A record-breaking pilot who turned to carriage driving after she lost the sight in one eye is to embark on an epic trek to Wales with her two donkeys this summer.
Polly Vacher MBE had originally scheduled the fundraising trip from Oxfordshire to North Wales to take place in 2020 but her adventure was grounded by Covid.
Polly is no stranger to an ambitious fundraising challenge, having undertaken a number of long-distance solo flights, including circumnavigating the world in a single-engine Piper PA-28 Cherokee Dakota G-FRGN and being the first woman to fly solo over the polar regions.
But the 77-year-old was forced to retire from flying two years ago when surgery to improve her sight went “horribly wrong” and she was left blind in her right eye.
It was while she was recuperating in hospital that she came up with the idea to drive her donkeys Wizard and Muffin on the 200-mile trip from home to St Melangell.
She told H&H she has owned the pair, who are now 13, since they were yearlings, having bought them as an “extra interest”.
“It’s a challenge that has really absorbed me, the flying has gone out of the window!” said Polly, who admits that donkeys can be a bit of a “challenge” to train.
“They have a mind of their own and can just decide they don’t want to go any further,” she said.
The postponement of the trip meant Wizard and Muffin have been able to fit in some extra training. They originally hated water, but have now become adept at crossing fords and are currently being trained with a traffic cone to encourage them to tackle hills.
“They do have a tendency to say no if there is a hill,” said Polly, who is preparing them for the trek by driving around 5 miles a day. “I have always clicker-trained them, so at the moment the plot has been to get them used to touching a traffic cone, and then giving them a reward.
“Now we take the traffic cone with us and put it 200m up the hill. They know when they get to it they will get a treat — it’s amazing how fast they go up!”
The “Donkathon”, which will start at North Moreton in Oxfordshire on 25 June, will take in 27 stops and cover an average eight miles a day.
“How quickly they do it is always going to be their choice and we normally average about 2.5mph,” Polly said.
The donkeys will be sent on their way serenaded by a bagpiper and have several key stops planned, including a special reception at Notgrove Holidays in the Cotswolds, which is helping sponsor the trip.
They will also be passing the front door of Countryfile presenter Adam Henson and are planning to drop in on his farm park before he harnesses his pony and joins them for a small section of the trip.
“Many kind people have offered stabling at each of our 27 stops and many of those have also offered accommodation for the humans,” Polly said. “I am also hoping as many people as possible will join in. Hopefully it will be a lot of fun and something positive for people after a real year of negativity.”
The journey will be raising money for MS Research, a cause Polly chose after her nephew was diagnosed with the illness at the age of 26.
“People are often diagnosed with it in the prime of life and they know they are going to deteriorate — it’s a massive thing to have to cope with psychologically,” Polly said.
“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,” she added. “There has been a big 10-year drive by MS Research to raise £100m and while we won’t be able to get anywhere near that target, it would be good to help a little.”
“Lego is very sweet with him, I think he knows Eden is only little and he really looks after him”
The Donkathon has already raised £18,000 before setting a hoof out of the door, from sponsorship as well as sales of prints of a painting of the donkeys produced by Mandy Shepherd, daughter of renowned wildlife artist David Shepherd. The numbers of the prints, which cost £25, will be put into a raffle, and the winning number will secure the original oil.
“My committee wants to raise a target of £25,000 but I don’t like to pressurise people for money, the most exciting thing for me is people being interested in the donkeys and what we are doing,” Polly said.
The donkeys’ preparations can be followed at: https://www.donkathon.org while donations via JustGiving can be made at: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/donkathon
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