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The Journey Begins

Ian M Packham

As I stood alone beyond the last bus stop in Europe, with more than a year of travel ahead of me, I could think of nothing but returning to this exact spot at journey’s end. Success on my trip would mean returning to where I had started, 394 days older, having travelled west from Tangier for more than 24,000 miles. The distance was equivalent to circling the globe at the equator.

I reached Europa Point, Gibraltar’s southernmost, through streets closer to British history than roads back home. Having left the small Trafalgar cemetery, where many of the British battle dead are buried, I walked over bastions named for members of the royal family until I was trapped by the chain-link fences of land still owned by the British military, and had to find another path. The sky was clearing all the time, after a late summer storm that raged in from Africa. Everything that I was to experience there, during my circumnavigation of the continent by public transport, I couldn’t envisage.

In sight of one of the largest mosques in Europe, a sure sign of the continual flux of communities and seemingly solid frontiers both at land and at sea, I got my first glimpse of Africa, Earth’s oldest, and poorest, continent. My thoughts became preoccupied with worry, a fear of the unknown, a carnal fear of Africa. Safely in Europe, I couldn’t shake the thought of a dark continent, the white man’s grave; home to warlords, killer diseases and some of the worst accident statistics on the planet.

Though my journey in Africa was to be an overland, I arrived into Gibraltar by air. It felt right to begin my circumnavigation by reaching Africa with surface transport. Landing, my plane stopped the traffic; the territory’s runway cutting the only north-south road through the peninsula, the only road that leads to Spain, a word that rang out from the road signs north of the tiny terminal building like a warning of imminent danger.

I got my first glimpse of Africa, earth’s oldest, and poorest, continent. My thoughts became preoccupied with worry, a fear of the unknown, a carnal fear of Africa
Gibraltar
African immigrants crouched on their ankles. Smartly if cheaply dressed, the men held battered cardboard coffee cups, quietly desperate for change. Their eyes betrayed the same fear of the unknown mine must have. It was an exhilarating fear, fuelling my imagination and triggering my heart into racing.
I chose to start in Gibraltar as I saw it as just another part of the UK. As a British Overseas Territory, and having purposely done little research on the peninsula, I had naïvely expected no difference between my departure point at Heathrow airport and my place of arrival. I expected another British town, albeit one with Europe’s only free-living non-human primates, its Barbary macaques.

My expectations during Encircle Africa were almost always defied. Gibraltar was far from being an ordinary part of the UK. It represented in microcosm the mixing cultural identities that I encountered nine miles across the Strait of Gibraltar in Africa. A tanned, bilingual and majority Roman Catholic population bought its pints of Spanish lager, opposite Marks & Spencer, using pounds sterling. The peninsula had also been home to Moors during their push into the Iberian Peninsula, with a hammam baths complex beneath the museum, and a square Moorish castle – the largest in Andalusia – now proudly flying the Union Flag. It was even one of the last outposts for ancient man, a Neanderthal skull on the reverse side of Gibraltar’s one pound coin.

Leaving the tiny airport terminal desperate to save as much money as possible, I hauled my kit onto my shoulders and walked south towards the heart of Gibraltar, ignoring the taxis in spite of the storm that nearly forced my plane into landing elsewhere. At Landport gate, tunnels that mark entry into Casemates Square and the start of the ancient citadel, African immigrants crouched on their ankles. Smartly if cheaply dressed, the men held battered cardboard coffee cups, quietly desperate for change. Their eyes betrayed the same fear of the unknown mine must have. It was an exhilarating fear, fuelling my imagination and triggering my heart into racing. But, unlike the immigrants, I knew if all went wrong I could afford to go home.

Home for the next 13 months was Africa. Though travelling almost every day, often from one small and insignificant town to another, my limited budget ensured I was reliant on the towns and people I encountered. It meant I was living as much like Africa’s coastal communities as I could as an outsider. My only piece of technology (other than a compact digital camera with which I took these images) was an old Nokia 3100 mobile phone. I had reasoned Africa wasn’t technologically advanced enough to use a smartphone; I was wrong. Updating my blog meant finding a local internet café and using their funky, non-qwerty keyboards. It was something I came to enjoy. I had to share the same broken pavements, roads, food, transport and accommodation. The reason many development programmes fail is not from corruption but because of collapsing infrastructure. I was told in Angola that one of the biggest costs to firms working in the country’s oil sector was clean drinking water for their staff.

Gibraltar
From Gibraltar Africa looked massive, even half-covered in the candyfloss cloud that hid the upper reaches of Jebel Musa, thought to be the southern ancient pillar of Hercules, from where the hero tore Europe and Africa apart. Its coast unravelled ahead of me, sweeping east towards Ceuta and west to Punta Cires, the promontory on which Tangier sits. It seemed to stretch on indefinitely.

Thinking of Hercules, I realised I shouldn’t leave Gibraltar without visiting the Rock, a nature reserve and historic acropolis. Leaving the cable car that brought me up to its 412 metre height – almost exactly a tenth the height of Mount Cameroon’s peak that I later summited – I was quickly away from the macaques, the monkeys never moving far from the constantly replenished piles of fruit and vegetables on the roadside of the upper sections of the Rock. I spent several hours, in heat I had to become used to, following the winding paths back to the crowd of buildings around the base of the Rock. Tired from my walk over the steep gradient, only the knowledge I had no backup team to push me on got me back to its heart around Main Street, as fighter jets arched around the waters of Gibraltar bay in tandem, practicing the defence of its borders.

The first thing I had to do to get any closer to Africa was walk away from it, past the road sign warnings of SPAIN SPAIN SPAIN to La Línea, the town on the other side of Gibraltar’s only land border. No buses cross. It was here in an ordinary side street that my inevitable rendezvous with public transport began. I was soon to discover the term ‘public transport’ was a looser term in Africa than Europe, a catch-all term for bush taxis, coaches, pickups, aging Soviet-built ferries and a van delivering freshly made meat pies: anything that was willing to take me and my backpack anywhere along Africa’s coast. But for now it was a modern single-decker bus that took me to Algeciras in Spain, across Gibraltar Bay, for one of the many fast ferries to Tangier, and Africa.


Ian returned from encircling Africa at the end of September 2012, having been mistaken for an undercover UN official during Liberia’s presidential election, been refused entry into the Democratic Republic of Congo, and having dodged teargas while visiting a museum in Khartoum. Encircle Africa: Around Africa by public transport, the story of Ian’s solo and unassisted African circumnavigation, is out soon in ebook and paperback.

A scientist, adventurer, writer, blogger, and speaker, Ian revels in making his own way to off-beat and unexpected destinations. His recent writing credits include Adventure Travel and Bus-Pass Britain Rides Again. To find out more about Ian and his writing visit www.encircleafrica.org, follow him on Twitter, or visit the Encircle Africa Facebook page.

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