Late last year, Coca-Cola Company senior customer manager Jonathan McGowan, took on a 500km bike ride across the East African island of Madagascar, to raise money for the Ronald McDonald House Charities. The journey was difficult, eventful and life-changing, but it allowed Jonathan and a team of 28 McDonald’s senior executives, franchisees, hospitality staff, restaurant crew members and other suppliers to raise an incredible £190,000. This is his Madagascan story.

A few years ago, Jonathan McGowan’s son George was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and had to spend a long time in hospital. Thankfully, Ronald McDonald House Charities offered Jonathan a home-from-home close to the hospital George was in, meaning Jonathan could stay near his son during this difficult time.

Jonathan wanted to support the Charity that means so much to him – so with a team of other volunteers he took part in a gruelling 500km bike ride across Madagascar, with a personal goal to raise £6,000.

You can find out more about Jonathan and George’s story when we spoke to him before his trip.

We caught up with him after his trip to hear the full incredible story.

Before the ride

Before the journey kicked off, all of the team made their way to Madagascar. This included 28 riders and a small team complete with guides, mechanics and doctors. When Jonathan arrived in Madagascar, he saw his “chariot” for the first time. 

“We all had to use bikes from the area, so if we needed new parts, it was much easier to manage. The bike I had looked like it had been built from leftover parts. Thankfully I brought my own saddle and pedals, so the bike may have been shaky, but at least it was reasonably comfortable.”

After a long journey, the team reached their hotel. The team, who hadn’t met prior to this trip, all had dinner and got a good night’s sleep, ready for a 5:30am start the following morning.

All the training – which Jonathan had only started a few months prior – had come down to this…

Jonathan’s chariot in all its glory.

Day 1: New surroundings and a unique hotel

The group made its way onto the roads of Tana, the Madagascan capital, and began the 500km journey. The city roads were filled with everything from trucks to cattle, and a lot of hand-carts in between.

After 10km of riding, with dozens of locals staring at the riders as they rushed past, the team left the city and hit the countryside. Jonathan has a vivid memory of seeing the realities of life at the side of the road – as locals built mudbrick houses around them and the paddy fields flew past.

“This journey was exhausting both physically and mentally, and I’d never done anything like it before. But despite all of that… it was amazing fun!”

The 70km of cycling through the country got progressively steeper before finally the team reached their hotel after a long first day. And the hotel was… interesting.

“That second hotel felt like a crossover between The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Fawlty Towers. The colonial exterior looked stunning from a distance, but as we got up-close and inside, we realised the only thing keeping this hotel up and running was the will of the wonderful owner. But, after 7 hours of riding, it felt like heaven. Also, looking back… it was probably still the nicest hotel we stayed in!”

The team leaving the ‘interesting’ 2nd hotel.

Day 2: Dangerous roads and top speeds

The hot, dry roads from Tana seemed like a distant memory as the team made their way out in the torrential rain of the 2nd morning. For 3 hours the team continued upwards into the mountains, with their surroundings turning into more of a rainforest with every kilometre.

Then at midday, after a morning of climbing… the team were ready to make their way back down. The guide talked them through their upcoming 18km descent, and warned the cyclists to take it easy as both the roads and weather were dangerous.

It was during this muddy, pot-hole riddled decline, with trucks and hand-carts rushing past him, that Jonathan saw he was hitting 65km/h – not a bad top speed for someone who only really started cycling a few months beforehand!

“We rode over 90km on day 2. It was exhausting both physically and mentally, and I’d never done anything like it before. But despite all of that… it was amazing fun.”

The steep terrain of the first few days.

Day 3: Chasing lemurs and a bad accident

At 7am in the morning on day 3, the team went on a 5km hike through the rainforest, looking for lemurs. They could hear their echoing screeches long before they could see them, but finally the team got a chance to see one of these Madagascan locals in its natural habitat.

“It was such a great opportunity, we couldn’t say no. I can’t say I ever thought I’d get the chance to chase lemurs through a forest!”

After their forest foray, the day took a turn. 10 of the 28 cyclists were starting to feel ill and the terrain was still steep and difficult. Even after the road levelled out and the stomachs settled, the final 10km of the day were particularly damaging for one of the riders.

“I came down a hill to see one of the riders, Henry, in a bad way. He’d gone over his handlebars into a ditch. 2 locals helped him up, and we got him into the recovery position and gave him painkillers. His helmet was a mess and most likely saved his life. The doctor caught up with us and assessed him before they both took the minibus to the local hospital. We didn’t know how bad his injuries were, but we knew he wouldn’t be riding again that week.”

After Henry was safely on his way to the hospital, the team continued their journey to a lagoon-side hotel for a night of volleyball, dinner and some well-earned rest.

When chasing lemurs, it’s always worth stopping for a photo opportunity.

Day 4: The school trip and Henry’s return

After a 70km ride in the morning followed by lunch, the team reached what Jonathan describes as “the defining moment of the trip”.

The team visited a school in the lowlands of Madagascar. The school kids sang them their national anthem and the team tried to sing it back – much to everyone’s amusement. They took pictures and let the kids play with their phone cameras, before sharing their sweets and biscuits with them.  

After this humbling experience, the team rode for another 30km – with their daily total distance exceeding 100km – past the sights of colourful markets and the smells of clove oil factories, to their penultimate hotel, where Henry re-joined them.

“He told us he paid £6 for an x-ray that showed no breaks or fractures. His arm was in a sling, he was still in pain and he couldn’t ride, but at least he was back with the team.” 

Jonathan during his visit to the school.

Day 5: The coast and the long journey home

The final day was a ride along the coast. Flatter roads and stunning scenery got the tired team through their final leg. 1km before the finishing line at the final hotel, the team regrouped and cycled together, ringing their bells and motivating each other to get through the final push.

“The sense of accomplishment was incredible. To be able to do what I did and to be able to raise money for such an important charity was wonderful."

They were greeted at the hotel with a coconut, a swimming pool and a bed – something all the riders needed. After a day’s rest, 5 days and 500km in the saddle, it was time for the journey home.

“The following morning we went to the local airport – that opened just for our plane to land – the one flight of the day, we returning us to Tana. After a 6 hour wait, we were on another plane to Nairobi where we changed for our final plane back to Heathrow. It was 40 hours of travelling in total before I finally made it home to my family, but it was worth every second.”

Jonathan and his family with a cheque large enough for his total.

After the ride

A week after getting home, with his legs still a bit on the sore side, Jonathan bumped into Henry, who had been to visit a doctor after he got home.

“Henry told me that he had to visit a hospital when he got home. Another x-ray showed he actually had 2 fractured ribs and a fractured shoulder! But, thankfully he was doing OK.”

Since the trip, Jonathan has continued cycling, with his whole family falling in love with it – his wife even got a new bike for her birthday.

“I was smiling for weeks afterwards. The sense of accomplishment was incredible. To be able to do what I did and to be able to raise money for such an important charity was wonderful. And to get a new hobby at the age of 41 is great!”

On top of all this, Jonathan didn’t just hit his £6,000 target – he raised a whole lot more. His journey ended up making £9,254.61 for the Charity, with the whole team of riders making £190,000 combined.

And the best news of all, Jonathan’s son made a full recovery.

Find out more about Ronald McDonald House Charities