In our pursuit of extraordinary stories from the DA family, we spoke to Jo, a remarkable 32-year-old with an inspiring story. Jo's courage and determination reflect the spirit of our community, embodying the essence of adventure beyond the ordinary. This story really resonated with us as Jo's tale is more than a travelogue; it's a testament to the power of seizing life.
My name is Jo; I am 32 years old, and I am from East Anglia. I am an exotic animal nursing assistant and practice administrator for a small independent exotic vet practice.
I have always been passionate about animals, specifically wildlife, rescue and rehabilitation. I am a registered Marine Mammal Medic and volunteer for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, assisting with seal assessments and relays nationwide.
My normal day looks like a sunrise walk in the woods with my two rescue dogs, a full-on day in clinic, and then back home for a cosy dinner in front of the TV with my partner!
I love fantasy and science fiction; and am a big Tolkien fan - which may have influenced the volcano trek! I love to go on long walks in nature, and on rainy days, I like to relax with a puzzle, some cross-stitching or reading.
What is your "Why"?
When I was 30, I found out that I was "gene positive" for Huntington's Disease, meaning that at some point in my near future, I will start to exhibit symptoms, and one day, I will inevitably die of this rare, degenerative disease. I devastatingly lost my Dad (whom I had inherited it from) very suddenly, at the too-young age of 50, to a heart attack. As he had never been tested for the faulty gene, I always knew I had a 25% chance of inheriting it, but I decided to find out for certain when I met my partner and their child. It wasn't just my future that would be affected anymore, so I made the decision to begin the genetic testing process.
It consisted of lots of repeat sessions with a genetic councillor, speaking about my work, my moods, my support network, they even spoke to my friends and family, in order to ensure that I was fully prepared and able to cope with the news, should it be a bad outcome. I then did a simple blood test, and my councillor called me and gave me the news... that, sadly, that 25% chance had won.
I've always been a very independent, self-sufficient person who likes to go into things knowing as much as possible. So even though the news was devastating, I still felt like I had gained some sort of power in the knowledge; I knew what my future would hold, to an extent, and I knew that I had to live life to the fullest.
When I found out that I was gene-positive, I was directed towards a lot of different support resources, the main one being the Huntington's Disease Association. They are a wonderful nationwide team of specialist advisers, support groups, psychological therapy services, and support groups of other people on their own personal HD (Huntington's Disease) journey. They also provide training, advice, events and support for family members and carers of people with HD.
I take part in as many clinical research trials as I can, and I regularly donate my blood and my spinal fluid, too.
Honestly, I figured if I could take on this challenge that life has thrown at me and climb such a metaphorical mountain, I could probably climb some real ones!
So this is me, attempting to raise awareness, facing the challenges I will face through the rest of my life head-on, as well as facing exciting new ones, raising funds for the important work the HDA do and seeing some amazing things while I do it!
Training & Preparation
I had initially booked to do the Costa Rica Coast to Coast challenge at the end of November 2023. Unfortunately, due to not having enough numbers, it was cancelled. I was devastated and terrified to tell all of the people who had sponsored me.
Luckily, Discover Adventure was really helpful when it came to moving the booking: it actually worked out for the better because Ecuador had a shorter trip duration, so I transferred my registration over, and the charity actually gained an extra £1000 from my fundraising! I did have my heart set on kayaking for days across the wild river, but Ecuador is still a mind-blowingly beautiful place, so it was easy to adjust from kayaking to climbing volcanoes!
I opted to fundraise as much over the minimum sponsorship requirement as possible so that I could at least match the costs paid by the charity, so they didn't 'lose' anything for my trip.
I'm not going to lie, I was extremely intimidated by the amount of money I had set as my target. I have done fundraising before, albeit on a much smaller scale... but this was a whole new challenge in itself. I knew that the prospect of just doing the challenge wouldn't be enough - times are hard all over, there is a cost of living crisis going on, and I felt that people needed to feel like they were getting something back, so I organised my main fundraiser event: My "Rainforest (or should that now be Cloudforest?) Raffle", which I held on 27th May 2022.
