RICHARD HARRIS has faced many challenges since breaking his neck playing rugby in 1986 – some of his own making.
He has bungee jumped from the Bloukans Bridge in South Africa. Flown a light aircraft designed for a man with no legs and taken a microlight flight as a passenger.
None have been quite so challenging for the former Torquay Athletic rugby player than driving the length of Africa with wife Rachel in a Land Rover specially converted for the rigours of the job and Richard’s special requirements as a disabled person.
Since that fateful day in November 1986 when he damaged his spinal cord irreparably, Richard has got around using a combination of walking sticks, wheelchairs and a handcycle.
This is a man who doesn’t let a small thing like disability get in his way, which was just as well given the challenges a seven-month drive across Africa entailed.
Richard and Rachel undertook the journey to raise awareness for the charity Motivation, which works all over the developing world to improve the lives of people with mobility disabilities.
Because he lives in this country, 45-year-old Richard can expect to enjoy a normal lifespan.
In parts of Africa someone with Richard’s disabilities is lucky to survive three years from the time they become paralysed.
Rachel, 43, and Richard weren’t on an out-and-out fundraiser for Motivation, having said that they did raise more than £4,000, although they did drop in on a project run by the charity in the Tanzanian town of Moshi to see their work at close quarters.
Richard said one of the things he noticed was how few disabled people he saw, as he crossed Africa, had the means to get around.
“Somewhere like Addis, you see some people dragging themselves around with flip-flops on their hands, but you don’t see too many wheelchairs,” said Richard.
“Motivation can get appropriate wheelchairs made in the People’s Republic of China for around £140 and some of those are starting to appear.
“The things we take for granted in this country, such as our National Health Service, are largely unknown in most of Africa.
“People have to pay for their own medicines and appliances. In one country we visited, we were told the price of meds had gone up 400 per cent. To save money, people were re-using catheters, which isn’t hygienic and could lead to all sorts of complications.
“You have to know how to live with your disability and how to keep yourself mobile.
“Things like wheelchair skills and toileting have to be learned. It all helps to make you a viable member of society.”
Richard and Rachel set off for South Africa in May last year where they were due to collect their converted Land Rover at the quayside in Durban.
Kingsteignton firm OEC had equipped the Land Rover with sleeping accommodation, a mini kitchen and toilet – a real home from home in the African bush.
There was only one problem – the Land Rover arrived a week late!
“There are worse places to while away a couple of weeks than Durban, but having to stay in hotels and not being able to cater for ourselves was making a dent in our finances,” said Richard.
Once the Land Rover arrived and had been checked over, it was time to hit the road. Namibia was the first country Richard and Rachel visited.
“For someone from this country it is hard to imagine the scale of things in countries like that,” said Richard.
“Farms can be 80, 100 or 150 kilometres across and you can drive all day without seeing anyone.”
After a quick transit through Botswana, the next port of call was Zimbabwe, where the local welcome and incredibly friendly people were let down by the irritation of greasing the palms of a few public servants.
“Zimbabwe wasn’t what we expected in many respects as the shops had food in them and there were not queues around the corner,” said Richard.
“We know from our TV screens that Zimbabwe has not been in good shape economically – and we were reminded of that when we visited the natural history museum in Bulawayo and the electricity went off. But it is much better now that they have unofficially adopted US Dollars as currency.
“What you do find is you are likely to be pulled over on the road at a roadblock by an off-duty officer, who will be looking for a fee to not detain you further.
“All said and done though, with regards to corruption in Zimbabwe, we parted with the princely sum of $8 in three weeks – a bargain for the entertainment you get at such meetings,” said Richard.
“Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe: it was something we ran into a few times, but I guess it’s not surprising, poor people are just trying to make ends meet. I think the perception is that all visitors have money to spare. They need to learn that it’s not the case with overlanders though.”
Four countries into the trip the Land Rover had performed faultlessly. Other than a few running repairs with pry bar after bending the tail lift, no work had been needed.
Indeed, the Land Rover barely missed a beat until Richard arrived in Italy on a ferry from Egypt on the way home and it conked out.
“Fuel in Egypt was something like 11p a litre and so cheap it made sense before driving back up through Europe and back to this country,” said Richard.
“There was something in the fuel which disagreed with the Land Rover and having got us through 11 counties and 17,000 miles it broke down for good not far from Geneva.
“I had to fly home and get the Land Rover brought back.”
All that was in the future though when Richard and Rachel crossed the border from Zimbabwe into Zambia, where they encountered true African city driving for the first time.
“They have traffic lights, but no one takes any notice,” said Richard. “The traffic seems to get around fine, unless the police try to direct it and then it all grinds to a halt!”
Rachel and Richard filled up their diesel tanks and Jerry cans in Zambia before moving on to Malawi en-route to Tanzania.
“There is no diesel in Malawi – they don’t have the hard currency to buy any – so we had to make sure we had enough to get us all the way to Tanzania,” said Richard.
After spending time in Tanzania, it was off to Kenya for six weeks in Nairobi.
Richard and Rachel stayed with friends for six weeks, resting up while watching the Rugby World Cup on TV. It was from Nairobi five months after leaving Durban that Rachel flew home to get back to work. Richard’s former Torquay Athletic team-mate Maurice Dunn came out to join the expedition, as did friend Richard Hale.
The first assignment for the travelling trio was to get across north Kenya and south-west Ethiopia in one piece, which with bandit infested countryside and boulder-strewn roads is easier said than done.
“We went through in convoy with a South African couple and a Dutch guy in a truck as it was safer that way,” said Richard.
“A lot of people in ‘the Badlands’ walk around carrying Kalashnikov AK47s – it is a reminder of what a brutal place Africa can be,” said Richard. Sudan brought some new motoring experiences – one of which was driving through a railway station in the Land Rover.
“There are two roads through Sudan to Egypt – a sand piste and a metalled road finished last year,” said Richard.
“The railway wasn’t the most direct route or the quickest, but at least you couldn’t get lost – and with only one goods train a week you weren’t going to meet much traffic coming the other way.”
A ferry trip from Wadi Halfa – delayed several days until the boat was full – took Harris and Hale across Lake Nasser and into Egypt on the last leg of the African adventure.
“We spent a week in Aswan haggling in souks then drove up to Luxor to do some sightseeing with all the other tourists,” said Richard.
“The underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings were not designed with wheelchair access in mind, but Luxor has plenty of temples and historic sights to see.”
The plan was to drive back through Egypt to Alexandria, take a ferry to Venice then drive through Italy and France back to the UK in time for Christmas.
Part one went to plan, but the trying to save money with cheap diesel definitely backfired.
“The system was cleaned out when we got to Italy, but the van finally gave up the ghost in France and had to be trailered home from near the Swiss border,” said Richard.
Richard arrived home in time for the Christmas party season having spent around £100,000 buying and converting the Land Rover as well as covering the travel costs.
The couple re-mortgaged their Torquay home to pay for the trip – and Richard believes it was worth every penny.
“It is easy to say ‘I couldn’t possibly do that because I don’t have the money’, but there are ways of finding it,” said Richard.
“It has to be paid back and to do that we are relying on the value of our home going up in future years. Both of us are glad we did it.
“Would I do something like that again? Who knows? I have always fancied going to Australia… “