Arclight Tandem Africa

Kilometres travelled

Arclights with training

Countries visited

Planning

Arclight Tandem Africa was born when two friends studying at the University of St Andrews, Merlin Hetherington and Alex McMaster, began to form the idea of an audacious expedition. As a geography student, Alex had a passion for sustainable development and a drive for an adventure with an ethical slant. As a medical student, Merlin had learned about the Arclight from a lecture by Dr Andrew Blaikie and about how its design made it a perfect diagnostic tool for low and middle income countries.

For Alex’s birthday, some friends got together and bought him a tandem bike – it was to prove the final seed to help form the Arclight Tandem Africa idea.

Together with Dr Blaikie, Alex and Merlin began to sketch out the basis for a 10,000km journey that could deliver 1000 Arclights and the training to use them into the hands of healthcare workers across Africa.

 

 

During the planning phase, Alex and Merlin reached out for help from equipment manufacturers, organisations that could provide financial assistance and help planning. The adventurer Mark Beaumont was one of those who responded and began to help plot the route and help make some valuable contacts. 

Cairo to Arusha

The boys arrived in Cairo in October 2018. With only a few days to acclimatise and carry out two Arclight training sessions in Cairo, there was very little time for sight-seeing. 

Despite initial nerves that Merlin and Alex had about the first training sessions, the Arclight was immediately well received at the Eye Institute of Cairo and Al-Manial University Hospital, where the versatility of the device was praised and staff and students immediately saw its potential as a device that could be used by specialists as well as general practitioners.

The tandem left Cairo on the 10th October 2018, coinciding with World Sight Day. 

Leaving at dawn was the best plan to avoid the heat and intense traffic of Cairo, and Merlin and Alex quickly found themselves in desert, travelling towards the coast. They were accompanied with members of a local cycling club for the first day’s cycle to Suez. 

As their new friends left and they headed south along the Red Sea coast, Merlin and Alex found new companions in the Police who began following them after a checkpoint and maintained a relay for days. Tensions subsided a little as they began to realise their new tail was an impromptu security detail designed to ensure that they would get through any troubled regions unscathed.

After another Arclight training session at Luxor International Hospital, they made South for Lake Nassar and crossed by ferry into Northern Sudan. 

Sudan

It was here in Sudan that Alex and Merlin would get a real dose of the desert and their first experience of ‘bonking’, the extreme reaction the body has when its stores of glycogen are depleted and the body, burning fat, begins to crash. Dust storms, 50ºC in the middle of the day and no shade except for the occasional shack made this stretch particularly challenging. Alex and Merlin passed the time by playing: “First person to spot something alive wins”. Every so often, the silence of the desert would be broken by the low rumbling and eventual explosion of sound caused by a passing truck. 

When they did find people, the boys were welcomed into houses with tea and flatbread as a gesture of hospitality. 

After another two Arclight sessions in Khartoum, Alex and Merlin rode towards Ethiopia and began to see greenery again as the stark desert gave way to lush fields and forests. 

Ethiopia

Passing through Ethiopia would not be straightforward. Conflict in the North became an immediate concern as they crossed the border and saw the supply chains group into convoy and leave together for protection. Alex and Merlin had no choice but to continue on alone, but when they encountered soldiers just South of the border, they were asked to stow the Tandem and join the soldiers on a truck that would take them through the area of conflict. The boys found themselves whisked South at breakneck speed and were deposited near Gondar, where another Arclight session was due to take place. 

Problems continued when Merlin fell ill and took a malaria test. Fortunately, he didn’t have malaria, but did need some time to recover. 

Despite the setbacks, the two had some of their most inspiring and memorable days in the Simean mountains finding some of the tranquility, wilderness, wildlife and adventure they had been looking for since they had left Cairo. 

At the end of November, Alex and Merlin negotiated the traffic to ride into Addis Ababa. Here, and in a town to the South called Shashamane, they concluded a further two Arclight training sessions. 

Kenya

Arriving in Kenya was another lesson in how imaginary lines can be crossed and suddenly cultural attitudes and the landscape itself dramatically changes. Having relied on their very basic grasp of Arabic in the northern countries, Alex and Merlin now found English widely spoken, foods were more familiar and they immediately enjoyed the warmth of Kenyan welcomes. 

After crossing the Equator on the 11th December, the boys arrived at the coast and carried out more training at the Kwale Eye Centre. Onwards through Nairobi, the two took some time to relax on safari with lions on Christmas day. 

There wasn’t much time to relax, however, as a short stay visa meant Alex and Merlin had to race for the border around the foothills of Mount Kenya. 

Arusha

The rigours of spending day after day in the saddle were taking their toll. Arriving in Arusha, Tanzania, shortly after experiencing their first real crash of the trip, Merlin began to assess the damage being done by the continuous pressure of the bike seat. Decisions had to be made about whether the trip could continue in this form, or really any form that would allow their bodies to heal and make sure they weren’t left with permanent damage. 

