“I remember trying to visualise the path that lay ahead and how my arrival to the Holy Land would be – it seemed impossible, something on the other side of beyond. Like Odysseus, the scale of my wanderings would be long-suffering and test my resolve to the limit.”
After military accident which led to a debilitating spine injury Mark Randall, was left with only one option for recovery – to walk. And walk he did… in a pair of trusty grey sandals which took him on a gruelling 7,300-kilometre journey from Gibraltar to Jerusalem.
With a few basic amenities and only two changes of clothing, Mark trekked into history – becoming the first person known to have made the journey. During it he faced feral dogs; slept on beaches and at roadsides; overcame mental obstacles…and even met and spoke to the Pope in Rome.
What motivated him to tackle such a huge challenge? There were several key reasons, he explains. But a major factor was a childhood craving for exploration and adventure which has remained with him, stronger than ever, to this day.
“I grew up in the days of the closed border” he told me. “The main reason I joined the military was travel and adventure, particularly for a young boy from Gibraltar with limited possibilities at the time… Travel and adventure were the driving forces behind everything I have done up to now.”
Attracted by this promise of adventure, the young Gibraltarian enlisted in the Gibraltar Regiment in 1983 – prompted by fascination with the Falklands war a year earlier. “Not that I liked what I saw as far as casualties and war, but there was an attraction. The promise of adventure and the unknown.”
“At the time I was working in Barclays Bank where my father had found a job for me – saying: ‘you’ve got to work’. Unbeknown to him, I had applied to join the Regiment.”
“He was annoyed that I hadn’t asked him, but I had the honour to come back from Sandhurst as a second lieutenant while my father was still serving as a major in the regiment so that for about a year and a half we served together.”
Mark continued his military career for the next 26 years – during which he became the regiment’s C.O. and served the final seven as a lieutenant colonel – at NATO headquarters in Macedonia, five years in Germany and training in Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and elsewhere.
“I am an infantry man… Boots on the ground, getting dirty, living outside, shooting, walking, shooting; getting tired – you’re roughing it.”
But years earlier, Mark had seriously injured himself during training.
“The reason I took to walking, after retiring in 2009, was my physical condition. As a result of a nasty accident many years ago,” he explains. “I twisted my back and kept on running, carrying a lot of weight.”
Mark suffered a compressed and dehydrated spine, and two herniated discs.
“I was told I wasn’t going to recover; my neck and shoulder are in bits. I remember going to Headley Court, the Defence rehabilitation centre in the UK in 2007 to 2008, and they told me to walk… So, I walked.”
In 2009 Mark endured and overcame pain and injuries when taking on his first long walking challenge – the 750- kilometre Camino de Santiago trek, following in the footsteps of saints to where the remains of St James the Great are believed to be buried, “My first Camino de Santiago was the worst one,” he recalls. “I blistered my feet, my hernia flared up, and I had to stop for four days, being jabbed with painkillers in my bum – I was told to go home, but I refused. On the fourth day, I got up and hobbled like an old man, but three days later I was walking rapidly again.”
“It’s all about the walk. One foot in front of the other.”
This was one of many long-haul walks Mark took, next in line was his 2,200km walk from Cardiff to Gibraltar which lasted 75 days. Mark published a book entitled “Walk to the Rock” which, as well as the donations from the walk, has raised about £20,000 and makes a fascinating read.
Then came his longest and most challenging walk. On Friday the 1st of April 2016, Mark set off from Europa Point, the gateway to the Mediterranean, to the Holy Land, Jerusalem.
“I wanted to connect Gibraltar to the three most important pilgrimage sites in the Roman Catholic religion – Santiago de Campostela, Rome and Jerusalem,” he explains.
From the Rock to Santiago de Compostela, then through the Pyrenees and across France, to Rome and his meeting with Pope Francis, across the Dalmatian Coast, through Albania, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and finally he arrived at the Holy Land.
“At times, I was walking more than 40/50 km a day. It’s all about discipline and mental flexibility. In the army, no plan survives initial contact with the enemy. And by discipline I don’t mean just getting up in the morning to walk, but saying I’m going to walk 7,300 km.”
This was not only a physical challenge but also mental, Mark told me:
“The hardest challenge is up in your mind. Solitude is probably the worst enemy, at the end of the night when you get into your pit, you’re on your own – your wife isn’t there, your kids aren’t there, your mum isn’t there… No home comforts. But funnily enough I enjoy it. For me it’s a sense of adventure and enjoyment.”
On day 150 Mark arrived in Rome. Only 40 pilgrims have been registered as making the walk there from Santiago. He had written to Monsignor Mark Miles asking if he could attend the Wednesday Papal audience.
“Mark got me six tickets for myself, my family and some of my pilgrim friends. When I got there, Mark had a surprise for me; he said you’re not going to sit in the audience with your family, but in the front corner – I was going to meet the Pope!”
“It was mind blowing, we held hands, exchanged words in Spanish, and he gave me a rosary. It was incredibly humbling.”
“Having walked 4,000+ km to Rome, stopping to see my friends, family and the Pope, one of the hardest mental hurdles was setting out again to walk another 1,000 km to Venice. Leaving Rome was so hard, as were the next few days. I had to overcome mountains of the soul…”
“I wrote to the press back home: ‘Even though I feel alone, I am walking in the footsteps of saints.’”
Among the many obstacles Mark faced were dogs, snakes and sometimes even wild cows:
“The most dangerous dog to come across is one that is protecting sheep. Accidentally getting between those dogs and the flock is like getting between a hippo and a watering hole – the hippo will kill you.
“In Spain, I took some rest under a shady tree, only to be woken up by a shepherd’s mastiffs breathing down my face. Thankfully something attracted their attention and they ran off.”
“In Greece I had one or two nasty encounters. A barman told me that to ward them off I should just stop and show them who the alpha male was… I certainly wasn’t going to stop and stand up to some hungry dogs, but I could out-pedal them. They nearly knocked me off a few times, which was worrying, but I made it.”
Crossing into Israel, Mark’s journey was reaching its end, and he reflected: “My holy sandals, which had been grazed by the many saints who traversed the holy lands as I did – I remember telling myself ‘I am walking over Judean hills, and this is where the saints, Jesus and the Apostles walked’ and there was me trying to find my way!”
Arriving in Jerusalem, with blistering feet; tired but not weary, Mark was greeted by a huge welcome party of his friends, family, the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo and other officials.
“The true pilgrimage is what you discover inside, and enjoying the culture, the people you meet, the food, the wine.”