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Photo by George Guille, It's going to be a long 300km... Bolivian Amazon

I haven't been everywhere...
but it's on my list!

Photo by George Guille
It's going to be a long 300km...
Bolivian Amazon

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Old 22 Mar 2013
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From zero to Zambia: A learner about Africa

From off-road training in Wales to climbing Kili and riding through Zambia...

Part 1: The wobbly road to Zambia.

It’s November 2011 and I hear the words “We’re sorry to say your job is at risk...”. Except, what I actually hear is, “You’re up for redundancy, and you’ve been here 8 years, so we’re going to pay you to go on the bike trip you’ve been waiting for”.

Now, to some this might not seem the most rational response to the situation. But since when has logic been a good start to a mini adventure? I’d been in the potential redundancy situation before, so I knew my plan. Or at least, I knew I had no ties and I could take off, preferably on a bike. But where? How? Was it feasible to get a taste of adventure without a GS, a big beard and a TV crew as back-up? And with only 8 months on my bike license?

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself because at that point not only was my license new, but I hadn’t exactly been a natural on two wheels. I started trying to ride just after my 34th birthday (and just under the midlife crisis category, I like to think) and I was hopeless. I’d never been on a bike, didn’t know anyone who rode at that point. I didn’t even make it through my CBT first time, let alone start heading off somewhere round the world on unpredictable surfaces.

But I got through the full test with the help of a very patient instructor (and probably some prescription drugs on his part) and found myself a 2006 CBR600F. Then I persevered, throwing myself in at the deep end with Ron Haslam School track time, some advanced training and plenty of miles, from Mousehole in Cornwall to the Cliffs of Moher on the west coast of Ireland. So with a taste for easy touring, now it was time for a new challenge. Something a little bit Long Way Round. Or Down, as it turned out.

So where to head? At the NEC show last November I found my answer. I’d read a bit about Riders for Health but I didn’t know about Experience Africa. It’s the chance to ride off-road in Zambia and see for yourself the work the charity does to get health care workers where they’re needed in rural Africa - providing reliable motorcycles where once health teams had to walk along country tracks or borrow off-road vehicles when they could.

The bikes, Yamaha AG200s, might not initially excite those used to more powerful machines, but the point is that you ride the same bikes as the local health care workers, seeing the trails between villages from their perspective. It sounded like a fantastic experience to try out a new kind of riding and see a totally different way of life (just what I wanted as a break from the corporate world). It was also priced fairly - quite a big investment to pay for my trip and a commitment to raise £2,000 for Riders, but I reckoned I could just do it on my overgrown gap year redundancy budget. Fundraising for a great cause seemed exactly the kind of thing I should be doing with my time off.

After I reserved my place with Riders for Health, a mate I’d met on an overland truck in India a few years ago said she was going to trek up Mount Kilimanjaro with her gym. Having also belatedly got into running marathons in my thirties (what? I still don’t know what you mean about the midlife crisis...) I’d fancied doing that for a long while too. Turned out it was just a couple of weeks before the Riders trip. Perfect. One flight fits all and a great way to make it a double challenge big enough to raise the funds for Riders for Health. If Cheryl Cole can do it, it can’t be that hard, right? Little did I know what I was letting myself in for, but the plan was coming together.

Having got my name down for Zambia, I knew I’d need some training. So at the Bike Show I also signed up for the BMW Off Road Skills course. All I knew was that it was the same one that Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman completed, before their first epic bike travels in Long Way Round (the series that is largely responsible for me getting my license in the first place).

So in September I headed off for a wet and muddy Wales. For some that would be perfect conditions, but I was more than a bit aware that any significant off and injury could rule out both the Kilimanjaro and Zambia trips - it felt like my trip of a lifetime could be sabotaged by a few muddy rocks in Wales!

On Day 1 I felt a lot like that tense first-time rider on my CBT, but with some excellent instruction and practise, by the second day I was getting used to standing on the pegs of the BMW G 650 GS Sertao, growing in confidence and relaxing. However, there was one memorable moment on some quite steep and large downhill boulders where the instructor said “I was convinced we were going to be calling the air ambulance, I don’t know how you managed to save that”. Blind panic can bring out some excellent survival skills! Top tip, it’s best not to accidentally hold the clutch in and freewheel down (idiot!). The bruises were a decent shade of purple and green but nothing was broken.

Just before I left, I got to try out my skills again at Trailworld, Hertfordshire with Gary Taylor, our Zambia ride leader. This time on something close to a Honda CRF 230, with a lot of time spent on grass, some of it upright. I also got some invaluable advice about the trip and the kit I was going to need. Since I was distracted by buying a load of gear for a little walk up a cold mountain, I ended up buying everything in one last-minute panic buy, but the gents at DirtBikeBitz.com got me sorted brilliantly with a new Shoei Hornet DS, Oakley O-frames, and A-stars body armour, boots and everything else. It’s what credit cards were made for.

