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Guest Post: An Overland Ambulance Trip to Ghana

Malvena Stuart-Taylor recounts her brave trip across West Africa to deliver two ambulances to needy hospitals in northern Ghana. Her own very detailed blog about her experience can be found here. There is a brilliant video about the trip with facts and figures, which can be found here.

          What was my true motivation for driving a 20 year-old 4×4 across Western Africa where both physical and political uncertainty would face me every day of the trip? Having completed this personal challenge and survived intact I still don’t know the answer but one thing is sure, I have changed as a person and I believe for the better.

           March 22nd saw myself and three men, of whom I knew a little, leave the UK by ferry for Spain. 36 hours later we commenced the 5000 miles overland to Ghana. The purpose of our journey was to deliver two Nissan Patrols for use as ambulances to the poorest region of Ghana – I have been working there to facilitate development of their healthcare system. As an anaesthetist there was only so far I felt I could go to improve survival of their surgical patients. I soon discovered that reliable transport was desperately needed to get sick patients to a hospital before they became too weak to be saved. This was a particular issue for the labouring woman who could easily die of blood loss before ever reaching a hospital.

           Our first night was spent camping in our small tents nestled in an olive grove. At this point I think my male travellers were amazed at my ability to pitch a tent. Whilst it could be easy to feel this to be rather chauvinistic, throughout the entire trip we were to discover a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses in each of us.

           A taste of things to come presented itself in the gruelling queuing and jostling for position with our cars in a fatiguing attempt to board the ferry crossing from Algeciras to Tangier, Morocco. The reason for this chaos lay behind the fact that alternative crossings had been cancelled due to high winds and local tempers were at sparking point.

            Exhausted and disorientated by the sudden appearance of the Arabian-style cacophony we took one of the few hotels for our trip that night.

           Each day that passed presented us with ever changing vistas, from the camels meandering at random on the roadside to the personalities of locals we came across.

           Bizarre incidents caught us unaware – speed traps on the side of a Saharan road, miles away from civilization; a venture into true Saharan sandy territory where we spent a windy night in a coastal Bedouin tent; the Armageddon-style desolation of no man’s land between Western Sahara and Mauritania and so on.

           I hesitate, at this point, to mention the heart-searching decisions we had to make in relation to our journey. The day before we left home a coup had broken out in Mali, making this a high risk country to enter. Algeria to the north was definitely out of bounds and Guinea Bassau to the south promised to be treacherous by road if the rainy season hit us. Even entering Mauritania was a red zone area on the UK Foreign Office website – some European visitors had been killed there last November, though local knowledge indicated this may have been fuelled by drunken behaviour, not recommended in a strict Muslim country, proud of its heritage.

Eventually we decided to go through Mali, such was our drive to complete our mission.

           I cannot speak more highly of the Malians who, over the next four days, came to our rescue as one or other of our vehicles broke down. Sheepishly I should come clean and admit that one was due to me hitting a pothole at 11 o’clock at night as we were desperately trying to make up lost time. I think, for me, this drained the last dregs of energy I owned.

           21 days after setting off from home with sand and dust coating our boxes of food and clothing we arrived at our destination of Burkina Faso. This for me was my cue to return home and catch up on my two daughters, of whom I had seen little over previous six months. I handed over the driving to two fresh drivers recently arrived from the UK who were to help see the vehicles to their final destination, Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region of Ghana.

           Months later and ensconced in the south of England I can recall all so easily the disparate and vivid memories that I captured during this trip. This includes the uncertainty and desperation that I felt on occasions but it is tempered by the fabulous warmth and welcoming hospitality from those we met en route. It was in every sense of the word a voyage of a lifetime, made all the more meaningful I guess because it had a purpose.

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