Star Rating: ****
“I travel because it challenges my preconceptions of the world, and about what I can and cannot do. Using public transport forces me into immersing with local cultures.” (Ian Packham)
Have you ever considered setting yourself a challenge, one that you know others are likely to question? Well, that is exactly what Ian Packham, Doctor by profession, decided to do when he announced that he was going to circumnavigate around Africa. Far from your normal holiday experience, he also decided to take his challenge one step further choosing to encircle Africa using only public transport staying as close to the coastal paths as physically possible.
Ian plans to start and end in Morocco, spending the year in-between traversing each country on the outer shores of the African coastline in turn. Armed with a backpack containing maps for each region and his trusted notebook he heads off into the unknown not really knowing whether he will succeed and what issues he will face along the way.
Landing in Tangiers the seediness of the city seeps into Ian’s skin as soon as he leaves the port and it seems to take him most of the trip through Morocco to recover although by the time he reaches Tarfaya he has at least begun to relax and starts to enjoy the quiet way of life that some of the smaller towns and cities offer.
Things seem to go quite smoothly for Ian in the opening chapters of his account – he finds transportation with ease, accommodation without difficulty and people want to talk to him about his trip; some countries along the way even surprising him. Sierra Leone, known for its blood diamonds and corruption is one of the most welcoming countries along his early travels, the area of Kent having perhaps the most beautiful beaches.
Further into his journey however, and the problems begin. First he is stopped at a border crossing where they demand he pays extra to cross using the excuse that his papers are not correct…
“Every official you encounter will make life as unpleasant for you as he possibly can until you pay him to stop.” (Page 123)
…and then he feels that someone has been through his belongings during a stop-over to see the wildlife at the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary.
“The sights are spoilt by the suspicion someone had been through my stuff when I return to the camp clearing… I have an emergency stash of €50 missing from it… It is not so much the quantity that bothers me… It is the cheek – not mugging me in the street, but taking from me when I have already spent a significant amount visiting the island.” (Page 59)
This is not the only incident during his year of travels – being accosted by teenagers believing a bag snatch is the easiest way to earn money, having his lunch taken by a hungry baboon during a trip into a National Park and numerous street hawkers seeing him as an easy target. Add to this the times he is refused entry across a border resulting in him having to backtrack across a country just to gain yet another visa, you do have to begin to wonder whether his adventure will ever end the way he intended it.
Reading on through the problems he has, parts of Africa sound idyllic to the point that Ian becomes sick of the scenery; there are parts that many probably would never have considered visiting. Gabon, for example, sees only 240,000 visitors a year, whilst London sees that it a week.
At times, his journey is uncomfortable and arduous without the feeling of finality. Ian endures hours on the road in cramped, cockroach infested buses, very few featuring air conditioning of any kind. However, it is also one of discovery, where meeting local people on a daily basis becomes insightful and pleasurable.
If you have ever considered travelling to Africa this is an intriguing account worth reading. Countries on this continent that have never really spiked my interest now feature on my research list thanks to this book.
This is a must-read for anyone stepping foot on the African Continent and in need of inspiration on how to travel around the area.
A great first novel from Ian Packham.
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