Africa Books Health Travel

Running on Empty

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Guy Deacon spent 12 months travelling 18,000 miles across Africa to raise awareness for Parkinson’s Disease. His new book, ‘Running on Empty’ and a Channel 4 Documentary come out on World Parkinson’s Day. Here’s an extract from his book he shared with Tim Barnes-Clay.

I wanted to get to Abidjan before nightfall and decided to give the famous crocodiles a miss.

As I approached the city perimeter, I attempted to change down a gear and the engine suddenly started revving over the music. I even remember what was playing: ‘Since You Been Gone’ by Rainbow.

I tried to change again, to no avail. The gears wouldn’t mesh and it seemed as if the clutch had collapsed. It was like putting my foot down on a sponge.

I freewheeled the van onto the hard shoulder, hoping – in fact, praying – that I hadn’t destroyed the clutch. A key symptom of a burnt-out clutch is the pungent stink of scorched rubber/ brake pad, but as one of the many problems with Parkinson’s is an inability to smell, I couldn’t tell.

To add to my woes, I had broken down in a shanty town and was soon surrounded by a crowd. On the face of it I was in deep water – incapable of moving, a menacing crowd gathering, no friends in Abidjan to call for help and the consequences of Parkinson’s surging at the first hint of a stressful situation.

Fortunately, the crowd seemed friendly and wanted to help, but their eagerness was overpowering. Within moments they had opened the bonnet and were tinkering with the engine while I looked underneath to see if clutch fluid was leaking or if the cable had snapped.

It was soon obvious that my roadside helpers knew even less than I did, but what was alarming was that the van’s doors were now open, tools were strewn about, all my possessions were there for the taking and everything was spiralling out of control. I had no idea if anyone was pilfering my stuff as it was impossible to try and address the clutch problem as well as keep an eye on the pushing crowd.

I managed to shut the bonnet, get my tools inside and close the doors without trapping anyone inside, then suggested to my horde of helpers that they help push me along the hard shoulder to a rough and ready petrol station which I could see in the distance. At that moment, the police arrived, telling me I couldn’t stop on the side of the motorway and ordering me to move on.

I nodded in exasperation. ‘That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. But my clutch is broken.’

The police at least got the crowd under control, and I then asked if they could call a recovery truck. The policeman said he would and there was a garage not too far away.

Suddenly, I heard a voice call out in French, ‘Hey, Guy, is everything all right?’

I looked up. It was Albéric and Christaline, whom I had met the night before at the Dualla hotel. Noticing the commotion, they had slowed down and by a stroke of unbelievable good luck, saw me surrounded by the jostling crowd.

‘Umm… not really,’ I replied.

‘Let’s get you out of here,’ shouted Albéric above the noise.

Night was falling fast, and he offered to tow the van to their apartment where I could spend the night, and we would contact the ‘best garage in Abidjan’ the next morning. I was staggered by their spontaneous generosity – they had only met me twenty-four hours earlier.

We hitched up a towline and a couple of hours later I was having dinner in their apartment overlooking the Ébrié Lagoon. They even moved their daughter out of her bedroom to make way for me to have a good night’s sleep after a stressful day. While they didn’t exactly save my life, they certainly saved the day.


Aged 60 and having lived with Parkinson’s disease for over 10 years, Guy Deacon CBE set out for one last adventure, to drive solo from his home in the UK to South Africa. This incredible journey, crossing Europe and the full length of Africa, would take the former army officer and father of two over 12 months, 18,000 miles, 25 countries, five breakdowns, an emergency evacuation and 3650 prescription pills. Quite simply an incredible feat for a man travelling alone with Stage 3 Parkinson’s.

World Parkinsons Day falls on 11April 2024. Guy is an ambassador for The Cure Parkinson’s Trust and Parkinson’s Africa.

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