The highlight of Fran Sandham’s year-long trek across Africa was not when he achieved his goal, but right at the start – with unknown adventures before him, writes Geoff Saunders
So what makes a man decide he wants to walk 3,000 miles across Africa? Well, Fran’s not entirely convincing reason was a New Year resolution. But it also transpired that he had had a fascination with Africa since reading Tarzan books as a child. I have to say, many of us have had similar fascinations but without the inspiration to plan and execute a year-long walk from one coast of a continent to the other.
As a former editor with Rough Guides, Fran must have seen many a story from Africa cross his desk. And like many a traveller, when he spoke of his proposed walk he was given lots of advice and many, many warnings. Perhaps a little self-deprecating, he made light of these warnings. He was told that Africa was full of dangerous snakes, dangerous people and, of course, dangerous animals. But on the route he followed after leaving the Skeleton Coast in Namibia he was rarely far from people and he found the Africans full of kindness. He must have looked a strange sight as he entered villages that rarely saw strangers. Equipped with his huge rucksack, walking poles and bandanna, he attracted many nicknames along the way. Everywhere children greeted him, waited to have their photos taken and often accompanied him to the next village.
Fully laden with kit and water, Fran started his walk from the Atlantic coast but quickly decided that he needed assistance. However, his attempts to enlist a donkey and then a mule met with no success and delayed his journey.
His route took him to many of the places that Dr Livingstone visited on his famous travels through Africa in the 19th century. In particular, Fran enjoyed his visit to the Victoria Falls, so-named by Livingstone. Though now a must-see destination for adventure tourists, bungee jumping, white water rafting and kayaking, its size and the sheer volume of water flowing down the Zambezi clearly impressed the speaker, as it must every visitor.
From Namibia, Fran walked through Zambia and on to Malawi. When Livingstone arrived in this area he found it ruined by Arab slave traders. As part of his missionary work he took on the role of campaigning against this cruel trade. He is still honoured for this in Malawi. Today its beautiful lake draws visitors, but not many. Fran’s walk took him north along the lake and into Tanzania, the final country on his trans-Africa route. He reached the Indian Ocean coast near Zanzibar at Bagamoya, the port from which slaves were taken to the Arab lands.
Reaching the end of his quest was far from euphoric for Fran. In fact, it was with something of a heavy heart that he realised his travels were over and that he must return to London with no work, no money and nowhere to live. But his slightly downbeat ending may have been due in part to his impending bout of malaria. Having escaped the dangers he had been warned of, it turned out that, for him, as for most Africans, the real danger is from a tiny insect carrying a nasty parasite.
Did he have a highlight on the journey? Yes – for him, starting the journey with the wild South Atlantic on one side and the Namib Desert on the other had been his moment of euphoria. Though he had little money, he had the luxury of time: time to enjoy the moment, time to contemplate the journey ahead and time to savour each footstep along the way.