The emigrant who’s walking 2,500km home to Ireland
The three-month trek from Austria is to raise money for dementia research
Eamonn Donnelly (right) and his friend Sepp Tieber-Kessler are walking 2,500km from Austria to Armagh to raise awareness for dementia research.
The idea for The Long Walk Home, a 2,500km trek from my adopted home near Graz in Austria to my native home in Keady, Co Armagh, featured in many a late-night pub talk, but that’s where it started and ended.
When my mother Margaret passed away a few years ago, after suffering from a rare and extremely aggressive form of dementia, the idea took on a whole new meaning and purpose.
Frustrated and feeling helpless that nothing could be done to alleviate the symptoms, let alone cure this cruel disease, it became apparent to me and my family that much more needed to be done to understand and tackle it.
The Long Walk Home is a very small step along the way to doing that, hoping to raise awareness and much needed funds for dementia research, while also honouring the life of an amazing wife, mother, grandmother and friend.
My friend Sepp Tieber-Kessler from Graz, with whom I have played Irish music for more than 20 years through our band Boxty, decided to join me and we started to plan the journey. The challenge we set ourselves was to go cross-country and do it the old-fashioned way, climbing, trekking and camping, all on shank’s mare. The fact that it coincided with my 50th year also added a particular incentive.
Route planned, backpacks packed (and repacked more than once to reduce the weight), we left my home in the little village of Hitzendorf, where I live with my wife and three children, on June 18th of this year, with an ambition to reach Keady in early September.
Google Maps is good, but we soon found out that it only gives an estimation of mileage and didn’t capture the type of terrain we would face. Perhaps just as well, otherwise we may have thought twice about taking on the challenge.
Already more than four weeks into the trek and over 800km down, it is fair to say there have been many ups and downs, both literally and emotionally. We’ve experienced the extremes of walking in 35- to 40-degree heat to facing the cold of the lower Alps in our ultra-light tents, mattresses and sleeping bags.
We’ve seen it all ... breathtaking scenery at every turn matched with the beautiful (if not a little dangerous), forces of nature, especially throughout three days of heavy thunderstorms in the Tauern Alps.
Our shelters for the night have been varied to say the least – mountain huts, railway sidings, sports pavilions and church buildings – anything that offered a free roof over our heads. We have also been greatly encouraged by the kindness of human nature, both in person and through the online donations we have received in support of the trek.
We have met some lovely people who have put two weary travellers up for the night, fed them and of course as is customary in Austria, emboldened our spirits with their spirits – or schnapps as we like to call it. The generosity and curiosity from total strangers in relation to our adventure has been inspiring and has on more than one occasion been the extra motivation to ensure we wake up and do another 35-40km all over again the next day.
Oh and did I mention the blisters ? If it is possible, I think we have blisters on our blisters. But we are beginning to view them as trophies of sorts – reminding us of our progress so far.
We have already crossed into Germany, and more recently into France – chalking off another major milestone. It struck us as we stepped into Bavaria, that as we near Ireland, and the talk of Brexit, this is what a frictionless border must look like – in the remote mountains there were no border checks or searches for us. In truth, we were a little disappointed and would have preferred someone to check us through, almost performing the role of an official welcoming party.
After heading through France north of Paris, we will head to Calais to get the ferry to Dover. We will then trek across England and Wales before again hopping on the ferry at Fishguard to reach Rosslare, ready for the final leg home through the Wicklow mountains and northwards to Armagh, where we hope to be joined by family and friends.
The journey so far has been marked by a mix of emotions. It has been tough and yet it has been amazing too. There has been plenty of time to think and to remember why we are doing this crazy challenge in the first place.
As things stand, and a bit like our end destination, a cure for dementia seems to be a distant dream. But I strongly believe that more needs to be done to strive towards it, to find answers to even the most fundamental questions surrounding this disease. We need at least to be exploring paths to eventually reach it, and I hope that in some very small way, The Long Walk Home might help.
You can follow our progress on the walk, or support the fundraiser through the website thelongwalkhome.wixsite.com/thelongwalkhome.
You can also follow the journey on Twitter @DementiaWalk or search for the hashtag #LongWalkHome.