Around Africa by public transport – interview with Ian M Packham

Ian M Packham is an adventurer, award-winning travel writer and motivational speaker. He completed the first solo and unsupported circumnavigation of continental Africa by public transport. During the thirteen-months long journey on beaten-up bush taxis, flatbed trucks, leaking dugout canoes and a van delivering freshly-made meat pies, Ian crossed 31 countries and covered a distance equivalent to circling the earth at the equator.

So where did the idea for your expedition come from? 

Believe it or not, my circumnavigation of Africa began as an overland journey from London to Sydney. Checking out potential routes – either east through Europe, or across North Africa’s Mediterranean coast instead – I realised what evocative places in Africa I would be missing out and hatched upon the idea of following the coast of Africa all the way round instead. It was only much later I discovered that no one had ever seemed to have done this before by public transport.

What sort of preparations did you undertake prior to setting off?

As my first big adventure I did an awful lot of (probably unnecessary) prep. I roughly estimated how long I would need to travel through each country while still being able to see the sights, got an armful of inoculations, tried (and failed) to find out the best places to get visas, tried my hand at a number of languages, and generally read everything I could about Africa.

What dictated your route? Were there specific places that you wanted to see?

I came to the conclusion pretty early on in the planning that I wouldn’t be able to see everything in Africa on this one trip. The continent is huge, with an area equal to that of the US, Mexico, China, India, and western Europe combined. My total distance ended up being 25,000 miles (40,000 km). My unofficial rules were therefore to stick as closely to the coast as I could, and to travel by public transport – a catch all term for pretty much anything willing to take me further along the road for a fee, as your intro suggests.

Encircle Africa Route Map

What did you pack? Was there anything you missed or took and didn’t need?

Its fair to say I packed EVERYTHING. I had a 75 litre backpack weighing 20kg in total. Now I travel with a 35 litre backpack weighing 10 kg, including a laptop and photographic equipment. I carried a lot of books (which were really useful when I was stuck waiting for onward transport), a tent I barely used, enough clothes for a week (I now travel with a single alternative change of clothes), and lots of other seemingly important things that add up to a lot of weight. For example, I’ve now exchanged shampoo, body wash, and clothes wash for a single bar of soap.

You certainly have hundreds of travel stories, but is there one that you particularly like to tell?

I’ve probably got at least one story from each of the 396 days of the journey, and picking a single one is difficult. Many are demonstrations of people going out of their way to make me feel welcome, such as the policeman in Nigeria who bought me a bottle of water when it looked like I was struggling (before paying for my onward transport on the back of a motorbike taxi), or the parents in Egypt who persuaded their young daughter to come to my table in a café just to welcome me in English.

How did the journey change the way you view Africa?

Africa has a very negative media presence in the western world, which set you up with preconceptions that are pretty much blown away after just a couple of hours on the continent. What hits you most is probably the vibrancy and joy that seems to envelop life there, rather than worries like back home in London, despite everything the people of Africa have to worry about.

How can anyone find out more about the expedition?

I’d obviously recommend checking out the book, Encircle Africa: Around Africa by Public Transport for the full narrative account of the journey. There’s also my website, named after the adventure: encircleafrica.org, which has lots on me and my other adventures, and various ways of getting in contact with me.

Are you planning anymore adventures? 

Always! Most recently I could be found walking from the southern- to the northernmost point in Bangladesh – a journey of roughly 700 miles (1,000 km), while before that I was back in Africa, travelling along the North African coast before heading to Italy, recapturing images my great uncle first took as a soldier during the Second World War 75 years before. It’s a journey that will become my second travelogue, should my current crowdfunding campaign be a success!

Lastly, were there any particular books or movies that inspired you to travel the world?

I was brought up watching the documentaries of David Attenborough and Michael Palin, and if you manage to watch those programmes without feeling an immediate desire to explore the world around you there’s probably something wrong with you! I’m also a big fan of author Graham Greene, who always gives an incredible sense of locality, whether writing about West Africa or Mexico.

Do you have a travel story to tell?

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