The worst accident in the history of modern equestrian travel has taken the life of a female Long Rider, left her companion seriously wounded and gravely injured their horses.
English Long Rider Christine Henchie, 29, was killed instantly on Monday, January 28, by an out-of-control bus in Tanzania. Her fiancé, South African Long Rider Billy Brenchley, 43, escaped death by inches but suffered a broken leg.
A crowd of enthusiastic locals who had turned out to cheer the Long Riders past their village were also killed and injured by the reckless driver. Charles Mahugija, 60, and Willy Masanja, 55, were slain and 25 bystanders, including many small children, were mown down by the speeding vehicle.
The accident, which occurred in the isolated village of Isela, marked the latest episode in what has become one of the most remarkable equestrian journeys in history.
The couple set off in 2007, determined to complete the first ride from the most northern point of Africa, Cap Blanc in Tunisia, to the most southern point of Africa, Cape Agulhas in South Africa. Ten countries and an untold number of hardships awaited them.
The couple’s excitement was quickly replaced by a sense of growing determination, as they were called upon to overcome an unprecedented number of modern obstacles.
They were detained in the Sahara desert for 75 days while the Libyan Government debated whether to allow them to enter. Egypt, with its sandstorms, tick bite fever and heat waves proved difficult. But that was the easy bit.
After riding across Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and northern Sudan, Billy and Christy were halted by the impassable swamp known as the Sudd. If the equestrian explorers wanted to progress they would have to load their two horses onto one of the few remaining cargo barges and float south to the distant city of Juba. Their thousand mile nautical journey is unique among modern equestrian travellers.
Having arrived early, Billy and Christy were lucky to find the immense flat-topped barges still empty. Because deck space would be severely limited, there was no room to construct a pen. After a load of sand was dumped on the deck for footing, the horses were tied side by side to an immense steel fitting atop the deck. The Long Riders, meanwhile, pitched their small tent on a nearby steel container. Christy and Billy ate fresh fish, while the horses dined on papyrus leaves harvested from the Nile river bank.
They were no sooner back on shore and in the saddle when political turmoil threatened their lives. A bitter civil war had just been concluded which left the victorious rebels in control of the newly formed country of Southern Sudan. Suspicious rebels accused them of being spies and gun runners. They were threatened with prison and with having their horses shot. Once again, cold courage saw them through.
As they made their way through Southern Sudan, they passed areas where major battles had been fought. The landscape was littered with unexploded mines.
Immediately, after crossing into Uganda the differences between the two countries became apparent. Aggressive, suspicious faces were replaced by friendly and welcoming people.
It was in Uganda that Christy and Billy made an astonishing discovery. Horses had disappeared from the country during the reign of Idi Amin. The unexpected sight of two Long Riders mounted on mysterious animals caused pandemonium in the countryside.
“We became the Pied Pipers of Uganda by unintentionally leading a number of kids 25 kilometres along the road,” Christy informed the Long Riders’ Guild.
“The noise level was tremendous. Cantering didn’t faze them – they merely ran after us. When we finally stopped for the evening, children of all ages surrounded us in excitement.
“A retired doctor, whose land we were staying on, asked them to go home. They asked if he had just bought these strange creatures and when he said no, they told him to mind his own business. Four children were still missing days later. It seems they had been sleeping in the school nearby waiting for us to leave so they could follow us again. Frantic parents put out radio messages. We were asked to stay put until these children had been found.”
It was also while riding through Uganda that Christy and Billy were exposed to every Long Rider’s nightmare – murderous drivers and dangerous roads.
Horses and mechanized traffic originally shared the road. In those early days it was safer to ride near cars for several reasons. There was a great deal more horse traffic. There were fewer cars and they seldom exceeded speeds that would today be considered faster than a crawl.
More importantly, the drivers knew and respected the needs of horses. Today it is vastly different.
As they made their way south towards the capital, Christy sent the Guild this ominous prediction.
“There is a lot of traffic here and the rules of the road are not adhered to, creating chaos.”
Having ridden across the Sahara, sailed down the Nile, survived a war zone, eluded hordes of excited children and reached the halfway mark in their journey, Christy and Billy believed the worst was behind them.
In fact, their greatest challenge came crashing out of nowhere.
While riding in Southern Sudan Billy had suffered, and survived, malaria and typhoid. Feeling weak, he sought medical advice in Kampala. After running blood tests, the doctor announced that he could not believe Billy had lived long enough to walk through the door, much less ride across Africa.
He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukaemia and immediately flown to South Africa for emergency treatment.
With her fiancé suddenly fighting for his life in another country, Christy was forced to find a temporary home for the horses in Uganda. After having ensured their safety at a farm located along the shores of Lake Victoria, she issued this statement of continued courage: “Both the trials and triumphs of this expedition have taught me patience, perseverance and appreciation of the small things in life – a perfect sunset, smiling faces or a happy horse. It has given me faith in mankind and confidence in my abilities. I have experienced the amazing people of this continent in a way most people never will. This is the University of Life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Christy concluded by saying: “This is just another challenge for us to overcome.”
In an email to the Guild, Christy wrote, “Billy and I started this journey with our two horses in December 2005. We have spent the last six and a half years travelling through Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Southern Sudan and Uganda and still have a long way to go to reach Cape Agulhas, our final destination. We have been hungry, thirsty and penniless. We have endured disease and injury to both horses and riders. We have waded through bureaucratic swamps and have reached the other side with our morals intact. At no point have we lost the desire and drive to finish what we started all those years ago.”
