Recently I’ve been reading, “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. When the author was in her mid-twenties she solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. Her book unfolds as she treks north, nursing her blistered feet and cumbersome heavy pack along a majority of the 2,663mi (4,286km) trail. It initially begins at the Mexican border, passes through California, Oregon, and Washington in the USA and over the border into Canada. Several years ago I’d been gearing up to ride my horses along the same trail, but heavy snows in high mountain ranges and challenges with support team coordination threw a wrench in the trip–so it never happen. But I did ride sections of that trail, along with parts of the Continental Divide Trail, Chilkoot Trail, and the historic Oregon Trail. On foot I’ve graced sections of several other long paths, and driven a dog cart on one pulled by twelve huskies.
Reading Strayed’s book got me thinking about other long-distance footpaths around the world. A popular one in Europe that comes to mind is El Camino de Santiago which starts many different places but ultimately ends at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I first heard of the trail in a novel by Paulo Coelho called, “The Pilgrimage.” Other countries in Europe such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have quite a lot of paths. In Asia I’d looked into hiking the Annapurna Circuit in central Nepal. But it appears that Israel and Japan have many for the choosing as well; Japan’s most popular being the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Here are the worlds’ best hikes according to National Geographic.
Mark Moxon has an extensive website of information and stories from his long walking adventures.
The UK has a Long Walkers Association.
One Canadian man even walked around the world in eleven years.
Have you ever hiked or ridden on a long-distance path? Or do you have plans to do so?
Please share your stories or plans in the comments!
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
After spending several months in Africa, I have seen a lot of strange things and it has all begun to be quite normal. Therefore, the contrast of Kigali, Rwanda was actually the strangest thing I have seen in a while. The streets were impeccably clean, everything was organized and you couldn’t find corruption anywhere. The harassing street hawkers weren’t trying to sell me the same worthless junk or “Made in China” African statues and masks like everywhere else, but rather USB sticks, Oxford English dictionaries and Economist magazines. Compared to the past few months, this was very strange!
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
In Malawi I was introduced to the water spirit Tokoloshe. It resembles a human figure – two hands and two feet – but with extremely exaggerated features like the massive belly and enormous mouth and tongue. I have never seen anything quite like it and decided I had a buy one. Luckily, there’s a million craft stalls in Africa and Malawi is no different. I bought mine from a fellow that called himself “Cheap As Chips”.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
In South Africa, seeing a lion eat an impala, a family of elephants cross the road, two giraffes fight, rhinos hanging out, a leopard chase its prey and a handful of other breathtaking scenes at Kruger National Park was definitely “strange.” It honestly didn’t feel like it could possibly be real.
In Mozambique, the chapas – a shared mini-bus taxi that is typically the only mode of transportation available – are designed to fit 14 people. However, it typically has over 20 people + luggage + household supplies + the occasional live chicken and bag of raw fish. Waiting for and watching everyone squeeze into this vehicle while a guy came up to the window selling a bundle of machetes and an elderly woman came up with a huge barrel of oranges balanced on her head was probably the strangest overall visual of the trip.
About 110 years ago an Englishman named Ewart Grogan made the journey across Africa from south to north. He was the first person to do so, and it took him two years.
In Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure, author Julian Smith recounts some of Grogan’s story, following much the same route. The title refers to the fact that Grogan journeyed with the knowledge that when he finished – assuming, of course, that he survived the dangerous trek – there was a particular woman he planned to marry. Smith also departs for Africa with a woman he loves, and to whom he is engaged, waiting back home.
The book deserves a place in a well-rounded travel library because it introduces us to one of the last great explorers, and such a young one at that (Grogan was in his mid-twenties when he set out). The reader is given a glimpse of Africa circa 1900 and a glimpse of Africa today. I particularly appreciate how Smith weaves in excerpts from Grogan’s journal, passages such as:
How many people have ever caught the exquisite flavour of bread-and-butter? the restful luxury of clean linen? the hiss of Schweppe’s? One must munch hippo-meat alone, save one’s sole shirt from contact with water as from a pestilence lest it fall to pieces, and drink brackish mud for days, to realize all this.
One disappointment with Crossing the Heart of Africa is that unlike Grogan, Smith didn’t make it all the way to Egypt; he made it as far as Juba, Sudan. He had good reason to go no further. The back cover blurb, however, gives the impression that both men covered the whole distance, and I felt slightly deceived once I reached the end of the story. Also, at times the narrative feels rushed and even forced, which may be in part because Smith had only two months to cover a vast amount of territory — too short a time, I think, but it was what he had to work with if he was to be back in time for his wedding.
Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure is available in many bookstores and on Amazon.
On Sunday, CBS’s 60 Minutes aired film footage of San Francisco in 1906. The footage, taken by a camera attached to a cable car going down Market Street, is less than 12 minutes long, and it is mesmerizing in a way a still photo cannot be. We see bodies moving, faces moving, vehicles and pedestrians weaving all over the place in an era few of us ever bother to think about. There is a hauntedness to it all, in part because we know what the people in the video don’t: many will die in just a few days in what will be called the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
Some years ago I used to take a lot of video footage in my own travels, and I’m glad I have it today. On those rare occasions when I watch some clips, they evoke time and place in a way my still photos do not. A photograph can’t capture the crickets at night in Yanjing, Tibet, or the giggles of an innkeeper’s little girl as a radio plays Chinese classical songs in the background.
I’ve not traveled with a proper video camera since 2005. I feel I just don’t have the time to do video when I’m focusing on still photography — and trying to do decent writing at the same time. But my Nikon D300s does have a video function, and I’ll kick it on once in a while. The quality is poor, but it is enough to capture something that a single picture can’t. For this post I’ve uploaded to youtube a few video clips taken in the past year. If any of the following capture your attention, you’re most welcome to check it out (the girl in the photo above is in the first clip):
“Right now Egypt is like having a fast pass at Disney. People should come over.”
These are the words of Rick Zeolla, the general manager of the Cairo Marriott, quoted last week in a New York Times article titled “Tahrir Square, Egypt’s New Tourist Draw.” In that same article, the general manager of the Semiramis InterContinental said that his guest today are asking for rooms with a view of Tahrir Square rather than the Nile. “The early guests we are seeing are more independent, well seasoned and globally focused travelers,” he said.
There is indeed a strong case to be made, on several fronts, that now is the time to visit Egypt. True, lines are currently non-existent at tourist sites. But the stronger argument, I think, is that what is going on now in Egypt — i.e., a transition from autocratic rule to what the majority of Egyptians hope will be democracy — is no less stunning to behold than the gazillion blocks of stone that form the Pyramids of Giza or any number of other ancient monuments in this land. I visited the Pyramids last week and they were nice. But it was even more fascinating to sit in Saad Zaghloul Square in Alexandria, or Tahrir Square in Cairo (above), and watch teenagers, Muslim and Christian together, give railings and curbs a fresh coat of paint. To be sure, they often did a lackluster paint job. But I wasn’t focused on their painting skills. I was focused on the spirit with which they painted and worked together, on the dreams they had for their country and communities.
Seldom will you be encouraged to visit a country to watch people paint curbs and pick up trash. But if you’re a reader wondering where to go in 2011, I’m doing precisely that. Come to Egypt to watch mediocre paint jobs. Come to watch Egyptians, who often meet and coordinate through Facebook pages, as they pick up trash from sidewalks. Talk with them. Watch their faces and laughter and eyes. Listen to what they have to tell you about pride and freedom and service. In saying this, I’m not romanticizing the challenges Egypt faces — they’re pretty darn huge. I’m just saying that something remarkable is happening here, particularly with many young people.
Some travel warnings will encourage you to stay away a while longer, and many brochures will only suggest the ancient monuments. But consider coming anyway, and coming primarily to meet and watch Egypt’s vibrant, beaming youth in the city centers. They’ll tell you Egypt isn’t just ancient ruins; it’s a place still under construction.
For a beautiful video welcoming visitors back to Egypt, check out “From Egypt with Love“.
For more of my images from Egypt in February, including the demonstrations and celebrations, visit my Flickr set called Cairo, Egypt (2011).
This past Friday, I was on a hostel roof talking with a Hungarian journalist when a tremendous roar, straight out of the lungs of tens of thousands of Egyptians, swept through the streets and over Cairo’s Tahrir Square. We stood and ran to a better vantage point to see if the sound meant something good or — just as probable — something bad. Soon we learned its origin: Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, had resigned, and one of the largest street parties in human history had just begun.
I had been in Cairo ten days, photographing the seismic events taking place. It had often been stressful and sometimes dangerous. It had also been deeply inspiring.
