Walking for a Cause


Emma and Olivia Newton-John

Around this time last year, when Brendan and I were struggling to climb impossible slopes, fighting our way through brush and brambles, and sweating through blistering hot afternoons, I swore to myself, on more than one occasion, that nothing – nothing – could make me go through all of that again.

But I was wrong.

Walking the Wall Part 2 is about to begin, and this time ‘round it’s for a cause – the fight against cancer. As some of you may know, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the age of 30, a few months after Brendan and I were married. We were devastated, of course, but practical. My Dad had survived lung, liver and bowel cancers, so I could survive this. As it turned out, thyroid cancer is, according to the doctors, “the best type of cancer to have”. The cancer is removed with either part or all of the thyroid gland, and survival rates are very high. My partial thyroidectomy was a success, and I continue to monitor my gland and control my thyroid hormone levels with medication.

It was partly because of this scare that Brendan and I were encouraged to go and walk the Great Wall of China in 2006-2007, a physical and mental challenge to prove that I was stronger than the illness.

But most people aren’t so lucky with cancer, as many of you would know. And it is because of this that I am returning to the wall.

From April 7-29 I will be joining Olivia Newton-John, Sir Cliff Richard, Dannii Minogue, singer James Reyne, actress Sigrid Thornton, dancer Paul Mercurio and dozens of other athletes, celebrities and cancer survivors such as myself to walk 228 kilometres on the Great Walk to Beijing, all of us raising money for the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Centre at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne. This centre will bring under one roof a comprehensive suite of cancer services, including research programs, an innovative Wellness Centre, and facilities for acute and palliative care patients.

All of us talking part in the Great Walk are supporting the Cancer Centre by asking our friends, colleagues and family members to “sponsor our steps” by making a donation at the Great Walk to Beijing website.

Cancer is an illness that will strike 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women before the age of 85. By its often devastating impacts on our closest friends and loved ones, it touches us all. If you can sponsor me, I would be honoured to represent my friends and family out there on the Great Wall. I will be walking for my Dad, walking for my godmother Pru, for George’s godfather Tony, for my cousin in London, for my two close girlfriends, and for all the people we have lost to cancer and who are going through it right now.

If you would like to sponsor my steps, just click on the banner below.


Alternatively, you can attend a fundraiser to be held in Sydney in mid-May on my return and donate at the door. Or you can click and go to the fundraiser!

You’ll see on the website that there’s a bit of healthy competition encouraged between the walkers, and in order to compete I have to get my sponsorship numbers up and clicking away while we’re walking. The numbers of donors are counted every day.


Memories of burning thighs and blisters aside, both Brendan and I are over the moon about returning to China. It will be wonderful to see the Wall with fresh (and non-exhausted) eyes, to be able to share the pleasure of hiking along it with others, and to see some of the old friends we made on our first Great Wall walk.

We probably won’t be able to blog as frequently as we did on our first journey, but do check back here at the site in April and May. If we have time for nothing else, we’ll post a retrospective on the journey when we return.

Most importantly, head on over to the Great Walk to Beijing and sponsor my steps. Together, we can make a difference!

The End of the Line


We’ve never been any good at bringing things to a close. We’ll put off a big decision until the final moment. We’ll hem and haw and shuffle our feet in the dirt before saying good-bye. We left organising our flight out of Beijing – during the height of tourist season – to a week before the day we were due home.

So it’s only fitting that we managed to delay completing our Great Wall adventure almost as long as humanly possible. What we expected to take six months took 13; the 3000 kilometres we planned to walk somehow became nearly 4000. But even the longest set of structures ever built by humans eventually comes to an end, and that means our trip has as well.


From the desert to the sea – the end of the Great Wall at Laolongtou

At two o’clock on July 7 (07/07/07 – auspicious!), we reached our destination: Laolongtou, or Old Dragon’s Head, the eastern end of the Ming Great Wall. And in a nice bit of symmetry, we were welcomed at the end by the same people who gave us a fantastic send-off from Jiayuguan a year ago, Dong Yaohui and Yan Daojun of the China Great Wall Society.

The moment we walked through Laolongtou’s gates, Mr Yan grabbed us by the elbows, escorted us to a meeting room to collect ourselves and wipe the sweat from our faces, then took us to a courtyard, where we were met by Emma’s parents Di and Mike, representatives from the local government and members of the local media, and even Mr Li and his family.


