Traveling on a Yamaha TT600 motorcycle through Africa is hardly my idea of a modern-day path to enlightenment. But the story that took Heather Ellis twenty years to write after returning from Africa in 1994 awakens some of the most pressing and universal questions each of us will grapple with in life.
Ubuntu is an African term describing the universal bond we share. Heather uses the words of Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and well-known South African social rights activist, to help explain it: “Ubuntu speaks …about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation… [it’s] about our interconnectedness … and [how] what you do affects the whole world.”
Traveling alone and believing Africa would embrace a single white woman in her twenties, was a huge leap of faith by Heather. The genocide in Rwanda was about to erupt; South Africa was in turmoil as apartheid was ending; Congo was gripped by civil war; and unrest and poverty lingered in many areas of her travels. Equipped with only basic mechanical skills to keep her motorcycle operational, Heather was on a mission to connect with Africa’s people and to explore the beauty of its lands.
When Heather shared her plan for Africa, most people thought she was crazy. But her story and the book’s namesake, Ubuntu, has become a bestseller. I wondered if our world had something to do with it. We live at a time of individualism, isolationist politics and escalating fears about global terrorism and unrest. Ubuntu’s message challenges us to be fearless and to overcome “what if.” Do we secretly long to go off-road in search of our identify or an adventure? Maybe we stay in an unhappy life because we don’t know how to be open to new experiences?
As we drive through Ubuntu, Heather’s story and map of the places she visited describe her free spirit and the attention she commanded behind the wheel of her powerful motorcycle. You can see a map of Heather’s route at the end of this article. This photo shows friends she met in a pygmy village in the Ituri rainforest, in the central African nation of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). Heather traveled on a bush track from Epulu to Beni in 1997.
Readers experience the sights, smells and raw emotions of Africa, visiting places most of us will likely never see. The story opens with a description of Heather’s youth and her job working at the Ranger uranium mine on the fringe of Kakadu. Heather was born in the northern territory of Australia to parents that owned a sheep station. It’s easy to see how her early childhood days exploring nature and the ridges of Kakadu National Park area instilled a bond with nature.
When I consulted a map to learn more about the Kakadu territory, I was astounded by its dramatic beauty. Kakadu National Park boasts an enormous, biodiverse terrain with unspoiled waterfalls, Aboriginal rock art and sandstone escarpments. There aren’t many places like this left in the world, and its spectacular vantage reminded me of my visit to El Yunique rainforest and the Luiza story in Puerto Rico.
When she couldn’t shake the voice in her head telling her to leave Australia, Heather took a full year to plan every detail of the trip: the physical demands of the motorcycle, packing the right gear, and shipping replacement tires and money at designated checkpoints along the way. Everything seemed to fall into place, including a timely delivery of Ted Simon’s Book, Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph, and the perfect bike arriving on her doorstep.
The adventure begins after Heather’s ten-day voyage across the Indian Ocean from Fremantle, Australia to Durban, South Africa. We are taken on a great ride filled with wonderful prose and engaging tales of suspense as we drive alongside Heather’s zig-zagging path. There are three distinct sections of the book – from Kakadu to Kenya, Uganda to Zaire and Congo to Mauritania – each drawing us deeper into the perils of Africa’s lively villages, armed checkpoints and incredible nature. The photo shows Heather’s bike loaded with her gear in Kenya, bogged in a dry riverbed near Lake Turkana. She is hopelessly lost and our emotional stake in her safety grows over the course of her journey.
On a deeper level, we also journey with Heather into questions about our own interactions with the people and what we need to feel happy and safe in the world. We hone our instincts when she must decide what to do in difficult situations. We also see how simple it can be to build trust and relationships through Heather’s eyes. She shares family photo albums and points to places she’s traveled on her map to engage the people she meets, discovering Africa unlike the tourists who backpack through villages without really getting to know the people.
