Almost 1,500 km of roads and barely open jungle trails, an outdoor show in Ratanakkiri province that attracted 3,000 people, and nearly 1,500 family-size mosquito nets distributed in remote areas.
Those were the highlights of the Caltex Extreme Rally Raid 2001 held this year under the theme of malaria prevention. Organized by Angkor Dirt Bike Tours in Phnom Penh, the fourth annual rally featured 51 dirt bike riders who rode portions or all of the 12-day circuit that started in Phnom Penh on Dec 8 and continued through Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces before returning to Phnom Penh last week.
In addition, a rotating team of six to 12 staff members from the National Malaria Center and the World Health Organization traveled with the rally riders in a military-style supply truck that, at times, barely made it along the course. The event was sponsored by Caltex with a contribution from Telstra.
In addition to mosquito nets and malaria-prevention material, the truck was loaded with food, which the racers shared with villagers.
The villagers had learned, based on previous years’ experience, that when the rally riders set up camp and lighted a fire, “it was dinner for everyone,” said Zeman McCreadie of Angkor Dirt Bike Tours and the tour coordinator.
Each year, rally organizers adopt a cause relevant to the area that bikers cross—snakebite prevention and anti-venom medicine the first year; bear protection the second year; distribution of condoms along with iodized salt for goiter prevention last year.
Malaria prevention seemed appropriate this year since riders were heading into inaccessible areas, McCreadie said.
He said when he approached Stefan Hoyer, WHO medical officer for malaria control, with the idea, Hoyer saw the oddness of the rally convoy as an asset.
“He said we were a suitably eccentric project to become involved with—we would attract attention,” McCreadie said.
Arriving on noisy dirt bikes that most villagers had never seen, 51 Cambodians and expatriates rode into villages wearing helmets and colorful protective suits.
“The running joke is that we look like space aliens,” McCreadie said.
“I had already visited the areas” to let villagers know that rally participants would be coming through. “But they did not really believe us.”
When riders reached their destination for the night, Heng Ratha of Angkor Dirt Bike Tours would talk to the village chief and get the list of families in the area.
In the morning, malaria prevention workers would spray nets with mosquito repellent and distribute the nets along with posters and other malaria prevention material to the families on the list.
Many villages the workers visited were so remote that, in some cases, villagers had never been visited by healthcare workers, said Philippe Longfils, a rally rider and health adviser for the Integrated Food Security Program of the German aid
organization GTZ. Many children suffered from malnutrition and had not been vaccinated, said Longfils.
He brought some medical supplies with him and took the opportunity to treat children for common ailments such as intestinal parasites. Most people did not have mosquito nets. “It was one of the most precious things they could get because it saves lives.,” Longfils said.
The Malaria Center and WHO also promoted hammock mosquito nets during the rally, said Hoyer. People in rural areas often go into the forest to hunt or get wood, and need protection when they spend the night there, he said.
For the stopover in Ratanakirri, the Malaria Center and WHO brought performers from Phnom Penh for an evening of entertainment and malaria prevention information. About 3,000 people came to the show.
Next year, McCreadie plans to take the rally to Koh Kong. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” he said. “It’s the toughest gig left in the country.” He says he hopes to work again with the Malaria Center and WHO since Koh Kong is a malaria-prone area.