Fishtown artist planning the ride of a lifetime

Fishtown’s Mike Reali is pre­par­ing for a unique ad­ven­ture.

Soon, he’ll be tool­ing through Africa on a 4100 mile course start­ing in Eng­land, weav­ing through the Saha­ra Desert and end­ing in Ba­mako, the cap­it­ol city of Mali.

Oh, and in­stead of a race car or all-ter­rain Hum­mer, he and a team of friends will be driv­ing a re­fur­bished am­bu­lance the en­tire way. 

“These things are built to last,” said a smil­ing Reali, dur­ing an in­ter­view on Thursday, Nov. 10. “The am­bu­lance is in great shape. There’s room to sleep five, but there’s only four of us…We even have a ham­mock hung up in the back. It’s com­fy.” 

Cur­rently, the de­com­mis­sioned am­bu­lance, a 1989 Ford, sits on Frank­ford Av­en­ue await­ing its trip over­seas. 

The 32-year-old Reali, an ac­com­plished pho­to­graph­er with a few books of his work un­der his belt – in fact, his book “Old Man Drinks” fea­tures por­traits of some loc­al res­id­ents – said he’s look­ing at the trip as an al­tru­ist­ic ad­ven­ture. Along with tak­ing a wild three-week long trip through two con­tin­ents, Leary’s team, the Last Re­spon­ders, will be bring­ing school sup­plies, mos­quito nets and oth­er sup­plies to char­it­able or­gan­iz­a­tions in Mali.

In fact, he said, the team will donate the am­bu­lance it­self. 

“We came back to the am­bu­lance idea be­cause it’s the most use­ful thing to donate,” he said. “If you get the lights and sirens work­ing, you could use it as an am­bu­lance to­mor­row.”

Reali said the group they are work­ing with in Mali is the Salif Keita Glob­al Found­a­tion. The group works to pro­tect in­di­vidu­als with al­bin­ism, which af­fects the melan­in in the body, res­ult­ing in little or no col­or in the eyes, skin and hair.

In some areas these al­bi­nos, said Reali, are per­se­cuted, even hunted and killed, be­cause it is be­lieved that they are ma­gic­al. 

“Al­bi­nos are per­se­cuted over there. It’s crazy,” he said. “They will be killed for their body parts.” 

But, why would Reali and his three friends, one from New Jer­sey the oth­ers from New York, give up their hol­i­days to drive across the desert, through war-torn coun­tries?

“Well, I don’t know about the oth­ers, but for me, it’s go­ing over there to learn things. That’s part of it, the un­known,” he said. “I like to learn about oth­er places and people.”

Also, as a pho­to­graph­er, Reali said he’s ex­cited for the op­por­tun­ity to pho­to­graph­er oth­er parts of the world.

The trip they are tak­ing is the Tim­buktu Chal­lenge, a road rally set up by Dakar Chal­lenges, a group that sets up these types of ad­ven­tures around the world. 

But, Reali said, that group’s in­volve­ment in his up­com­ing trip will be lim­ited – “They give you a start­ing point and an end­ing point and that’s about it,” he said – and in­stead, he’s still gath­er­ing con­tri­bu­tions to cov­er some ex­penses re­lated to the am­bu­lance and to donate funds to the Mali Health Or­gan­iz­ing Pro­ject, an Amer­ica-based non-profit group that provides life-sav­ing ser­vices to Mali. 

“People from all over the world do it (the Tim­buktu Chal­lenge)…I hon­estly don’t know what to ex­pect,” he said. 

The rally starts on Decem­ber 16th and, when asked what he hopes to do on the three-week trail or if he has wor­ries about the trip, a grin­ning Reali said he is wor­ried about thieves and ban­dits who are said to be out in that area. 

“Get­ting robbed is cer­tainly a con­cern,” he said.

But mostly, he’s look­ing for­ward to the simple joy of an ad­ven­ture in the wil­der­ness with his friends. 

“It’s go­ing to sound silly, but I want to sleep on the roof of the am­bu­lance,” he said. 

Also, along the way, he said, the group might take time to do some sight see­ing. The Mo­roc­can city of Cas­ab­lanca is on the route and Reali said he’s look­ing for­ward to check out the stor­ied Mo­roc­can open air street mar­kets. ••

If you’re in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about Reali’s up­com­ing trip or in help­ing con­trib­ute to the ef­forts of his team, the Last Re­spon­ders check out the web site at www.lastrespon­ 

Re­port­er Hay­den Mit­man can be reached at 215-354-3124 or hmit­  

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