This helps to explain how Heather survives serious bouts of malaria and days without food. Just when you think her luck has run out, she is offered a place to rest, a much-needed shower and plentiful food. Heather even survives a deathly illness after giving her last pack of lifesaving antibiotics to a sick child, who traveled for weeks on the same riverboat. A fellow traveler shows up just in time to provide the needed medicine.
These rescues happen countless times and Heather’s well-honed instincts save her from “the dark eyes of people who want to do harm.” Her “unwavering belief that things will work out” cuts through my pessimism, time and again. Before long, her exhausting rides and aching arms, weak from crossing impossibly difficult conditions like mud holes, become the reader’s challenges. Her success is like a palpable energy (as Heather calls it) for surviving in places like this photo – a mud highway from Bukavu to Kisangani.
Midway through the Zaire journey, the halfway point in the book, Heather treks a 4500-foot summit to the top of the Rwenzori mountain range. Over “the mountains of the moon” that border Uganda and Zaire, she reaches the peak and describes the science of intuition. Heather says” the forces that flow around the earth [that] have natural scientific pulls akin to the pulls we have in human nature and our natural inclinations.” I can almost see the picture she describes: the “long fingers of sunlight that reach down on the mountain tops” keeping natural instincts from drowning in the world trying to silence them through fear, suspicion and doubt.
This photo shows Heather posing with villagers in Kenya’s Lake Turkana region, an area surrounded by inhospitable desert. Considered the cradle of humanity, it is still home to many richly traditional nomadic tribes. While lost in the desert, it was these tribespeople who saved her.
By the time Heather reaches Mauritania, her motorcycle tires are worn and she prepares to leave Africa on a cargo ship bound for Europe. Her TT bike limps to the finish line alongside her.
After heading to London (pictured above left) where she works as a motorcycle courier, Heather is already saving her earnings to fund the second leg of her world motorcycle journey. An exciting new chapter in life awaits after a 15-month-long ride, visiting 19 countries and riding 42,000 miles through Africa.
She doesn’t know it but the photo of her on the shores of the Caspian Sea (top right), going through central Asia in 1997, signals the end of her tour. Heather’s story takes a stunning turn. She is diagnosed HIV positive after a routine blood scan performed for a job in Russia, where she had hoped to work and learn to speak the language. Heather contracted the disease from a man who forced his way into her bedroom in Mali, at the tail end of her African journey. Were it not for timely new HIV drug discoveries that control the virus to undetectable levels and are as good as a cure, Heather would not be here today.
In fact, Heather wrote the first draft of Ubuntu because she thought she was dying. She still believes Africa saved her – awakened her to Ubuntu – and, as one of 37 million people now living with HIV, she continues to embrace Ubuntu as she fights the stigma of the disease. Letting go of the fear of being judged by others and writing Ubuntu is Heather’s salvation. When I first contacted Heather about sharing this story, she was on her way to speak to a group of high school students about sexual health and HIV.
Heather hopes people will draw connections and energy from their experiences. These will help them to harness the true riches in life not found in the material world. Look for Ubuntu and our shared humanity. Heather is now writing the sequel to Ubuntu. Her second book will be released in late 2018 and chronicles her travels along the Silk Road through Central Asia (see the photo below taken in Krgyzstan). It shares the complexities of her HIV diagnosis before treatments existed and death from AIDS was inevitable.
Her sequel continues the theme of believing in our intuition and seeing meaning in the chance encounters and coincidences that come our way, while also asking the reader to question their own mortality. What are we doing with our short and precious life? Thankfully, the motorcycle travels for Heather, a single mother of three healthy boys, are not over. Her next journey awaits, as her motorcycle, the trusted TT friend, sits in the shed behind her home. She jokes about being grounded until her children are old enough for her to leave home. For Heather, life is an open book.
To read more about Heather visit: www.heather-ellis.com
Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa is available on Amazon, iBooks, Google Play and Kobo.