Fishtown artist planning the ride of a lifetime

Fishtown’s Mike Reali is preparing for a unique adventure.

Soon, he’ll be tooling through Africa on a 4100 mile course starting in England, weaving through the Sahara Desert and ending in Bamako, the capitol city of Mali.

Oh, and instead of a race car or all-terrain Hummer, he and a team of friends will be driving a refurbished ambulance the entire way.

“These things are built to last,” said a smiling Reali, during an interview on Thursday, Nov. 10. “The ambulance is in great shape. There’s room to sleep five, but there’s only four of us…We even have a hammock hung up in the back. It’s comfy.”

Currently, the decommissioned ambulance, a 1989 Ford, sits on Frankford Avenue awaiting its trip overseas.

The 32-year-old Reali, an accomplished photographer with a few books of his work under his belt — in fact, his book “Old Man Drinks” features portraits of some local residents — said he’s looking at the trip as an altruistic adventure. Along with taking a wild three-week long trip through two continents, Leary’s team, the Last Responders, will be bringing school supplies, mosquito nets and other supplies to charitable organizations in Mali.

In fact, he said, the team will donate the ambulance itself.

“We came back to the ambulance idea because it’s the most useful thing to donate,” he said. “If you get the lights and sirens working, you could use it as an ambulance tomorrow.”

Reali said the group they are working with in Mali is the Salif Keita Global Foundation. The group works to protect individuals with albinism, which affects the melanin in the body, resulting in little or no color in the eyes, skin and hair.

In some areas these albinos, said Reali, are persecuted, even hunted and killed, because it is believed that they are magical.

“Albinos are persecuted over there. It’s crazy,” he said. “They will be killed for their body parts.”

But, why would Reali and his three friends, one from New Jersey the others from New York, give up their holidays to drive across the desert, through war-torn countries?

“Well, I don’t know about the others, but for me, it’s going over there to learn things. That’s part of it, the unknown,” he said. “I like to learn about other places and people.”

Also, as a photographer, Reali said he’s excited for the opportunity to photographer other parts of the world.

The trip they are taking is the Timbuktu Challenge, a road rally set up by Dakar Challenges, a group that sets up these types of adventures around the world.

But, Reali said, that group’s involvement in his upcoming trip will be limited — “They give you a starting point and an ending point and that’s about it,” he said — and instead, he’s still gathering contributions to cover some expenses related to the ambulance and to donate funds to the Mali Health Organizing Project, an America-based non-profit group that provides life-saving services to Mali.

“People from all over the world do it (the Timbuktu Challenge)…I honestly don’t know what to expect,” he said.

The rally starts on December 16th and, when asked what he hopes to do on the three-week trail or if he has worries about the trip, a grinning Reali said he is worried about thieves and bandits who are said to be out in that area.

“Getting robbed is certainly a concern,” he said.

But mostly, he’s looking forward to the simple joy of an adventure in the wilderness with his friends.

“It’s going to sound silly, but I want to sleep on the roof of the ambulance,” he said.

Also, along the way, he said, the group might take time to do some sight seeing. The Moroccan city of Casablanca is on the route and Reali said he’s looking forward to check out the storied Moroccan open air street markets. ••

If you’re interested in learning more about Reali’s upcoming trip or in helping contribute to the efforts of his team, the Last Responders check out the web site at

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or