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Former pilot famed for solo flights takes on epic donkey adventure

A serial adventurer who was the first woman to fly solo over the polar regions is to take on a new challenge this year when she drives two donkeys on an epic trek to Wales.

Polly Vacher MBE specialised in raising funds for charity with her long distance solo flights, which included circumnavigating the world in a single-engine Piper PA-28 Cherokee Dakota G-FRGN.

In 2007 she undertook her last major trip, setting off from Birmingham Airport on the “wings around Britain challenge”, where she landed at all 221 airfields in the Jeppesen VFR manual.

A year ago the 76-year-old was forced to retire from flying when surgery to improve her sight went “horribly wrong”, leaving her blind in her right eye.

While recuperating in hospital and feeling “very sorry for myself as I knew I wouldn’t be able to fly again”, Polly came up with the idea of taking her donkeys Wizard and Muffin on the 200-mile trip.

“The loss of my sight was a real shock,” Polly said. “I am usually a very positive person and I was trying very hard to be positive but I was having a bad time — I couldn’t read and I was having eye drops 24/7, so all I could do was sit there feeling awful.

“Then I had a card from the guardian of a church in north Wales, who I had met while staying with a friend, saying that she had heard I was in hospital and she hoped I would be able to cope with all that was in front of me.

“I had a lightbulb moment and I thought ‘I could drive my donkeys from Oxford to the church at St Melangell [in north Wales]’ and the Donkathon was born.”

Polly had bought Wizard and Muffin as yearlings 11 years ago as an “extra interest” and went from having no previous involvement with equids to teaching them to drive.

“On my first world flight I was followed by a journalist commissioned by the Sunday Telegraph, she flew on scheduled airlines and it was quite a challenge for her to get to the places I was going on time. She was with me for four months and when she got back she found it a bit of an anti-climax, so she decided she would get a donkey and taught it to drive,” Polly explained.

“I then decided I would go to the Donkey Sanctuary and take their training modules, which I did, and they told me to ‘go and get some donkeys.’”

Wizard and Muffin were not even halter-broken when they arrived and Polly had a steep learning curve turning them into the driving pair they are today.

“The problem is, they didn’t read the manual but I managed to train them!” she said. “I had a wonderful amount of help from people, including many from the Donkey Breed Society.”

Special preparations for this trip have included getting the pair used to water as they have two fords to cross, as well as getting expert advice on trimming their feet.

“We have been driving them in a trailer to a ford and using carrots and ginger nuts to coax them in, as donkeys hate water,” Polly said. “At first we did it not harnessed up but now they have they confidence they don’t think anything of it, and I am very proud of them.”

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They have also had specially-made high-vis raincoats and rugs made to deal with anything the Welsh weather might throw at them.

Polly’s previous adventures have supported charities including Flying Scholarships for the Disabled, for whom she raised £500,000. This time, her trip will be raising funds for Multiple Sclerosis (MS) research, a cause close to home as her nephew was diagnosed with the disease aged 26.

“I originally trained as a physiotherapist 50 years ago and I knew about MS from then and I was amazed how little progress has been made in understanding it,” Polly said. “There has been a big push by MS Research to raise £100million and while there is no way I can raise that amount, 1,000 miles starts with the first step.”

More information on Polly’s trip, which is scheduled to begin on 17th July 2020, can be found on her website and Facebook page.

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