Arclight Tandem Africa

A project by: Alex McMaster, Merlin Hetherington


WE RAISED £12,145

from 69 donors

This project received pledges on Thu 28 Feb 2019
5 years, 3 months ago

In Tanzania (18.02.2019)

First use of our machete was carried out on this unsuspecting pineapple. It’s sweet sacrifice to us was very appreciated in the dry morning heat.

Chickens you’re next. Yohana and Noah pass on their regards and keep reminding us what an awfully long way it is too their hometown. “Big forest”. 55km down, more than 300km to go.

Already seeing worse eye health out here, can you spot an issue?

5 years, 3 months ago


and we got about 4km out of town and the wheels on the cart (mkokoteni) started looked a bit skewhiff and buckled. Back up the hill we went to try and get something stronger. By some huge stroke of luck the front wheels of a motorbike fitted in just fine (once the axels had been chopped in half and welded back together again #soundslegit)

So a few hours and shillings later we set off again, back down the hill out of Arusha. Only then, when we got to the bottom again, did we spot that the handles and joints on the mkokoteni were bending and needed reinforcing. Back up the hill we returned to find a welder.

Finally, leaving Arusha late and concerned that this cart might not make it hundreds of kilometres, we’ve made our first camp after 22km of pushing.

Two steps forward one step back.

5 years, 3 months ago

And we’re off!

Continuing our journey south to Cape Town on foot. First step is the Masai Step. The cart is loaded up with food and camping equipment. The Masai will help us find water from ancient wells and watering holes over the wild 300km expanse.

A few very rural populations exist. Expecting to see a lot of #trachoma and eye problems so we are bringing Arclights to arm staff at the small medical dispensaries. Hoping this will help bolster early referral to larger centres in the fight against #preventableblindness

5 years, 3 months ago


The next step across the Steppe has taken a lot of planning in a very short time. We are really grateful to Thomas, Monika and Jo, as well as the Leike family for their incredible help with route planning, to mkokoteni building, equipment lending, feeding and much more.

One issue we face is carrying enough food and water for the 300km+ trek. We are carrying several kilos of rice, lentils and porridge. And chickens. Three of them. Name suggestions?

5 years, 3 months ago


Call it a glorified wheelbarrow if you wish - for us it’s home for the next few weeks.


How? Well our host Manfred sent us to his neighbour, Thomas, who called his fixer man, who took us to town where we looked at a variety of two wheeled vehicles. None were quite Steppe-worthy but a boy turned up with one that was pretty close to our requirements. So he led us to the welder who made it. We drew him a sketch of the kind of thing we wanted and it was up to us to find the wheels.

24 hours later and here it is in all its majesty - mkokoteni!

5 years, 3 months ago

Creative Minds are flowing…

We’ve been trying to come up with creative ideas for how we continue with the project.

We could accept that we need to use motorised transport from here and start hitchhiking. The faster travel would allow us to vastly increase our work with the Arclight. Unfortunately, however, there are not enough Arclights available for us to do this, at least not at present.

So in the meantime we will try and continue to Cape Town under our own steam. Next Arclight distribution is Dodoma, 500kms away. Some of our ideas and solutions so far:
Multi activity - walk to lake Malawi, row across the lake and run to the Zambezi river which we can paddle downstream to the Mozambique coast, sail to Cape Town from there...
Camel tour
Get donkeys and continue on foot
Run to Cape Town

Accept defeat, turn around and paddle back down the Nile
Source a bike of alternative construction eg recumbent or ElliptiGO
Either way whatever happens next is going to look absurd so stay tuned

5 years, 3 months ago

We’ve got some pretty bad news.

So as we can imagine being on a saddle all day puts a lot of pressure on a rather delicate area. It can start to damage nerves or blood vessels, initially causing numbness and eventually things like pudendal neuralgia. This depends on a lots of factors like riding position and saddle etc but being on the bike for 7hours a day can’t help.

I have had some concerns and numbness and the advice under these circumstances is to stop cycling. Repetitive damage could make things bad. It’s been a difficult decision to make but health is important. Means staying off the bike for a fair while.

Not great news and impacts on the project quite a bit too. Trying to stay hopeful and brainstorm some ideas for the next step.
Love, Merls

5 years, 6 months ago

University of Gondar, Ethiopia 3 December 2018

Ethiopia is one the few countries in Africa that still has high rates of Trachoma. This is an eye infection common in young children that, if untreated, leads to lifelong blindness. It is closely linked to poverty but simple steps like face-washing can reduce the incidence of the disease. Given early detection it can be easily treated. The Arclight is a simple tool that can help spot trachoma. And these little cards serve as a helpful reminder for healthworkers.


