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The trip of a lifetime in vet practice

by
01 May 2017, at 1:00am

GRAHAM DUNCANSON reports on his mammoth ‘bicycling trip with friends’ which started in May last year and took him from London to Cape Town to celebrate his half-century as a practising vet

I HAD BEEN A PRACTISING VET FOR 50 YEARS when I decided I needed to do something to celebrate and also to make me understand that there was something else in my life other than veterinary science. I am a trustee of the BVA charity, the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF), so I decided to bicycle from my home in Norfolk via the BVA HQ in London to Cape Town and collect money for AWF. My plan involved some complicated logistics as I decided I would enjoy company on the way. I tried out a tandem on a trip to Western Australian with an old friend of mine, Catherine, who used to do equine dentistry with me all over the world. However, although we got on well with the tandem – it was marvellous for talking – I was totally hopeless on my own and managed to run into the side of a parked twin-cab!

Setting off

My trip started with a farewell party, given by my old practice of Westover Veterinary Centre at my house five miles north of Norwich. The weather on Sunday 30th May was not brilliant, but we had two small gazebo tents, one from the practice and a second from the Shanklin family which kept off the worst of the rain. The hog roast was excellent and the alcohol kept us warm.
We had a small lunch time party with Alan and Angela Stephenson,
who I have known all my 40-plus years in Norfolk, on the Monday, before Bridget Parry-James, who was in my year at Bristol, and I set off to bicycle to London. On the way we stayed with Ian and
Judy Kennedy near Stowmarket. Ian is a vet of my vintage. He and Judy are very old pals from my time in Kenya in the Sixties. For our next night we stayed at a B&B on the way to stay with Freda and Dave Kent at Saffron Walden. They are the parents of Ann Kent, who has worked with me at Westover for over 20 years. The next
leg took us to Brookman’s Park, the home of Joe Brownlie, who was also in my year at Bristol. Both Joe and Bridget had commitments so I had to do the final journey into central London twice, a good training exercise, to get the bikes to BVA HQ. The following day was the AWF welfare forum, followed by a cocktail Graham Duncanson standing straight at Pisa. party at the Houses of Parliament. The next day it was time to start my journey again with Emma Milne. We were given a big send-off from the BVA HQ after an AWF trustees meeting. Emma and I got to Stansted. She had to fly to her family in the south of France. Two hours later Jenny Saxton – a brand new vet who flew down from Edinburgh after we met at the AWF forum – arrived. We journeyed together
from Stansted to Harwich, where on 11th June we took the ferry to the Hook of Holland with the two bicycles. We journeyed on our bikes through pouring rain to Amsterdam. On the way we stopped at Utrecht to have a look around their marvellous veterinary school. After Jenny flew back to Edinburgh, Emma Williams flew in from Norfolk. She is an exveterinary nurse and now a paramedic,
always useful if you are 72 and doing strenuous exercise! Emma flew home from Cologne and I was joined by Katie and Peter Dawson. Peter’s father was my guide and mentor in the North
Walsham practice, when I first arrived back from Africa over 40 years ago. We were short of a bike, so Katie hired one. The next leg of the journey up the Rhine was plagued with heavy rain and severe flooding of the Rhine path, which meant many detours up to
higher ground. We thought there might be less flooding on the Eastern bank, but it was worse so we had to ferry back to the Western bank again. As Katie had to return the hired bike, they
left me after five days and returned to Cologne by train. My daughter Amelia, a veterinary practitioner working at Uplands Way
in Diss, arrived on a cheap flight to Frankfort Hahne and took a bus
to join me. The rain, although less, continued – as well as the flooding. We battled on, arriving to meet another friend, Clive Vero, at Stuttgart. After a good meal out and a night’s sleep, Amelia flew home and Clive and I journeyed on to Basel. On the way we visited a museum on the Maginot Line and also the Bugatti Museum. At Basel, Clive flew home to London. I flew to Bristol to attend the 50th reunion of my graduation for two days before my son Henry – who teaches economics at Bristol University – joined me. We continued on the Rhine. The rain started again. It continued for three days as we journeyed to the Rhine Falls, the biggest waterfalls in Europe. From there we cut south to Zurich where Henry left me and was replaced by Terri, a client of mine from Westover in Norfolk. We needed all our strength then to get over the Alps down to the Italian lakes, which were very beautiful. We had a good swim, a good meal, a good night’s rest and breakfast before tackling the long climb up from Lake Como so that we could get to Bergamo, the cheap airport for Milan. There we had to part: Terri back home to Norfolk and me to spectacular
