Gert de Jonge 1961—2010
Somewhere in the cloud there's you
I was shopping in Tesco last Thursday, and hadn't heard my phone ringing. When I happened to glance at it I could see a number of missed calls and a voicemail from Roger (Dai). I listened to the message and could tell from his voice that something was badly wrong, so I rang him straight away. I could barely make out what he was saying through his tears.
"Gert's dead!" he sobbed, "He was in an accident on his bike this morning, but he didn't make it".
Standing there beside the racks of coca-cola, my hand flew to my mouth and tears welled up inside me. In a daze I took my shopping through the check out and out to my car, and as soon as I closed the door I let myself cry properly.
Gert was one of the Calum's Road riders, whose fundraising efforts helped to raise over £50,000 to build a vital road in the remote village of Sambel Kunda, The Gambia. He was an extremely experienced and competent rider: he usually rode at the back of the pack, ready to stop and assist if anyone was in difficulties. Roger reckons he owed him his life while crossing France in severe sub-zero temperatures: when his visor froze over he'd lifted it, only for his glasses to instantly freeze over as well. He had to stop on the hard shoulder and try to find his contact lenses. Gert had pulled in behind him and at once put on his hi-viz jacket to alert other road users to their presence, and waited to make sure he could see safely before continuing their journey together.
Gert was always the sane and calm voice of reason. On a number of occasions I've seen Roger get annoyed about something another biker had said or done, and I always used to advise him "Ring Gert, talk it over with him". And he would, and Gert would find the logical and practical solution.
They grew very close during their trip across Europe and north Africa, discovering during a stop off in the Zebrabar, Senegal that they shared musical tastes ranging from Abba to opera. Gert's language skills were invaluable to the whole group, and he had a knack of negotiating with border guards which smoothed the journey.
When I joined them in the Gambia I was struck by his relaxed manner and open approach to life. He was the one brave enough to approach a crocodile, clever enough to crawl inside the ambulance side-car and make it work, and trusting enough to be its inaugural passenger. He'd be the first to get in a round of chilled Julbrews when we were sitting by the pool, and the one with enough dalasi to sort out the bill at the end of an evening meal, confident that we'd pay him back the next day. And he was the one who was writing the book of their journey.
The circumstances surrounding his death were tragic. He'd been due to meet up with Roger and some of the Calum's Road crew to attend a wedding of one of the other riders on the team. He was 2 miles from home, on his daily commute to work as a consultant with an oil company in Scotland. He was riding the same bike that had taken him through the ice and snows covering northern Europe in January this year, through France and Spain, Morocco and Western Sahara. The same bike that had carried him across a minefield, through the "do not travel" zone of Mauritania, the river basin of Senegal and eventually into the dusty heart of the Gambia. Something caused him to come off the bike, though he appears to have been travelling at a sensible speed. And then both he and the bike were struck by a car coming the other way. An air ambulance took him to hospital, but his injuries had been too great. It's still not clear what caused him to come off the bike, but we're hoping a post mortem might reveal something.
A report in the local newspaper
reveals just how highly regarded he was, both by his work colleagues and by the other villagers where he lived. Dutch by birth, he was proud to be an honorary Scot, and accessorised his kilt with a broad grin. He and his wife enjoyed Scottish dancing, and I joined them at the ceili in May in the Dashing White Sergeant, a dance done in groups of 3, man in the middle with a lady on each hand. (I asked my Scottish dance class to do this dance last night, in memory of him.) He was usually first on the dance floor, approaching events like this with the same zest for life he demonstrated in everything he did. The last contact I had with him was a week ago, when he commented on my facebook status extolling the virtues of Eggs Benedict.
He had a real ability to capture the colours and sights of the world in a photograph, and he welcomed and observed its diversity non-judgmentally. When putting together a photo montage to pay tribute to him it was easy to find great pictures both by him and of him – sitting in the prow of a boat on the Senegal river, staring over the plains in Morocco, holding the bottle of Jaegermeister that the owner of the restaurant had told us to finish. And of course it had to have an Abba soundtrack – Supertrouper.
He leaves behind his wife Annette and 2 daughters, and a wide circle of mourning friends. Annette has been enormously brave and strong, and welcomed bikers to travel with the hearse on his final journey, recognising just how important bikes were to Gert. Donations in lieu of flowers are to go to Stella's School Scheme
in The Gambia. The amount of donations reached well into the thousands in a matter of hours, and the comments and messages of support to Annette and his family underline just what a truly remarkable man he was.