Reflecting on my 9-month experience of circumnavigating Africa by truck, I see my adventure as being defined by superlatives from start to finish. During that period, I traveled through 34 countries and territories and covered approximately 26,000 miles (42,000 kilometers), making it the longest, toughest and most extensive journey of my life. It was in Africa that I experienced the most inhospitable environments and witnessed the most extreme poverty, but where I found myself equally mesmerized by stunning landscapes and beautiful people, and where I experienced the most thrilling adventures. Like other travelers before me, I learned that Africa provides so many unique experiences for those that go in search of them.
Throughout my journey, I was constantly active and always on the go. Riding the dunes of the Namib Desert, rafting the treacherous river waters of Uganda, swimming the vast cool rivers and lakes of Guinea and Ghana, hiking the Todra Gorge in Morocco, and sightrunning through many villages and cities throughout the continent, I was repeatedly challenging myself, physically. As someone who is as fit today, at 45, as I was when I played varsity sports in college, I found myself rising to these challenges. Other aspects of my experience, however, I found far more grueling. Hiking the most desolate deserts of Sudan in the midst of scorching heat, trekking the deep and steamy jungles of Cameroon, and enduring hours upon hours of rough and bumpy drives over dusty roads took a cumulative toll on me.
While my trip was incredibly challenging from a physical perspective, it also stretched me mentally and emotionally. It was much more than just seeing the animals or the landscapes. It was a journey that led me to look deeply into myself and to reflect on who I am, where I’ve been, what I’ve done and what comes next. So what was it like for me, a woman approaching the onset of her midlife, to leave behind my husband, my home and my career to undertake a journey of this magnitude? How did I feel? What thoughts went through me?
My senses were heightened. Journeying through Africa is an all-out assault on the senses. Seeing the glorious, saffron-hued dunes of the Sahara and Namib deserts, the vibrant and colorful garments of the West African people and Muslim women, and the colorful markets across the continent; hearing the chilling roar of hungry lions in Zimbabwe; tasting the sharpness and spiciness of Ethiopian cuisine; feeling the ever-present dust and dirt on my skin and the sweltering heat of the sun; and smelling the pervasive scent of the earth throughout the journey. At one point, when my face was licked by a giraffe, I could not even begin to describe the myriad of sensations that I experienced. All my senses were on fire.
My survival instincts were on full throttle. At times, I took calculated risks by jumping off the truck, leaving behind the relative comfort and security of my travel group to experience the real Africa firsthand. Sometimes, that would be with equally adventurous travel buddies, and other times I’d go solo. My most memorable experiences came out of these independently planned excursions. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we walked the streets of Kinshasa (regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in Africa), because we wanted to experience the city for ourselves. In Mali, we ran through the chaotic streets of Bamako, just a few short weeks after the bloody siege of a hostage situation at a hotel where 27 innocent victims had died. In Gabon, we rode a night bus to Libreville, with a driver that seemingly had a death wish, given the suicidal speeds that he drove at. In Nigeria, we explored the crowded markets of Lagos, always on guard for presence of Boko Haram, even though we had no way of identifying who they were. In Sudan, on my own and in search of food, I explored the streets of the harsh desert towns, unwittingly becoming the day’s source of entertainment for bemused locals. In Guinea, on another solo venture, I ran through villages while trying to constantly remain on the lookout for people that looked sick, for fear of getting infected with the Ebola virus.
Thankfully, I survived all of these perilous excursions. At all times, I carried a police-grade pepper spray and a personal alarm with me, but never once did I feel that I needed to use them. The first-hand experiences and knowledge that I gained made it all worthwhile for me. Undoubtedly, my survival instinct kicked in and remained on full alert during these times.
Taking risks is all part of travel. I like to have my own perspective on different places in the world and the different environments that people live in. Life is not a bowl of cherries for most people, but then the dangers are sometimes overstated and sensationalized by the mainstream media. Not all of Nigeria is terrorized by Boko Haram. Not all of Sudan is in a warzone. For those who truly want to experience the world, travel is not all wine and roses.
I was in awe of the strong girls and women. African girls and women carry heavy loads of water, firewood, merchandise and almost anything else on their heads with ease. The girls can carry loads up to 100% of their body weights, and mothers will do that while simultaneously carrying babies on their backs. It’s also the women who do 60-80% of work in the farm. These girls and women inspired me; not that I’d like to be able to carry heavy loads on my head or engage in farming the way that they do, but for their strength and resilience. They will serve an inspiration to me for many years to come.
I was flattered and enjoyed the attention I constantly received from the locals. The African women loved my Asian hair (long, straight and shiny) and told me how beautiful I was. I had equal amount of attention from the men, who were not shy in showing both their admiration and affection. Some assumed that I was of mixed race, which made me very desirable in their eyes. I had a marriage proposal from a Sudanese man, and young guys from Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Togo all wanted to date me. I admit that I loved the attention, and after making it clear that friendship was all that was on offer, I enjoyed the chance to talk, to get to know them, and to sometimes be playful and a little frisky.
I was occasionally sexually harassed. When a Nigerian immigration officer flirted with me, threatening to keep my passport so that he could keep me in his quarters, I have to admit that I was frightened. When a border patrol officer entered the truck, demanding to have a photo taken with me and calling me his future wife, I wasn’t the only one that was alarmed. When a young man at a backpacker’s lodge in Zimbabwe wouldn’t take no for an answer to his request for a date, my patience was tested. When the kind offer of a motorcycle ride back to my tent from a Moroccan campsite guard turned into me being taken to an isolated spot far outside the perimeter of the camp, I admit that I was terrified. These are just a sample of the harassment that I experienced, but thankfully nothing led to a sexual assault or anything more serious than that. This kind of behavior is unheard of in many parts of the world, but I’m afraid that it can happen when you’re off the beaten track, so you need to stay alert and be on your guard.
My heart swelled from the goodness and kindness of the people. On seeing the friendly waves from the locals and smiles on the children’s faces, and hearing them say “Welcome”, I felt an indescribable warmth and joy. Frequently, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality of the African people: the taxi driver in Cairo, who accompanied me on foot through the busy streets of old Cairo and looked after me as if I was his own personal guest; the Ethiopian tour guide, who offered me his hoodie jacket when he sensed that I was cold; the driver and passengers of a public van, who patiently waited for me to get my visitor’s visa at the border between Swaziland and Mozambique; the campsite security guard, who made me traditional Mauritanian tea when I had trouble sleeping; the student in Togo, who gave me his own precious repellent spray when he saw I was being bitten by mosquitoes, and then who subsequently cooked dinner for me when I told him I wanted to try some Togolese dishes. I experienced so much kindness from so many people throughout my journey. I was made to feel welcome and special. By the end of my trip, I found that my trust in the goodness of humanity had been renewed.
I bonded most with energetic and venturesome travelers. I have always connected more easily with men, particularly with those that have a lot of energy and thrive on action and adventure. As a child, I was a tomboy, preferring to climb trees rather than play with dolls. When I look at my most enduring friendships, the majority grew out of a shared interest in active pursuits: from old friends that I hung out with during my university varsity basketball and football sports years, to newer friends that I’ve met through dancing, fitness and travel.
My time in Africa was no different. I got on well with two adventurous guys, John and Roberto, who both have boundless amounts of energy. John, an Australian, is a disciplined runner and a long distance swimmer. Most days, he ran 10K; he swam in rivers, lakes and oceans whenever he had the chance; and he worked hard on his travel blog. His example and his persistence got me into running more seriously. Roberto, a Brazilian, is also a runner but is even more passionate about mountain climbing. Unlike, John who liked to plan his day down to the minute detail, Roberto derived more fun from being spontaneous. I found myself drawn to these guys because, like other friends I’ve met through active pursuits, they challenged me, pushed me to work hard and lifted my spirit.
I foolishly chased adventure. I sought adventure, even knowing that I could be killed in the process. In Cameroon, I found myself being led by pygmy guides and armed forest rangers in the deep of the jungle, to be confronted and growled at by its wild inhabitants – the lowland gorillas. While I’d signed up to see Rwanda’s mountain gorillas later in the trip, the fact that they were tame and had become habituated to humans meant that they weren’t going to be good enough for me. When, as a passenger of a beaten up and overloaded pick-up truck, I experienced the high-speed explosion of a worn and threadbare tire, I told myself that it was “all part of the African experience”. Looking back, I see that I made selfish and unwise decisions, knowing that so many people (my husband and my dad, in particular) were already so worried about my trip. At that time, I felt that those risks were part of what I’d signed up for. I wanted to taste and experience true adventure, and to have the space and the freedom to experiment with life. I wanted to be shaken up.
My solo treks strengthened and emboldened me. On occasions, I would jump off the truck on my own, so that I could visit places that were not part of our itinerary. By nature, I’m an introvert, and so it was also good to have some down time and be by myself. I learned a lot and developed new skills from these solo adventures. In the Republic of Congo, I decided to take a stand against the corruption of the local Immigration officers, who expected a ‘donation’ in addition to the visa fee. I stood my ground, refusing to give them any additional money, until they gave up and let me through. In Johannesburg, Swaziland and Mozambique, I learned to use public transportation, walking and exploring places on my own. I did not hesitate to ask for help when I needed it. I trusted my instincts. I became increasingly confident and independent as I did more solo treks.
I felt the most incredible sense of freedom. Daily life was completely different in Africa. It was normal to go without showering for several days and not have access to toilet facilities. Sometimes, I could only bathe when there was a body of water (a stream, river, lake or ocean) and shower only when there was a natural waterfall or well. I eventually learned to pee and poo in bush like a pro. I got downright dirty without squirming and slept with sweat and dirt on my skin. I’d wash my own clothes by hand. I’d fetch water and firewood. I’d light a fire for cooking and ate only what was available. I learned to wash dishes without running water. No matter what the weather or temperature was, I slept outdoors in my tent: no aircon, heater or fan. I learned to sleep with several layers of clothing when it was freezing. I lived without make up, hair conditioner or even a proper hairbrush. I didn’t enjoy the discomfort of bush camping, but for some strange reason, I found the experience liberating. It gave me a sense of freedom and made me feel truly alive.
My soul was constantly stirred and roused. On reaching the summit of Dune 45 in the Namib Desert, the light from the rising sun seemed to set the desert on fire. I found myself spellbound, wanting to freeze the moment and hold my life there. When I trekked the forsaken deserts of Sudan in search of the disintegrating Nubian pyramids, my soul was roused. When I slept under the star-studded skies in Mauritania and saw the desert night sky ablaze with shooting stars, it stirred my soul and brought me to tears. The world is beautiful. Life is beautiful. I am so grateful that I had a chance to see this part of the world and to truly experience so much of it in very tangible ways.
Finally, I had constant stimulation throughout my journey, both good and bad; some of which I sought out, and some not. There were scary and adrenaline pumping moments. Oddly, these were the same moments that made me feel alive inside. My experiences and emotions were rich and intense. My energy levels were constantly at a high and my spirit soured. Nowhere but Africa have I ever felt so alive, free and unbound.