A glorious spring is upon us here in the UK (for now!) and as the bones warm up, and we emerge from our caves, the first thing I start to think about is getting ready for summer.
With a plan of actions in hand – I have paused.
Once again I ponder the value add of doing a journey through Europe much in the same way as we did Africa. Whilst the challenges are there no doubt, the question that keeps coming back to me is:
What is the real value to be gained for Sofia?
It is very nice to see amazing places and interesting cultures different from her own, to learn about trusting life and her own ability to live in it – In large part however, these goals were achieved in Africa. I would like to build on that rather than to simply repeat and run the risk that it becomes meaningless for her – a banality that she can otherwise choose to avoid because it is too much effort.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of travelling for the sake of travelling, however, I don’t see this as a holiday, I want it to have purpose and meaning, and Autism Awareness is not enough on it’s own to see this journey through on its own as there is limited opportunity through language barriers to meet Autism organisations in Europe.
For me, it needs to have purpose and meaning for Sofia in some measurable way that she feels she has been challenged, over come the challenge and has grown as a result.
A couple of months ago – with the same nagging feeling, I started looking into making it a physical challenge, however, Sofia wasn’t ready for it and I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the ‘big journey’ idea.
Today, however, with the sun shining and the prospect of getting into action and ready for a journey, I am now looking at the question with new eyes. I am now thinking about what it is that Sofia and I can do, that piques her interest in a positive way, but is a challenge for her to achieve through the insecurities of autism. That once achieved, she will be a more confident about her own talents and more committed to them because she will start grasp that actually she has something of value to offer the world.
I have been quiet for the last few months as I ferreted away on setting up a new blog (current affairs, political, common sense, non PC – The Hungry Rabbit) that will hopefully sustain us in the future for more adventure travel to raise awareness for autism. I have almost finished with the initial setting up, and my focus is now returning to our next travel project – Europe.
Having decided that Europe was the next destination in the new year, I then had the thought that perhaps we should make it a bigger challenge and instead of a motorbike, that we should try a tandem bicycle. A really great idea and challenge to be done, but I have realised that now is not the time. Sofia is not ready to make that type of journey, coupled with the fact that at this point I think cultures will be a better learning for her than working through a physical punishment – and a physical punishment it would certainly be!
So we remain on the motorbike for this journey and will cover approximately 1000 miles a week, hoping to camp the entire way (peek season availability allowing) and taking in as much of the various cultures of Europe as possible.
As I think about this journey and I start to plan, I can feel that there will in fact be an enormous challenge in it for both of us and I wonder how I thought that it might not be enough! Not only will we dealing with many different languages yet never staying long enough to really get to grips with them, but cities will most likely become a major feature of our travels. This will present a challenge for me driving as I don’t like cities and have a propensity to get lost (yes really! if it wasn’t for basic navigation knowledge of North and South we may have ended up in the Arctic in stead of Africa!), but also Sofia, who will now have an opportunity to develop her map reading skills, and her camping skills, both of which she was only just starting to get to grips with on our journey through Africa.
The Plan of Action:
We do our first event of the season next week at the MCN Show at the Excel in London (17th-19th) where we will hopefully pick up some kit sponsors for the trip and sell our T-shirts and stickers. Expect a blog post, as this will be first time for me driving with a trailer and no doubt I will find myself in a pickle somewhere in London!
Start detailed planning – border controls for Ukraine and Russia; peg the definite destinations with time scales and sections where we can go off the beaten track. Ensure that I have Ural knowledge bases fully mapped on the route as well!
Start planning kit – we will have to halve what we took with us to Africa, partly because Sofia has grown and partly because in hindsight I think the Zambian bikers were right, we were too heavy in Africa. With Sofia also being older now, it may be easier to achieve this as well as I will feel less need as a mother to horde food and clothing!
Fundraising – This year I have set up an account on Patreon so that supporters can subscribe $1 per month (or more if they so choose). Through this I hope that we achieve a regular support base upon which we can plan future events as well as start creating grants for other children with Autism and Autism organisations. Please visit us on Patreon and become a patron now – https://www.patreon.com/AfricaWithAutism
Recording the event – This time I will be investing more time into planning the video recording and picture taking and hopefully get Sofia involved in the effort. It was my biggest regret in Africa that I hadn’t had time to do this before hand and made more of that aspect of the journey. So in Europe, I plan to make up for it. I have also found a great app for turning speech to text and will make an effort to create book as we go. I am currently using this for the book about the Africa journey, but sadly with so many other things on my plate it is not happening at the speed I would like!