Now all that was needed was half the sponsorship money, some local currency, quite a lot of jabs, and to get up and down a big mountain without incident.

Part 2: Lusaka to Livingtonse, the sandy way.

I arrived in Zambia in mid November, having earned my Riders for Health sponsorship making it up Kilimanjaro (summary: pretty easy on the muscles, but harder than I thought with crushing hangover-style headaches from the altitude, and a lot of stubborn determination and team support to get through it). If I could make it up that bloody great mountain, then off-roading between Lusaka and Livingstone couldn’t be that hard? Well, that’s what I was telling myself, but arriving a couple of days early I had plenty of time to wonder how I was going to handle the terrain, and if my novice bike skills would keep me rightside-up.

As everyone began to arrive in Lusaka and share bike stories and off-road experience, it was clear that we were all looking forward to the ride, but there was an underlying sense that no-one knew quite what to expect. The Riders for Health team looked after us as they would for the whole trip, with no question too daft. There were 15 of us in total, including the original racing co-founder Randy Mamola, Gary and Jeanette from Riders, Marvin, our Zambian riders team member, Alan the South African support truck paramedic, and an eclectic bunch mostly from the UK, plus Jill from the US. We had enough different jobs and bikes to tick most boxes between us - firefighter to hotelier, Harley to Honda.

Day 1 putting all the pristine kit on for the first time and I felt like I blended in about as much as Dr Livingstone arriving in deepest Africa. I felt like I looked pretty ridiculous and probably had more gear than was strictly necessary. Or more importantly, possibly more layers than were advisable in 37C temperatures. As I sweated my first bucket of salty water out (and a few s), I already felt grateful for upgrading my Camelbak to take 3 litres. Fortunately, everyone looked as professional/daft as me, so I was ready with all the gear, and really no idea.

We head off for a practise off-road ride to an elephant sanctuary - out first taste of wild Africa. The AG200s had a feel that wasn’t a million miles away from my first L-plate bike, a Honda CBF125. It made me slightly nostalgic for the winter I spent sliding about on a lightweight London commute 2 winters ago. But the climate and road surface couldn’t have been more different. At this point, I forgot most of what I was taught and was wondering why the bike seemed so unstable. A simple reminder from Gary to the group about the basics, like standing on the arch not the ball of the foot and all was good. Rookie error corrected. “It won’t get any harder than this”. Course it won’t, Gary.

The next morning we learnt more about Riders for Health’s work in Zambia from Constance Chibiliti, Programme Manager. She explained more about the difference motorcycles make when communities can be confident of a reliable schedule of visits from health care workers.

We learnt how Riders works with governments in Africa to maintain vehicles and train local workers. It’s a real contrast to some of the well-intentioned but flawed aid programmes of the past, which gave handouts which didn’t always end up in the right places and didn’t focus enough on local training and development partnerships. All Riders employees and leaders based in Africa are locals from the 7 countries they work in - this is a true social enterprise not the crude whim of the privileged back home.

Randy also highlighted the work Riders is doing with the Bill Gates Foundation and Stanford University. This study is looking at 4 villages with Riders for Health motorcycle support, and 4 without, to compare the impact on health care results - building the evidence of success that could lead to funding for more motorcycles reaching more of rural Africa. It’s clearly something Randy is incredibly passionate about. During the week, we get the chance to talk about his career and his history with the charity, as well as our own motivations and impressions of Riders’ work.

Day 3 and our first full day of off-roading, down to Moorings Farm campsite, between Mazabuku and Monza. The terrain was certainly trickier than our first taste, and the pace picked up, especially as we rode with a couple of the farmers, one of whom was getting ready for Dakar. It was fantastic to feel right out in the bush, passing through wooden villages and smiling, waving kids.

For most of us, this ride was more of a baptism of fire, and we had our first casualties of the trip. Nicola managed to take off about 8 foot in the air and take a tumble, but fortunately without serious injury and took it all in her stride. And Peter ended up with a piece of metal drilling a hole in his foot. A few stitches later and he was up and running, and carried on regardless for the rest of the week - his 40-odd years of riding experience making sure a small flesh wound wouldn’t stop him.

