Three women, three motorbikes and one goal: to get a motorbike to a ranger in Uganda to help protect the animals from poachers
It was a simple plan: instead of spending a small fortune for the delivery of a motorbike to wildlife rangers in a nature reserve, they would simply drive it there. The three women had extensive experience with motorbikes, in fact, it was their passion for bikes that originally brought them together. Tiffany Coates held the women’s world record of riding the most miles, Nicole Espinosa’s life as a nomadic adventure motorcyclist, and Lorraine Chittock, a photojournalist whose father taught her to ride at 16 (he himself competed in motorbike competitions in the 1940s), leading to her first bike adventure at 18… riding solo across California.
All three women had spoken at adventure motorcyclist events such as Horizons Unlimited Motorcycle Meets and Overland Expo, both of which attract thousands of attendees. But it was during a trip to East Africa and seeing the need wildlife rangers had for high-speed vehicles, that Lorraine came up with the grand plan to deliver a bike in this way. All three had tremendous experience riding solo; safety was not a concern. It was more important to them that it would be a fun group adventure. However from a practical standpoint, if one bike broke down there would always be another for going to get help. What’s more, it would mean they could two-up (two women on one bike) on the return. It was a practical and less expensive solution to getting the bike where it would be of most use protecting the elephants and other wildlife of Murchison Falls National Park. The bike, however, had other ideas.
The bike first broke down just after leaving the starting point, Kampala. No problem. The women were used to bikes breaking down. They took the bike to be repaired. It broke down again, and again, and again. Each time the team took it in their stride; they would get there eventually.
The delays in getting to the end destination, however, did not prevent the women from fulfilling a different promise they had made – to take 18 children from an orphanage to visit a national park. “The kids went nuts when they saw the monkeys!” says Chittock. “Even though these kids grew up within 100 kilometers of some of the world’s most iconic wildlife, none of the kids had ever seen a zebra, giraffe or any other of the animals revered by so many Westerners.”
With that promise fulfilled, it was time to get back on the road and get the bikes to Murchison Falls National Park. Lorraine had met park warden Julius Obona, winner of the Tusk Wildlife Ranger Award, on a previous trip to the park.
During the first one and a half years of his leadership at the park, more than 700 suspects were prosecuted, with 620 successful convictions. Fourteen of those convictions included some of the most notorious heavily-armed elephant poachers. Ten metric tonnes of snares were confiscated and elephant entrapment was reduced from three a day to three a month.
When Lorraine accompanied Obona’s rangers on patrol, she saw at first hand a few of the many battles the rangers face and the basic tools that were in short supply. “It was clear that buying and delivering a bike was something myself, Nicole and Tiffany could actually do that would make a difference,” she says. “Documenting our journey was important, to inspire others to contribute where they can. I call the estrogen-charged adventure film ‘The Bike’”.
With all the breakdowns and repairs, time was running out. Tiffany had to return to England in two weeks. Lorraine had wildlife to film. So the decision was made that Nicole would attempt the last part of the journey solo. Nicole’s attitude when it comes to these kinds of situations is simply to ride/keep on riding. “When faced with adversity, sometimes the best choice is to soar right through it on two wheels!” she says.
After hours of riding on remote roads, the bike broke down again, just as Nicole neared a village. Before she had time to assess the situation, she was surrounded by groups of surprised children and young men. Foreign females on motorbikes – functioning or not – didn’t pass through often, obviously. Nicole soon found herself begin warmly welcomed with food and lodging, not to mention some much-needed help with fixing the bike. But with the endpoint of Murchison Falls National Park still a good ride away, Nicole was worried. The bike was likely to break down again… So when she found out there was a truck heading back to Kampala upon which she could load the bike, Nicole grabbed the opportunity. Sometimes, you have to accept that the bike just doesn’t want to go where you want it to.
Back in Kampala, the seller of the motorbike did a thorough overhaul of the bike. It was now in great working condition. So Lorraine, who returned to Kampala to receive the bike, triumphantly presented the paperwork to the organization that handles motorbikes for the rangers in the park. But that wasn’t good enough. There were parts of the bike listed in the paperwork that didn’t match the actual bike. It may be Africa, but there were still laws to abide by and the organization couldn’t risk potentially damaging their reputation. The bike donation was rejected.
Determined to give the bike an altruistic purpose in life, Lorraine contacted the organizers at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only one of its kind in Uganda. Although Uganda had previously been home to two indigenous rhino species (black rhino and northern white), poaching, habitat loss, and armed human conflict had led to both being wiped out. Ziwa is a private non-profit that was set up in 2005 with just seven southern white rhinos, which had been imported. Now, more than 20 rhinos enjoyed the protection of the reserve… but that required armed ranger surveillance, 24 hours a day. The seventy-eight rangers there mostly used bicycles to monitor the rhinos. But the length of the fence, 26 kilometers in total, necessitated that a ranger patrols the fence at least twice a day, too. A new motorbike would be a real blessing.
Lorraine had the bike delivered to the park and it was finally put to use to help protect the only rhinos in Uganda. Like most real-life happy endings, this one hadn’t been reached by a straight and easy path, but one filled with setbacks, detours and dead ends. The bike had finally found its forever home.
You can find more information about the adventures of the three motorbikers here
All photos by Nicole Espinosa