Africa, adventure and an ambulance

Fishtown­er Mike Reali and friends spent the last few months on a trek through Africa to donate a much-needed am­bu­lance.

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.lastrespon­

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


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