Kings College London

Encircle Africa

Ian Packham, a King's Biomedical Science alumnus, has (unofficially) become the first person to travel solo and unsupported around coastal Africa by public transport. After two years of preparation, including learning French, Arabic and Portuguese, Ian found himself on the shores of Morocco for his 13 month adventure in September 2011. 

The first question that comes to mind is: why? Why undertake such a potentially dangerous and lonely journey, in a continent where landscapes, weather, people and languages are so monumentally different from one country to the next? 

In answer to this question Ian explains, 'Why? There's not really a very easy answer. It started off as a fairly easy London to Sydney overland idea, but I realised Africa looked like a lot more enticing opportunity. And it's almost round. You can envisage it with the same start and finish point.'

The second question that comes to mind is: was it worth it? 'So often it's easy to say no; it was the worst time of my life! But it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I had so many good times and it's easy to forget when you're having bad days. The sights I've seen, the fun conversations I've had with people, and just the whole experience of long term travel somewhere that people tell you is really dangerous, which I didn't find to be true, was definitely worth it.'

Ian's trip exceeded expectations; the positive attitude of African people, every now and then a caring government, investment in a country's development, beautiful landscapes and a welcoming meal at the end of a hard day. Since returning to the UK in September this year, Ian has been writing about his trip. The following excerpts from his blog highlight the trials, triumphs and surprises of Ian's African adventure.

If you are having problems viewing this slideshow, please visit Ian's Encircle Africa Flickr page.

To Africa

Arrival in Gibraltar was harried by heavy showers that brought out the smell of the late summer blooms. Out of the rain it was warm and calm as I gazed out over Europa point - the last vestige of land before the Straights and Africa. Ahead of me was Morocco, hidden by distance and the curvature of the Earth.

 

South through Morocco

A fitting end to the city of Rabat, Morocco, was travelling south down the coast road in the near intimate embrace of the Moroccan next to me in the shared taxi. After this was an overnight coach to Agadir, which it turns out, is a European beach resort. It’s thus home to hustlers, MacDonald’s, and not much else.

 

Mauritania

Travelling through Western Sahara/Southern Morocco and Mauritania has been hot, sweaty, and dusty; in that order. But the welcome glasses of peppermint tea along the way were friendly enough. Safe to say I was nervous about entering Mauritania, given its international reputation, but I feel no worse than on the first couple of days anywhere.

 

On the way from Nouadibou and Nouakchott (I kid you not with the names) I suffer my first breakdown. After the arrival of a second bus, an impromptu towrope is made from the netting normally employed in keeping baggage attached to the roof. We are towed the remaining 200km.

 

The Quebo-Boke ‘road’ into Guinea

So here's the tale of a day which I won't forget, and don't want to remember...

It began normally, travelling by transporte misto (minibus/converted van), with 'USA vegetable oil - vitamin A fortified' tins as additional central seating and a young guy who had taken me under his wing.

The road beyond the Guinea-Bissau frontier was officially closed as it was the wet season, and I wasn't sure it would be possible to travel it at all. Realistically it’s not! The road is not a road, but a complex BMX track with muddy rises, sharp turns, and deeply tracked puddles. All this I did on the back of a motorbike.

We drove through a still, clear, fish-inhabited ‘small lagoon’, according to my bike driver, which plunged my feet to the ankles. At a ‘checkpoint’, Guinean officials/bandits demanded money from me to pass through. It was clearly the usual thing here, as everyone in the loose convoy of bikes paid up quietly, hoping not to get shouted at and to just move on as quickly as possible. There was little I could do but pay, the first time I'd ever even been asked and the first bit of blatant corruption I'd witnessed.

Further on, another checkpoint - but this official was friendly enough, and actually gave my passport an entry stamp. I began to understand that this was the real post and everywhere else was just hooliganism. I passed one final post some time later, where I was again forced to pay up.

The track now expanded to the width of a proper road, but it was no better for it. Reaching a river crossing, we crouched painfully in canoes; our bikes taken across in another. The river was very picturesque and beautiful, but by now I was fed up with the day and, remembering the map, realised I still had a long way to go.

I finally reached Boke at 6pm, having started out at 8am. I looked a wreck. My legs were splattered with dried mud, my shoes visibly dripping and a dark, reddy brown all over. I had a thick layer of red dust clumped under my eyes. where they had streamed from the wind on the road and the violence of the bumps. This was the Africa everyone thinks of, the Africa I hadn't yet experienced.

 

Climbing Cameroon for Christmas

I got a shared taxi from the ferry drop-off point of Limbe, in Cameroon, to Buea. Within an hour, a trip up Mount Cameroon was organised. The start point was 1000m above sea level and fairly easy, but it got tougher above the treeline. It became steep and sometimes difficult to find obvious footholds.

I was woken gently at 5.23am for day 2 by Samuel my guide. By 6am we had started out, and by 9.30 reached the summit at 4090m. This makes Mount Cameroon West and Central Africa's highest peak. We didn’t hang around for long on the summit – it was exceedingly cold, with a strong gusty wind that threatened to take me back out into the Atlantic.

To get down we first had some fun skidding down scree, made of small stones and volcanic ash from the mountain’s last eruptions. During the next couple of hours we clambered over a large rockery of volcanic rocks. After that, it was more or less flat for the rest of the day. The path lead through clumps of tussock grass. As I became tired and it was difficult not to trip over them. By the very end I was willing our campsite into view. I couldn’t walk much further. I finally arrived there at 2.30pm; after 8.5 hours of walking.

