and succeeding on this trek. Still, it remains no guarantee that you will see the summit. Kilimanjaro is almost 6,000m above sea-level. That means that you might experience altitude sickness, which – in some individuals – can mean having to abandon the climb.
Lara says: “You never know going out there whether you’re going to be able to make it to the top or not. We both really wanted to. At the same time, you don’t want to endanger your health by persevering when you know that you shouldn’t…”
At the top of Tanzania
Lara explains: “The trek is seven days in total. It’s five days to get up there and two to come down. The terrain of the whole mountain is very varied. It starts off as rainforest and then you go through heath land and moor land. Then you reach alpine desert and at the very top it’s a lot of scree, like volcanic ash.
“The shortest day’s walking was six or seven hours. The longest day’s walking was about 17 hours. That’s the day you set off for the summit. You set off at midnight so that you reach it at sunrise.”
After collecting their sponsorship pledges and testing their kit, preparing their bodies and flying out to Tanzania… did Lara and Antonia reach the summit of the highest mountain in Africa?
Lara explains: “We set off at midnight. You have to wear head torches because it’s difficult to see. It’s very cold. We reached the summit at quarter to eight in the morning.”
Antonia says: “When we reached the top I was quite exhausted… but I was happy. Somehow I wasn’t too tired, I’m not sure why!”
Lara continues: “To be at the summit at sunrise is amazing, it’s such a sense of achievement. You’re way above the clouds, it’s incredible. You really are exhausted. And dehydrated. It’s cold, but the sun is very strong. We had made it and we were very pleased that we had made it.”
Having spent five days reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, the pair then set off back down with their group – tackling the difficult descent. While quicker than the climb, the journey down is famously difficult. Antonia found that her toes were painful, while Lara felt the constant tension burning in her knees. Still, there was a particular treat waiting for them both at the bottom of the mountain.
Antonia explains: “After the climb, we went to Amani Children’s Home to meet some of the children.”
Lara continues: “That was amazing, really good to go and see what we’d been fundraising for. They gave Antonia a certificate and were really pleased to see us. We had a game of basketball with the children and had lunch with them. It was lovely, it was really nice.”
Quite the achievement
Climbing Kilimanjaro would seem like an impressive feat for anyone to accomplish. Still, it wasn’t until Lara and Antonia came home that they realised just how special Antonia’s coming-of-age trip had been.
Antonia explains: “We’re pretty sure that I’m the youngest female from the United Kingdom to have climbed Kilimanjaro. We didn’t know before we did it, we only found out afterwards.”
Lara continues: “The only record we could find was of a European girl who was a few months younger than Antonia. We found no record of a British female as young. Our local papers also had a look and couldn’t find any record either.”
So for Lara and Antonia, it’s back to normality after an incredible trip to the top of the highest mountain in Africa. Back to the groceries and the homework. Back to the running club and unloading the dishwasher. Still, each of them has a memory of a wonderful trip that they’ll remember forever and the thought that they’ve helped change the lives of both British people with epilepsy and children in Africa.
To top it all off, it appears Antonia holds something of a record where young British girls are concerned. I wondered what she thought of being the youngest girl in the UK to have achieved this.
Antonia beams: “I thought it was pretty cool.”
Please note: Overseas events are organised by Global Adventure Challenges, who are only able to accept young people of 14 to 17 years if they are accompanied at all times by an adult. Anyone younger than 14 may need to book direct with a challenge operator rather than doing so with Epilepsy Action.