Guy Deacon: Running On Empty

Round & About

Guy Deacon CBE will be appearing at Oxford Literary Festival this Friday (22nd March) to talk about his forthcoming book and Channel 4 Documentary – Running on Empty.

Guy’s story is truly inspiring; the former British Army officer he drove from his home in the UK to Cape Town in South Africa ten years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

The journey fulfilled a childhood dream to drive across Africa, whilst also raising awareness of Parkinson’s Disease which is heavily stigmatised in Africa where it is often linked to witchcraft and black magic, leaving sufferers ostracised by their communities. 

Parkinson’s Disease is the fastest-growing neurodegenerative illness worldwide and has no known cause and no cure. By 2040, more than 13 million people will be living with PD – a quarter of them in Africa where the disease is little understood. On his journey Guy met with Parkinson’s sufferers in almost all the countries he travelled through and learnt what daily life was like for those sufferers that he met, but first he had to get there.

There are never more than a handful of vehicles a year attempting to drive from the North African coast to Cape Town in South Africa. Some never complete the journey. Conflict in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Cameroon, make any journey exceptionally dangerous. In central Africa, road conditions, particularly in the rainy season make the going difficult and often treacherous. Add illegal checkpoints, extortion, contaminated fuel and lack of services and this was to be a huge undertaking.

Guy first set off in November 2019 making it as far as Sierra Leone in March 2020 when the COVID 19 epidemic struck. The borders were closed and after being stuck in Sierra Leone with no way out, Guy was evacuated by the British Government on an emergency relief flight leaving his trusty van behind. Many adventurers have setbacks on their journeys but for Guy, with each passing month that he waited in the UK for travel restrictions to lift, his Parkinson’s would advance and his mobility would deteriorate. By the time he restarted the journey two years later in March 2022 his condition had deteriorated significantly.

Parkinson’s disease affects mobility so the simplest tasks from emptying pockets, to tying up shoelaces became herculean for Guy. The day to day challenges of living in Africa, the condition of the roads and living in a relatively small space would be challenging to anyone let alone a Parkinson’s sufferer who struggles to move limbs and has to take every task incredibly slowly.

Several times throughout the 12 month journey Guy came close to giving up.  The challenge left him both physically and mentally exhausted and as the days wore on, he found it more and more difficult to communicate and began feeling increasingly isolated and alone. He had a phone to keep in touch with friends and family, but with his limited dexterity it was often easier not to.  In the end it was the kindness of strangers that restored his faith and spurred him on in his darkest hours.

There are countless examples of things going wrong and strangers stepping in to help and offering him a bed for the night. But each time Guy thought that the latest setback would be the end of the road and he would have to give up, there was always someone who would step in to help, a stranger reaching out to help him in his hour of need.

Throughout the 18,000 mile journey Guy kept a video diary and was joined on four occasions by a documentary maker. This has resulted in 85 hours of footage and several thousand photographs of this incredible adventure through the heart of Africa which will be made into a 1 hour documentary for Channel 4 to be released in Spring 2024.

Guy was supported throughout his journey by The Cure Parkinson’s Trust a charity set up to find a cure for Parkinson’s as well as Parkinson’s Africa, whose mission is to raise awareness and empower those with Parkinson’s to make informed decisions about their own health.

At the festival, guy will be speaking with Matthew Stadlen to recount his incredible journey, crossing Europe and the full length of Africa, which took the former army officer and 60 year old father of two over 3 years to complete, see him drive 18,000 miles, across 25 countries, with 5 breakdowns, as well as one emergency evacuation from Sierra Leone during Covid, whilst taking 3650 prescription pills to help manage his Parkinson’s.

Further information on Guy’s event at Oxford Literature Festival can be found here.