I really didn’t have a plan or even an idea of what the end of the trip would look like, but some how in the final two weeks it all started to fall into place with the key issue of bike transport resolved with Econotrans. With the help of Antoinette who heads up the local branch of Autism SA, in the couple of days we were in East London, transport was arranged for the bike to Cape Town courtesy of Kargo, ‘the’ national logistics company. Flights arranged and a week after arriving in East London SA, we were landing in West London UK.
As part of preparing for the journey we had moved out of our rented house and into a caravan, and on return, the caravan was wheeled out again until we found a permanent address. I thought this would take a couple of months, but after a week and a half, I was done with out-door life and creature comforts were calling me very loudly. Again, thinking that it would take time to find somewhere we would like, I was surprised that the second appartement we saw was perfect and empty and a week later we moved in.
It was strange having all our stuff out of storage, and so much of it as well – one of the wonderful side effects of travelling for a long period is that you let go of material attachments and keep only those things you actually need. So, as I started up packing boxes, I started throwing stuff away. I would say about three-quarters made it down to the dump. Of course I have kept a few sentimental items, but even most of my books made it into the trash, and I love my books.
The bike arrived in port a few weeks after us, and Mick took it straight to his workshop to give it a work over and MOT so it could be taxed for the road. The list of work was long, and mostly associated with the wheels which had become a main issue at the end of the trip. The engine was fine, but the timing had been set incorrectly by the South African mechanic, and the gear box is having to be reworked as the efforts of the South African mechanic made the 3rd gear issue we experienced in Ethiopia return. The side car alignment was also incorrect as well as the rear wheel alignment – the two may be connected, an expert would know, sadly the issues they created all appeared after the bike’s ‘overhaul’ in South Africa. All in all, it seems sending the bike to South Africa for an overhaul was a massive mistake. Whilst there may have been pre-existing wear on the bike that may have contributed, that they didn’t make note of it and warn me of any potential future problems after releasing bike leads me to assume that there were no potential issues other than those that they had created. And with out a doubt, a missing collet and a broken universal joint, incorrect timing and gear box problems would have all been avoided if the bike had not been in their care.
Sofia has settled down really well since moving into the apartment and started school the week after. Her emotional well being is remarkable, and even now after 4 weeks, she is still positive, optimistic and looking ahead. I hear last week that she will often apply her travel experiences to what she is learning in the class room which is wonderful. I had originally wanted her to go to a more specialist school and had stopped the appeal process because I couldn’t find the mental space to focus on it whilst on the road, so I was really worried about how she would cope being on a large campus with a lot of students. I’m please so say though that the special unit to which she is attached is making sure that she is fully supported in finding her way around and ensuring that she uses the unit as base between lessons.
On a personal level, the change in Sofia has been something I get to appreciate every day. She is no so easily upset by change, personal hygiene has improved, contributing to the house by doing a few chores is no long a world war 3 scenario. Generally her fight with me is 20% of what it used to be and I would say, it have moved into a more normal range of what you would expect of an 11 year old girl. I am so proud of her, and every second of the journey we have taken across Europe and Africa has been worth every ounce of increased confidence she feels in herself and every inspired effort she makes to challenge herself.
For my part, I have not settled so well. Once the first several whirlwind weeks of our return died down, I felt myself left wanting and not entirely sure why. The sense that I was living in the real world and now had to return to a surreal world was confusing, and being at the Overland Event saw me starting to plan another trip with the idea of being back on the road in 6 months. I had heard from other travellers about this, but I had not expected it to be so overwhelming and such a fight to redefine my identity. None the less, I started to write, notes mostly so that I could start to get to grips with the story we had just lived. A couple of weeks ago I found a starting point and now the first draft is under way. I am still struggling to make sense of on my new static identity, but it is not nearly as distracting as it has been, and the more immersed I get into the book writing process, I’m sure it will eventually dissipate.
Going forward – I hope to post photos with stories of our travels, some might make it into the book, but many sadly won’t and yet still need to be told. I hope you enjoy them and thank you for continuing to follow us. We are still raising money through Africa With Autism (see donation links in the right column of this website) – I’ve not decided on what we will do with the money just yet, but will keep you posted of any progress on that front.
It was not my intention to suddenly stop posting about the trip in blog format, but we ended up spending 3 months in Zimbabwe waiting to get the bike on the road. In that time we had periods of activity, including a couple of trips to Mozambique and a week travelling around Zimbabwe courtesy of someone lending us a car. But as you can imagine, that doesn’t exactly fill the time, so the rest of it was ostensibly waiting and Sofia took over the laptop to keep her entertained and it became hers for the rest of the trip.
I’d like to say that having sent the bike down to South Africa to the Ural expert there, that the rest of the trip became an effortless breeze through the deserts, bush and savannah, but sadly we were to have a further 5 more break downs. One of which whilst driving the bike back from South Africa, which caused a moment of travel crisis and I almost fast track the journey to its end.
