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Stranded in Tonga, Zoe Stephens to run “marathon plus” fundraiser to benefit local animals

Weekend trip to Tonga, turns into a six-month (and counting) adventure after being stranded due to COVID-19.

Newcastle University graduate Zoe Stephens (BA Modern Languages and Linguistics, 2017) arrived in Tonga on 19 March 2020 from Fiji, just as Fiji reported its first case of COVID-19 that afternoon. After Tonga shut its borders, what was intended to be a weekend visit turned into a half-year (and counting) adventure in one of the few countries in the world where there is no coronavirus.

Zoe is a Beijing-based tour leader and social media specialist for Koryo Tours, a company focused on tours and cultural projects in North Korea. She has been stranded in Tonga since then and has documented her stay on her YouTube channel, Zoe Discovers, and her Instagram page, @ifyouwerestrandedonanisland.

While there, Zoe began working with a newly formed organisation, the Tonga Animal Welfare Society. TAWS was established as Tonga’s first animal welfare organisation by a group of animal loving residents “to bring education to schools on the islands and support the community both in homes and farms to learn how to look after their animals.” Its projects include creating animal education packs for school children, working with community services “to promote messages of animal kindness,” as well as seeking to provide medication and supplies for local pets. 

Tonga is a country where there are no veterinarians and where common pet medications and supplies (such as collars and leads) are in very short supply or simply do not exist. Dogs are often more likely to be considered a nutrition source rather than a companion animal. In other words, dog is a common meal on the menu.

On the morning of Saturday, October 17, 2020, Zoe ran a “Marathon Plus” on the main island of Tongatapu to raise money for TAWS. Starting out at 5.30 am, Zoe began at the northwest tip of the island and end by crossing the symbolic finish line at Tonga's most famous monument—the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui stone trilithon - on the northeast coast. 

Zoe refers to her 45km run as a Marathon Plus because a standard Olympic marathon is 42.195 km. To train for this event during her time in Tonga, she first ran a 10K, progressed to a 10-mile run, and then achieved her first half-marathon - all after her trainers and most of her belongings were washed away in April when Cyclone Harold flooded her temporary home. 

“My fundraiser is my small attempt to thank the people of Tonga for the kindness and hospitality that they have shown to me while I have been here”, said Zoe. “I hope that people can join me on my run (or part of it) or cheer me on as I pass the beautiful landmarks of the island - a bit different from the coast in Merseyside but nevertheless close to the sea!”    

As of October 2020, her GoFundMe campaign has raised £2,380. Her goal is to raise at least £4,500, representing £1 for every ten metres she ran. 

Find out more about the Tonga Animal Welfare Society and Zoe’s GoFundMe campaign.

Zoe Stephens at Ha'amonga 'a Maui, Tonga (2020)
Zoe Stephens at Ha'amonga 'a Maui, Tonga (2020)

published on: 21 October 2020