HOW do you prepare for a bike ride? Shorts, helmet, water bottle? Step down from your job?
That’s how Craig Pollard from Wooler, and his wife Loretta started their bike journey from London to Cape Town, a journey that took them a year to complete.
Craig was head of development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, while Loretta was a paediatric clinical psychiatrist in Oxford.
But they left their posts to make the journey, raising funds on the way for the vulnerable and often forgotten street children of Africa through their charity, Cycle Africa.
“Both of us were offered sabbaticals,” says Craig, “but we thought the best thing was to turn them down. We wanted to try to balance slogging through and getting across the line with actually seeing some of these wonderful places, and being able to take them in.
“For example, there was no way we were not going to see Victoria Falls. But we decided not to try and cycle there - it was just too much of a detour to try!
“Plus, we didn’t actually know how long this journey would take, other than a rough guess of about 10-15 months.”
This trip was a return to Africa for Craig, as he explains: “I lived in Nigeria when I was younger, for a while, at a time when the country was going through a lot of upheaval, sliding towards civil war. It was very intense, and it really gave me a taste for the continent.”
Since then he has done volunteer work in Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
“I was very green back then,” he went on, “just 22, so it really hit me hard when I saw these poverty stricken children.
“And one of the astonishing things is that nobody really knows how many street children are living rough and struggling. Some say 10 million, others put it at around a tenth of Africa’s total population, which would be a staggering number if true.”
Without intervention, a child on the streets in Africa faces hunger, abduction, struggle and an early death.
Craig’s team visited various street child centres along their route. many are run by former street children themselves, who know the struggle to keep kids out of danger and the temptations of life on the street.
It is no coincidence that the Cycle Africa route passed through areas where a shocking proportion of children are pressed into serving in cartels or militias.
Craig got the idea for the journey in a very different environment. “I had just finished doing a Three Peaks challenge,” he remembers, “up Scafell Pike, Ben Nevis and Snowdon - the three highest points in England, Scotland and Wales. It had been really hard, and someone asked me, out of the blue, ‘What are you doing next?’.
“And for some reason, off the top of my head, I just said, ‘Let’s cycle to Cape Town!’”
“Loretta didn’t even have a bike when we started setting this up. Neither of us are even amateur cyclists at home.
“I remember going for a practise ride in Essex, a couple of weeks before we set off. It was the first time that we had riden with the loaded panniers, and we were steering all over the pace. It definitely hit home then just how difficult this might be.”
Craig pauses and then remembers the very start of his planning process, something that owed more to his days as an accountant than an inter-continental cyclist.
“I wrote lots of lists,” he admits. “A trip like this sounds really glamorous, but the first thing I did was a risk assessment. That was a great place to start, realising all the things that could possibly go wrong.”
And when you consider the bad roads, weather, heat, tsetse flies and mosquitos that might slow those pedals, Craig might have been forgiven for backing down from the challenge he had set himself. But when it came to it, the team experienced what in the context of a cycle nearly the length of the globe can only count as niggles.
“We really had very few problems other than the terrain,” says Craig. “Loretta even managed to cycle the whole way without getting a single puncture! The only thing that got lost was a cap of mine, which I left on my handlebars. Somebody just grabbed it and walked off, but apart from that, everybody was really helpful.
“We got some funny looks, and lots of waves and hellos. We must have said hello to about a thousand people as we rolled into Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.
“And they wanted to help, too. We did a lot of radio appearnaces and interviews on our way down, and when we were on the last legs in South Africa, we’d get people pulling us over and pushing money into our hands: “Here’s $50, here’s $20”.”
All that went towards a total of £50,000 raised, and Craig and Loretta saw enough of the continent to give the lie to the way it is usually represented.
Craig says: “Africa is not at all what we are led to believe. Sure, there is some civil war, and hunger, but there are incredible people there as well, and life manages to go on as normal.
“Take Egypt, for example. We arrived in Cairo around Christmas time, and, alright, Tahir Square was under occuaption, and things were on the slide, but there were also a lot of peaceful places. We had the Pyramids to ourselves - everybody told us we’d have to wait for ever, but we were there, all on our own, staring into the mask of Tutankhamun.”
Not all their extra-curricular trips were so peaceful - Loretta vividly remembers a plane journey along the coast of Kenya where the pilot read the paper for the whole journey, and his co-pilot screamed at the plane’s landing.
Loretta’s father had the street-child’s dilemma summed up for him when on a flying visit, he asked a carer why so many children were sniffing glue and taking other drugs.
She answered simply: “Could you sleep here sober?”
You can still donate to CycleAfrica and read the team’s own blog. Visit www.cycleafrica.org/getinvolved to find out how.