An achievement of his own – Emma’s dad, Mike, made the journey to Shanhaiguan not long after being seriously ill


Celebrating with Mike and Emma’s mum, Di. Is there anywhere on the wall she can’t go?


And how could we forget that smile? Mr Li, his wife and daughter were even there to welcome us back.

And at that point, with microphones thrust before us and a crowd of curious onlookers waiting for . . . something, it all became real – we were finished!


You go first … Mike, Mr Dong, Di, Emma, Brendan, and Mr Yan

Each of us spoke briefly and Mr Yan translated. Mr Dong said some gracious words on behalf of the Great Wall Society about our trip, the Great Wall exhibitions at the Powerhouse and Melbourne Museums, and our website. We were presented with some lovely bouquets, and everything became blurry – there were pictures for the press, pictures with tourists, pictures with kids. It was exciting, and tiring, and a bit chaotic – in other words, it was just like walking the wall!


Mr Dong and a young wall-walker in the making


So, who’s going first then? Mr Yan, waiting for one of us to talk so he could translate

When the short ceremony was over, Mr Dong took each of us by the hand, and just as he had accompanied us on our first few steps from Jiayuguan Fort 13 months before, walked with us, hand in hand, to the point where the wall meets the sea.

As we’ve talked over the past few weeks about what we might say in our final post, we’ve struggled to come up with a suitable title – we had wanted something that would capture the exhilaration and sense of completion we had imagined we might feel. And of course we do feel those things – you can’t imagine how excited we are to be done and heading home – but in the couple of days since we’ve been back in Beijing, packing up and seeing friends, we’ve also thought a lot about the things we’ll miss as well – walking into a dusty village to a stunned crowd for a five-minute drinks break that turns into an hour, the rhythm of our walking sticks swinging as we move along the path, all the sights and sounds (and smells) of rural China.

So it feels slightly bittersweet to have come to the end of the line – we’ve reached our destination and we’re enormously proud and relieved to have done so, but also just a tiny bit sad.


It’s all a bit much for Emma. Just because no one caught it on camera, doesn’t mean Brendan didn’t cry too.


But putting on his pack for the last time makes it all start to feel a bit real

We want to thank all of you for taking this journey with us, for sticking by us as we trundled through the broken foot and other injuries, for putting up with us as we dealt with technical delays, and for being there for us when we needed you the most. You can’t imagine how important it was to us to know there were people following our blog – it was to you we ran when we’d seen something amazing and had to tell someone, where we turned when we were lonely and exhausted and needed a reason to go on. This blog was our connection to the outside world, and every comment, every personal email and every message passed on was received with love and enthusiasm.

Several people have asked about our future plans, and of course we’ve discussed them endlessly as we walked, but for now we feel the best thing for us to do is to go home, rest a bit, and gain a little perspective in the context of our normal lives. We will compile final trip statistics and post them in the next several days, but this will be our last regular post on the blog. The blog itself, however, will stay up indefinitely and we’ll continue checking it for comments.

We don’t plan to leave Walking the Wall behind entirely, though. We may do some talks, write up a few articles, and who knows, we might even write a book. If you’d like to keep up with our future Great Wall-related plans, please send us an email at WalkingTheWallinfo@gmail.com (a blank email is fine), and we’ll keep you updated. Thank you for all your interest and support. It’s been a great journey and we’re going to miss it.

Wall Angels, Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province

Putting together our final episode of Wall Angels was a fun but sad experience. Fun, because we got to relive those times, and sad because we know there won’t be any more Wall Angels for us for a while.

If we thought Shanxi and Shaanxi were difficult to walk through, with their endless canyons and windy, snowy weather, well, that was nothing compared to Hebei and Beijing. Both were incredibly difficult. Steep, mountainous country, vertical wall, cliffs, thorns and impenetrable bushes. Our daily kilometre limit dropped from 30kms to 10kms, sometimes down to 5kms, and our finish date moved further and further away. We didn’t have the time to sit around and meet people, we had to keep moving and we had to at least try to reach our daily goal.

Inevitably we met fewer people. That’s not to say that our personal encounters dropped, because on the contrary, with farmers out in the field with the coming of spring, we spoke to a lot more people as the days went on. But it is to say that we didn’t have the time to form as many relationships as we had previously. We had to make a decision to keep moving. If we didn’t, we might never have reached the end.

The Gold Miners

One of our most common questions is what do we do about food and water. How do we get it, how much do we have to carry. Well, to answer those questions we can give you the example of our first set of Wall Angels for Hebei province.

