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PICTURES: Highland teenager completes epic Africa cycling challenge to help Haven centre for young people with complex needs


By Val Sweeney

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Elsie Normington, John, Andrew, Peter, Amanda and Emma Prendergast and Rona Matheson. Picture: James Mackenzie.
Elsie Normington, John, Andrew, Peter, Amanda and Emma Prendergast and Rona Matheson. Picture: James Mackenzie.

A Highland teenager has endured soaring temperatures, sickness and exhausting days to complete a cycling challenge the length of Africa in support of a pioneering centre being developed in Inverness.

John Prendergast (19) has cycled 5400 miles from Cairo to Cape Town to raise money for the Elsie Normington Foundation which is building the Haven Centre, Scotland’s first multi-purpose centre for young people with learning difficulties and complex needs and their families.

So far he raised £10,000 towards his £15,000 target.

John, who lives in Fort Augustus, has seen at first hand the need for such a centre as his brother, Andrew (21) has autism and Down's syndrome.

"Growing up around the daily hardships faced by Andrew and my family, I fully understand the importance of the work being completed by the Elsie Normington Foundation and recognise the far-reaching impact that the Haven Centre will have across the Highlands," he said.

Arriving at the finish with Table Mountain shrouded in fog behind.
Arriving at the finish with Table Mountain shrouded in fog behind.

The former Gordonstoun School pupil was also inspired by an epic journey undertaken by Scottish explorer grandfather, David Lessels, 70 years ago when he embarked on a five-year expedition, walking the length and breadth of Africa.

John was among a 30-strong group who set off on the Tour d’Afrique in January to follow a route through through Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.

"The high points were definitely all the different landscapes across Africa and seeing it change from the perspective of nature – and also the different cultures," he said.

"You interact a lot with people and really get into the country not as normal tourists.

"We were cycling through rural communities and buying things from their shops and telling them what we were doing.

"There would be 100 school children who would see us and run from the playground to shout 'hello' which was really special."

On the start line (14 Jan) in Egypt.
On the start line (14 Jan) in Egypt.

Due to political instability, the group was unable to cycle through Ethiopia and flew to Nairobi in Kenya from Khartoum in Sudan where there is now a civil war.

"Cycling through Sudan felt extremely special," John said. "Everyone was so friendly and the landscape was incredible."

He said the biggest personal challenge was becoming ill several times.

Heat was another factor. Although the air temperatures were up to 36C, combined with the sun radiating off the roads put the temperature to well over 40C.

"When you are vomiting during the night, the last thing you want to do in the morning is ride 100 miles in extreme heat but I knew I had to do it," John said.

Arriving at a particular wet campsite in Tanzania.
Arriving at a particular wet campsite in Tanzania.

"When you are ill and your immune system is exhausted it means it takes so much longer to get better.

"But I knew I had so much support and so many people were watching me.

"I was absolutely determined not to give in."

Ironically, as he approached the finish point in South Africa, Table Mountain was shrouded in cloud so he never got to see the prominent landmark.

He was welcomed back to Inverness by his family and members of the Elsie Normington Foundation with the biggest greeting from his brother, Andrew.

Interactions with locals were always special. These were members of the Masai in southern Kenya.
Interactions with locals were always special. These were members of the Masai in southern Kenya.

Elsie Normington, chairwoman of the Elsie Normington Foundation, congratulated John on his achievement and thanked him for raising such a fantastic amount.

"It was such a huge cycle, that would have been a task even for the much more mature, experienced, and professional cyclist far less a 19-year-old," she said.

People can still donate towards John's fundraising challenge at www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/john-prendergast-cyclingafrica.

The £4.1 million Haven Centre is being developed at a site in Smithton and is due to open this summer.

It will include respite flats for young adults up to the age of 30 and an indoor specialist play centre with childcare facilities. There will also be a community café, meeting spaces and outdoor garden.

Special moment crossing the Tropic of Capricorn.
Special moment crossing the Tropic of Capricorn.

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