Crossing Africa vertically from Cape Town to Cairo is for the brave. From Morocco to Cape Town is for the experienced. But in horizontal from Massawa to Dakar is only for the foolish.
RED SEA, ERITREA
I was in Massawa pondering the alternatives to get back home after eight months vagabonding around Africa, from Melilla to Cape Town and up to Eritrea in trucks, boats, trains and on foot. Now I had just to cross Sudan and enter Egypt to visit my many good friends living in the Baramus Coptic Monastery, near Alexandria, and then would catch a regular ship to Athens and hitchhike to Spain to accomplish the Tran African in vertical twice. But then I looked at my pocket atlas, that magical book, and a new plan provoked me with irresistible force: Crossing Africa in horizontal! The idea became so powerful that I could not take it out of my mind; I did not wish anything else in my life at that moment than to arrive to the Atlantic Ocean from the Red Sea via Sudan, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. I had left only 60,000 CFA francs (around $200) and I did not foresee the bureaucratic annoyances, such as bona fide letters from your Embassy to get visas to the Arabic countries, and because of that I could not obtain the visa to Chad. Anyway, I would risk penetrating that country without it, travelling as an African. Sometimes the fascination of the adventure to discover new places is so strong that you underestimate the obstacles. One sunny day I took a bus to Kassala.
In colourful Kassala, inhabited by the ethnic groups Beja and Rashida, I waited for 2 days my permit to travel further. The Sudanese visa was not enough. Khartoum, the junction of the Blue and White Nile, consisted in three parts: the centre was located in the South; the Northeast was an industrial area; and Omdurman, at the North and West side of the Nile, was the most interesting place for me due to the cemetery near the mosque where I would sleep in company of my friends, the whirling dervishes. That mosque sheltered the mausoleum of The Mahdi, probably the expected Prophet announced in the X century, who defeated the English general Charles Gordon at the turn of the XIX century. Every Friday the dervishes performed their sacred dances, quite different than those of the Mevlevi Order founded by Rumi in Konya. One day I boarded an open bus heading to Al Fashir, in the ancient Sultanate of Darfur.
During four days we travelled through unmarked tracks in the desert that sometimes made doubt our driver the way to follow, especially when there were sand storms. Hundreds of flies hanged about our nose, lips and hair on our head. Nothing to do with them, you had to get used. In Al Fasher I caught a truck to Nyala (two more days) avoiding passing through the Mountains of Jebal Marrah, where the Tuareg bandits attacked the travellers and made them their slaves. In El Geneina the soldiers did not allow me to proceed to Chad because I had no visa. I argued and asked for the captain. I knew that well educated Arabs are comprehensive gentlemen. He listened, invited me to tea with sweets and let me go ahead. Shukram!
In Adre the immigration clerks wanted to send me back to Sudan because of my lack of visa. I bribed them with some baksheesh to meet their superior. After one hour interrogation he ordered the driver of a truck to hold my passport until Abeche, and be delivered to the Police for an entry stamp. Abeche was a closed city. In Chad there are two military controls at the entrance of every town and two more at the exit and at night there is curfew and you have to wait until the morning. The airport is protected by the French Army. I was granted a transit permit and left to Ndjamena in an overcrowded truck. We stopped in villages where I saw women Farchana with their hair cut below their ears and their lips tattooed in black. The Dades put knockers and rings in their mouth when they go to the market because their husbands prohibit them to talk. Finally I arrived at the gates of N’Djamena.
After been requested to empty my bag, I replied: “Again? I have just shown it in the previous control”. One of the soldiers then beat me with his pistol in my head. He called me “kafir”, ordered to enter in a hut and to undress. He took everything with him. I felt miserable and remembered that in that African journey I had lost part of my hearing sense in Mozambique Island when an insect got into my left ear and made me suffer horribly and cry during the two night’s journey in a dhow to Tanzania. I was robbed in Johannesburg, and in the Kinshasa of Mobutu I had to paint my face with black shoe polish to look like an African to escape from an ambush, etc., but never had I felt more in danger than in that hut. I started to shout: “Basta! I swear that I will never travel anymore! This is my last adventure!” After three hours I was freed and given back my bag and clothes except 10,000 CFA francs. I arrived to Ndjamena and stayed in the Catholic Mission.
To proceed to Niger I needed a permit that I got in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. I reached Bol, in the Lake Chad. Up in the Tibesti live the Tubu, or Teda, feared warriors of the desert that do not allow foreigners to enter their territory. They all carry a dagger in their arm. In Bol live the descendants of the Sao, a race of tall people that cut their faces with knives. I attained Bagasola, then Liwa, and waited in vain for a truck. After one week the chief of Liwa suggested me to hire two camels and a guide, what I did. We travelled at night and slept in daytime. We were fed by the nomads and drank water from the wells. The camels ate acacias all the time. The third day I arrived to N’Guigmi
I asked for pure cold water, drank it with greed and lay in a mat. My throat was burning and my stomach in disorder after those three days drinking yellow water smelling and tasting like hell, mixed with impurities, and fighting with the camels the right to drink it first in dirty buckets. They brought me food but I was not hungry. I hitchhiked; people stopped but asked me money. From Niger to Senegal there is a “highway” filled with kiosks selling food and petrol 24 hours a day. I sold my sleeping bag in Diffa to buy boiled eggs, goat meat and for alms to the poor. Niger was a delightful country; its houses, made on adobe, looked like fairy tales and the people wore clothes with charming colours. I loved Zinder, a crossroads village. There I met many Africans heading to Morocco and Tunisia to cross to Europe to improve their lives. I was ashamed; they were real travellers travelling for noble reasons, as the Humankind did in the past, and not for leisure.
From Nyamey I kept on travelling and crossed Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, then arrived to Bamako, in Mali, where I had already been in my way down to Cape Town when I travelled from Ghardaia to Gao in a truck carrying dates and then by boat to Kabara to visit Timbuktu and later the Dogon Country. I first saw westerners since Addis Ababa, but I was a foreigner among them and did not greet any European. I saw them bargaining for 100 CFA francs with poor barefoot women selling fruits in the market, and immediately they entered in a chic restaurant to spend a lot of money in beers and copious food, and expelled the beggars, mainly street children that called them “Patron” or “Papa,” with bad manners. I was closer to the Africans; I felt a white black. I took a train to Dakar.
In Dakar I headed north and stopped in Saint Louis remembering my traveller hero Rene Caillie, the first westerner that reached the forbidden Timbuktu and went out alive. Once in Mauritania I hitchhiked until Choum, sleeping in tents of the desert and drinking countless cups of “chai.” Then I took the train to Nouadhibou together with many Saharawi of the Polisario Front. At the Moroccan border I was denied access to the country alone because of the mines along the way. I needed to join a group. After ten days of unsuccessful waiting a Spanish captain invited me to go to the Canary Island in his fishing boat. One week later I was back home.