Four motorcycles, four striking characters, 5000 kilometres, one target: the Smiling Coast of Africa. At the end of November 2016, a team of Berlin-based motorcycling enthusiasts from MotorCircus set off to the Gambia, in order to help primary medical care in a partner clinic with a fundraising campaign. Their project Mission South connects the passion for motorcycling with the commitment to the "Ärzte helfen" association.
The smell of waxed canvas jackets wafts into your nostrils. The garment is to protect from the cold and rain over the coming weeks. On the road like the grandfathers was the motto for the Mission South. With a simple jet helmet. Being directly and immediately exposed to the elements on the way to Africa's smallest state, the Gambia. Pure purism. This is how the Berlin lads from MotorCircus love it.
The Berlin lads are: friends Christoph "Chris" Köhler, Marko Kramer, Martin Lemcke and Ronald Zehrfeld, who have symbolically screwed their souls together. They are BMW motorcycle enthusiasts who cherish and love their old bikes with two valves: a BMW R 100/7 and an R 90/6. For the charity adventure, they have overhauled the engines, changed the wheels, replaced the shock absorbers and fitted electric ignitions. For the mission, BMW Motorrad will be supporting the team with the latest bikes from the model range: Martin takes an R nineT Scrambler to the start line. Actor friend Ronald Zehrfeld also sits atop the saddle of a Scrambler. They are accompanied by cameraman Thorsten Jarek on an R 1200 GS Adventure.
CHANGING THE ROUTE
Mint tea against the cold.
Before the quartet can feel the wind on their face, they take the bikes to southern Spain; from there, they climb aboard the ferry to Morocco, leaving the European mainland behind to begin their Mission South. Before them lies a 5000 kilometre-long journey that they must complete in under three weeks. The first destinations are Tetouan, Chefchaoune and Volubilis, the provincial capital of the ancient Romans.
However, contrary to expectations, the first few days in northern Africa are not marked by sun and sand. Instead of swallowing dry dust, the pearly gates open. The area of low pressure is right behind them the whole time. Even before the Atlas mountains, the weather scuppers the bikers' expectations. "We got absolutely soaked.” The thermometer said it was just two or three degrees. The cold crept into the men's clothing. "This made riding extremely uncomfortable", Chris recalls. The two riders on the old bikes became somewhat jealous of their colleagues who could switch on the grip heating on their modern machines. Whatever. Sweetened mint tea provides a remedy against the cold.
Adapt to the situation.
Stretches of around 250 kilometres a day are not possible. A skilful manoeuvre and a change of route soon holds the promise of sun and palm trees. To do so, the bikers must overcome the direct pass through the mountains amidst a hail storm. "To make sure we didn't completely dissolve, Ronald made us a suit of armour out of a thick plastic sheet", says Marko. A talent for improvisation is required, with the mission turning into a challenging adventure in this phase. "You can't plan everything. You must adapt to the situation", the friends say. "We all know where the road will take us. No one can predict or influence what happens before we get there."
THROUGH THE DESERT
Like Lawrence of Arabia.
The route runs much farther east than planned in Morocco: after Er-Rachida and Erfoud, they head to Merzouga until they are just before the Algerian border. The big dune landscapes of Erg Chebbi impress the motorcycling travellers. "We felt like Lawrence of Arabia, it was really magical", Chris says, reminiscing. The bikers from Berlin become acquainted with the beauty of the desert, and experience close contact with the fine sand with their Alemannic dromedaries. A Berber takes them through the desert. Unforgettable moments. In the evening twilight, the sun tinges the yellow sand with red. The lesson is clear for the friends: what a good decision, that they have changed their route.
Journeying in the mind as well.
Despite their fascination for the sandy desert, the riders have to think about their project and make up for lost time. They head towards the Atlantic coast. The bikers blitz through stages of 400 to 650 kilometres a day. Oases and mountain formations alternate now. The riders sit in the saddle well into the hours of darkness, concentration is especially required. "In the dark you don't see potholes or obstacles on the road until it's almost too late", Chris recounts. Nevertheless, the quartet never find riding stressful. "You simply journeyed in your mind. That was great. We really enjoyed this feeling, grinning at each other and celebrating it." The friends have known each other for years; they stick together. They share and harmonize with one another. "Everyone ultimately knew what lay ahead of them and that they had to contribute in the group." Even cameraman Thorsten is the right choice for the Mission South. "He is an asset to us because he has known us for so long. He also accompanied the Mission Manx. We are a really well-established team", Chris extols.
