‘I paid for my first microlight adventure in Africa by selling my Fulham home’

Richard Meredith Hardy
Mr Meredith-Hardy found fame in 1990 after becoming World Microlight Champion - Graham Jepson/Shutterstock

Richard Meredith-Hardy, 65, is a microlight pilot who found fame in 1990 becoming World Microlight Champion.

The first microlight pilot to fly over Mount Everest, in 2007 he co-piloted a London to Sydney expedition and in 2009 was voted among the top 10 Great British Adventurers by this newspaper.

Today he lives in Hertfordshire with his wife Nicky, one of their three children and two dogs.

What was your family’s attitude to money?

My three brothers and I were given 50p or £1 pocket money but where we lived there wasn’t anywhere you could spend it. I’ve always lived in our family house, a mill on the River Ivel, on a 120-acre farm.

My mother was a magistrate, my father a barrister. He was prudent with money and had good investments such as Western Mining, an Australian company that found a mountain full of nickel.

What were your first jobs?

At 18 I was sent to Western Australia to be a farmhand on a sheep and cattle station.

After Eton I went to the College of Technology (now Aston University) in Birmingham to do industrial design. I wasn’t terribly good at it, so I dropped out after 18 months and started building narrowboats.

How did you finance your first Africa trip?

Eight of us drove a truck to Zimbabwe in 1980. At a British Army sale we bought a four-ton 1950s Bedford RL for £230 [£1,000 today], painted and modified it.

With me as co-leader we were five initially; to make it stack up financially, we advertised and got three more.

We went down West Africa, which you can’t do these days with people wanting to kill you everywhere. On the whole we refused to pay bribes. We wore them out, saying at borders: “Oh we’ll wait.” Some checkpoints were every 10 miles.

‘I sold my house in Fulham in 1985 for £150,000 – and as I’d done all the work I made a whopping profit’ - Shutterstock

Do you use cash, debit or credit cards?

Usually debit cards and sometimes cash. When you use your debit card abroad they invent fictitious exchange rates.

Did you make money on later trips?

Later we met Germans who were driving trucks to Africa to sell and thought we could do that. They went to West Africa, which had a common currency (West and Central African CFA francs) convertible into French francs.

But if you sold three trucks you’d have a suitcase full of money so it was dangerous. Instead we decided on East Africa, and in Belgium bought two better trucks than before – one military and an ex-German roads truck with a crane on it.

We put a car on one and drove to Sudan to sell them. We avoided border posts, like you do when you’re young.

Arriving in Sudan they’d say: “Where’s your exit stamp from Egypt?” And you’d go: “Didn’t they put one in?”

In the end it took months to sell the trucks so we didn’t make any money.

Did you come across financial complications in Africa?

We were there when Band Aid did their thing. The starving people were in Kordofan and western Sudan – 1,500 miles across the desert with no roads.

Execs had flown over it but never driven and saw that locals only had small lorries. They needed the best desert trucks, but they bought a huge fleet of motorway trucks instead.

But they overloaded them, so when the local drivers sped off on the 80C road, they only went 20 miles before the tyres blew out.

After crossing the Nile at Kosti they sank into the sand. What took them a month, local trucks would’ve done in three days.

Blind British aviator Miles Hilton-Barber and his co-pilot Richard Meredith-Hardy
‘Back home a friend took me up in his two-seater microlight. I was hooked, got my licence and thought I’d fly one to Cape Town’ - AHMAD ZAMRONI/AFP/Getty Images

What made microlighting your occupation?

All we had on the truck-selling trip was a Michelin map of Africa.

We’d set off across this desert not knowing a mountain range was ahead that we’d spend days trying to get round. Someone said we should have a microlight-y thing in the back to get over them. That’s how it started.

Back home a friend took me up in his two-seater. I was hooked, got my licence and thought I’d fly one to Cape Town.

How did you finance it?

In 1984 I bought a house in Fulham for £50,000 (which was most of what my parents had given me at 21) – they go for £1.5m nowadays – and did most of the building work on it.

We put an extension on, hired some sub-contractors but I did all the wiring and plumbing after buying books to learn how.

I sold it in 1985 for £150,000 and as I’d done all the work made a whopping profit, which we sank into the Cape Town trip.

Did you do adverts on the way?

Yes. We bought another big German truck as support. My then-girlfriend – now my wife Nicky – drove and a chap came along as muscle.

The trip took 10 months and in Kenya we got hired to do a cigarette promotion for British American Tobacco.

Mobile cinemas went to villages, showed a film and handed cigarettes to everybody, children included, saying “something big’s happening tomorrow”, and I’d land on their football ground. They didn’t pay much but it kept us in beers.

Do you invest?

Yes, through an adviser.

In 2005 I also had a £120,000 overdraft, but did a lot of writing of software for people and managed to pay it off, more or less. Since I stopped dipping into my stocks and shares 15 years ago, it’s trebled to more than £100,000.

Blind British aviator Miles Hilton-Barber and his co-pilot Richard Meredith-Hardy
In 2007 Mr Meredith-Hardy flew to Australia with blind adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber - AHMAD ZAMRONI/AFP via Getty Images

What’s the best thing you’ve bought?

A parachute for when I was flying over Everest.

Is microlighting just for the rich?

That first new one we took to Africa cost £4,500. Nowadays, for a two-seater microlight you won’t get much change out of £50,000, or often even £150,000.

But you can buy two-stroke, second-hand ones that have MOTs every year for £2-3,000. Maintaining them yourself is part of the fun.

They fold up and can go on a train or in a garage. A microlight was once “micro” and “light” – now they are neither and it’s ruined it.

What’s the most an expedition sponsor paid you?

Around £10,000 plus expenses when I flew with blind adventurer Miles Hilton-Barber to Australia in 2007.

For expenses I’d email Standard Chartered Bank saying I’d need another £3,000 which they’d put into my account. You often need US dollars for landing fees, so at the next airport there’d be a man with a brown envelope with a wad of cash inside. I only got involved the day before because his pilot dropped out.

I told Miles modifications would take two weeks but he said we had to leave the next day as he had speaking engagements.

It was complex flying over pre-war Syria with trigger-happy Syrians, but talking to them on the radio they were all very charming.

Richard seeks support for a campaign to restore the upper River Ivel. Contact revivel.org

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.