I will share more thoughts and observations about events in Egypt in future posts. In this post I’ll just say that one of the greatest overseas experiences I’ve ever had was being in the streets with Egyptians as they celebrated on Friday night. Downtown was a sea of smiles and “v-signs”, of jubilation and relief. People told me such obvious things – “I am Egyptian!” or “I was born in Egypt!” – and I loved hearing it as much as they loved saying it. Old women and small children shouted “horreyah” (freedom) and people cried and kissed the ground. Some, like the man in the photo above, stood silently taking it all in.
For sure I will always associate Egypt with the Nile, the Pyramids, and too much falafel for breakfast. But burned in my memory will also be the night I watched a city explode in happiness. Egyptians had just put down another marker in history, and they knew it.
Note: Earlier this month, global adventurer Hendri Coetzee was killed by a crocodile while leading a kayaking expedition down the Ruzizi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Guidebook writer and no-baggage travel pioneer Jonathan Yevin was friends with Coetzee, and he sent me a heart-felt eulogy that explores Hendri’s unique way of looking at the world. Here, in full, are Jonathan’s thoughts on what vagabonders might learn from Coetzee’s life:
On Thursday, November 11, 2010, Hendri Coetzee wrote in his blog that, for the first time in his life, “I walked without anything to prove to myself, and I was already where I wanted to be.” The 35-year-old South African had just pulled off a first descent down the Ruzizi River, along the anarchic borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, discovering along the way some of the most extreme whitewater on the continent. It was just the latest in a paddling career noted for tackling formidable rivers in dangerous locales.
In other entries, Hendri wrote of a tacit acceptance that his calling would lead to an early death, concluding that “life without passion holds no appeal” and “if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home.” A week later, Hendri was seized from his kayak and killed by a crocodile.
Was he a heroic loner on a courageous mission? Or did he have some sort of sublimated death wish? Truth be told, these two readings of Hendri’s character represent a dangerously oversimplified analysis.
Some people who read the sensationalistic news reports about Hendri’s death straight away categorized him in the Chris McCandless/Timothy Treadwell set of ill-fated explorers who saw nature as their personal therapeutic playground. Here is one comment posted on a popular kayaking site’s forum:
<< Want to mingle with man eating animals? Enter into the food chain at your own risk. Not sad. Just over confident and the odds caught up with him. >>
Others questioned whether he would have made the choices he did, in hindsight. On Hendri’s own blog someone remarked:
<< I think this guy was a meddling fool, looking for a thrill. I am very sorry for his death but his actions were extremely foolish! Is this Stanley going to deepest Africa redux? Was it really worth being eaten by a crocodile and turned into his meal? I think not! >>
And another comment:
<< Like Steve Irwin, I believe you too would have rather lived a quiet, unexciting life had you known what you do now. >>
These individuals would like to see the story of Hendri Coetzee as a morality tale, his life and death an example for people not to follow. In the rush to make sense of a horrific tragedy, some are quick to proclaim their absolute lack of sympathy for someone who didn’t fit into society’s neat little box.
Amongst those who knew him, reactions were more compassionate. His Facebook wall fast became a tribute to a hero, as well as a group commiseration, rife with heartfelt avowals that Hendri died doing what he loved; that this was the only fitting way to go for a great explorer; that he was in his happy place; that he didn’t have much fear of death. That what happened was the right thing to happen.
When all is said and done, all of these reactions—from the message board trolls to the everything-happens-for-a-reason parrots—amount to so much hot air. Hendri was no meddling fool, nor is a crocodile’s mouth a happy place. He was no Crocodile Hunter indulging a neocolonialist fantasy. The truth is Hendri wanted to be alive.
From the moment I met him, nearly ten years ago, I was awed by Hendri’s incredible physical courage coupled with his profound quest for truth and meaning in life. At the time I was working in a remote safari camp on the Tanzanian coast, living in a hut, with nothing but raw nature for a hundred miles in any direction. Hendri rolled up off the beach and introduced himself. He was sunburned and loaded down with survival gear—yet inconspicuous and nonchalant, as if on a leisurely Sunday stroll through the mall. He had trekked that wild stretch all the way from Kenya, braving every manner of life-risking obstacle (particularly the many hippo-, croc-, and shark-rich delta fordings) by himself. After I uncorked my nicest bottle of wine, we stayed up way past our bedtimes debating what was the most important invention in the past two thousand years (he suggested it was the rudder, I said printing press). In the morning we exchanged contact information, and just as nattily as he’d arrived he was on his way.
As time bore on, that trope—a man taking on the wild African coast by himself—which blessed me at 22 years of age, proved a catalyst for change in my relationship with the world. It’s a big part of the reason why I dropped the primary accessory of backpacking and headed overseas with just a passport and a toothbrush.
