Steve Wilson is a remarkable man. Not only does he have a spirit of adventure, but he has developed a true empathy for the people of the South Luangwa Valley. His fascinating journey around Southern Africa on his faithful old Ariel motorbike will soon be published for you all to read.
No film crew. No “fixers” for the borders. No 4WD back-up. No back-up at all, in fact. Except for a man deep in rural Gloucestershire with a shed-full of old bike spares for a simple, rugged 50-year-old, British single cylinder motorbike …. and its even older and arguably simpler rider.
Author Steve Wilson wanted to do a final real run on two wheels before the bus pass took over. A holiday with Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park had provided the spark. Africa’s wide, croc- and hippo-infested brown rivers, its bush-buck and baobab trees, the marks of baboon claws in the dust of a Series I Land Rover’s windscreen, had all worked their spell.
But so had the impact of getting close, even briefly, to the local subsistence farming community. The people were unfailingly cheerful and hospitable, but average life expectancy was 38 years, and their heroic, under-funded efforts to improve their lives had been very moving. Robin Pope and other safari operators plough back a percentage of their profits via Project Luangwa into local schools, clinics and water projects. For every copy of this book that is sold, Steve and the publishers will be donating 50 pence to Project Luangwa. Everyone wins, for only if the locals become convinced of the benefits of the camera-safari tourism will the wonderful wildlife not be eroded by poaching.
Flying out of the local airfield in a single-engine Piper Cherokee, droning over the burning land, low enough to see the red dirt roads running through the bush and converging at lonely cross-roads, Steve had a light-bulb moment. He would raise as much money as possible for the trust, then at his own expense ship a classic bike out to Cape Town and ride up across South Africa, Botswana, into Zambia and over to South Luangwa, where the sponsorship money he had raised would be released, and then he would ride back to Cape Town.
The journey was 5,000 miles at a very rough reckoning. And yes, those film star chaps on their BMWs had just taken a much bigger mouthful of dust, and more power to them. But this would be the “Short Way Up.” The two-wheeled equivalent of slow food, with none of the killer deadlines, the dynamic duo and their crew had to meet. This would be just an old Brit on old Brit iron. Ariel used to be known as “The House of the Horse,” and its stylized, art-deco Red Hunter motifs had been as emblematic in their way as the 3,000-year-old Uffington White Horse on the Oxfordshire hillside Steve set out from, and which was now depicted on the logos on the panniers.
The harsh natural and human environment meant that dreams and prayers became as necessary as food and fuel. In the end, Steve found that the real journey lay not simply in covering the miles, but in the stories of extraordinary men and women, black and white, whom Southern Africa, from Botswana to Zimbabwe, had formed. And the end of his odyssey was as unpredictable as the journey itself.