Image: Lion in Tanzania
Jonathan Berke
Tanzania is one of the best places in Africa for observing wildlife. Go in search of Africa's 'big five' on Abercrombie & Kent's 10-day tour. Price ranges from $5,065 to $5,515.
updated 7/16/2008 11:29:10 AM ET 2008-07-16T15:29:10

In 1997, 32-year-old Fran Sandham left his life in London as a bookseller and flew to Namibia. He set out with a single goal: walk from the treacherous shores of Namibia's Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean. He modeled the 3,000-mile walk after the Victorian-era "traversas" led by explorers like Henry Morton Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone. Sandham brought only what he could carry and regularly declined rides. His misadventures included contracting malaria and trying to train a stubborn donkey to be his traveling companion.

Sandham, now 43, lives in London and works as a freelance editor. To mark the 10-year anniversary of his trek, he published "Traversa" (Duckworth Overlook, $25), a book about his experience. Below he answers our questions about his inspirations, his recommendations on what to see in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the only luxury of his trip.

(If you prefer luxury travel over Sandham's idea of fun, check out these travel options in Africa.) You referred to your trip as an exercise in masochism. Are you still traveling in this fashion?

Fran Sandham: People think that because of what I did in Africa that I'm a hardcore traveler and backpacker, but whenever I can afford to, I like my luxuries. Since then I've traveled to Japan, Thailand, Colombia and Ecuador. I'd like to go on another big adventure, but at the moment I can hardly walk because I've got a bit of a knee injury. You can go on a big adventure without walking, so I'll find some way around it.

Is this kind of a trip for everyone?

I wouldn't say so, no. It just seemed a way of being adventurous in a traditional way. The drawback is the hard work. But people responded to me warmly when they saw I was traveling in a way that involved a degree of hardship. The local guys imagined I was tough and the women wanted to mother me and feed me. Virtually everyone I met--black or white--seemed genuinely enthusiastic about what I was doing, mostly because there was something intrinsically funny about it.

What was the best luxury throughout your trip?

Books. That was the only indulgence really. As I was traveling alone, that was the thing that kept me going. I would stop for three quarters of an hour and feel a lot more rested if I'd been reading than if I had been staring out to space thinking about the journey. It's certainly quite ironic that you're on a journey that's escapist in itself and that you'd want to escape from that with books.

You drew inspiration for your trip from the tales of Victorian era explorers like Stanley and Livingstone. Are there other explorers who inspire you to travel in their footsteps?

I was thinking of retracing the routes of Alexander the Great. But with all the problems in the Middle East, I wouldn't be particularly interested in doing that now.

You did an incredible amount of research for the trip and the book. What were the most interesting things you learned along the way?

In my own experiences, [I was able to] understand [Livingstone and Stanley] as travelers as opposed to glorified explorers because of things that happened to them on a daily basis. Dr. Livingstone had a very good eye for con artists and he would describe them in a wry sort of way. The same characters are still there.

If making recommendations to a friend about what to see in Namibia, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, what would you list as the highlights?

The Skeleton Coast was one of the highlights. The beauty is quite unique really. People get put off that something is so frequently visited as Victoria Falls is, but it's worth it. Lake Malawi was beautiful. I don't remember much of Zanzibar because I had malaria, but I always wanted to visit it because of the Arab legends, spices and all of the history.

You came close to mortal peril a few times. What was that like?

Image: Egypt
Egypt is one of the world's most awe-inspiring destinations. Tour operator Artisans of Leisure has combined highlights of the country with a trip to nearby Jordan. The 13-day tour is $12,490 per person.
Bad things can happen in Africa, but bad things can happen at home. In Africa, because I was on such a mission, you have to accept that there's going to be some degree of risk. Overall, I was quite lucky. In a lot of people's minds, the dangers were exaggerated. There are dangers, but I think in some ways I was safer the way I traveled than as a conventional backpacker. They get off a bus and people know where they're going to be and what they're going to do. I always arrived unannounced.

What's the one thing you wish you could have done but didn't?

I wish I could have covered a little bit more of a distance with the donkey. Over two months he went less than one mile. I was sorry that it was such a complete fiasco.

Any advice for travelers who want to undertake a similar trip?

Accept that it's important to you. That was a big part of it for me. I never lost that idea that I wanted to go to Africa. The year after, I was going to do a similar thing again by walking back to England from the eastern tip of Southeastern Asia. I lasted a week. I didn't have quite the same sense of drive and mission.

© 2012


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments