By night, they huddled together to sleep under the roof of a 23-year-old ambulance.
By day, they navigated a multi-continental course through Europe and Africa.
At least that’s the shorthand version of Mike Reali’s trip overseas.
The Fishtown resident and three friends—Stephen Jan from New Jersey and Dennis Liaw and Kunal Modi, both from New York—decided to donate an ambulance to a health care group in Africa, and intended to travel for three weeks.
They were gone for three months.
It all began last December, when the group, the Last Responders, purchased a decommissioned 1989 Ford ambulance in Massachusetts. They then shipped the vehicle to London, and flew to meet it there and participate in the Timbuktu Challenge—a road rally organized by Dakar Challenges, a group that sets up similar adventures around the world.
The Timbuktu Challenge is meant to be a 4,100-mile transcontinental road race. Reali’s team, however, was focused more on the charitable aspect of donating the ambulance to 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.
Of the experience, Reali said it was surreal at times.
“We bought [the ambulance] in Massachusetts, and here we were driving it in London,” he said during an interview on Saturday, May 12. “It was this big, American vehicle, and it had New York plates, so people would stop us and want to talk about New York.”
He also mentioned that parking the ambulance was not without its misadventures. “We couldn’t even fit it into the parking garages there,” he said.
After leaving London, the team followed the course through the Sahara Desert and eventually ended up in Bamako, the capitol city of Mali.
To keep good time on their trek to Africa, Reali said, they had to drive straight through France and Spain nonstop.
“I joke that we just toured the rest stops of Spain and France,” he said.
The team hit their first snag in the in the city of Marrakesh, just outside of Morocco. The ambulance’s differential housing – a crucial piece of the transmission – broke.
They spent a week waiting for repairs, but ended up making the best of the setback; they passed the time by hiking throughout the countryside and taking photos.
“There was a lot to photograph,” said Reali, an accomplished photographer. “Just taking photos of the garage [where the ambulance was being repaired] was incredible.”
Upon returning to the rally course once those repairs were complete, the team experienced further car trouble.
“The speedometer and odometer didn’t work,” Reali said. “It wouldn’t stay in gear. We knew we couldn’t go through the desert like that.”
They stopped again for repairs in Dakhla, a city on the western edge of the Sahara Desert.
For thirty-three days, they waited yet again for repairs.
Just as before, though, they found themselves embracing the delay.
“It was a really good place to be stuck,” Reali said. “We didn’t have running water, but we had good friends.”
Though significantly behind schedule, the Last Responders eventually hit the road and delivered the ambulance, which will serve as a mobile health station and bring medical supplies to people in need.
Before they left, Reali said, they needed to train the three men who would now be responsible for the vehicle.
It didn’t take the new owners long to get comfortable.
“They drove us back to our hotel in it. The first thing [the driver] said was ‘buckle your seatbelts’,” said a grinning Reali. “We were just like, ‘well, it’s his now.’”
Reali returned to the city last month. He said the memorable experience gave him the chance to become a better photographer—he often had to work with people who didn’t like having their picture taken.
“We went to a lot of poor places and we saw the vastly different ways people live their lives,” he said. “The way I shoot now has changed, I think, because of this experience.”
As for the ambulance, he laughed when asked if he regretted having to spend money on so many repairs for the vehicle, only to give it away.
“We wanted to give it to them,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we gave it to people who will put it to good use.”
To learn more details about the Last Responders’ trip, visit www.lastresponders.org.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org.