One iron-willed Derry man has ‘slewed’ the seven day, 250km Atacama Desert Crossing in Chile, in memory of his late friend Christy Gallagher.
Diarmuid Bonner has also raised over £1,500 for the Malaria fund of Children in Crossfire, a charity which is run by Christy Gallagher’s parents, Martin and Mary.
Despite the fact that the Atacama desert is described as ‘the driest place on Earth’ as it hasn’t seen rain for 400 years, flash floods ensured that Diarmuid witnessed history.
“It could only happen to a Derry man, I brought the rain with me,” he laughed. “There was a lagoon nearby so we even had to dig trenches to ensure the camp didn’t flood! It did mean I got to see the desert as very few others do though.”
Speaking to the Journal upon his return, 29 year old fitness fanatic Diarmuid, described the mammoth undertaking as “The toughest thing I’ve ever done.”
The Richmond Crescent native has previously completed half marathons, trekking adventures through South American rain forests, scaled the summit of Kilimanjaro and completed training runs of 31km prior to the Atacama, so “the toughest thing he has ever done” must certainly be a gruelling task indeed.
“It was physically demanding but I would say that 70% of it was mentally challenging. The body keeps going longer than the mind I suppose. For large parts of the day you are trudging along on your own. It is you versus the desert, the heat, the altitude, the fatigue, your blistering, swollen feet and the loneliness.”
Despite “everything” the challenge proved “a great experience.”
He continued, “There was a real sense of cameraderie among the competitors. The only way I could get through was not to think of the massive trek but to take it at one checkpoint at a time. Every day was a new challenge as far as I was concerned. I pushed myself each day to make it to the overnight camp, get washed, changed and ready for the morning start. I rested at each checkpoint for three minutes, each time I felt beat, drained physically but after a few minutes I was ready for the next 10k stretch.”
Among the challenges the desert threw at Diarmuid were nightly thunderstorms. “I was terrified as I had a metal cup attached to the outside of my bag and metal hiking sticks but we managed to keep going. Apart from the flash floods and rain in the desert, the strangest thing was green shrubbery, it was knee high during one stage.”
Despite all the challenges Diarmuid had extra incentive. “It was when the sun was highest I thought most about Christy. In fact I caught myself talking to him out loud a number of times. Well it was more a case of muttering and mumbling ‘Get me through this stage and we’ll start again.’
“Between 2pm and 5pm every day we had an open straight of 14 kms, that was where I thought of Christy most. I called it the mindbreaker shift.”
Christy and Diarmuid were close friends, having met aged 14 at St. Columb’s College, the pair attended Queen’s University together where they shared a house for two years. Though Christy studied English Literature and his friend, history and politics, they even took some English classes together. They also both had jobs in the Student Union.
“Basically we were in each other’s pockets the whole time,” he laughed. “We even travelled together during the summer!”
Little surprise then that as he crossed the finish line in Chile, Diarmuid unpacked a flag which Christy had brought on his own travels.
“I had that in one hand and a tricolour in the other and there’s no doubt about it - I was emotional. The training, swollen feet and blisters were all worth it though.”
In addition to the monetary costs of £5,000, which Diarmuid met personally, there was a slightly more serious cost to his health.
“My bag was heaviest of all the participants, it was 31kgs before water was added.”
That weight and trek took a toll on the shoulders and upon his return to Derry, a return which took a full 48 hours from Chile, the charitable Diarmuid was diagnosed with nerve damage.
“I hope the feeling returns,” he says hopefully. “But it was a learning curve, I’ll be more ready for the next one, not in terms of training but in terms of what to take with me. For example I took 18,000 calories for the trek and only used 10,000.”
Hoping to compete in another one of the ‘big four desert races’ that are the Sahara, The Gobi and Antarctica, Diarmuid will first start a new job working on an RSPB bird sanctuary on Rathfriland.
“I think I could do with some quiet time,” he smiled.
Christy’s father, Martin, who volunteers with Children In Crossfire, was full of praise for Diarmuid’s efforts.
“It is amazing that he would do this for Christy, in his memory and for all those the charity helps.
“Christy’s friends are like an extended family. They stood with us from the day he died and we can’t thank them enough.
“In total his friends have raised over £15,000, their support has been 100%, simply immense.
“They keep us going.”
All the money raised will be donated to Malaria fund of Children in Crossfire, a charity which is run by Christy Gallagher’s parents Martin and Mary.
To donate visit www.justgiving.com/Diarmuid-Bonner