Fellow travelers who meet me on the road often say, ‘you are so brave, I could never do that.’ My response is to tell them about my friend Hendri, who showed me what brave is. He led the first trip down the full length of the Nile, past warring Sudanese factions and lost tribes in a marshland the size of France. He summited Africa’s equatorial glaciers, the Rwenzori Mountains, then snowboarded down them. He slogged through uncharted regions of central Africa with a pygmy poacher, gazetting a 12,000 square mile tropical rainforest to eventually turn it into a protected reserve. He owned nothing but books and an old beat-up kayak. By comparison, traveling with no bags is the easiest thing in the world.
Hendri was no grizzly man disappeared unto the wild. He was not reckless or arrogant. He was not aloof from family and friends. He was a teacher and a student. He believed life is an adventure that always leads back to oneself. He pounced on all life’s opportunities and did his best to experience complete self-expression and pursue the fullest applications of his extraordinary potential. He inspired others to move from the realm of the ordinary to that of the mysterious.
Hendri’s solo expedition was cut short. What Hendri saw as his greatest source of happiness and fulfillment ultimately destroyed him. Yet his demise has brought together many people from around the world. This past week I’ve met Gustav, a filmmaker and childhood buddy who shot a documentary about Hendri’s trip down the Ethiopian Blue Nile; Celliers, the president of Hendri’s sponsor Fluid Kayaks; and Chris, another world class kayaker who was with Hendri til the monstrous end. We grieve, we mourn, we lament—but we also remember that the purpose of exploration is so much more than navigating the physical encounter. Experience is another layer, a kayak on the first descent that is our learning process.
When I spent time with Hendri in South Africa, he introduced me to his beloved native land using not just the draw of adventure, but the people and historical context—and most resounding, his unremitting search for what he would only jokingly refer to as enlightenment. In fact, he referred to his expeditions as “boyish games,” and suggested we emulate those who could turn every day into a chance to give, to laugh, or to experience: “We come in with the death-defying stunts, but what do any of these things really count for in the day-to-day life that we are all forced to live?” This is the real tragic essence of Hendri’s abbreviated life: that, with so much wrong and unjust in the world, many of us vagabonders find it impossible to achieve enlightened states of peace in our default reality. So we head out the door with a one-way plane ticket and a contrived mission.
Hendri’s unique blog is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of this quandary, as well as a levelheaded discourse on the brute force of nature, pragmatic day-to-day life, and human hubris. Like everything he did, this was no half-assed endeavor. Hendri captured the thrill of his expeditions with acumen and humor. There are only eleven entries over a two-month period. It was written for an audience of just his closest friends and family. The concept of self-promotion was entirely foreign to Hendri. Once upon a time I sold an editor of a high profile men’s magazine on an article about Hendri’s exploits, but when I told him about it he replied: “I don’t really think the standard ‘I’m a badass article’ is what I’m after. Back in the forest tomorrow. Take care out there in the concrete jungle.” I would challenge all of you to take on a reading of his passionate declarations as the raw material to peek not only into his life, but your own.
Rolf’s latest travel project is the No Baggage Challenge — a journey that will take him around the world without using a single piece of luggage. Every few days, we’ll be updating Vagabonding with a recap of the latest to keep you up to date on the adventure.
Rolf spent a few days off the grid while on safari in Kruger National Park. While there, he created his own personal alternative list to the Big Five animals — top of the list: hipppos. After the safari, they headed to the Welgevonden Game Preserve, three hours northwest of Johannesburg — where they had the opportunity to sample some world-class elephant-dung tea, before flying to Bangkok.
Days on road: 32
Miles traveled: 18,869
“Of all the things I’d expected to experience when planning my no-luggage world journey, drinking elephant-dung tea in South Africa was not among them. I’d expected I might explore nightlife in Spain (which I did, while eating tapas in Madrid) or ride a camel in Egypt (which I did, at Giza) — and I even thought I’d get lost from time to time (which I did in Morocco, among other places) — but I never expected to imbibe a medicinal beverage that had recently passed through an elephant’s ass. Such is is the unpredictability of travel.” –Rolf on Justin’s elephant-poop cold remedy
Our next update will find Rolf in Thailand and New Zealand. To follow the journey in real-time, check out the No Baggage Challenge blog or follow along on Twitter or Facebook. And enter this week’s reader challenge, by sharing what you will do over the next year to make yourself richer in time. The best entry will win Scottevest gear, a BootsnAll Moleskine journal, and Rolf’s book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There!