They say fortune favours the brace, no more so in the case of Mel and Sofia Cowpland who together with their Ural sidecar conquered the whole length of Africa, top to bottom….

Sofia has Autism. Autism means you don’t have the ability to process information about your environment. Before the trip she wasn’t going outside, and getting her out the house when it wasn’t for school was like starting WW3.

The idea with this ride from London to Cape Town was to open her eyes to the world and allow her to see it for herself. Of course there are safety issues with taking a child with autism, or any child for that matter down through Africa. But the need to keep safe shouldn’t always prevent you from doing things.

Sofia had mixed feelings. She was part excited and part nervous. The same really for anyone going on a big trip. You don’t know what’s going to happen. All you can do is prepare yourself for the time on the road and so during the planning stages I kept her really involved. I’d told her that when driving through Europe the first bit was going to be horrible; wet and windy, but that we’d just have to get through it. By the time we made it to Austria it was so cold, but Sofia wanted to carry on.

The trip was from our home in England all the way down to South Africa. We spent two weeks getting from the UK to Athens in Greece where the bike was sea freighted across to Egypt, whilst we flew. From there we took a steady pace down through Sudan into Ethiopia, where a few problems with the bike slowed us down a bit. Kenya followed, then Tanzania on a transit visa. It’s here we began to see giraffe, wildebeest, zebra,
buffalo and impala along the roadside. Into Zambia, Zimbabwe and finally down into South Africa. The trip was approximately 25000 kilometres and exactly 9 months.

Mid way through Africa I’d noticed some change in Sofia. She’d started to pay more attention to her environment. That was a really big thing to witness. She’d notice when it was a beautiful view. She started to become more confident and began to communicate with people. It was like she embraced the identity of being on the road. Her confidence level had really gone up.

In terms of danger on the road, it helped that the bike’s a real eye catcher. If everyone’s looking at the bike it makes it very difficult for someone to come up and do something bad to us. But people were so nice the whole way and we never had any problems, especially when they realised it was a mother and a child travelling together.

The biggest problem was with the bike. We had countless breakdowns, at one point leaving us stationary in Zimbabwe for three months waiting to get it fixed. It was a combination of factors that caused the problems with it. Possibly a bit of poor maintenance, poor road surfaces and probably just a bit of bad luck thrown in for good measure. But it made it. The bike is a Ural Sportsman, built in 2003 and had 14,800 km on the clock when we set off. The changes we made to it before the trip were minor. We fitted an extra battery in the boot as well as fixings for a spare tyre.

A new stronger driveshaft was fitted to the side car as the Ural is two wheeled drive. We removed the rear seat from the back of the bike to make room for a storage rack and two 20-litre jerry cans. We also fitted a roll bar to the sidecar for added safety. Before this trip I’d never ridden a bike before and passed my test in order to complete it. In the end the bike did a total of 19000 kilometres. It probably did another 4000 kilometres on the back of a truck after it kept breaking down!

The best bits were when we were actually moving and not broken down. That and meeting people along the way. It was great seeing peoples reactions. They loved the bike and what we were doing. Above all else, the best bit was coming back to the UK and seeing the difference in Sofia. Seeing how much she’d actually changed as a result of the trip. It has helped her socially. Her tolerance to life is much improved and she has a much better understanding about the world.

Previously she wouldn’t tolerate a lot of change, but now she does. It’s also helped her memory and brought us closer together in having something to look back on and share together. Some people say I was an irresponsible mother for taking her on the trip. But I would say quite the opposite. The trip has really given her a great start in life, that’s why in summer 2017 we’re hoping to go again, this time across Europe for nine weeks, including a spell into Russia. We’re taking the same sidecar outfit, though hoping for a bit more reliability this time!

To support Mel and Sofia and to read more about the trip through Africa and the subsequent European endeavour head to


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