Posted by: Mat Oxley | Date posted: 17/05/2007
Keep your head down! ©
Ewan and Charley are looking forward to another happy adventure on Long Way Down but they know it won't be all plain-sailing.
Africa is a volatile continent, so the risks are potentially higher than those encountered on their Long Way Round epic, which is why they've undergone further 'hostile environment' training with Objective Travel Safety, run by former SAS officer Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton. On this trip they'll also rely on the vast experience of cameraman Jim Foster, who has spent much of the last six months working in Iraq and Afghanistan. Foster is also a keen off-road rider and another former SAS man.
'I've worked a lot in Africa with Claudio (von Planta, LWD's chief cameraman) and it's a different ballgame to what the guys experienced on Long Way Round,' says Foster who first hooked up with Charley for Race to Dakar in 2006. 'Things can change overnight there and at the moment there are a lot of unstable places.
'The hostile environment training that Ewan and Charley have done is the same that BBC foreign correspondents do before they go on more risky assignments. It's situation awareness training and it's scenario-based, like conduct after capture and that kind of thing. Plus they've also done extra medical training.'
The Long Way Down team is aiming to ease its passage through some of the more troubled areas by using official escorts. 'We've approached some governments and said, 'look, we're coming through your country, can you help us out?', we just want transit like any tourist,' Foster adds. 'And we've made sure we've also got plan Bs and Cs, so if things get really dodgy we could, for example, go to Cairo, get on a boat and sail around the Horn of Africa.'
Of course, the team is hoping that it won't come to that. They are much more likely to have to deal with more mundane situations like long-winded border crossings. Their longest border crossing on Long Way Round took 15 hours, though they reckon they may beat that record on this trip.
'The best way to approach a border is to smile and be nice, it's as simple as that,' says Charley. 'And if it takes a long while, just sit there, keep smiling and being nice. Some people get angry or arrogant at borders, which isn't the way to get across.'
As they did on Long Way Round, Ewan and Charley will ride ahead of the back-up crew, meeting up every few days. 'As the situation dictates we'll split up and let the bikes do their own thing,' says Foster. 'You've got to play a lot of it by ear and make up the plan as you go along. We need to be a bit cautious in some areas but there's probably more likelihood of one of the guys coming off a bike and hurting themselves than anything else, which is why we do the medical training, because there's no one else to look after you.'
The team keeps a low profile whenever possible, camping away from centres of civilisation, but that may not work in Africa, reckons Foster. 'You can camp out of the way but the old bush telegraph is pretty effective in Africa. You think you've parked in the middle of the desert but before you know it every man and his dog turns up. I had that in Race to Dakar. I was camped in the middle of the desert when the car broke. I thought I'd get a peaceful night's sleep but I got woken up all night by Polisario guerrillas transiting past, asking me if I was okay!'
Charley believes it's hugely important to take care and also to be aware of local customs, which is why the team has swotted up on its African cultural studies. 'On the last trip we learned that some people will say 'ooh, you don't want to go there, it's dangerous', then you cross the border and it's fine,' he says. 'But even if you're confident you must be careful, the world can change dramatically when you cross a border. The people are different, the attitude is different and it can take a day or so to acclimatise. You also have to be mindful of local customs, like in Mongolia when you go into a yurt you always go to the left because the right side is the family's side. And never lean on the middle post, because the yurt might fall down. The main thing is to be nice, to treat people the way you'd like to be treated.'
And finally: no guns. 'If you carry weapons you have to be prepared to use them and we're not like that,' Charley concludes. 'Just keep smiling, that's the way...'