Happily I didn’t, and with the continued support from Zimbabweans in Bulawayo and Victoria Falls (Victoria Falls hotel remains the hight light of the trip for Sofia) we finally managed to exit the country to Botswana, where we stayed one night before heading to Namibia.
After being rescued in the desert and once again receiving the amazing support of the local Namibians, once in Windhoek I decided it was time to stick to the tar roads for the remainder of the trip. The words of our Zambian friends that the bike was over loaded definitely had meaning on the rough corrugated roads that make most of the routes in Namibia, and the bike was clearly struggling.
Crossing into South Africa was not to prove an easy task as a current immigration law requires all children under the age of 12 (or 13, I’m not sure) to have extra documentation. Thankfully the British Consulate in Namibia who had been our host in Windhoek managed to put together a document that met the immigration need and finally we found ourselves in the final country of our journey. Sofia was so happy to be in the first world once again. She had enjoyed the trip, but she missed home comforts.
We took our time reaching Cape Town, and had a wonderful ride in supported by the bikers of Yzerfontein. In fact the hospitality we recieved in all the way through South Africa was amazing, we had people contacting us and offering us a place to stay most nights and in terms of publications, we were front page of at least 3 local newpapers telling our story.
Finally we arrived in East London! and we did it on our own wheels – which was really the best bit. After countless break downs, it felt like nothing short of a miracle that the bike wasn’t sitting on the back of another lorry! But that was as far as I was going to go with it. With the help of the local autism organisation we were offered transport for the bike back to Cape Town, where shipping had been arranged. And just like that, 7 days later we were back in Blighty with the bike safely tucked up in a container to travel back to the UK.
I realise this is a horribly brief summary of our final months, the book (yes I have started working on it! ) promises to have a lot more detail to enjoy.
The principle reason for choosing Africa to travel is because I was born in Africa. Whilst I’ve been in Europe for over 30 years now, it is still very much a part of who I am, and where I feel safest. An important factor when undertaking a journey like this.
As soon as we entered Zambia, I was starting to feel familiarity with my surroundings. The Msasa trees and kids in khaki school uniform. It had been raining, so the vegetation was lush and the ride in the truck down to Lusaka was dotted with abundant produce, there was so much I felt sorry for the sellers, I don’t think they could give it away and wondered about how much would rot before they had a chance to sell it.
The bikers of Lusaka gave as a warm welcome, and we were well looked after (esp. Ginty the President of FIM North Africa who accommodated us in his lovely guest cottage). Bobbie did a fantastic job fixing our structural problem, in fact, he improved upon what we had been riding with, which was great! and together they raise $1000 USD to help cover the costs of the fix, which left a little left over in much needed cash to help us on our way.
Our troubles were not to be so easily fixed however, and a new twin coil later we continued to Kariba for Easter, and a needed break on home turf of happy memories and great weather. Crossing Kariba Dam Wall has been a bucket list item since I was a child and there we were in our less than reliable sidecar outfit actually doing it! At the other side, I stopped to take it all in and were immediately surrounded by an audience, shocked to hear that we were travelling from England. It is funny how the shock gets bigger and bigger the further south we go!
Easter was spent on the lake where Sofia landed her first fish, and for the first time actually put her face in water. Something she has always been too afraid to do. She was also very nervous about getting into a small speed boat, but once out on the waves bouncing she couldn’t keep the smile off her face.
We set off from Kariba in time to make World Autism Awareness Day in Harare where the bikers were organising a ride out for us to visit local events. But even this journey didn’t go without hitch as it was discovered that the rear wheel bearing that had been done in Lusaka had been done incorrectly! the whole assembly had started to fall apart!
Aside from being utterly livid because I had said that they should check the correct assembly before doing it as it was different, I was distraught at having yet another problem to deal with. I was still running with an intermittent power problem that was a total mystery, so this was just about finishing me off.
Fortunately I discovered this parked outside a hotel where we had stopped for breakfast. The manager as an absolute angel, and very calm and confident that a solution would be found. He drove me around town find bits and people, and finally at 8pm at night we had finished the fix.
So next morning, once again we set off. I was determined this time we were going to enter a capital city on our own wheels instead of a truck, like the last 3. We stopped 3 times due to power, but persisted, and were happily met by Natalie and the bikers to be escorted in. Such a happy moment, and wonderful that others could observe what was happening with the bike. It was embarrassing then to discover that reason for the next to power losses, were due to no petrol!
The main things was, that we made it. Limping as we were, we arrived in Harare on our own wheels, and even better, surrounded by new friends ready to help sort out our problems. It was a time to celebrate!