We had a big Arclight training in Gonder with 65 optometry students and several primary health workers from the area. We didn’t have enough Arclights to give everyone one so are getting more sent!!

Gotta love this! 2 December 2018

Avocado and Guava juice “avoguavo”. Other than that we are feeling pretty drained from the past few days and the 2130m altitude is also slowly us down. Looking forward to some rest before the next Arclight training.

Azezo, Gonder, Ethiopia. 29 November 2018

We rolled into a small town to find it occupied by the Ethiopian Army. Military trucks loaded with soldiers and mounted machine guns were about to lead a convoy of trucks, tankers and buses through the conflict zone.

Despite our short Amharic lesson, Gotta love this! Avocado and Guava juice “avoguavo” 😍 Other than that we are feeling pretty drained from the past few days and the 2130m altitude is also slowly us down. Looking forward to some rest before the next Arclight training. 👁 the previous evening, it was difficult to explain that we would be too slow to join the convoy. Eventually the bike and ourselves were loaded into the lead vehicle, along with 11 soldiers. It was to be a hazardous journey so one soldier borrowed Alex’s bicycle helmet for protection.

The convoy tore through the peaceful landscape at breakneck speed, a stark contrast with the tranquillity we had experienced so far in Ethiopia. Children herding cattle, and women carrying water jugs, were driven aside by the brutish string of vehicles.

We have been plucked from the magical lowlands and dropped safely in the city of Gondar, high in the Ethiopian mountains.

Where did the desert go? 29 November 2018

It’s been a quick transition to this green paradise. Delightful mountain streams have been tempting us to their cooling white water for a refreshing dip - we have yet to treat ourselves though.

The road is so quiet! We are in the middle of nowhere!

However there are guns everywhere. All the men here are armed and patrolling the road in small groups. Some are posted at sentry points. They look very intimidating but return a friendly wave to our greetings. We stopped in a village and gleaned some more information - that the tribal conflict is ongoing and more intense up-ahead. As we stood talking, a heavily armed military truck passed us at high speed, transporting a convoy of vehicles. That explains the quiet road. The elder in the village says that we are safe from his ‘nation’ of people; with some hesitancy we continue on, planning to find out more from a convoy when one next passes.

Metema 27 November 2018

It feels like we’ve gone through the rabbit hole and come out into an magical place straight from a children’s fairytale book!

The landscape is barely untouched by human hands. The few people who live here dwell in small wooden houses with pointed roofs, driving their livestock beneath the huge escarpments that rise to the Ethiopian highlands! Colourful birds, stony brooks, and wild cotton amongst natural forest that only ends when the land becomes too steep. Our eyes soak in a fresh, awesome view every time we roll over a hilltop or mountain pass.

We had the warmest greeting to this wonderful country, invited by a family into their home for the evening. We were given a space in the house beside the chickens, and spent the evening learning Amharic phrases with a young girl and her English-Amharic dictionary. It was incredible to share such great company over a bowl of pasta, despite the almost complete language barrier. Still we all managed to make jokes and tell stories well after the sun had set.

But in the night there was some automatic fire and the mother locked all the doors. It’s a reminder of the tribal conflict that is ongoing in this region. Hoping all is ok for our safe travel though this land.

Gallabat 23 November 2018

You’d think the borders between Ethiopia and Sudan would be bustling with trade and transport. But no. Getting closer to the border felt like heading towards a wilderness, the road potholed to pieces, no one to be seen amidst increasing vegetation. Strange. So when we spotted another cyclist pootling along towards us we had to stop and share a camp.

We couldn’t help feeling slightly new to this whole cycle touring thing next to Josh, who has cycled the length of the America’s and is now finishing Africa having started in Cape Town. We soaked in a few tips but we think it is fair to say that Josh seemed pretty shell shocked. Just yesterday he was forced into a military convoy to get through a tribal conflict zone, plus a month of hassle and stone throwing! ETHIOPIA is notorious among cyclists for a number of reasons:
1. People throw stones. Especially the children who herd livestock and are alarmingly accurate. Some cyclists have have been hit across the back by herder’s sticks or had sticks thrust in their wheels. Josh had fist sized rocks dropped off a cliff towards him.
2. Hassle for money by everyone. Sometimes aggressively.
3. People everywhere! 100 million people with 70% under 25yrs. No chance of wild camping and when you do stop, a money demanding crowd of 20 people apparently appears in no time.
4. Tribal conflicts near the border crossing with Kenya and recently at our current crossing with Sudan often flare up (shooting, grenades that sort of thing).
5. The mountainous landscape makes for difficult cycling, with the added effects of altitude on the body. Peaks above 4500m and road passes up to 3000m, plus crossing the impressive Blue Nile Gorge.

