She had it all planned – a dream birthday getaway on safari with her family. Then Covid hit and the writer discovered that she didn’t need to travel far to create ‘forever memories’
Turning 50 is a milestone, whether you choose to ignore it or not. It creeps up on you like a ninja and then, boom, you’re half a century old.
To eliminate any feelings of “sweet mother of God, I’m ancient”, I decided to be proactive and organise a big holiday for my 50th: in 2018, two years before my birthday, I opened a bank account and began saving each month for my dream trip.
It was something I had always wanted to do, on my bucket-list top five – to go on safari and do the dawn drive to watch the animals, in their natural habitat, waking up.
I imagined sitting in the back of an open Jeep with my husband and kids as the sun rose, gasping at the magnificent scene that lay before us. I would be creating “forever memories” and giving my kids the gift of the holiday of a lifetime.
In truth, the kids didn’t want to “get up in the middle of the night to see boring animals”, and my other half wasn’t so keen either, but I was blocking that particular noise out. This was my big birthday and they would have to suck it up.
The bank account grew and then, in October 2019, I went in to Trailfinders and spent a glorious hour organising my trip with a very helpful and enthusiastic young employee.
She “got it” and was as excited as I was about the trip. I almost considered inviting her to come as a cheerleader. She gave me lots of tips about what to do, where to stay and what we could see along the way.
We would fly to South Africa, landing in Cape Town. She suggested staying there for a few days to visit Robben Island and the cell in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 years.
We could climb Table Mountain (I imagined lots of moaning and groaning about that suggestion), visit the Botanical Gardens, go to Boulders Beach and watch the penguin colonies waddling about… each idea was more enticing than the next.
Then we could hire a car and drive along the beautiful Garden Route, making various pit stops until we reached our final destination – the safari.
Three nights staying in cabins – I decided tents might be a bridge too far for my city kids, who freak if they see a spider – dinners by camp fire, dawn and dusk Jeep rides and a glass of wine at sunset.
I left the travel company on a high. I was fulfilling my dream. In eight months’ time I would be on a plane, heading to my trip of a lifetime. I had planned it all so that I would wake up on safari as I turned 50. I would be watching lions and their cubs rising from their sleep as 49 slipped into 50. It was perfect.
However, I had a strange, nagging sensation something was going to go wrong, a feeling that somehow we weren’t going to make it. I pushed this silly thought from my mind and opened up my itinerary.
And then Covid happened.
Never mind South Africa, I couldn’t go and see my mother, 4km down the road, without being stopped twice by police and interrogated as to my movements and intentions. Never mind dawn safaris and penguin watching, I spent the next few months walking 2km laps of my neighbourhood like a hamster on a wheel.
Dashed hopes, broken dreams, my holiday was never going to happen now, although by the time July 2020 came around, I would have been happy to go to Athlone and stay in a B&B just to get the hell out of Dublin.
As we slowly got our heads around Covid and tried to keep some degree of sanity in the house, I began to think about what I could do to celebrate my birthday instead. Part of me wanted to pull my duvet over my head and sleep through, but I knew I had to mark it or I would regret it.
By mid-July last year, we were allowed to travel within Ireland and to have people in our gardens. So I decided to have a group of friends over on the day of my birthday and the next day travel to Leitrim to my father-in-law’s house, where I would challenge myself, and the unsuspecting family, to some kind of physical activity.
I Googled things to do locally and Benbulben in Sligo popped up. It looked high and daunting, but I wanted a challenge, so I decided we would climb it as a family. The highest we had climbed up to that point was the Sugarloaf in Wicklow.
Benbulben is 526m high which, to be honest, meant nothing to me. It looked high in the picture, but I decided not to overthink it. Besides, it was described as a “medium” challenge on the website, so I reckoned we would be OK.
I decided not to spring this “fun family day out” on the kids until the last moment. Needless to say, it went down like a lead balloon. When we got to the car park at the foot of the mountain, it looked a lot higher in the flesh.
“That’s like Mount bloody Everest,” one of my teens said.
“We’ll never make it to the top,” my youngest added.
“We’re doing it, and that’s final,” I said. I sounded a lot more confident than I felt.
We took off, me out front, showing them all how to do it. Within 10 minutes I was huffing and puffing like a 40-a-day smoker – and I don’t smoke – it was so steep. Clearly the person on the website describing it as a “medium” challenge was part mountain goat.
My teen sons quickly overtook me.
“Let’s just get this over with,” they muttered, and effortlessly forged ahead.
Behind me, my husband and youngest were struggling a bit too. Halfway up, we met people who had given up and turned around.
I thought about packing it in. I was absolutely knackered and hadn’t even made it halfway. But then I decided I had to go all the way to the top, to prove to myself that I am a fit, healthy 50-year-old.
Since being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis five years ago, and not being able to walk when the flare-ups are bad, I treasure good health. I’ve got the arthritis under control and have been feeling really good for the past two years, but having this condition has made me determined to enjoy and appreciate every moment of physical wellbeing. So I dug deep and ploughed ahead. I was getting to the top of this mountain if it took all day.
And when I finally made it, even though every muscle in my body was crying out, I felt the most wonderful sense of achievement.
I stood on the top with my family and punched the air. The climb had gotten rid of the grumpy moods and the complaining. Everyone was delighted to have made it. It wasn’t South Africa, but it was beautiful. The views were spectacular. I was with the people I care about most in the world and I was healthy, happy and grateful.
‘About Us’ by Sinéad Moriarty is published by Sandycove and is available in store and online now.