Clinical trials: Dougie Lampkin trains Riders for Health workers in Lesotho
The rider ahead is still sitting down, which I find reassuring. If he can navigate the wet clay, loose rocks and increasing gradient without having to leave the saddle, then even a wobbly off-roader like me might be able to manage it standing up. The only flaw in my plan is the rider ahead has 12 world trials championships to his name and now he’s standing up, too. Bugger.
Dougie Lampkin is in Lesotho training Riders for Health couriers who use motorbikes to reach some of the most remote parts of southern Africa and provide crucial healthcare provision. We spend a day with some of their more advanced riders so Dougie can show them what’s possible on their little Suzuki DR200s.
Luckily for me, Dougie’s only standing up because he’s spied a natural obstacle he can use for a demonstration and is getting a better look. The Yorkshireman is constantly on the look out for makeshift trials sections to conquer, whatever he’s riding.
When he’s pulling off miraculous tricks on the Vertigo 300 he’s brought out for demos, it can be easy to lose perspective. But when seemingly insurmountable obstacles are cleared with ease on the same agricultural-spec DR as you it’s very humbling.
We peel off the track to a flat, rocky area flanked by a deep gorge and watch aghast as Dougie appears to drop, without hesitation, off the edge of the world into the crevasse.
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One of the local riders puts his head in his hands, utterly convinced we won’t see Dougie or the bike again as the gully is so steep and full of wet mud and gravel. In the UK, we’ve grown used to seeing Dougie’s unbelievable talent, but trials is yet to reach Lesotho and some of Dougie’s antics draw audible gasps from the onlooking trainees.
But within moments the sound of a barely ticking over 200cc single rises up through the landscape as Dougie threads back up through the dirt before reappearing with a small wheelie flourish at the top.
“Right,” Dougie says in his casual Yorkshire lilt. “Who’s next?”
It takes one very reluctant volunteer to get things moving, but under Dougie’s guidance he makes it safely to the top and, with renewed confidence, all the remaining riders take on and complete the challenge.
“These guys are much better riders than I’d expected them to be,” Dougie tells me during a brief rest stop. “They’re trials riders, they just don’t know they are.”
There’s no doubting the bravery on display, either. Every exercise is tackled fearlessly with the only limiting factor being the possibility of damaging the bike rather than themselves. Tough, the lot of ’em.
“Visiting Lesotho to see the work of Riders for Health has really changed my life,” continues the now 43-year-old. “I can see how motorcycles really are an absolutely vital part of access to health care for people who live in very, very difficult conditions. A motorcycle really is the only viable vehicle in these places. My role with Two Wheels for Life and Riders for Health is to help people ride further and more safely.”
And he adds: “Celebrity ambassadors do a lot of good but I’d rather be getting my hands dirty doing this. We’ll have to work out a name for my role but whatever it is I can’t wait!”
Watching the Riders for Health team show off their skills and laugh and poke fun at one another is great fun, but there’s a very serious reason for this trip, too. The couriers and other health workers need to reach villages that can only be accessed by foot, horse or motorcycle and the medical supplies they carry are time sensitive, leaving bikes the best option.
Lesotho is known as ‘The Kingdom in the Clouds’ due to its mountain top location and is spectacularly beautiful but the riding conditions can be treacherous. When it rains the soil becomes as slick as diesel while, as the trails are predominantly used by pedestrians and cattle, they’re ungraded, unpredictable and often with head-spinning drops ready to punish any mistake.
From any of the country’s plentiful vistas (the whole place is above 1400 metres so you’re never not up a mountain) you can watch ferocious storms sweep across the landscape like a stage curtain engulfing all in their path.
The breath-taking scenery is clawed and pummelled by every Toto-endorsed downpour before the water is corralled into torrential streams that cut the soft clay to ribbons and eventually carve the rock itself. A trail one minute becomes a stream the next, and cliff-edges momentarily transform into waterfalls without warning.
Every time a rider has to turn back it can mean a delayed diagnosis, non-treatment of deadly or contagious diseases, no inoculations for children and no antenatal care for expectant mothers.
HIV is a big problem. A quarter of the 2.2 million people in Lesotho carry the virus, the second highest rate in the world, and it’s imperative that cases are diagnosed and treated quickly.
The couriers use bikes to travel between clinics and health centres to get diagnoses and treatments more quickly, covering 100-150 miles per day. The work Dougie and the Riders for Health team does to improve their skills therefore literally saves lives.
And it’s not just about rider training, either. Riders for Health operate 167 motorcycles in Lesotho ridden by health professionals and couriers employed by the local Ministry of Health and trained by the charity.
In 2019/20, Riders for Health has spent just over £80,000 supplying six new Suzuki DR200s plus training and clothing, digital training, handsets and phone covers and workshop refurbishment – and there’s already a request for four further bikes and training for 10 new mechanics this year.
Lesotho, meanwhile, is just one of eight African nations where Riders for Health operate. They also work with Liberia, The Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Later in the day, Dougie and I are riding with two health workers when we encounter a river crossing that has swelled after yet another rainstorm. We wait for as long as possible to let the water subside but after seeing a local woman hitch up her skirt and wade through on foot with a week’s worth of washing balanced on her head we decide it’s time to stop being soft and take it on.
I let Dougie go first and watch intently as he picks a tricky line over some pronounced rocks, making it all look easy.
“I didn’t want to get my boots wet and it’s shallower there,” he shouts from the other bank. I’m less worried about keeping my feet dry more about being swept downstream so pick a more direct line, take a clammy handful of throttle and set off.
In my nervous exuberance I hit the water much faster than necessary and the bow wave I cause washes up over the front wheel, splashing over my headlight and handguards. Knowing the worst thing I can do is to stop, I try to stay loose, hold a constant throttle in first gear and keep my fingers well away from the clutch.
By the time I reach the other bank, I’ve been swept a few metres downstream by the current and can barely see through the nervous sweat stinging my eyes, but I’ve made it.
“Do you think you went in fast enough?” is all I get from a grinning Dougie but I’m so relieved to have made it I don’t mind the teasing. At this point we realise the two Riders for Health workers are still sitting tight with their helmets off and it doesn’t look like they’re planning to go anywhere soon.
Through a translator, we discover that they’re worried about dropping the bikes in the water as it would mean downtime while they are dried out and got running again. So Dougie cooks up a plan in which the support truck takes him back across the river to pick up the riders, leaving him to ride their bikes back through the river.
But, of course, there’s only one of him and two bikes. “Well, your feet are wet already,” he says with a firm pat on my back.
The work Riders for Health do is funded by MotoGP’s charity of choice, Two Wheels for Life. There are lots of ways you can help to get care to remote communities using motorcycles. The charity’s website is full of possibilities including volunteering to help at the Silverstone and COTA rounds of MotoGP, fundraising yourself or simply donating.
You can also get yourself to Day of Champions, 22 August 2020 (subject to change) as part of the British GP or grab an exclusive MotoGP paddock experience and memorabilia. Visit the Two Wheels for Life website to find out more.