Arclight Tandem Africa: two boys on a bike for sight

Alex McMaster and Merlin Hetherington will be distributing a St Andrews-developed device for diagnosing diseases leading to blindness and deafness throughout Africa by way of their bicycle-built-for-two, Roxanne.

Arclight Tandem Africa

On any given day, the streets of St Andrews are graced by a whole host of student bikes. Some are old and in an obvious state of decay.  Some are brand new, with fresh paintwork and lights.  But none are quite as distinctive — or indeed have attracted as much attention — as the tandem that goes by the name of Roxanne.

Over the past couple of years,  the sight of third-year students  Alex McMaster (Biology and Geography)  and Merlin Hetherington (Medicine) riding this tandem around St Andrews has become a  common one.

Outside of St Andrews,  the pair have used the tandem to make numerous trips around Scotland and last summer, they even took it to Spain, cycling all the way from the Atlantic  Coast to Barcelona.

Next year, however, Mr McMaster and Mr Hetherington are channelling their love of cycling into their most challenging trip to date; an initiative to supply the Arclight Ophthalmoscope to some of the most medically deprived regions of the world. The eight-month journey will take them from Cairo to Capetown – and they are planning to complete the entire trip on a tandem.

The Arclight device that they will distribute on their way is a solar-powered ophthalmoscope and otoscope that can be used to examine the eyes and ears in order to diagnose diseases leading to blindness and deafness. The device was developed specifically for health workers in low-resource settings by the Global Health Team at the University of St Andrews, but is currently used in the UK as well.

Over eight months, Mr McMaster and  Mr Hetherington plan to travel 10,000 km across Africa, distributing and providing training for this device along the way.

The students’ passion for cycling all started in their first year at university,  when Mr Hetherington and a couple of friends decided to buy Mr McMaster a tandem for his 21st birthday. “I was sneaked down onto the beach by a few friends, and there it was, actually wrapped up in wrapping paper,” said Mr McMaster.

Unfortunately,  the two students have been told that the original tandem (Roxanne) will not survive the trek across  Africa, but they are hoping to get a newer and more robust model through sponsorship or some of the funding that they have already received.

When asked about how they came up with the idea for the trip, Mr Hetherington said, “We had a big trip in mind, but we knew that we wanted to do something that had a bit more of a  purpose to it than just a great adventure.  We’d been looking online first at some new medical  devices to do with eyes and the difficulty of getting  them to rural locations, and we half-joked that we could  cycle them to places.”

Luck was on the students’ side, however, as after these discussions Mr  Hetherington had a lecture that turned their dream trip into a possibility. “I had a lecture from Dr Andrew Blaikie who is  a Senior Lecturer in Ophthalmology and so happens to  have designed (through the University of St Andrews) a really cheap diagnostic device called the Arclight, which faces the specific challenge of trying to get it out to healthcare professionals in Africa and Southeast Asia,” he said.

Dr  Andrew Blaikie has since helped the students to source the Arclight devices and  Mr Hetherington said that “without him, the whole thing would have been very difficult to put together.”

In addition to the support of Dr Blaikie, the trip has garnered the interest of many influential figures from the cycling and ophthalmology world, and the students have received substantial support and guidance from Mark Beaumont (record-breaking long-distance British cyclist). The pair have also received the support of Saints Sport, as well as funds from the prestigious  R&A International Scholarship that is run by the University of St Andrews.

One of the reasons why the trip has gained so much support is the gravity of the issue that they hope to tackle. While researching his dissertation this year, Mr Hetherington found a study in The British Journal of Ophthalmology that estimated that 60-80 per cent of children who go blind in “poor countries” will die within 1-2 years. Although, he was quick to stress that many of the health statistics that are collected in Africa are outdated, or otherwise not always an accurate representation of the continent as a whole.

As far as the logistics of the trip go,  the pair have roughly planned the journey, and  Mr McMaster explained that they are looking to send batches of the Arclight ahead of them to pick up en route as they can carry a few hundred of them at a time on the bike.

The students have also spent time thinking about the challenge of finding places to stay en route. Mr McMaster said: “We will be carrying a tent and where possible we’d like to camp. But of  course for eight months it’s not so comfortable  to camp every single night, so we have a number of contacts  en route that we’re already looking at planning ahead and staying with.”

He  added  that Cairo  to Cape Town is  a “well known, highly  regarded route in cycling,” but  nobody has set a world record for  doing it on a tandem, so “even if it  does take us eight months we could still  qualify for a world record if we just register  it.”

When asked about their plans for Arclight distribution and training, Mr  Hetherington said, “The plan is that we’ll have organised our arrival in advance and if it’s a medical school we’ll definitely have it planned and they’ll be expecting us. Hopefully they’ll  arrive on the day that they expect us, and then the next day  we can spend training part of cohort of a year or the whole year  group in a certain year.”

Another aim of the trip that Mr Hetherington was keen to stress was the training of Arclight ambassadors. “We  supply a little bit of extra training so  they’re able to train other people in how to  use the Arclight.” The aim is that this will then allow the ambassadors to organise their own training initiatives and access more of the devices from Arclight.

The students will also try to gather feedback about the device and the impact that it has had once they return to the UK. “Whenever we distribute to people on the route, we’d look at getting feedback from them post-trip on the ways in which the  Arclight has had an impact in their area and how it ’s changed their approach to eye care or even just their views on it. In a lot of the countries we’re going through, eye care isn’t the priority at the minute because they have so much else to deal with like Malaria and AIDS,” explained Mr McMaster.

Although cycling might seem an odd way to deliver training and devices across Africa, Mr Hetherington points out that it is far more effective than flying somebody to and from the UK. “Though it seems really inefficient for us to cycle through,  it actually means that we can hit a lot of countries. Otherwise someone would have to fly from the UK and fly to  Sudan, fly back, fly to Ethiopia, fly back,” he said.

For many, spending eight months with the same friend for company would be a terrifying prospect, but it didn’t appear to be too much of a concern for Mr Hetherington. He  said, “We’ve done quite a lot of challenging things  before, what with climbing, and hitchhiking and hammocking  through Europe, as well as living together that yes, we have our  disagreements and our grumps, but we’re normally aware that they’re happening.”

After  a bit more  thought he pointed  out that the tandem  isn’t really conducive to  arguing anyway, as “if we ever  have any catastrophic disagreements  then one can’t really go off without  the other.”

The  most pressing  issue for the students  at the moment is finalising the  logistics for the trip, and Mr McMaster  admitted “it will be a relief when we actually  set off.” This said, they are both aware of the challenges that they will face when they are out there, including interactions with local authorities, delays and road traffic safety.  The pair have also accepted that they are likely to get ill over the  eight-month period, although Mr Hetherington did admit, “It’s still going to  be kind of horrible when one of us is really ill and we’re in a tent, and  it is hot sunshine and you just can’t get inside.”

Talking to Mr McMaster and Mr Hetherington,  it is obvious that they are determined to complete the challenge that they have set themselves,  and they both stressed how grateful they were for the support that they have received so far,  both from within and outside of St Andrews. Indeed,  they are still shocked by how big the project has become,  and as the interview came to a close Mr McMaster admitted,  “It’s suddenly dawned on us how much support we have and how  exciting it all is.”

You can follow the students’  progress and find more information about the project on the Arclight  Tandem Africa Facebook page, @tandemafrica  Twitter page and


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