All considered you can see why some cyclists choose to skip this country or get half way through and decide to fly or bus out. We will see how it goes... 
...that said, Ethiopia is the country I have been most excited for! I love a good hill and it’s one of two African countries that were NEVER colonised so is quite unique. Seeing Josh, plus having been warned by a few trucks (including a UNICEF vehicle) that the current tribal conflict at this border is too serious and that we should fly, has made us quite apprehensive. Though we might officially have a visa for Ethiopia, all the people we pass have not invited us to their territory and we hope that through remembering this fact and showing respect, humility and big smiles we may be able to minimise some of the hostility towards us as “ferenjis”.

For now we will enjoy this peaceful Sudanese campsite, watch some shooting stars and listen to the sounds of the night - there is wildlife here!

Thank you Josh for sharing your company, advice and snapping some pics. Enjoy the desert!

5 years, 6 months ago

The only bumpy road in Sudan! 90kms from Ethiopia.

5 years, 6 months ago

Leaving Khartoum visa-less

…for Ethiopia, still a bit frazzled from two frantic ‘rest’ days we pedal on to find a deteriorating road but to our delight the grass (literally) seems to be getting greener.

Alex’s luck however hasn’t, accumulating a litany of woes: continued sunburn; a twice punctured sleeping mat; breathing difficulties from the noxious truck fumes; crippling shoulder pain; a cold; rather frequent toilet requirements; an infected pedal scrape; a cut finger; a crushed cockroach in his trousers and (speaking for both of us) a sore bottom.

Alex’s curse seems at times to be playing out on both of us and I can’t help but blame him for the puncture, a tyre replacement and an unfortunate spillage of pasta too. Poor guy though, he’s had it a bit rough.

Both feeling as worn out as these two chairs...

5 years, 6 months ago

Maybe next time we will get the camel train!

5 years, 6 months ago

56 HOURS in Khartoum was not enough time!

Both in need of a really good rest, but with many commitments and some amazing opportunities coming our way it was a hectic couple of days:

20hrs - Sleep. Could have had more!

7hrs - Eating the wonderful food from the Acropole Hotel. Thank you, George, and co and Jonathon Lamont for the well needed treat.

5hrs - Arclight prep and fantastic distribution with Khalid Mohammed and his students. An amazing centre for eye care - one of the first of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa.

3hrs - Trip on the Nile with Adul and his friends. Adul is a Medic from Edinburgh / London but has been living in Khartoum and getting up to some crazy adventures from catching crocodiles and jumping off the bridges to rowing, horse riding and fishing.

3hrs - A wedding! Thank you, Dr Kamal and Khalid, for inviting us to a wonderful Sudanese wedding

3hrs - Guinness and beers with the Irish consulate! Plus, a fantastic spread of food to include cheddar cheese and chorizo

2hrs - Failed visa attempts at the Ethiopian Embassy. With the weekend coming up our only hope was to cycle on and try our luck at the office in Gedaref in a few days. Agh. Stress.

2hrs - Showers and shaves.

1hr - Shopping for supplies for the 450km cycle to Gedaref. Dried dates and peanut butter

1hr - Bike maintenance and clean

1hr - a FaceTime home 

1hr - arranging upcoming legs and Arclight postage to Ethiopia

1hr - riding with the Sudanese Women’s cycling club

2hrs - a hectic cycle into the city and over the Metal Bridge, being sure to decorously dismount whilst passing the palace.

4hrs - missing! Honestly don’t know where this time went. If found, please return.

5 years, 6 months ago


Sunrise and sunset over the Jebel Barkal Pyramids in Sudan. Both of us loved stretching our legs up Barkal Mountain to get our first view over the Nile and desert.

Harking back to our Spain cycling days we have turned to milk to fulfil some of our nutritional needs. Towns are often sold out but twice we have managed to stop the refrigerated milk truck and purchase ‘direct’. We even sold some cartons on to a local shop for the astounding profit of 2 Sudanese pounds (GBP£0.03). To be fair, we are starting to see some fresh food!

5 years, 6 months ago

Early rising and sand…

Most days we’ve been getting up at 4:15am to be able catch some ‘free miles’ before the heat kicks in. Here are some rare photos of a camp that was still up during sunlight hours. The wind carries sand everywhere...

With nearly all day on the bike, unchanging desert landscape and evaporating topics of conversation we’ve turned to audiobooks and podcasts to occupy the mind... some of our favourites include “Dominion by CJ Sansom”, “West Cork”, “Arabic Beginners, Michel Thomas” and “A Very Short Introduction to: Revolutions”. Anyone have good listening suggestions?