The Maasai Steppe

Alex and Merlin needed a plan. Arusha was the only halfway stage on the Cairo to Cape Town cycle. They had achieved so much already, but desperately needed a new form of transport and a fresh supply of Arclights if they were to continue and meet their goal of arriving in Cape Town by May.

After revisiting their basic goals of the trip: to travel sustainably under their own steam, to distribute Arclights and provide training in their use and to have an adventure – they started to plan a 300km hike South across the Maasai Steppe.

The Steppe is an area of land covering 2 million hectares and is a key habitat for wildlife including elephant, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe and lion. If they were to cross safely, communicate with people along the way and be able to navigate effectively to watering holes, they would need Maasai guides and some way of transporting their food and basic necessities.

Alex and Merlin found a fabricator in Arusha and commissioned him to build a mkokateni – a two-wheeled hand cart – designed to their specifications. Whilst the frame was being welded together, they went shopping for the essentials: rice, panga/machete and three live chickens.

Together with their Maasai companions, Johanna and Noah, Alex and Merlin left Arusha pushing their new cart loaded with supplies out of the back roads around the city. Tarmac turned to dirt roads and quickly they found themselves in a sprawling wilderness.

On their 300km hike over some of the wildest land they would encounter problems around every corner: problems finding and filtering water, issues with the stability of the cart, nocturnal visits from lions and the occasional wrong turn.

Overcoming these, Alex and Merlin pushed the cart into Kibaya some 10 days later.

ElliptiGOs

Buoyed with success from their trek across the Maasai Steppe, Alex and Merlin crossed into Northern Malawi in March 2019. Still only a little over halfway with 5 countries in front of them, they desperately needed a new form of transport.

ElliptiGOs are bikes that are ridden like elliptical trainers, with no seat and a mechanism that uses the same muscle groups as running, these seemed like the ideal form of transport for the two.

The boys were met by Dr Andrew Blaikie and Ian Gordon from the School of Medicine in St Andrews with two new ElliptiGO bikes and trailers from Burley in the northern Malawian town of Mzuzu.

 
Malawi

After building the bikes in the morning and conducting another Arclight training session at Mzuzu University Hospital, the two cycled out of Mzuzu and headed for Lake Malawi to test their new bikes. Over the next few days, under the humid conditions that precipitated the deadly cyclone Idai, Alex and Merlin rode South on their curious new wheels and gathered lots of attention in the process.

With another Arclight training session in Nkhoma Mission Hospital ticked off, Alex and Merlin made for the Zambian border before the cyclone came crashing into Malawi.

Zambia

Now in their stride, the boys were covering some ridiculous distance and cramming in lots of Arclight training too. After a 700km week from Lilongwe to Lusaka, they had trained another 160 people with Arclights. Something about the wide, quiet roads in Zambia and the rolling green hills made progress easy with one day seeing a whopping 130km of distance. 

After all the miles of cycling, the pair needed a wash and fortunately, the Zambezi was upon them. Following a brief encounter with the rapids and Victoria Falls, they were clean again and ready to hit Botswana. 

Botswana

Alex and Merlin had a new companion, Tòmas, an Irish cyclist who had set off on the Cairo to Cape Town journey after them. The three would encounter some of their finest wildlife moments of the trip in Botswana, with elephants frequently crossing the road and friendly meerkats providing photo opportunities. 

The good times for Alex weren’t to last, struck down seemingly by parasitic infection, he had to seek urgent care and, after a dose of morphine, started to recover. Merlin and Tomas found a vet’s clinic to help him recover. This was to account for some of the only nights any of the trio would spend in a bed for five weeks as they crossed Botswana and Namibia. 

Namibia

In Namibia, the good roads came to an end. Pushing and pulling the bikes through the dirt, Alex, Merlin and Tòmas would later reflect that the lack of infrastructure came with a blessing – some of the quietest and most peaceful scenery they had encountered since Sudan, except without the intense heat. 

In fact, the temperature would fluctuate in Namibia quite drastically and they would wake to frost on the tent to find the temperature rapidly climbing to 35ºc. 

After meeting Dr Sydney at Keetmanshoop, Alex and Merlin learned about the rural health provision in Namibia and the challenges with screening and diagnosing in these settings. 

South Africa

Crossing the border, Alex and Merlin saw their first sign for Cape Town – a mere 644km to go. 

Once the three cyclists hit the coast, there was no stopping them. The coastal breeze, the sunsetting over the sea, campfires on the beach, the last few days cycling down the South-West coast of Africa were some of their favourites, with the bittersweet knowledge that the trip was coming to an end. 

Along the way Alex and Merlin made many friends, they amassed a small army of followers on social media with over 1000 page likes on Facebook, 870 followers on Instagram and 269 followers on Twitter – many of these were the very people they had met during their training sessions and they continue to receive feedback on how the Arclight is being used. Returning to Scotland, they took part in the Edinburgh Marathon as a final drive to push their fundraising well beyond their target to £25,000.