As regular readers of this blog will know, after originally planning to travel to, and then backpack Ethiopia at the end of this year, a change in travel plans of my intended backpack buddy led to a change in the scope of the project. Intending to travel from Cape to Cairo on public transport (train, bus and yet smaller vehicles), I have been reading up on the routes taken and lessons learned by those who have done something like this before and written about it. I have now decided on my own route.

Johannesburg to Livingstone

Johannesburg to Livingstone

Starting off in South Africa, I will be flying from Johannesburg to Cape Town down in the south to begin the memorable adventure. With an excellent rail network, it will be a simple matter of getting on the train in Cape Town and continuing through Johannesburg on to Messina at the northern border of the country. There is a certain silliness to travelling from Johannesburg down to Cape Town, only to return the same way on rail, but my reasoning was that not to do that leg of the trip would be to forever invite smarmy comments from some clever schmuck at the back to the effect that “you didn’t actually do a Cape to Cairo journey, you started in Johannesburg”. Given that the likelihood of doing this twice in the foreseeable future is close to nil, it seems only clever to sacrifice an extra day or two to do the Cape Town to Johannesburg in order to silence any saying of nay by possible future naysayers.

From Messina, it is a hop across the border to Zimbabwe, current international pariah and stomping ground of Southern Africa’s despot-in-chief, Robert Gabriel Mugabe. Once a prosperous, well-fed nation with a literacy rate of near 100%, it has since been reduced to (from what the South African and international press report) a broken, poverty stricken, food-scarce mess of a country.  Though under a power-sharing deal currently in effect between Mugabe and the leading opposition party, things appear to have (if not improved) at least nominally stabilised. It will be interesting to see for myself the country to which so many pages of hostile press have been dedicated and to get the opportunity to, in a limited way, draw my own conclusions.

Traveling from Messina to Bulawayo by bus (there is apparently no train), I should be able to catch the Bulawayo to Victoria Falls rail from that city in order to reach the northern border with Zambia.

Livingstone to Lusaka

Livingstone to Lusaka

From Victoria Falls, apparently every worth every bit of the effort it takes to get there. My camera and I are hoping for a field day for the short time we will spend before crossing over to Livingstone on the Zambian side. From there, it will be on to Lusaka, most likely by bus, with a few days of downtime in the city to get over being on public transport for a bit and just get some writing (read, posting to this blog and letting my family know that I am alive) done. before heading onwards to the next major destination, Dar es Salaam.

Mbeya to Dar

Mbeya to Dar

Making use of the extensive TANZAM rail network linking Zambia to Tanzania, it is possible to go all the way from Lusaka to Mbeya on the the border with Tanzania and then onwards to Dar es Salaam. Jonathan has family in Dar with whom I may well plead for shelter and a reminder of life back home for a couple of days before picking up the journey to go north. Dar, like so many of the places that this route jets through, looks well worth spending a few precious days in, taking in sights, meeting and talking to people and trying to get what little of a sense of place might b epossible, given the overall need to keep moving like a hare on speed up north…

Dar es Salaam to Nairobi

Dar es Salaam to Nairobi

…to Nairobi. In Kenya. From this point until much later, the trains appear to stop. Stop existing, not stop working. Dar es Salaam to Nairobi with a possible stop in Mwanga can apparently be traversed in buses of varying degree of comfort and danger, though there appear to be a few established operators with websites through which the journey can be booked. A few more nights in Nairobi if time permits would also make for further education (and doubtless much wonderment) on my part.

Nairobi to Addis

Nairobi to Addis

Then it is onwards from Nairobi to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, second oldest christian nation on earth and the only country in Africa never to be colonised. It is also the originator or the Rastafari religion and contains the ruins of the temple of the Queen of Sheba. There is so much to see here that a slightly slower pace of travel, wherever possible, will have to make do as a poor substitute for the originally-planned more thorough investigation of the country.

Jonathan has been dropping hints that he may be coming to join me for this part of the journey. From Addis until – with luck and a bit of speed – Cairo. At this point, some human company would quite likely be most welcome. Someone to share the sights with – because you always look so very, very silly going ooh and aaah and finding out that nobody saw you do it.

Addis Ababa to Gondar

Addis Ababa to Gondar

From Addis Ababa, I head west. Past the city of Gondar, home to many of the oldest Christian temples and ancient castles. The roads are apparently terrible in this area though, making bus travel a slow affair. Stopping over in Gondar should ease the travel and allow me to manage my time to arrive at the border with Sudan in the daylight hours to cross over…

Gondar to Khartoum

Gondar to Khartoum

… carrying on towards Khartoum. Much maligned in the international press for the horrors taking place in Darfur, Sudan will be the biggest challenge on this journey. Getting a visa, most likely from Addis Ababa, and across the border to Khartoum is apparently a bureaucratic challenge spoken of in whispers by travelers who have undertaken the journey before. With a deadly cocktail of various rebel groups in the south, pursued by the likes of the Janjaweed (responsible for the worst of the genocide in Darfur) and the Sudanese military, it is unclear how much (if any) of the more northerly route to Khartoum will be subject ot checkpoints, roadblocks or other surprises. Yet, once reached, Khartoum marks the last major capital to be passed through on the road to Cairo.