5 years, 6 months ago


Explained by Ride25:  “In the cycling world, a bonk is not a good thing. It essentially means ‘hitting a wall’ in a physical and emotional sense, meaning that you find it very difficult, if not impossible, to carry on.”

“As funny as it may sound, bonking is actually very serious and is what cyclists and other endurance sportspeople call hypoglycemia. Essentially it means that you haven’t taken in enough carbohydrates and have exhausted your body’s glycogen stores, leaving you with abnormally low blood glucose levels.”

“The symptoms of a bonk can vary, but on a physical side you will generally feel extremely weak and tired and you may shake, sweat a lot and feel dizzy or light-headed. You may also have heart palpitations and will probably be very hungry. Bonking can also affect the brain as that too burns glucose, and you may feel anxious, irritable, confused and emotional.”
 Phrase of the week: “shall we just have a quick break” ...

5 years, 6 months ago


The heat of Sudan was tough, and we were pushing hard to make our 150km daily average to get to Gondar, Ethiopia in time for the next Arclight distribution. Some thoughts at the time: “There’s something awe-inspiring about this huge expanse of desert and extreme heat. Maybe there’s some satisfaction to be drawn from the fact that so far, we are coping (just) and managing to move forwards in this austere environment. But fun? Probably not, hands down highlight of the past few days has been lying down to sleep each night: resting, taking a brief moment to appreciate the stars, stretching the legs out flat. Food each day has been 4 meals of ‘fool’ (a tasteless beany paste served with flatbread) complemented with snacks of dry biscuits. Can’t wait for fruit. The desert is quite mind-numbingly blank, so we’ve invented a game of ‘spot something living’ - this current round has been going 30hrs now.” “Slight headwind is crushing us and our speed. Feels like a hairdryer on the eyeballs, the thermometer reached 50C today. Breathing dries your mouth and throat out - I’ve been trying to take 2 breaths through my nose for every 1 through my mouth; Alex is following Jonathon Lamont’s advice of sucking a pebble.”

5 years, 7 months ago

The day began with a beautiful sunrise... but it was the start of two days of trouble. After a significant hiccough along the Red Sea we were forced to put the bike on a bus, then another bus, then another bus, and drive across the desert to Luxor. A slightly unnerving and weird couple of days, hard to explain. All is now well and we are sitting by the Nile eating mangos and bananas!

5 years, 7 months ago

From central Cairo, across the Sahara, to the Red Sea - ready for a dip after a long dusty road, and some fish.

5 years, 7 months ago

How it all started

Arclight Tandem Africa from School of Medicine on Vimeo.

5 years, 8 months ago

Whizzing along the Red Sea with the wind at our backs, we covered over 180km on day two. Wind farms, petroleum and mass tourism blight the stretch of land where the desert meets the sea. Trucks and ships make their way to and from the Suez Canal on the highway and the ocean. We carry on south on the hard shoulder. 

5 years, 8 months ago

Training and demonstration at the Research Institute is Ophthalmology - a big, government funded institution that sees 500 patients per day! The Arclight was very well received, and we hope it becomes implemented in community outreach services and rural screening.

(Big thank you to Brad Abrahams Optometry for their support of the trip!)

5 years, 8 months ago

WEDNESDAY 10 October - CYCLE STARTS EARLY! 165km to the Red Sea!

Thank you to everyone who has supported us. Please can you share so we can go further…

So we’ve arrived in Cairo and are orientating ourselves around this amazing city. The huge rocks used to build the pyramids were quarried in Luxor and then ferried to Cairo along the Nile. It will take us over a week to make the opposite journey by bike! (No rocks thankfully, just Arclights!)


5 years, 8 months ago


Bike was too heavy for the plane so parts had to be dismantled and put in our hand luggage. Full easy jet overhead lockers now mean that several parts of the tandem are in the cockpit! Lovely pilot and thank you for the announcement over tannoy! Here we goooo!!! Massive thank you to Kangaroo Self Storage for getting us to the airport today! Absolutely incredible effort coming over from Edinburgh to pick us up at 6am from St Andrews - awesome team of people! @glasgow Airport

5 years, 8 months ago

We are leaving a truly fantastic group of people behind when we depart from Scotland next week. It was a real delight to thank so many of them at the official launch of Arclight Tandem Africa on Friday. Thank you to our team in St Andrews, our friends and families, for being with us to celebrate all their hard work helping to get us to the start line! @uniofstandrews @therandagolf @ses_explore @kangarooselfstorage #pioneerswithpurpose #tandemafrica #icare4eyecare #cairotocapetown