Next week, to celebrate her 70th birthday, Maura Ward and her son, Johnny, will climb Mount Fuji, in Japan. It’s not their first big trip, says
MOST people celebrate their 70th birthday with a family get-together or a meal in a fancy restaurant, or even a sedate holiday abroad.
Not Maura Ward.
In January 2018, the then 69-year-old retired social worker was standing, with her son, Johnny, at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, an active volcano 100 kilometres south-west of Tokyo. It is also Japan’s tallest peak, one of its three sacred mountains and a pilgrimage site for centuries.
Ward, a seasoned traveller — she has visited Iraq and Uzbekistan with Johnny, and Bolivia, Eritrea, and Burkina Faso on her own — was considering marking her 70th birthday with a fund-raising challenge in aid of British charity, The Cure Parkinson’s Trust.
For her 65th birthday, the Kilkeel, Co Down resident and lone parent had completed a skydive to raise money for research into the disease.
“I’d been thinking about doing a wing-walk (standing or walking on the wings of a flying aircraft) for my 70th birthday, but Johnny said this wasn’t a challenge, because all you do is stand there; he said anyone could do that,” says Maura, who, in 2012, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, a chronic brain illness affecting the part of the brain that controls movement.
Johnny (35), the younger of Maura’s two children, is Johnny Ward, of One Step 4Ward, a travel and lifestyle blogger and self-made millionaire, who, a few years back, fulfilled his ambition to visit every country in the world in 10 years. Johnny now operates an NGO, givebackgiveaway.com, to “give back”. It has built clinics and classrooms for impoverished communities all over the world.
His love of travel stretches back to his childhood, as he explained when the Irish Examiner caught up with him in Bangkok.
“I grew up with my mum and sister and we were on benefits from about the time I was five to about the age of 14, so we couldn’t go on holiday much.” His mother later qualified as a social worker, but living in a family headed by a lone parent, money was never abundant, and he wearied of listening to classmates from more affluent families talking about trips to Spain and Orlando.
In 2006, after graduating from university in the UK — he studied economics — Johnny began to travel and he hasn’t stopped since.
“I wanted to be the first person in Ireland to visit every country in the world, but I didn’t want to just hop over a border and tick off a box,” he says, adding that he spent about two weeks everywhere he went.
“I finished the world tour around 18 months ago and I visited every country in the world.” His tour included Yemen, which was a war zone. He spent “four days on a cargo ship, trying to be smuggled in.” He’s deeply proud of his charity, givebackgiveaway.com.
“We’ve donated around €150,000 to various programmes: for example, a malaria clinic for Burmese refugees, five homes for the homeless in Cambodia, a classroom for the Masai tribe in Tanzania.”
And he’s still travelling. His latest goal is to become the first person to travel “every country in the world, plus the North Pole and South Pole and the highest mountain in every continent.”
So to mark his mother’s 70th birthday, Johnny had a colourful alternative to wing-walking.
“We were up at the lake under Mount Fuji and Johnny asked if I fancied climbing it. I immediately said ‘no’,” Maura recalls.
“He went on and on about it, and, in the end, I said that I might do it someday, but not now.
“He said it’d be good to do for my 70th birthday. I just ignored him.
“A few days later, I woke up to all these messages coming in on my social media, telling me how great I was and how brave I was and how much training I’d have to do.
“Then, someone mentioned Mount Fuji. I honestly began to wonder if I was losing my mind.
“Suddenly, the lightbulb clicked on. I checked Johnny’s social media and it said that he and his mum were thinking of climbing Mount Fuji for her 70th birthday, to raise money for research into Parkinson’s Disease, and would anyone like to join us.
“Johnny has hundreds of thousands of followers, so I was caught between a rock and a hard place! After I calmed down, I saw the funny side of it.”
A camera crew will document Maura’s climb next week. Although she celebrated her 70th birthday last April, they’re starting the climb next Tuesday, July 10th, because Mount Fuji does not open to climbers for the year until the beginning of July.
The aim is to make it to the summit on July 10th. A GoFundMe page, https://www.gofundme.com/climbing-mount-fuji-at-70-with-Parkinsons, has been set up to raise money for The Cure Parkinson’s Trust .
It is a cause to which Maura is deeply committed.
Although she had suspected something was wrong for two or three years before she consulted her doctor, Maura had to be nudged by her children to seek medical advice.
“Both Johnny and my daughter, Aisling, who’s a year older, had noticed that I didn’t seem to be able to sit still; that all of my left side, particularly my arm and leg, always seemed to be fidgeting,” she says.
As part of managing the condition, Maura has been going to the gym regularly for three or four years.
She’s stepped up her fitness regime to prepare for her mountain challenge by building some local climbing into her normal training schedule.
“I go to the gym four or five times a week, because my muscles can seize up quite badly. I can be very stiff in the mornings particularly.
“I do a mixture of weights and cardio, but I think the muscle that gets the most exercise is my tongue. I’ve intensified my training in recent months, by adding in mountain-climbing on some local mountains.”
Her only real concern about the Mount Fuji challenge, she adds, is that she might get altitude sickness.
“When I was in Bolivia, last year, I was very badly hit by altitude sickness and I was quite ill, as a result.
“Altitude sickness doesn’t necessarily always happen, but it is scary when it does. So I am bringing preventative medication, which also treats the sickness and I hope it will work. That’s the one thing I’m worried about,” says Maura, who travelled alone through South America just before Christmas.
“I went to Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Easter island for seven weeks, backpacking on my own.” And once she’s conquered Mount Fuji, she’s off again, this time on a six-week tour of the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and North Korea and Vietnam.
In the final week of that trip, she plans to meet up in Vietnam with Aisling and her family. (Aisling lives in London and works in the PR industry.)
“I generally stay in inexpensive hotels or in hostels or B&B accommodation; some of the hostels are gorgeous,” she says, adding that her experiences have generally been good, although she once stayed a hotel in Armenia that she strongly suspected was also a brothel.
On another occasion, she had just checked out of a hotel in Tibet, when it was badly damaged in an earthquake.
She simply loves being on the go.
“When Johnny started travelling, years ago, I’d take my holidays and go to meet him wherever he happened to be, because otherwise I’d never see him.
“I always went abroad on my own, but it was only when I retired, at 68, that I started doing the long haul-trips on my own.
“The other day, he said on the phone that he had had a “brilliant idea” for a challenge for my next birthday.
“I said I wouldn’t do it, if it was over-ground or underground; if it was up or down a mountain or over or under the sea, I wasn’t doing it.
“Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mother wouldn’t have a bloody look- in!”