Khartoum to Wadi Halfa

Khartoum to Wadi Halfa

From Khartoum, there is once again a train. Taking three days and passing through the desert, it is one of the sections that I am most looking forward to travelling. It connects Khartoum to the ferry port of Wadi Halfa on the Sudan/Egypt border, from which it will be possible to catch the weekly ferry to Aswan in Egypt. Whether in first class with sleepers, or (apparently) sleeping on the deck in third class, the ferry is the only route between the two countries at this border.

Wadi Halfa to Cairo

Wadi Halfa to Cairo

From Aswan, only one last train ride connects me to Cairo and the end of the journey at last.

It is a long journey. Some 10,000km. When contemplated in full, looking at the giant map of Africa on the wall, it is supremely intimidating. So full of so very many unknowns. So many countries about which I, truthfully, know so very little. Yet each little trip within the journey, each bus ride or connecting train, is manageable, is something done before in Mozambique, or in various countries in Asia. Something I believe I can manage. Put enough of them together and suddenly something much, much greater is possible. Following the string and pins up the map until finally reaching Cairo, I find myself imagining what it might be like to finally catch sight of the pyramids after so many thousands of kilometers traveled, places seen and experiences gained. What might that feel like? How completely satisfying somewhere deep inside, to know that something so large had finally been conquered.

The though gives me a chill.

Categories: Africa, Travel
  • it gave me a chill, too. And I’m not kidding. I can’t wait to see how this all pans out. I’d think it would give you writing fodder for a lifetime. I also loved the look of the pictures with the pins and strings interspersed throughout the entry. I know you’re not leaving for a while, so I look forward to more preparation-talk as well. And you’ve got me totally amped on Ethiopia now!

  • I have been thinking about all the different writing angles and keep ending up in a state approaching excitement paralysis. I am most definitely taking my camera and will be writing day-by-day stuff (evenif intermittent internet may mean that it is only posted in batches on the way).

    Beyond that, I would really like to actually have conversations with some of the other people who will be on the buses, trains and who knows what other transport. Travelers too, but mostly people who are actually from the area. Some of the most interesting stories often come from the people you meet on the way – something I would really love to make the most of.

  • Awesome. You will have a fascinating time, I’m sure. And as long as you have time… you can just take it as it comes. I once met a pom who mostly walked through Ethiopia, barefoot, back in ’94 -ish, in the aftermath of the war. His only other option was to get lifts in trucks packed with armed and rather excitable men. He travelled from Cairo to Cape Town on a shoestring budget. He also hitched a lift through Zaire on the back of a Landie (literally standing on the bumper).
    The adventures are out there waiting – go and hunt them down!
    A friend of mine has just travelled a route similar to yours, with his own transport. If you aren’t totally overloaded with info already and want to have a look: http://volkersvividunchartedadventure.blogspot.com

  • @Karin: I have just started reading Volker’s (massive!) blog on his adventure – it is a real goldmine, and thanks so much for sharing the link!

  • Hey Richard

    I am based in Zimbabwe and am planning to do the same trip with my two boys (aged 17) next year. we plan to fly to cape town, buy a car then drive through to Cairo.

    I notice you intend to do the train in Zimbabwe. Unless you really like it rough, I suggest you skip the train and catch a ‘luxury’ bus (not your kind of luxury but equivalent to a normal bus service in the US). Will set you back $20 for about 500kms and if you get the right bus can get one from Musina(Messina) to take you through to Bulawayo and possibly to Livingstone. If you have time, do the Masvingo route instead to see the Zimbabwe Ruins (Great Zimbabwe) then go on to Bulawayo. A trip to Matopos(100km from Bulawayo day trip) will be fun if you still have time before leaving for Vic Falls.

    Enjoy your adventure!

  • Alex, thanks for the bus tip! I think that may actually be an excellent idea, as there will be more than enough time spent on a train in other sections and $20 is not bad at all.

    Best of luck for your own trip as well, and I hope that where I am about to go will produce some useful information for your own planning. I think you guys will have an absolute blast (if I was 17 and offered such a trip, I think my head might explode with glee). The memories will last forever :)

  • Duncan

    how much did this trip set you back by? just a rough estimate

  • In the end, I think it was around $3k, including the flight back form Cairo. If you’d like to pop me an email (richard@richardstupart:disqus .com), I have a list of the various transport links and the costs for those (circa 2009) that I’d be happy to share.

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