Big Interview - Lancashire writer Alan Whelan

Share this article

Lancashire writer Alan Whelan's new book tells how he undertook an amazing 14,000-mile African motorbiking oddyssey – to prove the power of a nice cup of tea can unite the world. He and Judith Dornan brewed up a storm.

Alan Whelan will remember for the rest of his life the best cup of tea he ever had.

On a five-month motorbike quest through Africa with the bizarre aim of finding people to drink tea with, he got lost in Mali in searing heat.

He recalls: "I was dying of thirst and asking everybody for drinkable water. Eventually I found a little village and just collapsed off the bike and I looked up - and this fellow was making tea!

"I was almost delerious but that was a very poignant moment. He just said, 'Eat, drink tea and rest.' I will never forget that fellow."

It was a supreme moment among what writer and journalist Alan calls his African Tea Encounters, in his new book about his unique oddysey, African Brew Haha.

Lifelong tea addict and born-again biker Alan had a passion for Africa and decided to unite his three loves after writing an article about a Derbyshire convention of long distance overland bikers in 2006.

He recalls: "These people go to Africa and Argentina and I came back thinking, these are just ordinary blokes. The only difference between them and me was they'd done it."

He and South African-born wife Olive shared a love of her home country.

On holiday there, they'd discovered a Cape Town charity project called Original Teabag Designs who employ 15 villagers to make things - out of used teabags!

Alan says: "We just thought, this is nutty! It was started by an English woman and she said, We're running out, everybody loves these things.

"The bag is dried, emptied of the leaves, then ironed and applied onto things after they're painted so each one is like a mini work of art.

"Each one is unique. And I just got to thinking about the whole ritual of tea."

It became a 14,000-mile solo trek through Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and South Africa to discover Africa's real people – and enjoy a cup of tea with them.

He says: "Each pot of tea is a little staging post, little milestone, and I'll write about each teabag and keep the teabag and make a note of who I had the tea with."

In October 2007, he set out on his old Triumph touring bike. But his first Tea Encounters were in the UK, meeting among others, England and PNE legend Sir Tom Finney.

Alan says: "It was his 84th birthday and he came back and said, 'There's no milk!' So I said, 'Don't worry, I'll have it black.' And then he came back again and said, 'There's no tea either!'

Once in Africa, it was easy. He says: "From the first day, it was like, 'You're having some tea? I'll have tea!' Here, I got some very funny looks. 'You want to come to my house and you've never met me before?' We're much more suspicious here.

"A lot couldn't understand WHY I would want to do it. Especially in Central and West Africa, a lot of people said, 'Tea? Great! But why are you here? Nobody comes here!'"

He found real friendship on the Nigeria/Cameroon border. "Somebody I met said, 'I think I should come with you because the road is really bad.' It took usfour days!

"His name was Tabbut, he was amazingly optimistic, he taught me so much! Every time the bike went over, I was happy to give up and just borrow a mobile phone and say, 'It's over, I tried.' And he kept me going.

"At the very end, he said, 'I got you here! We did it!' And they brought us a little flask of tea, lukewarm tea. African Brew Haha and tea were the very last things on my mind for those four days – and he'd remembered!"

In Gabon, he crashed, breaking his collarbone, landing in bush hospital under the care of a nurse called Serge. He says: "He was a giant of a man, huge hands.

"I explained to Serge, 'The reason I'm here is tea!' It sounded so ridiculous. He said, 'We'll have tea, come to my house.' I met his family of 10, it was amazing."

Among his last Encounters was the head of legendary football team, The Kaizer Chiefs, Kaizer Motaung. He says: "Not everybody is poverty stricken in South Africa. Kaizer Motaung is fantastic success story.

"Unfortunately we had a black out and couldn't boil the kettle so we had to have lukewarm tea! But he was a delight. Then I went in and had lunch with all the players and every single one saw the white face, came over and shook my hand."

At journey's end, back at Original Teabag Designs, though a planned meeting with Desmond Tutu never happened, Alan says: "I had the British High Commissioner waiting.

"He arrived in a Jag with the flags on the fenders in usual style. Then he gave a very embarrassing speech about true grit and what it means to be British and then we sat down for scones and tea."

Now with the book finished, he is determined to return. He said: "It wont be a huge thing this time - but I have to go back."

African Brew Haha is out on April 5 on Summersdale Press.