Rob and Polly Summerhayes are two Travellerspoint members about to embark on a cross-continental bike trip from South Africa to Wales.
After spending the last two years working in South Africa - Rob worked in a local hospital and Polly volunteered for a charity supporting vulnerable children - the couple have decided to cycle home and raise money for charity while they're at it.
As they're about to set off on their trip, I thought I would ask them a few questions about the inspiration behind their bike trip and their experiences in South Africa over the past couple years.
Whose idea was it to do this bike trip?
Rob took the job in Mseleni hospital that a friend of ours, Ian Burnell, was due to do. Ian died just before he would have come out here. When we were making our preparations we were not at all surprised but slightly amused to find Ian had only a one-way flight and we spent some time musing over how he would have got home (he had in the past hitchhiked across Eastern Europe to Moldova).
Eventually this led to musing over how we would get home. Rob, being rather fond of our little red Suzuki4x4 wanted to drive that home. Polly thought that was a rubbish idea, suggesting instead cycling. Rob thought that was a rubbish idea but eventually he came around.
Have either of you been on big bike trips before?
No, well it depends how you define big; we cycled from South to North Wales once – think that’s about the furthest!
How long do you expect the trip to take?
We’ve allowed 8 months pedaling 5 days a week for the whole distance and we are also stopping off for 3 months in Rwanda where Rob is going to work in a rural hospital. So we should be home in just under a year.
You've lived in South Africa for the past two years. How has your time in South Africa impacted your lives?
Rob: As a Dr trained in the UK, working in Rural SA has been quite a challenge. I rapidly had to learn how to do a Caesarian Section, general anesthetic, manage trauma and AIDS – none of which I had seen before. Frequently I have to work out of my Comfort Zone which has the potential to be very stressful. However I quickly realized that a reliance on a relationship with God could keep me going and keep me sane! I have come to relish this feeling of having a new and exciting challenge everyday rather than the nice controlled lives we lead back home. When things are out of our immediate control we see the real need for God – which is why I think so many Africans have such amazing spiritual lives whereas we Westerners have money and insurance policies instead!
Pol: I’ve been struck by the friendliness and generosity of the local population. There is very little bitterness towards white people in this area – despite the terrible things that have happened in the recent past.
It seems that the poorer people are, the more generous and thankful they are for what they have. The other day I ran over a chicken. I went and found the owner to apologize and give her the scrawny dead bird. She was thrilled:
“Nkosi Yami, Nkosi Yami. Ngiyabonga, Ngiyabonga!”
“My God, My God. Thank you, Thank you!” She exclaimed holding her hands heavenward.
Initially I thought it must be someone else’s chicken & she thought I was giving her a gift – but no it was her bird – she was thrilled because road kill is usually taken by the driver!
I’ve also learnt that helping is a two way street. You can’t just go somewhere “to help” people. You must go to “help and be helped”. People from all walks of life have so much to offer and living in community helping one another is what’s important.
Had either of you spent much time living overseas before you moved to South Africa?
We had very little experience of Africa but Rob spent some time traveling and working in a Leprosy hospital in Nepal before we were married.
I was amazed to read in your interview on Canton's Community Website that Zululand has the highest concentration of HIV sufferers in the world. What are some of the major factors contributing to the HIV/AIDS problem in South Africa?
The answer to that question is very complicated indeed. Lots of people have written books on it.
Things that have struck us are HIV could have been handled much better in South Africa, which is a very wealthy country, but with massive inequality. For a long time the government were in denial which to an extent is still a problem.
There are also cultural and educational issues which fuel the epidemic. 30 years ago the status/wealth of a Zulu man was defined by the number of wives and cows he had. Now days it is generally frowned upon if you have more than one wife (unless you are Jacob Zuma!) - however it is extremely common to have many lovers and condoms are seldom used as most young ladies want kids.
However there is hope. The government and communities are starting to tackle many difficult issues. Antiretrovirals are now widely available in SA and work amazingly well. It is not unusual for young people to come back from the brink of death, put on 20kg and lead a normal life again.
With this trip you're aiming to raise £25,000, which will go towards buying a 4-wheel drive for a local charity in Zululand and 120 "hippo rollers". For the uninitiated, what is a hippo roller?
The 4x4 will be invaluable for the local charity to access vulnerable (usually orphaned/abused and often HIV+) children in the community.
The Hippo Roller is a device used to roll hippos out of the local lakes to provide communities with a protein rich food source…
Another type of Hippo Roller is a barrel-shaped container that rolls like a wheelbarrow with little effort making it easier for villagers to transport life-giving fresh water to their homes.
These barrels improve access to water for needy households by making it possible to collect 90 litres of water (4 times the amount possible using traditional methods) in less time, with greater ease resulting in better health and more time for other activities – like school!
Women and children bear the brunt of responsibility for collecting water, spending 4-7 hours per day walking, waiting in lines to fill containers, and carrying them home. This prevents many children (especially girls) from attending school and completing even a basic education.
A Hippo Water Roller typically lasts between 5 and 7 years yet some of the originals distributed over 10 yrs ago are still functional. A roller currently costs £55 to manufacture.
The Hippo Roller improves lives instantly. It's an African solution to an African problem.
Hippo Rollers in action.
How can interested people support you?
Check out our blog and spur us on!
There will soon be a Just Giving account that you can donate to as well - we don’t want people to subsidise our adventure. We are simply asking you to give generously to our chosen projects.
Maybe you could give a lump sum of £10 or £20 or sponsor us per km – how about 1p/km? If you don’t think we’ll make it all the way home we dare you to sponsor us 10p/km! (We will pedal an estimated 12,000km).
Check out these past interviews in the Talking Travel series:
- Talking Travel with Michael Johnson
- Talking Travel with Izzy and Marisa
- Talking Travel with Marlis
- Talking Travel with Gretchen
- Talking Travel with Andrew and Courtney
- Talking Travel with Purdy
- Talking Travel with Maria
- Talking Travel with Niels
- Talking Travel with Amy and Wim
- Talking Travel with Hien
- Talking Travel and HIV/AIDS in India with Dave Reidy
- Talking Travel with Utrecht