At this point, I was up ahead, marking a junction in the trail, wondering where most of the group had got to. It’s a wonder I’d managed to stay on the right path, as I’d already proved to have a woeful sense of direction in the bush - completely missing other riders stopped to show the way and ending up on the wrong trail. This was a real highlight for me though: it was school hometime, so in minutes I was surrounded by more and more children wanting to ask questions and laughing. I had them sat on the bike, trying on the helmet, and tried to learn a bit about their villages and family with their few words of English. Mostly, they just seemed to want to laugh at this strange Englishman in funny clothes on a bike, but that was fine by me. It’s getting harder to feel off the beaten in track in many countries and this felt like the kind of random moment to remember.

As we approached the campsite, I had my first experience of the front end going crazy in the sand. This wasn’t a surface much in evidence on my training back home, but somehow I held it together, but knew I might not next time. That night around the campfire I learnt what I should have been doing to take the weight off the front. It always seems so easy with a few s and a good braai going.

Next day and we’re heading down to Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made lake. This time the challenge was more the effect on my skills of a short sleep, caused by dragging my sleeping bag outside to escape the snoring decibels in my tent! But again, the kids were out in force, waving and keeping us going in the 39C heat. It seemed that word had got out that 15 strange motorcyclists were about, as mobile phones were out taking photos of us along the way. Mobile phones were my old business and it’s amazing to see how widespread they are in rural Africa. Not only do they keep families close and increasingly connect people to the internet, but together with the bikes, they can make a big difference to health - helping to get the right care to the right places at the right time.

The evening turned into a steamy night on a boat on the serene lake - think a few s, a sweaty cabin and sleeping on the roof under the stars, rather than anything more primal. Then a day to chill, or to head out on some slightly more technical trails. Of course, almost everyone opts for the latter, despite the high heat and low energy at this stage.

It was worth it. A tough first half for me, and the only time I came a cropper on the trip. Ignoring all the advice, I was following Stavros, our resident firefighter, much too closely. In the sand. Not smart. As his front goes, I follow, eventually losing control to the seemingly endless ‘wave effect’ twists of the wheel. I was stood up and shifting weight to the back, but probably not keeping up enough gas to make it through. Normally, I would have given myself a hard time. But it was at zero mph and I just flopped into the soft sand. So no bruised limbs or ego.

On the way back, confidence returns and we have a fantastic experience, stopping in a small village. The kids start danced, spontaneously and seem to have endless energy, jumping up and down over dn over. Marvin translates that they’re singing about riding a double decker bus, something they’ve never seen. Randy keeps them entertained with his bike skills and we get a chance to interact and give some small gifts. Unfortunately, the lion puppet on the front of my bike seems to scare the kids more than it amuses!

On the rest of the ride that day I got to use some of my skills from Wales, powering across a river bed and following the rockier path back to our accommodation. The varied terrain and ruts, as well as the experience in the village and the stunning lake scenery definitely made this a highlight of the trip. Despite the sweatbox conditions, I didn’t want that afternoon’s riding to end.

Meeting the locals was made especially significant when we dropped in on the district health centre the next day. The staff explain how they support care across the area, but as they talk, a motorcycle is propped up in the corner, unused and missing a rear wheel. We are told that it was there last year too. This illustrated the point of Riders for Health perfectly. This centre that isn’t yet supported by Riders and this was exactly the kind of lack of maintenance skills and resources that originally inspired the founders of the charity to improve the reliability of transport. All the drugs and expert professionals in the world are no use if they can’t to where they’re needed.

Now we’d seen why Riders work was needed, the next day we headed out to see their work in the field. Riding along with the health care workers on the same bikes, on the same trails they use just to do their job, was a great way to appreciate the reality of getting between villages. As we wobbled through the sand (again) and visited the health clinics, it was amazing to see what can be achieved with so little. And certainly humbling to see patients being cared for in a very basic environment, particularly those living with HIV without the advances in treatment available at home.

But it’s also exhilarating to be riding along and to take in the people, the simple homes and the colours. The bright, bright blue and the red of the earth in the sun creates an unforgettable palette. My GoPro records fantastically sharp images, and is a great jog of the memory, but it doesn’t quite show the richness of everything your eyes take in. Nor does it show the concentration required to deal with the subtle changes on the ground, or the not-to-subtle deep ruts that sometimes appear quicker than you’d like!

Having negotiated more sand along a narrow country trail, our final stop is to see the Riders for Health team in action in a small village. In contrast to the friendly but slightly more reserved welcome in villages where Riders don’t yet operate, the warm warbling greeting was overwhelming and shows the difference that Riders is making. Witnessing an outdoor family planning session and seeing inside the basic “women’s club” hut showed how important the work is. The principles are the same as home (‘have a plan to get to the clinic when your baby comes’) but the importance of education is even more vital.

