Euro student duo pedal Africa for a good cause

Two students from the University of St Andrews in Scotland have cycled across 10 African countries in a bid to raise R356,000 in aid of preventable blindness and deafness.

Alex McMaster and Merlin Hetherington pedal their way through Africa. Picture: Supplied

CAPE TOWN - An eight-month journey for two students cycling from Cairo to Cape Town has come to an end.

When two students from Ireland and England met at the University of St Andrews in Scotland four years ago, they never envisioned they’d be peddling together on a tandem bicycle from Cairo to Cape Town.

The intrepid duo, 23-year-old Alex McMaster and 25-year-old Merlin Hetherington embarked on their eight-month journey on World Sight Day on 11 October 2018. They did so, as they used this opportunity to bring awareness and raise money in aid of preventable blindness and deafness.

They did this by distributing a pocket-sized solar-powered diagnostic device called the Arclight which can detect the main causes of blindness and deafness. Along their way, they visited health facilities in each area they entered and hereby trained and gifted 1,000 health workers with one of the devices.

Camping in the Sahara Desert. Picture: Supplied

They’ve managed to raise R221,000 and will continue to work towards their target of R356,000.

The pair is expected to reach their final destination, Cape Town, on Wednesday afternoon, and will head back to the United Kingdom on Thursday, 23 May.

McMaster begins his fourth year of studying Biology and Geography in August when Hetherington’s fourth year of studying medicine commences.

In total, they have travelled through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.

McMaster says the journey through 10 African countries was no easy feat, as they committed to pedaling seven hours each day. However, as time progressed their bodies eventually became accustomed to the vigorous exercise.

Alex McMaster and Merlin Hetherington in the Great Rift Valley in Malawi. Picture: Supplied

“At this point, I think we’ve started to become used to it. I think it’ll be strange getting off the bike, and not cycling every day. We have been very tired at times though. This past week, travelling through SA, we’ve realised just how tired we’ve become after crossing the last two countries without many stops.”

McMaster says although they never feared death along the way, there were lengthy days when they’d question whether they will find food or water along the way. As for whether regretting the 10,000-kilometer tour was ever a thought that crossed their minds, the answer is no.

“We were in Sudan shortly before the uprising began, and at that time there was very little fuel available for transport and therefore I think food wasn’t getting into the country, so when we were in very remote areas in Northern Sudan we found it difficult to get much to eat, and so the heat, water and food situation made that quite a strenuous section. When we reached Ethiopia, there was tribal conflict.

Alex McMaster and Merlin Hetherington pose with Ethiopian soldiers. Picture: Supplied

"While trying to sleep at night, we’d hear machine gunfire. Then during the day, the Ethiopian military insisted that they drive us for a section. So we were in the back of this truck full of soldiers pointing their weapons through the windows in anticipation of something, and the two of us just sitting there holding our bike, while being driven through this conflict zone – so that was a challenge.”

In Tanzania they encountered problems with their tandem bike, causing them to travel by foot for two weeks across the Tanzanian wilderness before continuing their trip on a unique pair of ElliptiGO bikes.

Hetherington sheds light on what they missed the most: “It’s been 8 months on the road, so at different times we’d miss different things. We’d crave different foods, or even just a simple fruit juice but what I personally missed throughout is my family, and girlfriend back at home. She did come see me in Kenya but other than that it’s been a long time to be apart from important people.”

The trip not only allowed them to educate and assist communities, but it also gave them the opportunity to embrace and learn about the different cultures.

Their expedition is supported by the University of St Andrews, the Scientific Exploration Society charity and world record holding endurance cyclist Mark Beaumont.