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Out of Whistler and into Africa

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Gail Wensley went in search of the Nile but found far more

Whistler real estate agent Gail Wensley received the Christmas present of a lifetime from her husband Don in 2001, a trip anywhere in the world she wanted to go. But it took almost two years to plan and a 1,000 mile walk to achieve.

Battling dysentry, fatigue, bloody blisters, armies of flesh eating ants and severe weather, six women and their mainly native male crew took 57 days this summer to trek from the Indian Ocean side of Tanzania to Lake Victoria, which borders Kenya.

The busy grandmother decided last year she would take part in an expedition retracing the steps of the famous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley in his search for the source of the Nile River.

Many historians consider Stanley’s original expedition in 1874 to be the most ambitious undertaking ever on the African continent. And what makes this modern day trip even more special is that it was completed by an all-women team — a first in history.

"It just worked out that way," said Wensley. "The expedition leader chose the strongest people that were available at the time. The oldest was a 65-year-old judge, Rebekah, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro last year. Then there was the rest of us who had never climbed anything.

"I’m 63, followed by 46-year-old computer programmer, Sharon. Next down was my daughter-in-law Cidalia at 44, then 28-year-old school teacher, Vanessa and the youngest was a waitress, Emily at 23."

Walking 12 to 20 miles a day under a scorching tropical sun and over rugged terrain, these women went weeks without communication with home or even a bath. But Wensley didn’t care.

"The trip’s purpose was a whole lot more than just a holiday hike across Tanzania," she said. "We were going there to learn about another culture, another way of life as well as let them learn about us. We distributed books to teachers, medical supplies to local clinics, and clothes, toys and games to children," she said.

Wensley saw her fair share of wildlife on the journey, not all of it majestic and wonderful. One time she packed up her tent and a Boomslang snake slithered out.

"There’s no anti-venom in existence for these snakes so if you get bit, that’s it, you’re dead," she said.

Huge dung beatles were "everywhere", as were monkeys, bats and flesh-eating ants.

"You do a dance when they bite you," recalled Wensley. "They like to crawl into all the bits that are your most private, like your armpits and your butt, and they clamp on you for dear life. Several times our whole camp was attacked and we all suffered."

Despite a few horror stories, combined with blood-drenched socks from infected feet and the occasional bout of diarrhea, Wensley never pined for home.

"I actually got depressed it was all coming to an end, to be honest," she said.

"I knew I was ready for a change when I went on the trip and I’d always yearned to see Africa. I remember studying it in grade school and being haunted by it. So just to be able to experience it was life changing for me."

Wensley, who hasn’t even been home a week, already wants to return to help Tanzanian families.

"Education is the answer to so many of their problems and yet so many children don’t go to school. Their parents can’t afford it and yet it only costs $40 US a year. Next thing you know the daughters are illiterate and the only job open to them is ‘escort service’."

Wensley recommends anybody with a sense of adventure and a strong mind and spirit visit Africa. She intends to learn Swahili and get back to Tanzania as soon as she can. She’s hoping her real estate experience will help her buy a property and live there several months of the year, helping other Tanzanians get ahead.

To read Gail Wensley’s diary entries while on the trip, or hear more about her plans you can log onto her web site www.gailwensley.com.

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