Donegal to attend the wedding of Tom Brownlie, yet another veterinary surgeon. His bride Kiera is a veterinary surgeon as well, so you can imagine there was a large veterinary contingent at the wedding. I flew back from Eire to Bergamo to be joined by Jess Bartman. She is a practitioner working in Devon. We spent 10 happy days together biking to Ancona. This included a trip to
the beautiful hill-top country of San Marino. Up to this point I had only one day when I was on my own, when I had to travel twice from Brookman’s Park into central London. Now I had to say goodbye to Jess and get both bikes down to Pescara. This was quite a journey, but luckily it was very scenic so it was not too bad doing it twice. Erika, who works for the AWF at the BVA, joined me in Pescara. It was great to see her. However, disaster struck when she had a bad fall 14 miles before San Severo. The Italian ambulance
service was very efficient and also very friendly. Mercifully, Erika was not seriously hurt, but obviously she was very bruised and sore. She was less sore the following day, so we journeyed on to Bari by train. She bravely flew home on her planned flight. I now had the problem of two bikes in San Severo, one of which was
damaged. I needed two good bikes, three days’ riding away in Bari. It was time to man up and get riding. I took the train to San Severo and met a friendly Libyan at the station who said he could fix the bike, but he needed five euros “start-up money”. I trusted him and gave him the bike and the five euros. I set off on the good bike and
reached Bari in three hard but mercifully fine days, then returned by train to San Severo. There he was at the station. I repeated the journey by a different and what seemed an easier route on the following three days. Louise arrived in Bari. I had met Louise 40 years earlier on her father’s farm. She was a teenager and wanted to be a vet. Her first veterinary experience was helping me to return a prolapsed uterus into a sow. Riding a bike to Brindisi was a picnic compared to that! Louise flew home and I had a few days to wait for Professor Joe Brownlie to arrive. I flew on a very cheap
flight to Pisa to stay with Amelia, my daughter, and her five lovely friends from Cambridge – Emily, Frances, Jenny, Rose and Abby. We had three great days in Pisa and Florence. I still had a week to spare, so I flew to Malta, where I met Carol. Carol and Hugh have been friends of mine since we worked and played rugby together in Kenya. It was great walking with Carol in Malta, having left my bike
behind in Brindisi. I flew back there to be reunited with the bikes and with Joe, who was my flat mate at Bristol and has been a good friend ever since. We got on the evening ferry from Brindisi to Patras. We were too mean to pay for a cabin. It served us right! The sofas in the lounge on which we slept were infested with bed-bugs. Joe, ever the scientist, took a specimen to be verified back in the UK. Something happened to the ferry and somehow we were re-routed, but no one could tell us why. The crew did not seem to understand my “O” level Ancient Greek! Having spent nearly 24 hours on the ferry, we docked in the dark. Luckily we did not cycle off the quay! Eventually we found a hotel and in the morning we set about tackling the problem. We needed two more bikes as we were being joined by my daughter Amelia and Sandy Shanklin in two days’ time to bike to Athens. We tried to hire bikes, but that was a nonstarter as we had no way of returning them. Joe manfully said he would buy a bike as he said it would be useful when he was in his house in Devon. I decided to buy the other bike, having done a two-for-one-type deal with the lovely Maria – the girl in the bike shop!We decided to set off at coffee time to Patras airport with the idea of locking the two bikes at the airport and coming back on the bus; then in the morning, riding out on the other two bikes to the airport and then setting off for Athens. We stopped for lunch and had half-a-litre of excellent house wine and then continued to complete the 30 miles to the airport. I had made a fundamental error. The airport had been closed! Amelia and Sandy were flying in to Prequenza airport two hours by coach from Patras! There was no bus and anyway we had to get the bikes back. It was a very hard ride back. Joe did well not to murder me as yet again we were in the dark! Moving swiftly on… we had a great ride to Athens. Amelia and Sandy had to get back to work in the UK. Sandy was a star getting the bikes boxed up for the flight home. Joe and I had a great day out at Marathon before he flew back to the UK and I flew to Kiev to give some lectures for the BEVA trust to Ukranian, BellaRussian and Russian private practitioners. Watch this space for a description of the next leg, when I continue my journey in Africa. Please follow my blog by Googling vetduncdares. Donations can be made to the AWF via my Justgiving page or a text: VGDD72 £10 to 70700 (it can be only £1 or £2 too – you just put in the appropriate figure).