We were walking in a particularly remote area of the province, canyons and hills slowing us down to an incredibly slow pace and the winds of April battering us about. So diversions to get water for the night weren’t really a fun thing to do, especially when they added on a few kilometres of walking to what was already a long day. But when the source of water appears before you … well, you take it, graciously of course.


The Gold Miners were living in a shack just down the hill from the Great Wall. About 10 of them slept on hard single beds in the one room, canvas covering the roof, doors and windows and sheltering them from the wind and cold. They lived there for months at a time with nothing much but a book each, a few large drums of water for washing and drinking, and a small kitchen that could make rice and noodles. Obviously the water came from elsewhere, probably driven up in a truck from a town down in the valley.


We needed at least six litres of water to take with us, which they gave without hesitation. They gave us some tea to drink and to warm us up, then invited us to stay for food. We declined, needing to keep moving before the winds picked up again, which they did as soon as we stepped out the door. The older man watched us go, staying outside in the wind to wave goodbye to us as we walked up the hill and out of view.

The Great Wall Society, Yan Dao Jun and Dong Yaohui

The China Great Wall Society is the leading Chinese organisation working on Great Wall conservation. We got in contact with the Society last year before we set off on our endless journey and were fortunate enough to meet the Secretary-General Dong Yaohui and the society’s editor, Yan Daojun.


Mr Dong leading us to the sea


Mr Yan outside Laolongtou

Mr Dong, a leading expert on the wall and one often sought out by the media for comment, was one of the first men to walk the entire length of the Great Wall. He has published numerous books and articles on the wall and works tirelessly for its preservation. But despite his incredibly busy schedule, he has still managed to make time for us on two very important occasions – our send-off in Jiayuguan, and our finish in Shanhaiguan.

Neither of these would have been as large occasions as they were if it weren’t for the amazing organisational skills of Mr Yan Daojun, who, with three days’ notice, arranged a trip to Shanhaiguan and for local media and government officials to be waiting for us at the end. His contacts are endless, his enthusiasm and energy boundless, and the help and support that he has given us were invaluable for our trip.

Mr Li Hong and family

We have often included drivers in our list of Wall Angels before. That’s because, when we have to base ourselves in a town when faced with obstacles like a broken foot and the like, drivers become invaluable in transporting us to and from the wall. But Mr Li wasn’t just a driver, he was also a friend, an organiser and, on terribly short notice, a great photographer.

We met Mr Li in the town of Qinhuangdao. The heat had forced us to base ourselves there because it just wasn’t possible for us to carry our fully laden backpacks up and over the Hebei mountains in addition to the eight or so litres of water that we would each need every day. With heat in the high 30s, humidity a lot higher, and ne’er a flat spot of walking in sight, one litre of water would be sweated out in about 10 minutes.

So we found Mr Li and commenced what was to become an invaluable working relationship and an even more special friendship. Not sure if he was really ready for the 6:30am starts and the 8pm finishes, but he never complained. And we’re not sure if he was ready for the exploration we had to do, the drives through small villages looking for the wall and the negotiating with the locals that was involved, but he took it all in his stride.


Mr Li, Sabrina and Mrs Huang

When Emma’s parents arrived Mr Li took on the role of tour guide, taking care of them while we were sweating our way up the mountains and calling us on our mobile phone when he needed someone to translate at the restaurant (“Do your parents want rice or noodles?”). When the day finally came to reach the end, he brought his wife, Mrs Huang, and daughter, Sabrina, along who were both wonderful in helping to set up the stage for the finishing function. And at Laolongtou, when we were speechifying and raising our arms in the air and generally running around out of control, Mr Li took control of our cameras and made sure we had good photos of the occasion – he took most of the photos in our final post, above.

Like all good connected Chinese men, he has a QQ number (internet video phone), and pretty soon so will we. That means we’ll be able to stay in contact over the internet and send each other photos. Who knows, maybe Sabrina will even visit us in Sydney. In a very short time, he became a good and trusted friend, and he will be sorely missed.

Guang Guang, Beijing Municipality and Hebei Province

Well, we’ve rambled our way across our final jurisdictions, Hebei province and Beijing municipality. These eastern areas we hiked through were different in many ways from the western provinces – more populous, greener, much more mountainous. But the overriding theme of our time in the east was the return of summer.

