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Sunday, 28 April 2013

From Zero to Zambia: a Riders for Health Adventure

Written by Richard Warmsley
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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. You’ve been here eight years, so we’re going to pay you to go on the bike trip you’ve been waiting for.”


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. 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 eight 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 I was hopeless. I’d never been on a motorcycle. I didn’t even make it through my CBT the first time, let alone start heading off somewhere around the world on unpredictable surfaces. 


But I got through the full test with the help of a very patient instructor  and found myself a 2006 CBR600F. With a taste for easy touring, now it was time for a new challenge. 


I’d read about Riders for Health but I didn’t know about Experience Africa. It’s the chance to ride off-road in Zambia and see 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. 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. I’d fancied doing that for a long while too. Turned out it was a couple 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. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for, but the plan was coming together.


After signing up 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. In September I headed off for a wet and muddy Wales. For some that would be perfect conditions, but I was aware that any significant injury could rule out both the Kilimanjaro and Zambia trips. 


On Day 1 I felt a lot like that tense first-time rider on my CBT. 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 a steep and large downhill boulder 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, the Zambia ride leader. I 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 got me sorted brilliantly with a new Shoei Hornet DS, Oakley O-frames, A-stars body armour, boots and everything else. 

 Gary Mapenzie 11RfH Zambia 0670 AN

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. 



Lusaka to Livingtonse, the Sandy Way


I arrived in Zambia in mid-November having earned my Riders for Health sponsorship making it up Kilimanjaro If I could make it up that bloody great mountain, then off-roading between Lusaka and Livingstone couldn’t be that hard? 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 the pristine kit on for the first time 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 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 beers), I already felt grateful for upgrading my Camelbak to take three litres. Fortunately, everyone looked as professional/daft as me. We headed off for a practice off-road ride to an elephant sanctuary; the first taste of wild Africa. 


The next morning we learnt more about Riders for Health’s work in Zambia from Constance Chibiliti, the Programme Manager. She explained  the difference motorcycles make when communities can be confident of a reliable schedule of visits from health care workers. She explained 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 that gave hand outs which didn’t always end up in the right places and didn’t focus on local training and development partnerships. All Riders employees and leaders based in Africa are locals from the seven countries they work in. 


Randy also highlighted the work Riders is doing with the Bill Gates Foundation and Stanford University. This study is looking at four villages with Riders for Health motorcycle support and four 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 trickier than our first taste, and the pace picked up as we rode with a couple of the farmers. It was fantastic to reach out and touch the bushes as we rode by, passing through wooden villages and smiling, waving kids. 

 MG 9635

At this point, I was up ahead marking a junction in the trail wondering where most of the group had gone. 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. This was a real highlight for me though: it was school home time, so in minutes I was surrounded by more and more children wanting to ask questions and laughing. I had them sit on the bike, try on the helmet, and I tried to learn 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, and that was fine by me. 


The Next day we were heading down to Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made lake. The kids were out in force, waving and keeping us going in the 39C heat. It seemed word had gotten out that fifteen strange motorcyclists were about, as mobile phones were taking photos of us along the way. 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 care—helping to get the right care to the right places at the right time.


On the way back, we had a fantastic experience, stopping in a small village. The children were dancing spontaneously and seemed to have endless energy, jumping up and down over and over. Marvin translates  they’re singing about riding a double decker bus, something they’ve never seen. Randy keeps the children 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!


The rest of the ride 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 ride to end.


Meeting the locals was made especially significant when we dropped in on the district health center the next day. The staff explains 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 were told that it was there last year too. This illustrated the point of Riders for Health perfectly. This center 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 get to where they’re needed. Now we saw 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 to do their job was a great way to appreciate the reality of getting between villages. As we wobbled through the sand 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. It’s also exhilarating to be riding along and see the people, the simple homes and the colors. The bright blue and red of the earth in the sun creates an unforgettable palette. My GoPro records fantastic sharp images  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-so-subtle deep ruts that sometimes appear quicker than you’d like!


Having negotiated more sand along a narrow country trail, our final stop was 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. 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 waiting in buses in the heat until more fuel was due in the early hours. 


The final day and the road to Livingstone; here was a chance for a last blast, and I loved trying to keep up with the front of the line 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 four 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 along 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 rhinos and elephants, it was time for one last ride. Having seen Victoria Falls, 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.



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 twenty years ago, but what struck me was 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. 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 to be a disappointment.  You expect everything to be perfect relaxation or a huge party in an amazing setting and quite often, it doesn’t turn out how you expected. When you set foot in places that don’t work quite so simply, you expect things to go 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 realized that often what was actually in my mind when I thought of Africa were the images I grew up with: famine, wars, injustice and the odd crackpot dictator. Imagine if all you’d ever seen of Britain were 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 realize how the simplicity of bikes can be such a force for good—not only bring people together for a chat, but provide quick, reliable and affordable transport across the narrowest path, the trickiest terrain. Now that I’ve had a taste of what’s possible, I go back to my ‘real world’ for a while but I’m sure I’ll be back. 


Riders Experience Africa isn’t the kind of trip for those who want to do it all on their own, to revel in dealing with mechanical failures or uncooperative border police, and want to leave 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. 


It is a trip that gives you a great little adventure away from the obvious destinations. It’ll pull at your heartstrings, and 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



Last modified on Tuesday, 30 April 2013