The Roy Castle Cause For Hope Appeal
Sgt J.M. Cowell
82 Airborne Squadron
A desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy.
Having despatched possibly the first ever batch of potential Paratroopers to have completed their Pre-Parachute Selection in Africa to the somewhat cooler training area of Catterick, Cpl ‘Woody’ Felton was straining on the leash to impose sever muscle fatigue on the unwary.
With 49 days to push, what can you do with a possible 98 sessions of altitude training? The answer, of course, was to bring the Squadron up to a peak level of fitness and then trash it in the shortest possible time. But how? Easy – simply run across Rwanda n memory of Roy Castle.
The route was obvious: north – south from the border with Uganda to the border with Burundi. But that is only 264.5 kilometres. Ok, so start from Mount Muhabura (14,500 feet) at the time just an unknown volcano on the map. So, we have to work a bit. Anything else? Yes, do it in 24 hours.
With permission granted from our CO, Lt Col Mike Wharmby, and the Roy Castle Cause for Hope Appeal, the Rwanda Dash For Cash was born. Over 600 begging letters were sent out, courtesy of the United Nations photocopier and the Operation Gabriel postal system, despatched to every sector of commerce in Britain. We were committed. Now all we had to do was recce the route to see if it could be done!
After two days, the Mount Muhabura recce team still had not reached the summit, despite walking into and out of Uganda trying to find a route up the seemingly impenetrable jungle covered steep slopes of the volcano. Constantly soaked due to the humidity and the tropical rain storms as we cut our way through the bamboo, our consolation was the brief glimpses through the trees and clouds of the plains, lakes and mountains of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda. This was hard work, but the thought of writing 600 apologies kept us going. As darkness rapidly fell that evening, we finally cleared the bamboo and, sheltered from the wind in our UNHCR tents, we spent an uncomfortable night, except for me in my softy two feathers sleeping bag!
On the third morning we reached a cloudy, cool summit and, a little disappointed at being deprived of the reward of the ultimate view, we held the usual photo call and quickly departed. Seven hours later, after we had cut, crashed and fallen through the mud and rivers of the lower slopes, every wary of treading on a land mine and now very tired under the weight of bergans and rifles, we finally reached the pick up point. Thankfully, Sgt Al Smiles had the remaining energy to get some life out of the unreliable radio and call in the vehicles.
We were in trouble. Although we now had a route, seven hours from our allotted 24 would leave just 17 to complete the remaining 250 kilometres. A rate of 15km per hour that, even with the high calibre soldiers available to us, would be a tall order considering the seriously hilly terrain facing us.
The road recce was far simpler, as we were equipped with Magellan. Three long days were still required however to measure distances, heights, log climbs and descents and landmarks for changeovers. Armed with this information I spend many hours in the CP putting runners to legs and producing a user friendly Plan A. After two weeks of injuries, RTUs, redeployments and physical assessments we were reduced to the minimum of available manpower and I was already writing Plan Z. If that was not enough, increased political unrest continued to threaten our safety and the event was now in some doubt. Perhaps I would have to write those apologies after all.
With assistance from other agencies, despite the increased work-load as Op Gabriel wound down, sufficient manpower and equipment was made available. All runners and reserves increased their training to include more hills and running in the heat of the day and, after so many rejections (some quite amusing) we received our first donation!
The composition of the climbing team received the most attention, as obviously the speed with which the initial runners descended the volcano would dictate whether the dash would be successful or not. The final choice of Lt Matt Hing and Sgt Al Smiles was deemed to provide the best ratio of speed, agility, strength and ability to cope with the altitude. The introduction of Sgt Stevie Freeman as an additional mountain goat to take over on the foothills would also help to speed up the descent. Ably assisted by a team of ‘sherpas’ which included a medic an radio operator, they set out for Ruhengeri and the propsed 2 day climb of Mt Muhabura. Less hindered than the recce team had been, they made steady progress to the final camp, just short of the summit.
For the remainder, an early start was required and after a mad drive on the slippery roads, we arrived at the foothills just in time to hear Lt Col. Mike Wharmby officially start the Rwanda Dash for Cash over the radio at 11:00B on Remembrance Sunday, 1994.
After reaching base camp by Land Rover, I scanned the volcano using my SUSAT and, to everyone’s surprise, just over an hour later, Matt and Al were seen below the tree line. Ten minutes later, in a near state of exhaustion, they handed over having descended 6,000 feet and covered six kilometres 100 minutes ahead of schedule. Suitably motivated, Stevie continued the descent through the farms and villages and, in a little under two hours, we were on the road and going well.
All runners performed admirably throughout the day, notably former Army Cross Country Champion, S/Sgt Ray Keeney, who ran 30 kilometres through a storm, climbing the central range of hills; S/Sgt Dave Rollins, who completed two 12 kilometre climbs, just six hours apart; L/Cpl Nigel Burke, who ran his heart out over a difficult ten kilometre leg and, just six hours later, went out again and ran even quicker; and Sgt Tony Melvin, recovering from a serious injury, who agreed to run a couple of steady legs and found himself completing a more than steady climb through the night.
As darkness rapidly fell, the need for our armed escorts became even more apparent, the Rwandanese Patriotic Front had increased their roadblocks and much negotiation was required to clear these obstacles prior to the runners’ arrival.
Rwanda proved to be an exhilarating country to run through at night. A feeling of being literally on top of the world, the clear night sky, the silence created by the curfew, the distinct lack of wildlife and the war shattered ruins of towns like Gitarama all made for an eerie atmosphere. The silence was soon shattered however by the arrival of the 4 tonne lorries, as they caught up after picking up the previous runner. In the pitch-black areas their presence was often vital to light the road ahead.
Still very much ahead of schedule (the expected decrease in speed on the second legs did not materialise) and, after much insistence, all runners opted to complete a third leg. After a quick recalculation, I rearranged the final legs so that all could run a final two kilometres. This caused the whole momentum of the Dash to pick up even more speed and the final run became almost a sprint as all competed against each other to produce the quickest time. Incredibly, Cpl Andy Shoreman defied all the laws of physics to produce the quickest time.
Now very much ahead of schedule, we realised that we would be running at a rate of knots right up to the border still in darkness. This was not a wise move considering the current tension between Burundi and Rwanda. The escort once more went ahead to try to explain what we were doing to the startled border guards. As the sun began to rise over Ngozi, Woody ran up to the border, reaching Burundi at 05:23.
We had done it, 264.5km in 19 hours, 19 minutes and 56 seconds! An incredible achievement across the land of Imana. After a quick photo call we turned around to find somewhere a little safer to have breakfast. Although the Dash was videoed by L/Cpl ‘Paddy’ Hannah, I was never to see the film and he left the Army on his return from Africa. Sadly, our photographer L/Cpl ‘Jacko’ Jackson who had done much to highlight our presence in Rwanda was killed soon after.
So, back to Kigali to prepare for home. The hoped for influx of sponsorship mail never appeared and of the 100 plus replies, only a few offered us financial assistance. Their generosity however, meant that much more. But shame on those who didn’t even respond. One magazine, 220 Triathlon, publicised our event (thank you) but our saving grace was to be our families and friends at home, who, urged on by Cpl Geoff Murray, added to the several thousand pounds we raised.