Trekkers from West Sussex return from Cambodia and raise thousands for charity
There's a rumble in the jungle and we aren't sure if it's one of our fellow trekkers wrestling with a tree laden with red ants that has fallen in their path or a water buffalo coming out to see what 42 pale-faced, hot and sweaty fundraisers are doing in their territory.
Welcome to Cambodia, where the temperature is 41 degrees and the humidity is a stifling 80 per cent.
All of us are here to raise much needed funds for Chestnut Tree Children’s hospice, at Poling, near Arundel, which looks after children with life-limiting illnesses and their families.
Our charity challenge began after a 14-hour flight from the UK to Siem Reap, the ancient capital of the mighty Khmer Empire.
For those who don’t know, Cambodia is nestled between Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west and Laos to the north, and is rebuilding itself after a troubled history which has seen war, military action and millions of Cambodians killed by the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot.
Despite the country’s troubles and poverty spots, the Cambodians are happy and welcoming and as we make our way out of Siem Reap through small rural villages and are greeted with waves and smiling faces.
These lovely people have nothing but are willing to share everything and their generosity is tested when, on our first day of trekking, the heavens open and we are forced to take cover in a small house built on stilts to protect it from the recent rainy season and floods.
Undaunted, we continue, wading through flooded rice fields while swapping stories on what has motivated us to travel more than 6,000 miles from home to raise money.
Among the trekkers are husband and wife Martin and Lorrie Maslen, Ali Cassells, Cath Jeffery and Oliver Miles from Worthing, Jess Thomson from Littlehampton, Gem Evans, Jo Chapman and Lesley Bloxam from Billingshurst, Brenda Rossiter and Christine Millington from Bognor Regis, Sandra Humphreys from Steyning and Elaine Cruttenden.
Lorrie took part in the Chestnut Tree China Challenge two years ago and brought Martin, a Worthing Rugby Club stalwart, along this time.
Jo Chapman from Bognor and Ali Cassells from Worthing are also regular fundraisers and went to China.
Jess Thomson, a special needs teaching assistant at Parklands Primary School, from Littlehampton, is also with us. The 26-year-old, a member of Bognor Regis Tone Zone Runners, is also a China veteran.
Cath Jeffery, from Worthing, and Gem Evans from Billingshurst, are also trekking and are passionate supporters of Chestnut Tree.
Christine Millington from Bognor and Sandra Humphreys from Steyning, are also trekking.
Sandra works as a volunteer on reception at Chestnut Tree and signed up for Cambodia when posters advertising the challenge were printed.
Christine enjoyed the camaraderie of the China trip and says she made so many good friends, she wanted to relive the experience again and support the charity.
Seventy-four-year-old Brenda is the oldest trekker but has the energy and zest of a 24-year-old and also trekked in China.
Making up the West Sussex contingent is Oliver Miles and Elaine Cruttenden.
Oliver, 24, lives in Worthing and works at Will Power Worthing. His mother Heather works at St Barnabas Hospice in West Sussex.
Lesley is a practice nurse at Fitzallan Medical Group.
Elaine is an occupational therapist at West Sussex County Council, a member of Chichester Runners and another China veteran.
And we mustn’t forget the lovely trio, Kerry O’Neill, Juliette Macpherson and Lucy Bone from Chestnut Tree, who join us as representatives from the charity.
By the time we arrive at our first camp for a night in a tent under the stars, we toast ourselves with a can of Angkor beer and, after a meal of mango salad with seafood, chicken, Khmer spices and fresh fruit at our camp at Wat Preash Bat Tum Tham, we fall asleep within the grounds of a temple.
Our second day of trekking was hot and sunny but we managed more than ten miles. The day ended at Beng Mealea Temple, which has been bombed and left to nature. Absolutely stunning.
Once again we find ourselves in one-man tents within a temple. The facilities are basic and the now infamous ‘hole in the ground’ toilet is something I have, in a way, become used to. That and the trough filled with cold water and a plastic saucepan – our daily shower.
Wednesday, our third day of trekking, was tough – very tough – as we climbed Phnom Kulen and trekked more miles than I can remember over seven hours.
The climb up the 386-metre-high Phnom Kulen, the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, whose name translates as ‘Mountain of Lychees’, was hard. The terrain was difficult and varied and it proved a real challenge for many of us.
The views were rewarding though – as was the nightly message of thanks and good luck we received from the hospice each evening telling us what the children had been doing.
After a traditional Cambodian barbecue and dancing performed by the locals we had another night’s camping close to a beautiful river setting.
Day four of the challenge was the toughest yet, with us descending down Phnom Kulen via 1,000 steps and rocky terrain through the jungle. The 80 per cent humidity and 40-plus-degree temperatures have been our enemies every step of the way but we were rewarded with a visit to a temple with a reclining Buddha where we could lay lotus flowers bought at a local market in honour of the children receiving such wonderful love and care at Chestnut Tree. At another stop we saw a beautiful waterfall before continuing on through small villages where the children come out to say hello and ask us our names.
Every expedition needs a medic and looking after us every step of the way is Dr Katherine Kabala, originally from Bristol and now living in Rotorua, New Zealand.
Also providing friendly encouragement along the way are our excellent tour guides from Global Adventure Challenges, Teri Bexon from Ferring and Craig Wilson from Chester.
Our reward at the end of our five-day trek is a tuk-tuk ride and tour of the 12th-century Angkor Wat, which translates as ‘city monastery’, originally a Hindu temple and is a popular destination on the tourist trail in Cambodia.
Already many of us are looking at our next challenge.
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The team’s Justgiving page is still open and donations can be made at www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/chestnuttreehouse/cambodia