Encircle Africa is Ian Packham’s kickass solo-journey of a 25,000 mile circumnavigation of Africa following its coastline while using public transport only! It brings him through 31 countries traveling a distance that is equivalent to circling the Earth at the equator. It turns him into the first person to travel all the way around Africa by public transport! And he wrote a kickass book about it…
This is his kickass story.
Encircle Africa: a full loop around the continent
Ian Packham wanted to make a big trip. So he started planning a journey. At first he had his eyes on an overland journey from London to Sydney. After he had done a bit of research he realised this was actually quite a popular and standard long-term overland journey. One of the classical routes. But Packham was looking for something more original and adventurous.
Then his eye fell on Africa. Africa looked like a lot more enticing opportunity. And it’s almost round. You can envisage it with the same start and finish point he thought. And by taking only public, locally available transport Packham could become the first person to encircle Africa. Now this was a cool challenge!
Packham at the time did not realise there had been a crazy Russian traveler, named Vladislav Ketov, who had years before taken the title for ‘first full circumnavigation of Africa’ when he cycled the continent’s coastline. For Ketov it was actually part of a much bigger trip where he went on to Cycle the Edge of the Earth following the coastlines of every continent on Earth by bicycle!
Packham’s decision to travel using transport only available to local populations ensured immersion with populations across the continent and it ensured him the possibility of grabbing the record for first public transport circumnavigation of the African continent.
It would lead Ian to encircle Africa riding in battered minibuses and bush taxis, on the backs of flatbed trucks, over rivers in dugout canoes, and along the coast of South Africa in a van delivering freshly-made meat pies. The entire trip took him 13 months between September 2011 and October 2012.
The End is the Beginning: Gibraltar
The end and the beginning of the the tip. Two moments, 394 days apart, on the same spot of land in Gibraltar, facing the vast continent of Africa. In-between lies the adventure of my solo and unassisted circumnavigation of Africa using public transport. This was where my journey began, and over a year later, where it came to an end.
The route for the Encircle Africa expedition was pretty straightforward and involved not much planning as Ian was just going to follow Africa’s coastline as close as possible.
Here is the route he took.
The red line is the route that Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias (one of Packham’s inspirations) took to reach Tombua, in the far south of modern day Angola in 1487.
from Gibraltar Packham took a ferry to Morocco and hence the continent he was about to encircle.
Through Tangiers he continued to Rabat.
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. So far for dangerous, poor and strange Africa…..but that was about to change….
Travelling through Western Sahara/Southern Morocco and Mauritania was hot, sweaty, and dusty; in that order. But the welcome glasses of peppermint tea along the way were friendly enough. But Packham was very nervous about entering Mauritania, given its international reputation.
On the way from Nouadibou and Nouakchott he suffered his first breakdown (mechanical not mental). After the arrival of a second bus, an impromptu towrope got made from the netting normally employed in keeping baggage attached to the roof and they were towed the remaining 200km African style.
Real Africa: the Quebo to Boke road into Guinea
After crossing safely and without any substantial difficulties through Western-Sahara, Mauritania, Sengal and Gambia Packham reaches Guinea-Bissau. The crossing into Guinea from there becomes his first real African experience:
The day 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.
This experience sets the tone for the rest of his journey.
But apart from hassles, bribes and problems Packham packs in quite a few side adventures in his trip as well. One of them is is climb of Mount Cameroon, West and Central Africa’s highest peak.
Climbing mount 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.
South Africa – Reaching the halfway point and Swapping Oceans
After coming from Namibia – where the main road runs North to South several hunderds of kilometres inland, away from the coast, Packham reaches the ocean again at Lamber’s Bay, South Africa. A sign in town read ‘the residents of Lambert’s Bay request you do not encourage 1) beggars, 2) crayfish smuggling, 3) car washers.
Packham moves quickly onwards to Cape Town which marked the half way point and 6 month mark of his journey where he celebrates big time.
Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point, must be Africa’s windiest point too. This was the spot where Ian was going to swap the Atlantic ocean for the Indian ocean, another notable moment in his journey from which moment onwards his journey takes him Northward instead of the Southern direction he had been traveling up to that point.
Mozambique to Egypt
First country north of South-Africa was Mozambique, then Tanzania and – still using public transport only on to Kenia. Because of safety issues here Packham took a more inland route up through Ethiopia all the way to Egypt.
A train ride to Cairo
From Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city, Ian made a run for Cairo. Although he had no desire to be there he had to as his ‘extra pages added’ passport had no more space left for visas and he had to renew it as soon as possible.
The train line, one of the few he had been able to use in 10 months of travel (due to a lack of train coverage in Africa), 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.
In the end his passport renewal became a bit of a nightmare. It consisted of waiting the entire month of August before his passport renewal request got processed. Then on top of that he had trouble organising a visa for Libya. So Ian felt delight when – after over 2 months in Egypt – he could finally move on to the next country on his list, Libya.
The surprise of Libya
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.
Algerian Visa denial
Moving on to Tunisia was easy. Very easy compared to Algeria. In the end a million times easier as Algeria wouldn’t give him a visa. Plan B had to be used and Packham had to cross into Europe to get around Algeria and stick to his plan of using surface transport and public transport only.
He took a ferry to Marseille, France and subsequently followed the French and Spanish coast all the way to Malaga from where he took another ferry back into Africa, to Morocco.
On the bus to Tangiers I realised that I’d been to Tangiers before – I’d done it, I’d finished my Encircle Africa project. 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’.
The End: back in Gibraltar
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…
There were so many tourists enjoying the late summer sun in Casemate’s Square for me to be an exception, for anyone to have asked why I might be in Gibraltar, in the way I had been almost continuously asked in Africa. Instead I burned my fingers on fish and chips from the same takeaway I had visited on the first day of my journey thirteen months ago, eating them on the same end of the same bench.
I had fulfilled my original plan for the end of my Encircle Africa expedition, to return to Gibraltar’s southernmost point, Europa Point, where I began. I liked the idea of looking back at Africa with renewed eyes. But all my reserves of energy were spent, and after having travelled a distance equivalent to circumnavigating the earth at the equator, it was consolation enough to know that all that separated me from Africa was nine miles of often still water.
For more kickass African trips like this one have alook at our Africa section.