I was kindly donated a wonderful local community venue in which to host it. I spent all my evenings reaching out to local small businesses, artists & creators, restaurants, spas, and other local companies to see if I could obtain prizes for my raffle. I ended up with over 150 prizes, ranging from handmade items to travel and spa vouchers - worth hundreds of pounds! I was blown away by not only the prizes themselves but the kindness and support everyone gave me on the run-up to the event.
The HDA were super supportive and provided me with balloons, banners, and informative leaflets for the event. My friends and family were absolutely invaluable in helping me dress the venue and setup. A local catering company came and served hot meals and donated all of the profits to the raffle, and my friend also played some amazing live music throughout the evening.
As for physical training, I enjoy long walks and scrambles as it is; so I just made sure that I kept increasing the duration and difficulty of my walks. I work full time, so my main daily walk would be with the dogs, but I spent my weekends off travelling to various places in the UK for hiking trips. Scotland was definitely a favourite! I also did weight training and other general exercise. The Nintendo Ring Fit was a great help to keep my heart rate up on days when I couldn't get out for a long walk.
As soon as I paid my registration fee, I immediately downloaded Duolingo and started to learn Spanish - I just wanted to be able to shout 'AYUDA!' if I needed it.
Teamwork makes the dream work
I have travelled in Europe on my own; but I was quite nervous about travelling (mostly getting through the airport) as a solo traveller to a destination so far away. Luckily, there were a few of us in the group that had all travelled to Gatwick singularly, and we all met up in the airport Wetherspoons ahead of meeting the main group in departures. The lovely Shona soon scooped me up and took me under her wing, or pint glass! Chris was also a single traveller - although a seasoned DA adventurer - so he immediately put my mind at ease about everything, as he was so experienced. We were very remote most of the time, so I felt totally safe; Quito was also a lovely city to explore; it had a really lovely vibe and felt really safe and pleasant.
I have learnt that I need to give myself a little more credit: I am capable of great things! I also learnt some great hiking techniques from my teammates, which really helped! I had never done altitude higher than 1300m before, so 4000m was a big challenge, physically and mentally. There were times when I wanted to give up - or my heart was making me feel like it was going to burst out of my chest - but fellow trekker Greg taught me some breathing techniques and pacing advice, which really gave me the energy to push on through the harder bits.
I certainly learnt that it was an amazing, inspiring experience to experience as an individual, but it was the team that really made it so special.
Reaching the Quilotoa crater rim was such an emotional experience. There were a LOT of ugly tears at the top! I spent quite a lot of time just letting it out and reflecting on how proud my Dad would be of me and how I'd actually done it! We had spent days working up to it, and suddenly it was done! It was a surreal feeling, and the spectacular scenery of the crater added to an almost magical feeling, which was quite overwhelming.
I definitely went home feeling totally inspired to do another challenge, and I think it has given me an overall more grounded outlook towards life and whatever lies around the corner!
The Cherry on top
I had the surprise of my life when we all landed in Gatwick. I came ambling out of arrivals, extremely overtired and groggy, and I saw my 'stepdaughter' McKayla holding a 'welcome home' sign. I thought it was weird; we didn't have her that weekend, but it was a lovely surprise. So I hugged her and hugged my partner, Sacha. Then Sacha pulled out a ring box! My brain wasn't really in gear, so when they asked the big question, I said "YES!" and grabbed the ring before they could even put it on my finger.... then of course, the first thing I did was scream it to the rooftops to my new Discover Adventure family! It wasn't until we were having a cheeky McDonald's breakfast in the airport that it really set in. Sadly we don't have a 'cute' engagement photo, because I had been travelling for nearly 24 hours... but we do have the maccies 'spot the difference' I sent my mum!
Jo's fundraising page is still open, and will be until 2024. You can donate, and read more about Jo's story and Huntington's Disease here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jo-hambling1
If you have a story you'd like to share with us and the Discover Adventure community, we'd love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org