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Grounded in Africa after Covid-19 halted intrepid fundraiser

April 26th, 2020 11:50 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Jane and Mel Bendon had to call a halt to the Mel’s Miles fundraisier and scrabble for a flight home.

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WEST Cork businessman, Mel Bendon – who set himself the challenge of cycling 10,900km from Cairo to Cape Town for charity – confirmed that ‘getting home in the climate of airport and border shutdowns’ presented quite a challenge too.

Mel lives some of the time in Knysna in South Africa with his wife Jane, and their two sons, Peter and Philip, but he is best known throughout West Cork as the powerhouse behind Glenmar Shellfish Ltd, which has its base of operations in Union Hall.

Mel ‘technically’ retired from the business on December 31st 2019, but still plays a role as a consultant. At the age of 64, he spent time enjoying the pleasures of a good climate and a nice lifestyle in sunny South Africa, as well as lots of time pursuing his passion for cycling and flying his powered trike, which is a fully-certified aircraft, a smaller version of a microlight.

The businessman established Mel’s Miles – a fundraising initiative for ‘Wells for Zoe’ – in the hope of raising €10,000 for the charity’s work in providing people with clean drinking water.

But, as it turned out, he said: ‘There were more twists and turns in this story than there are potholes on the Great Northern Road from Lusaka to Lake Tanganyika, but that’s the world we live in today.’

The plan was hatched in early 2019 when he set out with Jane in their Land Rover for an adventurous northward ride through Botswana into Zambia, where they met up with friends from back home: Lal Thompson, Jean Hanlon, Brian Collins and Betty Nolan – in Lusaka.

In March 2019, Mel and Jane visited Malawi to check out various Wells for Zoe projects in and around Mzuzu and saw first-hand its wonderful nursery and the compact well-manufacturing facility.

The Mel’s Miles cycle was due to commence in January 2020, but it was curtailed because of the coronavirus. However, they subsequently undertook ‘a second leg’ via Land Rover from Cape Town.

When Mel and Jane were joined by friends Cecil and Terry Henley for a portion of this adventure, none of them knew it would turn out to be one of the last of the winter season before the great shutdown.

It was on St Patrick’s Day, March 17th, when they pulled into Arusha in Tanzania, that everything came to a juddering halt.

‘We received the news that the Cairo to Cape Town Tour d’Afrique cycle has been called off by the organisers and that the dreaded coronavirus had reached all of Africa.’

Although they had been making good progress, by the time they crossed the border into Kenya, they were informed that the borders into the Sudan and Egypt had closed so they had no option but to park up at Jungle Junction in Nairobi.

Mel said: ‘We realised that getting home would be a challenge because everywhere the border crossings were closing rapidly and airlines were cancelling their international flights left, right and centre.

‘The problem was to get a seat on a flight. We had to wait several days before we could get a flight back from Kenya. We were lucky to be able to fly out of Nairobi to London, then onto Cork, before the door closed.

‘We landed in Cork on Friday morning, March 20th and felt relieved to be finally home. We are, of course, disappointed that we couldn’t continue the trip and the minute the borders are open we will resume the journey and hopefully raise our target of €10,000.’

Mel said they were happy sleeping on the roof top tent on their Land Rover, and that they are missing ‘the weather, the wildlife, and the local people. Here,’ he joked, ‘it’s a bit like being in jail.’

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