14th August 2012

Riding Solo; One Woman's Monster Journey Through Africa

It’s a big ask to quit a well paid, well established job, and commit to riding from the UK, into Africa, and down to Cape Town in South Africa, all by yourself. But that’s exactly what Claire Elsdon has done. And on her way, she’ll be raising money for Unicef, and helping people get their own businesses off the ground.

Claire Elsdon has done what a lot of people sometimes dream of doing; telling the boss where to go, and riding off into the sunset on a biking adventure. That adventure will see her head off into Europe and south to Italy, taking in the likes of Switzerland, Croatia and Bosnia on the way. She will eventually head into Africa, traversing the likes of Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda on her way to the final destination, South Africa.

“I used to ride everyday to work,” Claire explains, “But I always used to wish I was riding somewhere more exciting, so it started as that dream of having the open road. The Long Way Down was quite a strong influence too, and last year I flew to Mongolia to join a group of riders and rode out there and it was just mind-blowing, being on a bike and in such a vast country. Being on a bike just broke down all those boundaries too, and you could go and do and experience things you just can’t in a car or a bus.

“I’ve always had this passion for Africa, and in October I did the Enduro Africa, which just confirmed to me the beauty of it. The continent as a whole has been pretty messed up by western countries over the last couple of hundred years, but it still retains that joy for life, and I can understand that and that want to enjoy being alive really, and that’s a big thing for me.

“The route has changed a couple of times, I originally I wanted to ride Spain to Morocco, and head east through Algeria and Libya, and across to Egypt, but I looked into it and at the moment you simply can’t get through Libya at all. And with all the trouble in Syria, the only option for me now, if you want to ride the whole thing, is a boat from Turkey to Egypt; so that’s the plan.

“I could have ridden the west coast, but I thought with my first big, overland trip, there will probably be more people riding the east coast than west.”

While the route takes in a lot of Africa, it’s dictated not just by Claire’s desire of places to go and see, it’s also determined by the work she will undertake on the way. Claire will be raising money for Unicef, but she will also be working with a number of charities who work in microfinance.

“I’ll be raising money for Unicef; it’s a charity that works in and touches pretty much all the countries I’ll be going through, but I’ll also be doing some work with some microfinance charities, so charities who lend tiny amounts of money to poorer people who wouldn’t be able to get credit any other way, and then they can grow their own business, which to me makes a huge amount of sense, and the success rate has been enormous. I’ll be looking at doing a couple of months with them in places like Rwanda and Malawi, which will be really good. So rather than just visit, blog, go, I really want to understand what they’re doing and hopefully, maybe I’ll be working with those charities again in the future, as it’s something that seems to make a real, positive difference.”

Claire has been riding on the road for six years, when living in southwest London and working in Canary Wharf meant a lot of traffic to contend with. So, Claire decided tackling the commute on two-wheels was the best option.

“I had to be at work for 6:30am, and the obvious thing to do was to get a bike. I thought I’d just get a scooter, but my boss, who was into bikes, said, ‘if you get a scooter, I will fire you. You need to do your full test.’ So I did that, and i just really got into bikes and big bikes that way. And then I got into off-roading about three years ago. A mate of mine at work was going to one of those off-road training schools in Wales for the weekend and invited me along and said ‘you’ll absolutely love it and you’ll have a big grin on your face by the time you’re done’. And he was absolutely right and I had a brilliant time.”

Many people read about these sort of trips and adventures, and a lot like the idea of packing up the bike and riding off into the unknown, ready to experience everything life has to offer. But they take time, and while many like the idea of doing it, only a handful ever do. They take a lot of courage and a lot of commitment to leave everything behind and actually set off. But it’s something Claire has had to do too, leaving her respectable job as a stockbroker to go riding solo through Africa.

