‘Maybe I can give a small grain of sand to make a big hill’

Four friends plan 12,000km cycle from Cairo to Cape Town to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières and Room to Read

It was probably Isidro Carrion, the Spanish guy, the quiet one of the four, who best articulated why they are doing what they are about to do – cycle 12,000km from Cairo to Cape Town.

“I’m not the kind of guy telling people ‘you are wrong or right’,” he said. “But maybe I can give some small grain of sand to make a big hill.”

And so on Wednesday, they and all their bicycles and tents will be flown to Istanbul and from there to Cairo, arriving early on Thursday. They’ll head for Giza from where, under the beady eye of the Sphinx, they’ll start peddling hard . . . first into the western desert and then on to Luxor; following the course of the Nile, to Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan.

Then, over the following six months or so, it will be on to Khartoum, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana; and finally across Namibia and South Africa.


"From southern Namibia, you can actually see Table Mountain," says Niamh Allen (30), who grew up in Cape Town before her mother brought her home to Ireland about 20 years ago.

Isidro Carrion (31), from northern Andalucía, is a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and has also worked with another non-governmental organisation, Jardines del Mundo, which seeks to promote sustainable use of plants for food and medicinal purposes.

Voluntary work
He and Allen are a couple. She has just given up her job as a medical registrar in Tallaght Hospital. She met Carrion in the Congo while doing voluntary work with MSF and for a doctor from Ireland's Tropical Medical Bureau.

Kyle Petrie (26) from Churchtown in Dublin is an agricultural engineer and an expert in aquaponics (growing plants in water without soil, alongside edible animals, such as fish, snails and crustaceans). He spent a year in Jerusalem researching the viability of roof-top aquaponics and the United Nations is now helping 1,000 families raise fish and water-grown plants – lettuce, peppers, broccoli, celery and herbs – on roof top garden ponds in Gaza.

Petrie and Glenageary primary teacher Sadhbh McKenna (Niamh’s old school friend), are engaged and, assuming their relationship survives the expedition, they plan to marry when they return from Cape Town.

Between them, the four have already clocked up very high mileage abroad – a lot of it doing NGO work in various sub-Saharan Africa countries, the Middle East, Latin America and India. With these sorts of backgrounds, it was perhaps inevitable one day they would do a big journey together, hoping to make a difference along the way.

Yesterday, they were at base camp, their final home before setting off – a ramshackle early Victorian house in Kilmainham, which they have been sharing with four chickens and five quails in the derelict back garden, and an incongruous photograph of Daniel O'Donnell in the semi-derelict hallway. Strewn about the place are bicycles, enough spare parts to build a new one from scratch if necessary, camping equipment and clothes, a water filter, camera and laptop.

Slightly chaotic
It's all slightly chaotic but is coming together for sure. There's an air of optimism, enthusiasm and energy about the four – if they were lights these four would shine very brightly. They exude a confidence tempered by experience; nothing is insurmountable, nothing can't be made better.

Their charity, Rothar Africa, has a very serious purpose; it's not about four young people having a gap year blast. They are each paying all their own costs (about €40,000 in total) but also aim to raise €36,000 – €18,000 each – for MSF and another novel and relatively new charity, Room to Read. "It's what inspired me," says McKenna (30). "What they do is really important."

Room to Read is the brainchild of John J Wood, a former director of marketing at Microsoft which he left to set up the charity in 2000. It promotes education and literacy, and empowerment of young girls, in the developing world – in southeast Asia, India and several sub-Saharan African countries.

McKenna explains: “Room to Read finds local writers to tell stories, stories about their own communities, or in settings that children there can understand and relate to; stories in their own language and of their own culture.”

The end result is books, the genesis of a school library, and a pathway to literacy through the transformative power of education. Some 9,000 copies of each book are printed at a cost of about €18,000 per project. The four hope to visit Room to Read projects en route down through Africa and perhaps even touch base with the project they will eventually fund.

They hope Irish primary school children will follow their journey, engage with them and perhaps run projects related to the expedition.

Previous work
Each of the four has been marked deeply by previous work in the development world. "We all benefited way more than the people we helped," says Allen, who spent time recently in northern Syria. "We all have a heart for Africa," says McKenna.

“This is going to change us in ways that we won’t know or understand until we get home,” says Allen.

As Carrion intimated, in their own small, grain-of-sand way, they hope to have a big impact on those whom they seek to help.


Follow the four on their website, which includes a special page for schools, http://rothar-africa.tumblr.com/

and also has a way people may make donations