Two years ago, I cycled through Death Valley to raise money for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) - a charity that
removes landmines from conflict areas all over the world. MAG has now organised another ride, this time to the
two of the countries worst affected by landmines. There are still between four and six million landmines
left in Cambodia alone, while around 20% of the land surface of Vietnam is contaminated by mines and effectively
out of bounds to the people, except at enormous personal risk.
In the last ten years alone, nearly 5000 people have been killed or maimed by mines in Cambodia and there are
still estimated to be up to 800,000 tons of unexploded weapons in Vietnam. MAG's work doesn't just save lives
and limbs:clearing mines means that land can be restored to economic use.
Some readers may remember my appeal last year for sponsorship of my bike ride in Vietnam and Cambodia. Thanks to
their generosity – and that of other friends and family – I’ve managed to raise over £1900 for the cause. That’s
still an interim total though – if anyone else feels moved to chip in after reading what follows, please do so.
Contributions should be, ideally, in the form of cheques to MAG. (If you pay income tax, signing a simple form
which I can provide will increase the value of your gift).
The ride itself was tougher than anticipated, mainly because of the extreme heat. We'd been told to expect
temperatures of around 30 C (86 F) but in fact it varied from 35 to 38 C (95 to 100 F). Those of course are
shade temperatures but shade was in very short supply – and mostly non-existent on the main roads our route
followed, from Saigon in Vietnam to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
As it was so hot, the organisers cut down the distance to 356 km instead of the 470 planned. Even so, several
people came close to collapse. It worked out to around 70 km (45 miles) a day - successively, 62 (afternoon
only); 72, 77, 79 and 76. (Four days of the total were occupied in plane and bus travel).
We were generally cycling during the hottest part of the day as mornings were taken up with other things - a
visit to the tunnels used by the Vietnamese during the “American War”; one to a school in Cambodia; and another
to see a demonstration of how land is "decontaminated" ie of land mines. This is an incredibly laborious and
time-consuming business and an extremely uncomfortable one too – to say nothing of the obvious dangers. It was
hot for us in cycling shorts and T shirts but imagine crawling through undergrowth wearing a thick visor and heavy
body armour while searching for mines - and doing this for 6 hours a day in the very hot sun. (There are two seasons
here - hot and dry and hot and wet: we went when it was hot and dry).
The charity responsible for the event - the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) - has lost a lot of its funding in S E Asia
over the last couple of years as corporate sponsors have cut back on donations or stopped them altogether because of
the economic slump. As a result, MAG staff levels there have been slashed by around 25% - and the projected time it
will take to clear the remainder of the mines and other unexploded ordnance from Cambodia extended from 10 years to
perhaps 15 or more. But it will complete the task, however long it takes. Most of the work is carried out by trained
locals who help on land near their own village, although some stay on with MAG and help train others. Dogs are used too
and are very effective but take more than a year to train and so are very expensive indeed.
The absence of bitterness towards the west in both Vietnam and Cambodia is extraordinary - given the appalling woes
visited upon both countries - and inspiring too. There are few Christians there but much forgiving, if not forgetting.
The War Remnants Museum in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City - both names are used, it seems - will ensure that people can't forget
either the bombing or the "ecocide", the attempt by the USA to wipe out an entire natural habitat - the for-est - since
it concealed the enemy.
The enduring people memory for me and most of those who took part in this event will be the crowds of small children
who appeared by the side of almost every road we passed along in Cambodia calling out "Hello (foreigner)" and trying
to touch hands with us. None of us will forget, either, the ancient temples - Angkor Wat and others - in Siem Reap
province in Cambodia, some constructed 1000 years ago but likely to outlast anything built there in the following
Altogether 43 riders took part - predominantly English but including two Americans, two Canadians and one person
each from Germany, Holland, Ireland and Portugal. I was - perhaps perversely - delighted to discover that I was
the oldest, albeit by a matter of only six months. There were three others in their sixty second year and we four
geriatrics often looked fresher than others half our age!
Thanks again to all those in the village who supported me. I paid all my own expenses so every penny you donated
went to MAG, as will any more dosh that anyone comes up with.
If anyone feels inspired to have a go at this sort of thing themselves, I’d recommend it. You don’t need to be
young nor superfit – just determined! – and you meet some lovely, idealistic people. MAG’s next publicity event
is a mass abseil down Battersea Power Station. I think I’ll give that one a miss.
If you'd like to contribute, please send me a cheque (but made payable to MAG, not to me). Alternatively,
I can provide a form (I can deliver or email it) which will enable you to pay by debit or credit card.
Steve Berry, email@example.com