Scaling Mount Kilimanjaro for the first time was an incredibly emotional experience for Brian Wilkie. But he almost didn't make it to the top.
"I was going to give up, walking around the crater. I actually sat on a rock and thought, 'I can't do this; I'm going down'. And then I thought to myself, 'Wilkie, you're the silly prat that gave the pep talk last night and said to everybody, 'When you think you're finished, you're not. And when you think you can't go on, you can'. So I got up. And, of course, I finished it easily. It's all in your head."
That was 11 years ago, during the first ever challenge organised by Gulf for Good (G4G), the Dubai-based charity that Wilkie co-founded in 2001. He led a group of 49 people up the world's highest freestanding mountain and, to the astonishment of local ground handlers, 44 of them made it to the top.
Since then, G4G has organised a total of 40 challenges to far-flung destinations around the world and raised a whopping Dh8 million for charity. The organisation's aim is simple: to get people in the Gulf to challenge themselves in order to help others, while having fun and getting fit. Participants who sign up for a G4G challenge have to raise a minimum amount of money through sponsorship; these funds are then donated to carefully-selected charities in the country where the challenge is being held.
Creating challenges that appeal is key, says Wilkie, a self-confessed "serial entrepreneur" who moved to Dubai from the UK almost four decades ago. The idea for G4G came after Willkie received a phone call from a friend at the local Rotary Club who was looking to raise funds to buy an ambulance for a charity in Namibia. Wilkie decided that a sponsored climb to the top of Kilimanjaro would be a great way to raise the money. "G4G started because of the charity angle. But we soon found that people don't get turned on by the charity - they get turned on by the challenge. So you've got to find challenges that press their buttons. We do four challenges a year, two that we've done before and two brand new ones."
There will normally be one moderately difficult challenge, one at high altitude; one that combines various activities, such as hiking, cycling and white-water rafting; and a regional one.
This year, the line-up started with The Great Asian Cycling Challenge, a 350km-plus cycle ride from Vietnam to Cambodia, which took place in February. Also scheduled for 2013 are The Alternative Inca Trail, a five-day hike in Peru scheduled for July, and The Last Shangri-La, a seven-day adventure in the Himalayan foothills in November that includes trekking, white-water rafting and mountain biking. But next on the agenda is the seven-day Palestine Trail: In the Footsteps of Ibrahim, which is taking place between April 26 and May 4.
This will be G4G's first trip to the country, although it has long been on the organisation's wish list. "We've wanted to do a Palestine challenge for a long time but the security situation always prevented us. I've been in the UAE for 36 years so Palestine is something that's very close to home. I spent three days there recently and as we talked to more and more people, it became clear that security was just not an issue. Nobody referred to it in any shape or form unless we brought it up. And I felt safer there than I do in London or any other big city."
The expedition will start in Nablus, with a walking tour of the city that will explore Sufi shrines, the medieval hammam and historical sites such as the Bronze Age ruins of Tel Balata or Schehem. The next day will include six or seven hours of walking through Palestine's northern highlands from Awarta to Duma, while the remaining days will include stops in Kufr Malek, Taybeh, Ramallah, Auja, Nebi Musa, Wadi Qelt and Mar Saba, as participants make their way over desert tracks, dirt roads and canyon trails until they reach Jerusalem. The challenge is classed as moderate to difficult but will include six or seven hours of walking a day, in warm temperatures.
"Having visited recently, Palestine is more interesting than I ever would have thought," says Wilkie. "Scenically it's fine. If you've been in the UAE and you know the desert, there is some similarity, but some of it is really stunning. The route we'll be walking, through the canyons and past old monasteries and stuff like that, is very good. Historically, it's amazing. We will stay with two Palestinian families in their homes, one Bedouin family in their tents, in a convent and in a couple of small hotels."
Challenges such as this offer a unique opportunity to experience the nitty gritty of a neighbouring country, says Sally Prosser, a Dubai resident who took part in a 2010 G4G trip to Lebanon. Although she had lived in the UAE since 2000 and visited various countries in the region, she had never been to Lebanon when she heard about G4G's Lebanon Eco-Mountain Trail challenge, a five-day hike through the country's remote mountain landscapes.
"The Lebanon challenge appealed to me because it was in the region," the freelance marketing and communications consultant explains. "Lebanon is on our doorstep but I had never been. I wanted something challenging but achievable. I didn't want to climb to the top of something - I wanted to take something in along the way and with this challenge, you were really getting under the skin of the country. Parts of Lebanon are exquisitely beautiful. I love the concept of G4G, because they fund challenges in the countries they go to."
For this particular challenge, participants were raising funds for the Palestine Children's Relief Fund and SOS Children's Villages. They had to amass at least Dh12,000 each, which Prosser initially found quite daunting, she says. "But that's all part of the challenge. I decided to break it down into little chunks - 12 times Dh1,000 felt more doable. I looked at getting corporate sponsorship. In the end, I raised three times the amount I needed, so more money went to the charity."
Recent years have seen G4G move its focus exclusively to children's charities, Wilkie explains.
"Before that, it was any kind of charity; now we just focus on disadvantaged children. And it has got to be a capital project. We don't pay running costs because in the Third World, running costs will often disappear. We usually fund some sort of building but it could be an ambulance, for example. We recently funded an ambulance for children that goes around the slums of Delhi," he says.
Rather than sending funds off and leaving it at that, G4G will closely examine plans and costings and get these checked out by an independent body. And it will only pay against invoice, in instalments, as work is carried out. "In 11 years we've not heard, even after the fact, of any money being misspent. Our first 'Kili' challenge was to raise money for one ambulance; we raised enough for four. And we know that three of them were still running last year," Wilkie says proudly.
In Palestine, G4G found two or three projects that were suitable but eventually decided to support the Hope Flowers School in Bethlehem. "We don't like being political and we try to be non-religious. The school we chose to work with in Palestine has Christian kids, Orthodox kids, Coptic kids as well as Muslims. But they are trying to do something that is very hard, which is integrate special needs kids with other kids. So, they teach them together, but they badly need a physical therapy and occupational therapy room, so we're going to build those."
G4G recommends that participants sign up for their chosen challenge at least two months before it is due to start - to give themselves time to get time off work, raise the required funds and get fit. G4G organises regular training sessions - including walks along the length of Jumeirah Beach, stair climbs in some of the city's skyscrapers and the odd hike up, and then down, Jebel Hafeet - and maintains that anybody, of any age, has the capacity to complete one of its challenges. In fact, the oldest participant was a strapping 72-year-old triathlete who had no problems making it to the top of Kilimanjaro. "The only way to get fit is to get out there and walk," says Wilkie. "The weather is absolutely perfect for walking right now. No matter what your job is, you can do a bit before you go to work in the morning and you can do a bit when you finish in the evening. You can get out to the beaches or the parks."
Posser admits that, once she got to Lebanon, she found the expedition slightly more challenging than she had initially anticipated, so recommends getting involved in as many of G4G's training sessions as possible. "I even learnt to appreciate the benefits of the stair climb - even though, after the first time, I couldn't walk down my own stairs for three days without howling in pain. It's not just about the going away. The preparation takes time and you need to invest in your fitness."
What Posser also didn't anticipate was the number of friends she would make along the way. "I know a lot of people go into these things to meet people but I didn't. I've lived in Dubai a long time and I suppose I thought I had enough friends. I wasn't prepared for the camaraderie and the bonds that you make. It's something I hadn't factored in. I felt privileged to meet the people that I did on the challenge."
For more information on Gulf for Good and The Palestine Trail 2013, visit www.gulf4good.org