A couple of years ago, we asked everyone in our business what was important to them about the firm and what values they felt the business represented. From this our company values were born, but as well as our core values there was one word that kept coming up – charity. Since then we’ve been involved in a range of fundraising as a business, supporting a range of charities close to our hearts.
I got involved with the Midlands Air Ambulance Charity through their association with Gleeson RG and immediately wanted to help – the passion and commitment of the charity was amazing, and I didn’t know that they receive no NHS funding for what is essentially an extension of our emergency services. I also didn’t know that it costs on average £2,500 to send a helicopter out so I quickly bought in to how much impact I could make to the charity as an individual.
In 2015 I joined 12 Gleeson colleagues on the 24-hour Bear Grylls Challenge on Dartmoor, an overnight survival challenge where we learned fundamental survival skills and spent a night sleeping out in the open. Little did I know that 12 months later I’d be getting ready to set off to Africa to join the Bear Grylls Survival Academy in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe…
To qualify for the trip to Zimbabwe each member of the team, made up of volunteers from various businesses across the West Midlands, was required to raise a minimum of £5,000 for the charity. We went about it in different ways – some organised quizzes, some ran bake sales, others badgered their suppliers for charitable donations. I’m not very organised and I can’t bake; but I also knew what would be most likely to inspire my friends and family to donate – a certain level of physical pain and suffering! So I went about finding a series of events I could commit to completing; the sort of thing that I knew people would be willing to sponsor me to complete:
January Dry January, no alcohol for a month March British Military Fitness Major Series, 12km obstacle course race May Great Birmingham Run, 10km road race June Wolfrun, 10km obstacle course race July Rat Race “The Crossing”, 200 miles coast to coast on a mountain bike August Yorkshire Three Peaks, 26 miles over Yorkshire’s highest three summits October Birmingham Half Marathon, 13.1 mile road race November The Bear Grylls Survival Academy, Zimbabwe
What a year! As someone who’s always been into team sports, learning to compete against myself both physically and mentally was a new experience, but something I’ve learned to love. The hardest race by far was The Crossing, traversing England on a mountain bike from Whitehaven in Cumbria to Scarborough in North Yorkshire – 27 hours in the saddle over three days! Fundraising for the deadline was tough but after completing the Birmingham Half Marathon in October, I’d raised £5,460 and could look forward to the adventure of a lifetime in Zimbabwe…
In November I met up with the Bear Grylls team; nervous and excited at the unknown nature of the challenge ahead. We knew that we would be learning survival skills and then putting them to the test in the wild, but we didn’t know how far it would push us physically or mentally.
On arrival in Victoria Falls the instructors looked (ok, they laughed) at our 20 kilos of luggage and handed us an overnight bag with the words “If you want to take it, you’ll be carrying it for the next five days.” 20 minutes later we left the compound with the clothes on our back, our cameras, essential healthcare & medical kit and our allocated gear – survival knife, flint, harness, helmet, water bottle and mess tin.
The next three days were a steep learning curve; equipping us with fundamental skills that could be used in a real survival situation – fire-lighting, filtering water, knife skills, bush foods, trapping, ropework, shelter building, tracking, emergency trauma care and astronavigation, amongst others.
On day four we set off for the challenge, with just a litre of water and the kit listed above. After hiking down to the Zambezi river, we rafted in 45-degree heat for 7 or 8 hours, stopping off to take on a couple of climbs on the way. Mid-afternoon we were dropped on a rocky beach and told to set ourselves up for the night; we’d be collected at 7:30am the following morning. A litre of water doesn’t go far in that heat so, dehydrated, we set about trying to organise ourselves – we needed to build shelter, start a fire, collect and boil enough water to rehydrate and fill our water bottles and, if possible, find what would be our only meal in 36 hours.
It was staggering just how badly the dehydration affected us all – the simplest of tasks was made incredibly difficult and a couple of hours later we’d made very little progress. Eventually we turned a corner with our water supply when one of the group pulled a Life Straw from his bag (a filter through which you can safely drink any water supply) that he’d decided would be worth carrying when we were told to strip our kit back. As we started to get on top of dehydration, everything else got easier. From 5pm to 12pm we essentially ran a production line; using our filter for drinking water while boiling water to refill our water bottles for the next day. With the Life Straw we went into the following day hungry but reasonably hydrated – without it, we might have struggled to make it to the end of the challenge.
On day 5 we were back in the raft before 8am travelling to our next stop, where we would be set the task of a climb and abseil. Relatively easy under normal conditions but, with low blood sugar and further dehydration, everyone in the group was starting to feel the effects and were struggling with the physical elements of the challenge. After the abseil was done and everyone was safely on the ground, it was back to the rafts and to the final physical element of the challenge, where we were dropped off at the bottom of the Zambezi gorge and given a deadline to reach our “extraction point” at the top of the gorge. Again, the physical toll on our bodies kicked in and a straightforward 45-minute hike in normal conditions turned out to be a punishing, lung-busting trek against the clock where every minute hurt.
On reaching the top we were told we had one final challenge – use our learned skills to light a signal fire to signal our helicopter pickup. Unpacking our hastily-packed overnight bags we struggled to find our fire lighting kit; eventually finding some wet tinder. After 10 minutes of weary effort, we got a fire going and the challenge was over!
After a celebratory beer at the gorge we travelled back to the reserve by helicopter, over the beautiful scenery of Zimbabwe and before long over Victoria Falls, one of the stunning 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
The journey I was on for those 5 days taught me more about the dynamics of a team, and the value offered by each and every member, than any team sport or training session had ever done before – and in all we’ve now raised nearly £100,000 for Midlands Air Ambulance, which has the potential to fund 40 life-saving missions across the region.