BAD PETROL AND JUSTIFIED CONCERNS
Civil chat with the authorities.
The further the group ventures south, the more controls with policemen and military there are. Before and after every town, the stop gradually turns into a routine. The encounter with the authorities are a friendly affair: presenting documents, having a brief civil chat. After this the border crossings to Mauritania and Senegal become a casual routine for the team from MotorCircus. "We weren't really expecting so many military and police stops. But the situation always diffused itself and we parted ways with a smile." They don't even have to open their bags – none of the officials want to poke through their presumedly dirty laundry. Instead, they simply say "have a good trip!". Inschallah. God willing.
Valves were ringing in your ears.
IIn Mauritania, the was burning down from the sky. There was no tree in sight. The road conditions were getting worse, pothole after pothole, behind the capital city of Nouakchott, the journey became one big slalom. And that's not the worst – dromedaries suddenly blocked the road, overloaded lorries were lying tipped over on the road. "In the heat a few more breaks were required. We threw water over our heads and then ate some more dust", Chris told. The bikes kept on going without posing any problems; merely the air filters had to be tapped out every now and again.
Petrol can’t be found everywhere and even when it is found it is not always of sufficient quality. After one machine had run dry a fisherman helped with petrol. Their saviour. The fuel – probably not higher than 80 octane – roared in the riders' ears in the true sense of the word. "The valves nailed and rattled with the old and new machines. The petrol ignited later", Ronald explained. However, this doesn’t pose any impairment for the bikes. They were running reliably.
Change of government in Gambia.
Towards the Senegalese border, it becomes green again, baobabs appear in the savannah landscape through which the quartet is riding all the way to the Gambia. Wild hippos and chimpanzees are granting insight into their habitat. The destination is coming closer. But at the same time, a big concern is growing: in the Gambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, the last West African dictator has been voted out. State President Yahya Jammeh seized power in 1994, reigned for 22 years with an iron rod and suppressed anyone with opinions critical of the government.
"We experienced the phase after the election. The fear among the population could clearly be felt." Because Jammeh did not initially acknowledge his defeat at the beginning of December 2016. Also the four members of the Mission South were concerned, unable to appraise the situation. "We would have been a victim of the situation; something like this is precarious and can escalate at any moment." Military and police were showing a strong presence, patrol and control the Gambia's streets. Everything stood peacefully. After the ultimatum has expired, the dictator was leaving the small country of less than two million inhabitants. "The population was pleased that the change of government transpired without any blood being shed. What they make of it has yet to be seen", said Marko.
HELP HAS ARRIVED
Smiling and waving.
Wherever the friends of the Mission South go, they are received with open arms. People by the side of the road smile and wave at the bikers. When they stop, they let the locals sit on their motorcycles, their eyes are glowing. "Moments like these made us very cheerful." And the welcome at the final destination is especially warm: at the small clinic on the Smiling Coast of Africa. "This was absolutely overwhelming. We were received with music." After 18 highly diverse days on the motorcycle, 5000 kilometres travelled and 60 hours of film material, the Germans are pleased to have arrived. "The relief could clearly be felt". And it is time to finally hand over the donation of 12,000 euros to the clinic. The members of the association use 100% of the cash infusion for their project in the Gambia; in particular, operations and medicine are paid for by the money.
For a good cause.
Chris Köhler knows that the help from the "Ärzte helfen" association and the commitment of MotorCircus may only be a drop in the ocean on the Smiling Coast. Nevertheless, their work bears fruits. 45,000 patients are treated in the small hospital every year. Sometimes, children come there who have been limping around for weeks with a broken leg. No doctor has treated them. "They will endure everything." In the medical centre, the long-hoped-for assistance is finally provided. Patients with toothache come here too. "It is an immense satisfaction when simple ailments can be treated and people can feel better. They say thank you with their smile and friendliness", Chris recounts. For the boys from MotorCircus, this is incentive enough to carry on down the path they have chosen. And to ride on. Journeying. For a good cause. For a smile.