Ian Packham made the first solo circumnavigation of Africa by public transport. I asked him to share his story for the Grand Adventures project…
“…it was my first big solo adventure. Riding battered bush taxis, flatbed trucks, dugout canoes and a van delivering freshly-made meat pies among countless other vehicles, I followed Africa’s coastline for 25,000 miles through 31 countries, equivalent to circling the Earth at the equator. Entirely reliant on local populations – with no technology but a mobile phone dating from the new millennium – for more than 13 months, I feel I experienced Africa at its most raw and real. And I loved it.
The idea for Encircle Africa seemed to develop spontaneously after studying a world map. The more I looked at Africa, and the ready-made route of the coast, the more I knew had to give the journey a go, however many people had done it before me. Nothing is static, so even if I was following a day behind someone else, I would experience different interactions. It wasn’t until much later that I released this would actually be a world first too.
It was the interactions that became the highlight. I found learning about local life and culture beside the pyramids of Giza much more interesting than the pyramids themselves which I’d seen a thousand times before in images. The people I encountered were (almost) universally kind, welcoming, inquisitive and willing to share: be it a smile, a conversation, food or water. Africa was so unlike the way it is portrayed in the mainstream media. I struggled to reconcile what I was seeing first hand to what I had been expecting, something I hope comes across in the book I wrote to share these experiences, Encircle Africa: Around Africa by Public Transport.
I’m sure to remember these interactions long after the pain of cramped bush taxi travel has disappeared from my memory. It will be difficult to forget being mistaken for an undercover UN official during the Liberian presidential election, being perhaps the only person in history teargassed making my way to a Khartoum museum, or queuing with desperate migrants in the high summer heat outside the Libyan embassy in Cairo after the fall of Gaddafi.
Even so, I had to give up a lot for Encircle Africa: I needed to save substantial amounts of money, left a decent career as a medical researcher, and wasn’t able to see family and friends for the longest time in my life. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I would do on my return (or after failure). I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in what I had done. Setting up encircleafrica.org – a major challenge in itself – showed me there was an interest, and beyond anything else, gave me the confidence that Encircle Africa was worth the hard work both before, during and after the 13 months of travel. That I have started planning my next adventure, and have an idea for the one after that too, tells you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed the adventure.
- How did you turn your dream into reality?
The first step is definitely the hardest; the biggest obstacle was myself. I started out with lots of unknowns, not really knowing what to expect despite doing lots of research online, at my local library, and in talking to as many people who knew the places I was heading for as possible. I didn’t really know how to plan an expedition such as this one, but imagining it as I might a holiday booking helped.
- What practical steps should people take to make their adventure happen?
For me interaction and communication is all important when getting to the heart of a culture, so learning some of the language spoken in the area is perhaps the most important practical step. Knowing about three words in Portuguese and another three in Arabic really helped show people I wanted, and was interested, in sharing and got me to destinations I would otherwise have struggled to reach. Hand signals and loan words got me the rest of the way.
- What do you know now that you wish you’d known before your trip?
Don’t bother with commercial sponsorship. It sounds great to get subsidised kit or free fried chicken for the length of the journey, but sponsorship is incredibly hard to secure in the first place, and takes a lot of time to organise that I’d rather be using on more practical research. It also adds a lot of extra stress to an already demanding experience. I wasn’t sure I would complete Encircle Africa, I’d never been out of my comfort zone for more than a few weeks before, and the last thing I would have wanted to worry about if I decided circumnavigating Africa wasn’t right for me would be how to reimburse a sponsor with money I didn’t have.
- Any tips on saving for the trip or living cheap during the trip?
Some costs, such as visa fees, are unavoidable, and soon mount up if you travel through as many countries as I did, so accurate pre-trip budgeting is important. During the trip, going local massively reduces costs, so avoid the expat area of town, eat what the locals eat, drink what they drink (barring the local hooch, which if you’re lucky will blind you, and if you’re really unlucky will kill you), sleep where and how they sleep, and travel how they travel. That’s pretty much Encircle Africa in a nutshell.
- Any opinions on equipment, visas or any other nuts-and-bolts parts of adventure?
Try and work out what kit you actually need and take as little as possible. Taking generic versions of branded products are cheaper, and less likely to disappear. It turned out sardines were my most useful purchase: cheap, indestructible, locally recognisable, readily available, self-opening, and seemingly ‘sardines’ in every language I encountered.
I now travel with a 35 litre backpack that ends up weighing no more than 9 kg, and a tiny day-bag in which I can fit a notebook, guidebook and camera. It’s easier for me to get about like this, and I look less threatening to locals. A month into any trip I throw away anything I haven’t used – other than kit like first aid supplies. I took a travel mug and a spare pair of shoes on Encircle Africa, and used neither.
- Did you get ill much? People always worry about that.
Over the 13 months, I got nothing worse than a dodgy stomach, and heat exhaustion walking around central Cairo in temperatures of 42°C. Maybe it was luck, but I like to think it’s because I was very careful about my health and hygiene, especially because I was alone with no real means of immediate communication. I took every vaccination offered by my NHS nurse (mostly free), and did everything as instructed to avoid mosquito bites and therefore malaria/dengue fever etc. South Africans I met were surprised I hadn’t had a bout of malaria by six months in (or been mugged). I was also very careful about cleaning my hands and cooking utensils.
You can learn more about Ian’s journey here.
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The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!