It’s hard to believe we were camping in snow just over two months ago. By the final two weeks of our trip, the corn had grown high, people were selling vegetables from their courtyard gardens, and the first wheat harvest was already underway.


Most people still harvest by hand


Busy like a Brueghel painting

Summertime is also vacation time, and for once we weren’t the only tourists out on the road. The wall traces a giant semi-circle around most of Beijing’s weekend getaway spots, where we joined thousands of Beijingers taking their holidays. We also had some distinguished holiday guests – Dean and Brenda Fletcher – who traveled from Kansas to spend a week with us!


Dean and Brenda (Brendan’s parents) with us at Jinshanling


Emma with a cool summer lunch of fresh veg, dipping sauce and cold roasted chicken


At the little fishing villages everyone is issued a bamboo pole . . .


. . . and if you catch one they’ll grill it on the spot


All the restaurants serve wild mountain herbs – here, try some!

You can have too much summer, though. In mid-June the weather turned extremely, even dangerously hot. Every day we had temperatures between 35° and 40°, up to 41° on one day. Add in 50-60% humidity, and you have hiking conditions that are always uncomfortable, often punishing, and present a real threat of heat exhaustion.


Brendan after cooling down under a waterfall


This baby goat had collapsed of heat exhaustion. It began to recover shortly after Emma took it to the shade of a nearby watchtower, where its herd was resting.

But on the more temperate days, summer gives everyone a chance to get outside and do the sorts of summer things people do anywhere – go to outdoor markets, throw a bit of meat on the fire and have a beer, or just hang out on the side of the road. Whether we’ve spent days getting to know them or just a few minutes chatting under the shade of a tree, one of the great joys of our trip – and probably the thing that will stick with us longest – has been meeting the wonderful, generous, friendly people of rural China. We will miss them.


A weaver and his loom


Yarn piling up in front of a wheelbarrow


And we thought our packs were heavy


Sprinkling spices on some chuanzi’s (mutton skewers)


Demonstrating proper chuanzi consumption technique


A man on a mission


The Australian Ginger Rogers and . . . the Chinese Ginger Rogers


Fresh produce and a new bag of tobacco – what’s not to smile about?

The Homestretch


Brendan sniffing the sea air

You’d think that after more than 3500 kilometres, we’d have seen about everything there is to see on the wall. It’s certainly true that not everything is as fresh as it once was, and we’re very tired and ready to go home.

Still, the wall somehow manages to astound us on a daily basis, and not just because of how outrageously hard it is to walk along. There are several hundred kilometres of wall in eastern Hebei, between Beijing and Shanhaiguan, and in many ways the Hebei wall combines the best aspects of Beijing’s famous but heavily touristed sites and the less well-known parts of the wall in the west.

The wall traverses several geological zones on its march to the sea, or so it seems – geology’s not a real strong point with us. We do know pretty rocks though, and we’ve enjoyed watching the wall change colour and mood in concert with its geo-environment.


Like a patchwork quilt of colours


The Marble Great Wall, near Baiyangyu


The mist makes for slippery rocks, but it does heighten the colours

Much of the Hebei wall lies in ruins. Bricks and cut stone have been stripped from the foundations, arrowholes have been stolen by vandals, and in places, it’s difficult to tell whether stone walls are merely a foundation or the wall in its entirety. But sad as it is to see the wall deteriorate, you’ve gotta admit, some of the ruins are picturesque.


A stone door arch


This tower’s roof has collapsed, allowing sunlight in


Inexplicably, small sections remain even when everything around them has crumbled

Despite the ravages of time, we’ve also seen some unusual architectural features in Hebei that we’ve seen nowhere else in their original setting.


One of the few two-storey towers we’ve seen outside reconstructed sections


Every watchtower has either brick or stone doorway arches, but it’s unusual to see the two styles side by side


One of the few character carvings we have seen

The most important thing to know about eastern Hebei’s scenery is that it is almost completely mountainous – just when we’ve hauled ourselves up one mountain, another one looms up in front of us. The wall manages to stick to ridges most of the time, with long, incredible drop-offs on one or either side, but eventually, unfortunately for us hikers, it has to come down. Having said that, it is probably one of the most beautiful sections we have seen.


The wall hugging the cliff near Shanhaiguan


Classic Chinese pine trees on one side, farmers’ terraces on the other


Where the wall hits the cliff at Jiumenkou, Nine Gate Pass, 15 kilometres from Shanhaiguan