'One of those days you wish would never happen'

Cathrine Hansen was lucky to escape a bus crash with only minor scratches and bruising.

Cathrine Hansen was lucky to escape a bus crash with only minor scratches and bruising.

Dodging Delhi belly and experiencing a whole new level of saddle soreness are the smallest of challenges a team of University of Wollongong students face as they highlight charity programs in Asia. SARAH NAVIN reports.

"Today's been one of those days that you just wish would never happen."

Paul Cave's reaction after waking up to the news that the overnight bus his Action4Asia teammates Cathrine Hansen and Arja Sormo were travelling on in Cambodia had crashed into a ditch at 5am, was understandable.

When Cave and his teammates and fellow University of Wollongong students Hansen, Sormo and David Cook started planning their 15,000-kilometre cycling expedition from Singapore to Mumbai they tried to prepare for every contingency.

They knew the journey would be no easy feat. They were prepared to cycle in 50 degree heat, through torrential monsoonal rain, through remote jungles and crowded, chaotic city traffic, and over the Himalayas, all to raise money for water sanitation charity Aquabox, which provides relief to disaster struck areas.

''I really had no idea about how many different ways there are to help others, and how someone just goes out in the society to find people or children and help them.''

A bus driver falling asleep at the wheel was not something they predicted.

"After I hit the ground, my arm was under the bus roof and the ground. I remember screaming because it was hurting my arm and I thought I was going to be stuck under there," Hansen says.

After she freed her arm, Hansen and Sormo, both 26, had to scramble for their backpacks and wallets in the dark.

Sormo noticed her head was bleeding and eventually some locals at the scene helped her get to a doctor, leaving Hansen stranded for four hours in a panic.

"I was left alone there with a big bump in my head and shaking and I didn't know anyone and I didn't have a phone," she says.

David Cook at the scene of the crash.

David Cook at the scene of the crash.

They had taken the bus after their support vehicle was denied entry at the Thailand border. Meanwhile, team members Cook and Cave had spent a day cycling 200kms for 10 hours on rough Cambodian dirt roads.

United Kingdom students Cook and Cave met Norwegian students Sormo and Hansen while studying at the University of Wollongong as international students in 2011, living at Campus East. They had been planning the expedition ever since.

"David told me about this great project that he was going to do together with Paul in 2014. I thought it just sounded really exciting, to cycle 15,000kms to raise money for charity. I was just surprised that there were people out there that do that," Sormo says.

"In 2013 I went back to Norway and started my studies again. Then they wrote to me and asked me, 'Do you want to join us as the PR and communication officer?' And I couldn't say no."

While studying their second semester in Australia in 2012, biologists Cook and Cave cycled a 3600km, 42-day journey from Wollongong to Melbourne, around Tasmania and along the Great Ocean Road to Adelaide. Cook also completed a 16,000km charity ride through Europe.

Having since graduated, Action4Asia is their bravest undertaking yet.

"You've really got to watch out for the traffic, people are everywhere. It's just crazy. And you can't see the traffic from all the dust," says expedition leader Cook.

 Paul Cave and David Cook in the saddle.

Paul Cave and David Cook in the saddle.

He adds that, aside from the crash, people driving on the wrong side of the road and a 300km sand trail in Cambodia are the biggest challenges faced so far.

The six-month journey through 10 countries including Vietnam, Nepal and India aims to highlight the work that humanitarian organisations like Rotary International are doing to support some of the poorest communities in the world.

The team visited surgical centres treating rare diseases; areas devastated by floods; investigated water filtration methods; and met up with schools that have rescued children who have been put into brothels from the age of five.

Cave reflects on the harrowing stories of young children he met in an orphanage run by Rotarians in Phnom Penh.

"It's not like a place I've ever been before, to be honest. The stories of these children are absolutely shocking. One child was … his mum tried to murder him. He's a 5-year-old boy with multiple stab wounds to his body."

These children were affected by alcohol and other drug abuse, and violence, in the slum areas in the city.

The orphanage provides clothing, food, musical therapy and education, and has three children who have been awarded scholarships to study at university.

"They needed that place otherwise they were going to die, pretty much," Cook says. "It's projects like that which are hugely inspiring to see. The fact that it is giving people another opportunity to live life in a good way."

Arja Sormo and David Cook demonstrate how the Aquabox works.

Arja Sormo and David Cook demonstrate how the Aquabox works.

One project they discovered was for children suffering from meningoencephalocele (MEC) in Cambodia, a condition where the skull doesn't fully form during fetal development. Spinal fluid leakage forms large facial deformities that grow as large lumps over time.

The local Rotary Club provides the surgery for free, to improve the children's livelihood and future prospects.

"If the MEC patients don't have the operation, the deformity can get infected and they can die at a very early age. When they go through school people bully them and they really lose their self-esteem," Cook says.

The team learnt that families are often reluctant to have their child operated on, as their improved appearance makes them less effective as beggars, threatening the family's income.

The Children's Surgical Centre works to find children with the disease and encourage parents to go ahead with the procedure.

"Having this operation gives them an opportunity to have a good education and get good jobs, as otherwise it's very hard for them", David says.

Dodging Delhi belly and experiencing a whole new level of saddle soreness, the team has maintained morale by beat boxing on the bikes, learning "happy yoga" from the locals, and were even invited to a wedding in Kuala Lumpur.

 Paul Cave, Arja Sormo and David Cook in Cambodia.

Paul Cave, Arja Sormo and David Cook in Cambodia.

Cook and Cave were also interviewed on Vietnamese television and the team has had dinner with multiple local families, a welcome change from camping on the side of the road. Sormo said she has been overwhelmed by the generosity of the locals, as they presented the Action4Asia expedition to various Rotary organisations.

"Before I started this expedition, I really had no idea about how many different ways there are to help others, and how someone just goes out in the society to find people or children and help them," she says.

Despite the friendly welcomes they received, the team faces many challenges - on top of the exhaustion of cycling up to 200km a day.

Sormo described the harsh terrain from Hanoi to Sapa in Vietnam as particularly confronting.

"The roads had started to give way to dirt tracks with bumps and pot holes everywhere which made cycling infuriating as it was impossible to build up a rhythm," she says.

"After the first 10km of the hill I thought I was going to die and was questioning how I was to ride another 20km up this gruelling hill."

On top of climates, they face daily dehydration and fatigue and have been plagued by parasites. Sormo has struggled to find food with her long list of food allergies and heavy pollution has caused headaches and respiratory problems.

"It's quite uncomfortable to cycle when there are cars and trucks everywhere and breathe in what they are spewing out. The dust is so unpleasant for our eyes," she says.

More students are joining the team for 10-day trek up to Mount Everest base camp, raising money for UNICEF and Aquabox. Cook says it really boosts the team morale when new people join and support the expedition.

In terms of logistics, he says keeping up with international affairs is important, as well as coping with fear of the unknown.

"At the moment we can't go through Burma because they are in the middle of a civil war. You can't plan everything. But we will improvise and adapt to situations. We are going to do this."

Action4Asia aims to reach the finish line in Mumbai in August.

You can follow Action4Asia on Facebook or visit www.action4asia.org