“Being a stockbroker wasn’t something I ever envisaged I’d do. It gave me a great insight into the workings of the global economy and I met some great people, but it’s not something that really chimed with the values I had and things that I wanted to follow. So it was in March this year that I decided I was going to go for it. I had had a couple of tonsillitis bouts and other viruses and just felt a bit crap and I don’t think it was just winter blues, I think it was like my body telling me I’d done a bit too much in my job as a stockbroker, it was slightly killing me, and I needed to look at something else. I also had a chat with my gran, and she turned to me and said, ‘I wish I’d been braver and I wish I’d done the things that I wanted to do, and not be scared by what other people had thought or what other people had expected of me’. It was quite a sad moment really, it’s clearly too late for her to make other choices, but I’ve got the chance to make those choices and I’m lucky to have them, and it would be a shame to waste them. So I just thought ‘sod it’ really, and decided to make it happen.”

However the decision to do just that has sparked reaction from people when they hear about the trip, especially when you mention the fact that Claire will be undertaking this trip across Africa alone. And while Claire’s positive about the trip, she’s still realistic about the challenge.

“It’s very weird, the reaction I get when I tell people that fact,” Claire explains. “Some people seem to get almost angry about it, and it’s really extraordinary. They just think that it’s so guaranteed that something awful will happen to me, and they tell me how irresponsible it is that I’m going or that I’m flying in the face of all logic and there’s such belief that bad things must happen while I’m out there. And I’m not saying bad things can’t or won’t happen, but as Lois Pryce has said a lot, bad things can happen in Tunbridge Wells, so just because you’re going to a different country it doesn’t necessarily change what could happen to you, and I think actually, one of things I’ve found incredible is also the amount of people that want you to succeed, because of the adversity they seem to think you’ll face.

“But one of the areas I’m actually most nervous of is Egypt. I’ve been to Egypt before and it’s just general hassle you get. I’m a bit nervous of that. But I think I’ll surprise a few people when I turn up and remove my helmet! But the other thing I think will be my biggest issue is my own imagination. Any thing practical or if there’s an issue with the Visa, that’s something I can deal with. But the worst thing would be sitting in my tent one night and hearing this spooky noise or something, then my imagination will run riot!”

However, despite the reaction from others, the hardest people to convince that this trip was a good idea was, unsurprisingly, Claire’s family and friends.

“My parents seem to be talking to me as though I’ve already died, which is unfortunate. They think it’s insane to quit my job, first of all, and to be riding through Africa alone is also mad. But it’s a parental thing and I can understand that. But they know it’s better to let me do what I need to do. My friends say I’m brave, which I don’t really understand. I’m just doing something that I want to do. That’s all it is. But people have really blown me away. On my last day at work a couple of guys started clapping as I left. Bearing in mind there are something like 970 people on the floor, and as I was walking out I tried to make a discreet exit, but as I was walking through people just started clapping and as I walked through the aisles people kept standing up and clapping which was kind of an overwhelming moment. But I think they’ve just heard about the trip and think it sounds like an incredible adventure.”

Claire will be setting off on her trusty DR-Z400, affectionately named Suzi, the same bike used by Tough Miles duo Jon and Peter, who are currently half way round the world raising money for Cancer Research. Claire too has made some modifications to the standard bike, but is now all but ready to go.

“One of the big reasons I opted for the DR-Z400, and I spoke to Lois Pryce a lot before choosing the bike, is that first, I wanted something that I could lift, something that was manageable for me to ride, and if the bike lands on me I’ve got a better chance of wriggling out from underneath a 400. I also love the look of it. She doesn’t look too aggressive but I think it looks like a nice, friendly sort of bike, as strange as that might sound. It’s also massively reliable which a huge tick in the box too.

“I’ve since added a Safari fuel tank, hand guards, pro grips. I’ve had a chunkier, comfier seat fitted and just changed the linkages as a result. I’ve had a rear-rack fitted, and had engine protectors and sump protectors fitted too.”

The bike’s ready, Claire’s ready, all that’s left is to depart.

“Not quite. I did want to head off on Sunday (19th August), but I’ve had the mother of all dental problems in the last couple of weeks. I’ve had three fillings having never had any before, so like busses, they’ve all come at once, and then my wisdom tooth completely crippled me last week, because it became infected and it was just digesting. So that’s being removed under general anaesthetic and then I have to go back for a consultation two weeks later, so now I’m hoping to leave at the end of the month.”