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Photo: Dan Byrne

Line in the Sand

The race was on to reach a tiny West African country

There are three types of fun in this world, according to Dan Byrne, E76: “Snow skiing under a blue sky, climbing a mountain, and ‘Holy mackerel, I can’t believe we made it through that, I thought we were going to die.’”

An opportunity for the third kind of fun arose when Byrne and three teammates competed in Africa’s largest charity road rally, Budapest to Bamako 2012, covering 5,800 miles over two continents. “We were driving off-road over a five-thousand-foot pass in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco at midnight in heavy snow with no guardrails and no headlights,” he recalls. “We later realized if we had taken a wrong turn we would have fallen a thousand feet. At least it was pitch black so we couldn’t see how dangerous it was.”

He and his companions in Team Bright-Eyed—an entrepreneur named Art Edstrom; a writer for GQ Magazine, Sean Flynn; and Byrne’s son Conor, a pilot, rock climber, and “great navigator”—were the first American squad to participate in the intercontinental road rally, which raises money to benefit children in West Africa.

One hundred fifty vehicles were pitted against each other in the race in January. Team Bright-Eyed, driving a diesel-powered 1995 Toyota Land Cruiser called the Wildebeest, finished twenty-eighth out of forty in its category, and raised $10,000 toward a vocational school and an orphanage in Guinea Bissau. “This was on my bucket list after climbing twelve-thousand-foot Mount Adams in Washington and ahead of visiting Antarctica,” Byrne says.

Byrne is an engineering entrepreneur based in Seattle. He founded a specialty gas company that was acquired in 2006 by Airgas, the largest U.S. distributor of industrial, medical, and specialty gases. Now he is working to commercialize temperature-control and refrigeration systems—powered by electricity or solar energy—that could help deliver vaccines to the developing world.

As a young man, he dropped out of Bates College to become an auto mechanic. For two years, he trained with General Motors, learning to fix Oldsmobiles and Buicks, then servicing Caterpillars. That led to an epiphany. “I realized I wanted to design these things,” he says. So he returned to college, at Tufts, to become an engineer. “I was the only kid in my engineering class who could rebuild a transmission,” he recollects. Today his passion is renewable energy, and he is a sponsor of the cycling team and the hybrid racing team at Tufts. He has also established a scholarship in mechanical engineering and an innovation fund to promote hands-on learning.

Years from now, when he looks back on Budapest to Bamako 2012, Byrne will remember the floods, he says—his team had to ford rivers, using a snorkel tube to make sure their motor didn’t drown. And he’ll never forget what it was like to forage for food. “In the first world, we have unlimited choices,” he notes, “but in Africa there were virtually no supermarkets. We had to go from shop to shop and didn’t even understand what was being sold. The labels were in Arabic. Surviving on figs and nuts got old pretty fast.”

Then there was the recurring need to offer bribes, or “petits cadeaux,” to guards at border crossings. Flashlights, tea, bandages, and team hats usually did the trick, and “anything with ‘Obama’ was superb,” he says. Even the occasional flat tire presented memorable challenges to the former mechanic: in the western Sahara, Byrne had to jack up a vehicle that was buried in sand up to its axles. That didn’t stop the team from finishing in the top twenty-five.

Byrne sums it up this way: “It was amazing. It was grueling.” But if the hardships of the journey were out of the ordinary, the connections Byrne made with people were more exceptional still: “The woman who runs the orphanage. A kid I have come to consider almost as a son. The man who made us a fabulous meal and said, ‘Welcome to Morocco.’ I’ll remember things like that.”

MARK SULLIVAN, formerly Tufts Magazine’s “News & Notes” editor, is a freelance writer.

  © 2012 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155