After spending several weeks gradually getting themselves and the horses back in shape, the team set off again in mid-January. Their next destination, Tanzania, was close by.
Christy and Billy’s dreams were brutally shattered a few days after entering Tanzania.
Speaking by phone from a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, Billy explained how the tragedy unfolded.
As in Uganda, the appearance of mounted travellers sent shock waves racing across the Tanzanian countryside. Crowds numbering up to 200 had been following along for several days.
The morning of January 28 was bright and sunny. By 8.30am, the Long Riders had travelled less than three kilometres but a crowd of 70 excited Tanzanians, including many small children, were already eagerly following alongside.
Christy was in front, walking alongside Chami, while Billy walked close behind with Nali. As they approached the small village of Isela, happy villagers came out to cheer them past or walk alongside.
With the people in place, tragedy came tearing down the road.
A steep hill lay ahead. A slow-moving truck was making its way up from behind. Meanwhile, another truck was coming down the hill towards the village.
Christy and Billy were well off the road and could see for miles. It was thanks to this visibility that Billy saw a large bus full of passengers speeding down the hill.
Frustrated at being delayed by the slow truck, the bus driver veered out to overtake, only to find the way blocked by the oncoming vehicle. Instead of waiting patiently to pass, the bus driver whipped his vehicle to the other side of the road and tried to pass the truck on the inside.
Billy had just enough time to shout to Christy to move further off the road, when the bus came screaming round the truck. Long Riders, horses and children were in his blind spot. The bus ran straight into the defenceless crowd.
“There was no squeal of brakes. He came right at us,” Billy recalled.
The speeding bus hit Christy without warning but her horse, Chami, jumped aside.
Next it hit Billy. The impact threw him through the air and into a ditch. His horse, Nali, was also struck.
Then it smashed into the crowd. The youngest victim was three years old.
The driver then lost control and crashed into the oncoming truck.
“The front of the bus was annihilated.”
Billy had never lost consciousness but he discovered he could neither walk nor stand. He crawled out of the ditch and dragged himself towards Christy’s body.
“When I got there I knew Christy was gone, but I sat there holding her until the police arrived.”
Shinyanga regional Police Commander, Evarist Mangalla, confirmed the accident, attributing it to reckless driving, but declined to give details. There is no word regarding the fate of the bus driver. Nor is it known if the authorities will file charges for vehicular homicide.
Christy was declared dead at the scene, after which Billy was transported to the nearest hospital. After a brief examination, he was diagnosed with a broken right femur and transferred to the larger Bugando Hospital in Mwanza.
Though the wounded equestrian explorer had been assured that the Tanzanian Government would cover all the costs of his transport and care, he was shocked to discover that the hospital was reluctant to provide him with even the most basic amenities.
“They didn’t know what to do with me. Eventually they put me into a room and then just left me. I wasn’t given any food, water or even a bed pan. Many hours later, the wife of another patient finally brought me some water and a piece of bread.”
Nor were Billy’s troubles over.
When friends contacted his European-based insurance company the next day, officials refused to fly the wounded traveller home to South Africa for medical treatment, insisting instead on sending him to Nairobi, Kenya.
Though his broken leg has been set, friends in Kenya have had to organize a blood drive to help Billy combat the threat of a recurrence of leukaemia.
Meanwhile, although the Tanzanian authorities quickly provided Christy’s family with a death certificate, the same European insurance company has delayed authorizing the funds needed to repatriate the deceased Long Rider’s body to her home in South Africa.
Nor has Billy, still stranded in Nairobi, been provided with a “fit to fly” certificate which will allow him to return to South Africa to attend Christy’s funeral.
What has been established is that both horses, though injured, survived the unprecedented accident. Local citizens have rallied to protect, feed and care for Chami and Nali.
Billy was told that Christy’s horse, Chami, was badly scraped by the passing bus but appeared to be all right.
Things do not look as optimistic for Billy’s horse, Nali.
After having crossed four deserts in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), survived sandstorms lasting for days, voyaged along the Nile and endured crowds of curious children, the legendary road horse may have suffered a broken right rear leg. An examination was planned as this story was being written.
When the Guild spoke to Billy in hospital, he explained that the loss of Christy has left him “devastated.”
“The trip was originally my idea. Then I met Christy and My journey became Our journey. Now that I’ve lost my best friend, and maybe my horse, I’m forced to ask myself if the cost of going on is too much. Would I want to do this without Christy? Or do I want to do this in remembrance of her?”
For the moment, Billy’s health is too precarious to be concerned with those questions.
What is known is that the most experienced female Long Rider of the 21st century, a woman who overcame deadly deserts and rode through a war zone, a lady whose love and loyalty never faltered, has been taken from us far too early.
Shortly before setting off to resume her journey in January, Christy took the opportunity to look back upon the epic ride she and Billy had undertaken.
“On embarking on the journey at the end of 2005 in Tunisia, I thought little more about the trip other than, this should be fun,” she said. “I had no idea of the lessons I would learn, the amazing experiences I would have and the inner strength I would discover.”
Shortly after these tragic events became known, British Long Riders Matt Travers and Jamie Maddison announced that their upcoming 15,000 kilometre journey across Central Asia will be made in memory of Christy Henchie.
Because of Billy’s medical problems, and the Henchie family’s immediate concerns, people wishing to express their sympathy and support should send emails to the Long Riders’ Guild at [email protected]. All messages will be safeguarded and passed on.
To learn more about Billy and Christy’s epic equestrian journey, visit their blog, www.africanhoofprints.blogspot.com.
All images courtesy Billy Brenchley.