On the road to Kozo we see the reality of trying to deliver reliable transport in Zambia. Every petrol station was out of fuel for us to prepare for the next day. In the late afternoon, local people were having to wait in buses, in the heat, until more fuel was due in the early hours. It puts our own gripes about fuel into stark perspective.

So onto the final day and the road to Livingstone. Here was a chance for a last blast, and I was loving trying to keep up at the front, as we bounced and bashed through ruts and pools of water, at a speed that made me think more than once it was going to hurt if I flew off. Banging through 4 ruts in quick succession my feet left the pegs, and my bag flew off the back, flinging my camera straight into deep brown water. Ah well, it was almost worth it for the buzz, and at least it was at the end and the images were safe.

On the smarter road to Livingstone we encounter various accident aftermaths and dead animals at the roadside. A reminder, as we tuck ourselves in, and try to get some straight speed from the small bikes, that even Zambian tarmac can still be unpredictable. We settle into our relaxing lodges by the Zambezi and celebrate how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve learnt along the way.

After an impressive walking safari with rhino and elephants, it was time for one last ride. Having seen the Victoria Falls (not quite at their best unfortunately, due to low rains), it was time to ride the bikes back to Riders for Health base in Livingstone. It was time to say goodbye to the Riders team, and our trusty local riders, the two Marvins.

If I could have ridden that bike all the way home to Hertfordshire I would have been a happy man. Just as long as the sun was still shining and the kids would still be waving all the way.

Part 3: Bikes as a force for good.

My route home from Zambia was via an overnight stop in Johannesburg. Back in the bustling, modern suburbs. A real contrast from when I last visited 20 years ago, but what struck me most was suddenly seeing big bikes everywhere - it seemed like a culture shock from the small motorcycles that are the lifeblood of rural Africa.

I have to admit to feeling pretty envious of the commuters there - a South African summer has got to be a tad more reliable than a British one. But that’s the beauty of travel - always another idea for somewhere to explore on a bike one day. I stopped a couple of South African BMW riders at the airport and made sure I spread the word about Riders, but I suspect they wondered why this strange English bloke was so fired up about it all!

I used to find conventional holidays could be a disappointment - you go expecting everything to be perfect relaxation or a huge party, in an amazing setting, and somehow, quite often, it doesn’t quite turn out how you expect. When you set foot in places that don’t work quite so simply, you expect things to do wrong, and they do, but that’s what makes it special - the sense of achievement, laughing about the mistakes, meeting people like you and people totally unlike you, seeing places that make you think differently about the things you take for granted.

Before I went to Africa, I liked to think that I tried to keep up with what was going on in the world, at least some of the time. I’d been to South Africa to see family, I have friends whose family are from Nigeria. But I realised that often what was actually in my mind when I thought of Africa were the images have grown up with: famine, wars, injustice and the odd crackpot dictator. Imagine if all you’d ever seen of Britain was the riots last summer?

I discovered that a group of strange looking motorcyclist aliens from another world can initially create some wariness amongst people, but mostly bikes do what bikes do all over the world - they have this strange power to make people want to come over and say hello, to ask what you’re up to and where you’re heading.

It also makes you realise how the simplicity of bikes can be such a force for good - not only bring people together for a chat, but providing quick, reliable and affordable transport across the narrowest path, the trickiest terrain. Now I’ve had a taste of what’s possible, I have to go back to my ‘real world’ for a while but I’m sure I’ll be back for more. After Kilimanjaro, I met ‘J’ in Tanzania he’d travelled all the way from Seoul - just him, his GS and his tent. There’s always another trip to plan.

Riders Experience Africa isn’t the kind of trip for those who want to do it all on the own, to revel in dealing with mechanical failures or uncooperative border police, and want to leave Blighty on an open-ended ticket to who-knows-where. In some ways, the whole point is quite the opposite - that you witness what a slick operation Riders for Health is - it’s their role to make sure transport is maintained well so it’s safe and reliable, that health care workers are trained to deal with varied conditions so that they arrive in one piece where they’re needed.

But it is a trip that gives you a great little adventure away from the obvious destinations. It’ll pull at your heartstrings, but also leave you optimistic about what’s possible. It’s a trip that will challenge you, but the challenge is only partly about the riding itself and more about questioning what should matter in life and what you can do about it. If that sounds corny then so be it. It seems that bikes have an uncanny way of breaking down barriers.

Back in the UK and I’m missing that AG200. Coming back to London’s winter greyness isn’t ideal when you’ve been used to riding every day in the Technicolor landscapes of Africa, but at least I’ve had my fix of warmth to keep me going - from both the climate and the people. There can be few better ways to Experience Africa than to see how Africans are changing things for themselves with the help of a reliable set of wheels.

Richard Warmsley

Find out more at Riders for Health – Experience Africa
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