Some people bike for fun or fitness, but Theo Rohfritsch and Simon Valdenaire bike for something less personal – clean water.
The two young Frenchmen have been cycling for six months on a trip from France to New Zealand, stopping in 21 countries along the way to raise awareness of the importance of clean water.
Their campaign, Cycle for Water, was inspired by a similar journey completed by Joost Notenboom and Michiel Roodenburg, a duo from the Netherlands who travelled 30,000 kilometres from Alaska to Antarctica in order to draw actionable attention to the global water crisis. That quest managed to raise US$36,000 toward water projects and educational programs, as well as link primary school students with local water projects across the globe.
Rohfritsch met the duo while on an expedition in Antarctica at the same time and thought that the effort aligned well with his own passion for conservation. Their zeal led him to ask his friend Valdenaire, who studied at the same university in Lithuania, if he was interested in a similar trip but from west to east.
“I told him I needed to think about for a few days,” Valdenaire said. “But it’s a great cause.”
Since July 2015, the two have cycled from France to Myanmar, a journey of more than 10,000 kilometres. They plan to reach New Zealand by this coming August. Along the way, they have stopped at schools, universities and businesses to give talks about the importance of clean water.
“Clean drinking water is key in society living healthy lifestyles, especially for the new generation,” Rohfritsch said.
According to The Water Project, an international non-profit organisation, more than 1 billion people around the world lack access to clean, safe drinking water. Many of those live in developing countries in Southeast Asia, where lacklustre regulation has allowed industry to offload waste products into important water sources. The increased awareness of these issues, as well as methods for combating their effects through resourceful means, is the primary goal of the ride.
Everything about the trip is geared toward sustainable living – even the bikes, which they built themselves out of bamboo at the Bamboo Bicycle Club in East London. The epic trip has taken them through 12 countries thus far, including remote regions such as Uzbekistan and Kazahkstan, and more populous ones like India. Along the way they have learned basic languages and customs, as well as survival skills.
“It’s a different type of camping that we are used to,” laughed Valdenaire. “Wherever there is a roof, we take it. The most difficult aspect is definitely finding a place to sleep or something to eat.”
In Myanmar, they discovered that homestays are illegal and tried their luck at a temple. The police showed up and told them no, but in a classic showing of Myanmar hospitality decided to take them to a hotel.
“People here are very welcoming. It’s rare,” Rohfritsch said. “People are very nice, smiling all the time. And we can see that the country only recently opened up. We can feel it in the countryside – people are very surprised to see strangers like us.”
The lack of clean drinking water is plain to see in Myanmar, a country where large plastic jugs and water bottles are the normal vessels.
“Since 2012, clean water access has been declared a human right,” Rohfritsch said. “The only way to have clean drinking water here is to buy plastic bottles – but how can you buy a human right?”
So far, their effort has proven less lucrative than that which inspired them: They have yet to raise any money. But with a crowdfunding campaign set to launch in coming weeks, they aim to raise 10,000 euros by the time they reach New Zealand and 25,000 euros by the time the news of their expedition reaches more people. They have already received 3000 likes through their Facebook page, a sign of the ever-growing number of people they’ve met along the way.
“Now is a good moment to start the crowdfunding,” Rohfritsch said. “We have been biking for six months, so we’ve been in touch with many people. And now they are starting to follow us on social media.”
They will remain in Myanmar through February 21, at which point they head to Thailand. There they plan to help four schools in the north-eastern region access clean water.
“Everyday we are learning lessons about water,” he said. “We are not teaching people how to manage the water, we are also learning ourselves from local people how they do it.”
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