Up again at 6am the next morning. Samuel was already sitting by the fire. There was a lot more up then I was expecting, given that I was going down the mountain, but by 12.30pm I was back in the centre of Buea, feeling a little confused by the sudden rush of town life.

 

The Road to Congo

I made it about 200m into the Republic of Congo before having to stop. There was apparently no onward transport until tomorrow morning. But at 5.30pm, as if to prove anything is possible in Africa, a grey pickup pulled up, heading for the town of Dolisie.

The country track continued into Congo, but in a considerably worse state than before. It was both severely waterlogged from the recent rain, and had hard sections of protruding rock.

I wasn't sure what to expect of Congo, but it certainly wasn't the round grassy hills that spread out before me all the way to Dolisie.

 

Reaching the halfway point

It was fantastic to be back within the smell of the sea. A sign in town read 'the residents of Lambert's Bay request you do not encourage 1) beggars, 2) crayfish smuggling, 3) car washers. Cape Town marked the half way point and 6 month mark of my journey. There was a lot to celebrate.

 

Swapping Oceans

Agulhas, Africa's southernmost point, must be Africa's windiest point too. I scaled the 31m high lighthouse built in 1849. The ladders up were almost vertical and the wind on the balcony so strong that I was pushed backwards, clinging to the walls for security. I couldn’t honestly identify where one ocean ended and the next began. I saw none of the reported change in water colour.

 

Mozambique to Tanzania

The blue smoke that had been billowing from the 60 seater coach's exhaust stopped at Ikiwiri (literally meaning "the white man simply died of despair"). After 2 hours we are told that if the problem (that remains unspecified) can't be fixed soon, alternative transport will be provided.

I miss the first minibus replacement for not being quick enough to push to the door. About 10 minutes later another minibus arrives, better kitted out than the coach. Learning from before, I barged everyone out of the way and climbed on second. It was another 3 hours, about 150km, to Dar es Salaam along decent tar.

 

Hyenas in Harar

We climbed into the cool air of the hills from Dire Dawa's valley to reach Harar, passing a dry river bed. It was a strange sight, almost like a half excavated road or railway, with vertical, sand-coloured walls lining a deep channel where men had dug for sand.

Outside the city walls, my guide stopped me at a square surrounded by houses. In the middle, a steady stream of foot traffic passed within metres of a pack of hyenas; neither people nor hyenas showed any concern. Even small children tottered nearby, but, I was told, the animals never attack humans.

The hyena man called the hyenas to him at dusk, although in reality, routine meant they were already lurking about in the nearby rubbish heap. I was taken closer, to within a metre, which was close enough for me. The man wanted me to hand feed them, but I had no intention of my writing hand being mistaken for a strip of rotting beef. He sat among the animals, cuddling them, but within a couple of minutes it was all over.

 

A carriage to Cairo

From Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city, I made a run for Cairo. I had no desire to be there, but the fates willed it. My jumbo-sized passport had no more space left for visas and to start the ball-rolling on a new one I had to first visit the British Embassy in the capital.

The train line, one of the few I'd been able to utilise in 10 months of travel, followed the course of the Nile north. The Nile sat on my left, bordered by a thin belt of vivid green that was sometimes cut in two by the train line. Beyond that green was desert.

At 10pm I was shaken from sleep and turfed out of first one seat and then another. I had a ticket, but no seat reservation, and the train was full. I spent the next five and a half hours in the vestibule, used by smokers, at the end of the carriage. I alternately stood and sat among the cigarette butts and other rubbish. I reached the stage of falling asleep on my feet, and my knees buckled before I could catch myself.

I recovered a little by sleeping for an hour on a platform bench at Cairo's Rameses Station, before heading on to the embassy.

 

The month of August

Waiting in Egypt.

 

The surprise of Libya

Palpable relief at being able to finally move on. I'd been in Egypt for over 2 months, waiting for my new passport and a visa for Libya. I was desperately hoping for no more delays.

I was refused overland entry into Libya so had to fly instead. From the air Libya looked a dry and very symmetrical country: neat squares of land containing neatly spaced out trees, separated by roads. On the ground Libya and its people seemed to keep themselves to themselves. There were quiet queues of people or cars; no horns sounded, traffic lights were obeyed, and everyone was very friendly.

In the centre of Tripoli I took a short walk as night fell. I felt very safe; young families were enjoying a bouncy castle, popcorn, and candy floss. Fountains flowed, cafes were open, and the streets were clean. Cars waited for me to cross at zebra crossings. It was extraordinary compared to Egypt.

 

Avoiding Algeria

I had to cross into Europe. Algeria is one of those places that make getting a visa very, very hard. So I boarded the Carthage for Marseille, France. Leaving Africa, it felt like the end of the trip. My mind was occupied more and more with thoughts of home. Over the next few days I travelled through France and Spain, before catching the ferry from Malaga back to Morocco.

 

There and back again

On the bus I realised that I’d been to Tangiers before - I'd done it, I'd Encircled Africa. From central Tangiers it was a series of short transport hops to Tangier Med port, 50 km away, and a fast ferry to the Spanish port of Algeciras. Here I caught onward transport to Gibraltar, Encircle Africa's 'base camp'.

In Gibraltar I started to feel proud of my achievement. I wanted people to ask why I was there so I could explain that 13 months ago... 

 

If you would like to find out more, visit Ian's Encircle Africa website, or his blog. An animated map of Ian's journey can be found at www.animaps.com

 
David Decam  Harrold Beck
David Dacam   Jim Rickett   Harold Beck

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