THE BLOG

A Short Walk Home

30/07/2015 16:06 BST | Updated 29/07/2016 10:59 BST

As the airframe lurched down, my helmet jolted backwards with a bang against the fuselage behind my head. I closed my eyes but in the pitch black it made no difference whether my eyes were open or shut - I could see nothing as the inside of the plane had all its lights turned out. I gripped the butt of my rifle, and pushed the barrel harder onto the floor to steady myself against the violent vibrations of the aircraft. I hunched my shoulders and pushed my chin into the front of my body armour, and reminded myself that the RAF would land the plane safely; flying is what they do. Even so, I could still feel the nervous tension of the 100 or so other soldiers all around me...

For those who have flown those last 10 minutes at night into an operational theatre of war, inside the blacked out, windowless tube that is a Hercules aircraft, surrounded by your comrades and praying that a ground-to-air missile won't come streaking out of the darkness, that rising panic, that uncertainty whether you'll make it down safely, let alone back out again six months later, that feeling of sheer terror that your lives are completely dependent on the skill of the pilots and, sometimes luck, will be quite familiar.

And that's how I felt at midnight as the Commanding Officer of the 2 Mercian Battlegroup and a small group of other officers gave me back-slapping hugs and firm handshakes as they said farewell at the ferry port of Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus; I was setting off on a 2,500 mile walk across Europe back to the UK, alone.

And yes, you did read that correctly - walk across Europe.

I'd decided that walking home from an operational tour in Cyprus (where as a reservist I'd been an officer in Battlegroup HQ) would be a good idea - the trip of a lifetime, a splendid adventure, a serious challenge, an excellent opportunity to raise lots of money for Walking With The Wounded! Call it what you will, but in the Army - reserve or regular - once you say something like, "I'm going to walk home across Europe", peer pressure and pride doesn't really allow you to back down.

So, at midnight on 26 March 2015, I found myself watching the CO's vehicle lights disappear, and short of being back on that Hercules, I wished I was absolutely anywhere but there.

But now, as I write this four months later in France, having walked 2,000 miles across Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Italy, Switzerland and The Alps, that terror seems a distant memory.

I've slept in a Muslim prayer room, on the beach, in a churchyard, under a hedge, on top of a mountain in tent in a thunderstorm, in a gypsy caravan, in some super smart hotels and some super non-smart hotels. I've drunk coffee by the gallon, Turkish chai, all varieties of beer and wine, weird and wonderful moonshine spirits and half a reservoir of water.

I've walked through the richest and poorest neighbourhoods of each country and had discussions on everything from the politics of the Middle East to the fortunes of Chelsea Football Club. I've met Turks, Greeks, Macedonians, Albanians, Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, French, Italians, Americans - all of whom have been friendly and supportive, but in the main, totally astonished at what I'm trying to do.

I've walked the road that my grandfather kept shut to the Nazis for two weeks while operating behind enemy lines in Albania. I've toured the battlefields at Gallipoli in awe of the sacrifice and courage of the ANZAC soldiers and I've found little war memorials to various conflicts all the way along the road.

I've discovered pretty much every petrol station from here to the south coast of Turkey and I've eaten food that I'm pretty sure should definitely not have been eaten by humans. I've also eaten more pizzas than I'm sure is healthy!

I've chased off wild dogs and I've been chased off by wild dogs. I've climbed fences, walls, crossed ditches, forded rivers barefoot, walked on motorways and sheep tracks. I've walked through rubbish tips and over three mountain ranges. I've had boat rides on amazing mountain lakes, and I've picked cherries, peaches, grapes and bananas straight off the tree.

In short, the terror was completely unfounded.

I still believe that anyone could do something like this, but being an Army officer certainly helps. First as a regular officer, and now as a reservist, the self-discipline, pride and determination to succeed that is instilled in soldiers (both regulars and reserves, who receive the same training as their regular colleagues) from day one has been invaluable, and not just in this expedition.

It has helped me transition to civilian life, find a job and somewhere to live, push myself and then start my own business. My role in the Reserves allows me to continue the training and adventure that the Army can offer while still fulfilling my passion for photography. Being a self-employed photographer has allowed me to do the walk, but being a reservist has made it achievable.

But it is tough. Really tough.

I break myself every day as I walk between 20 and 25 miles carrying 13-14kg in the heat or cold, sun or rain. I eat, shower, sleep (sometimes literally on the side of the road) and then get up and do it all again day after day.

It's been an extraordinary experience; difficult, hot, cold, lonely, funny, emotional and mentally and physically exhausting in a way I couldn't have imagined. But crucially also hugely rewarding, not just for myself, but also in the raising of the money for Walking With The Wounded, which I hope will only increase (£18k to date).

And, thankfully, only truly scary once or twice.

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If you would like to sponsor me, with all the money going to Walking With The Wounded, please go to www.justgiving.com/shortwalkhome

You can also follow the latest updates and photographs on the Facebook Page 'A Short Walk Home', on Instagram (@elloydowen) or Twitter.

To find out more about a role in the Army Reserve go to www.army.mod.uk/armyreserve