Crossing the Sahel
By Reza Pakravan
On the 31 July 2019, Reza Pakravan, an explorer and film maker, became the first person in modern history to have travelled the full length of the Sahel. A belt of land stretching across the southern boundary of the Sahara desert, the Sahel spans the width of Africa, from Senegal to Somalia, and is home to some of the harshest conditions on the planet, where the effects of climate change are most felt and rebel uprisings are common. In this issue, we trace his journey from Mali to Lake Chad: in our next issue, he completes his trek to the Red Sea and discovers the Great Green Wall.
Like many explorers, I have been fascinated by Africa since I was a boy, but felt there were still vast areas of the continent I knew little about.
I wanted to document these forgotten frontiers and tell the story of those who live there, whilst setting myself a new challenge.
Having made a host of incredible journeys in the past, including cycling the Sahara (for which I hold a Guinness World Record) and the length of the planet, and travelling 4000km through the Amazon, I felt I was ready for this latest adventure. It turned out to be my most courageous challenge to date and stretched me both physically and mentally like never before. This is my story of some of the highlights.
Trekking in the Dogon country
Upon arrival in Mali, I followed its beating heart: the mighty Niger River. The Niger is the main source of life for many tribes and ethnic groups, who depend upon its waters. After days on and off boats, I finally managed to reach the magnificent city of Mopti, the Venice of Mali and the confluence of the Bani river and the Niger. In Mopti I chartered a 4x4 and headed to the ancient Dogon country, home to one of the most extraordinary tribes in Africa: the Dogon people.
The Dogon country offers some of the best hiking trails in the world, but climbing its sand-washed mountains in the beating sun at the hottest time of the year was not an easy task. However, all I needed to do to re-energize myself was turn and face the valley overlooking the orange desert, with sporadic trees dotted about, to appreciate the beauty of this forgotten land.
There was no shortage of surprises in the ancient land of the Dogon people. On one occasion, I was trekking along an old path and up and down cliffs when I came across red paintings on a rock wall. It looked like something out of a movie set. My guide showed me different paintings and told me about their meanings in Dogon mythology. For example, there were many drawings of crocodiles and it was explained to me that when the Dogon people escaped Islam and found refuge in this incredibly inaccessible land, in order to continue practising their own religion, crocodiles showed the Dogon people where to get water, which is why they are now sacred and the Dogon people don’t kill them.
The villages we passed through, many of them perched on cliff tops, each had their own story to tell. Upon arrival at each, permission from the village chief was needed before entering and we often met him in the village toguna. A toguna is a low-roofed structure built with stone and timber and is usually found in the centre of every Dogon village. It is where the chief and the village elders sit and settle disputes. The low roof is made with the express purpose of forcing visitors to sit rather than stand, which helps avoid violence when discussions get heated.
As well as togunas, the villages built on escarpments had mud-built granaries dotted around. The number of granaries indicates the number of women living in the village, for each woman has her own in which she stores food for her family. Unlike the rest of Mali, women in the Dogon country are economically independent and earn and spend their own money.
After a couple of incredible weeks trekking in the Dogon country, I made it to the town of Bandiagara, from where I could hitchhike all the way to the south of Burkina Faso…
Trekking in the Sindou Peaks in Burkina Faso
Upon arrival in Burkina Faso, my guide insisted that we detour from our route and visit the Sindou Peaks. I was really sceptical and frankly exhausted from the last few days of trekking in the Dogon country. But I said yes.
We entered Burkina Faso at night, so I didn’t get to see what was going on around me. We found a spot and hung our tree-tents. The morning after, I woke up to incredible green scenery. I couldn’t believe how things had changed since dry and arid Mali. Around us was lush green surrounded by incredible rock formations. The closest thing to compare it to is a set from Jurassic Park. The place didn’t seem real to me. The landscape consisted of towering sandstone formations with small passages in between. As the sun rose, the faint glow of orange light blossomed behind a mountain, creating a collision of soft-coloured tones which made the sceneries absolutely magnificent. It was like a cartoon. I was filled with a sense of happiness and privilege to be there.
The trekking started through these peaks and valleys. At the beginning, everything seemed very straightforward and we followed trodden paths. But then, at some point, the footpaths started to go in different directions before disappearing completely.
We climbed tower after tower, up and down as we tried to head west. But the landscape was so complicated that even my compass got confused. We became stuck between rocks. And yet we didn’t feel trapped. Oddly enough, not knowing where we were going all of a sudden felt like a great plan.
After a day of hiking through this incredible landscape, perhaps the best I have ever seen, we finally reached Lake Nyoufila, an absolutely beautiful lake with palm trees around it. We finished the day watching the sunset over the lake with the peaks in the distance.
I made my way through the lush green of southern Burkina Faso and then on to arid and dusty Niger, using various means of transport including bush-taxis, overloaded trucks, buses and, of course, traipsing long distances on foot. I camped along the way (and also slept in petrol stations, mosques, hospitals and churches) until my arrival in Chad…
I have travelled to some far-flung places on Earth, but Lake Chad is the most remote place I have ever been.
Chad itself was named due to a mistake. In the 1800s, European explorers arrived at the marshy banks of a vast body of freshwater in Central Africa. Because locals referred to the area as ‘chad’, the Europeans called the wetland Lake Chad, and drew it on maps. But ‘chad’ simply meant ‘lake’ in the local dialect. So here it is. Lake Chad, or ‘Lake Lake’.
Located right in the centre of the continent, Lake Chad is shared between four countries – Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria – and millions of people living there don’t feel they belong to any particular nation. It’s one of the largest wetlands in all of Africa: 30 million people depend on it to survive.
As I stepped into the small town of N'guigmi, once a lakeside town until the lake retreated, all my senses came to life. The smell, the noise, the sights. The streets were nothing but dirt tracks, and I felt I had stepped back in time by a hundred years. I have been to over 80 countries around the world, many of which are developing countries, but I had never seen anything like it. It was hard to spot a motorised vehicle. Most people simply walked and carried heavy loads over their shoulders. Those richer ones had camels and donkeys. Dressed in their traditional outfits (the women in bright and beautiful colours; the men more conservative), they stomped through the 45-degree heat.
The more I travelled, the more I realised that the modern world had not made it to this region. All over Africa, you see many people carrying mobile phones. In Lake Chad, I rarely saw any.
I began to journey around Lake Chad on the desert track roads. The heat was excruciating. Life in 45 degrees is punishing, especially when you are trying to walk in sand. Survival in such conditions, in such heat, is no easy task.
I visited village after village, using whatever means of transport that I could find. The villages were charming with their houses constructed from bamboo and hay. The Chadian army controlled the territory, leaving everyone tense and ill at ease. Checkpoint after checkpoint: I have never been in a place where my documents were checked so many times.
In the absence of any public transport, I hitched a lift with a convoy carrying loads of people and goods and finally made it to Baga Sola, a small town which in its heyday was a hub of trade. Livestock used to be exported from here to Nigeria, fishing was rife, and islanders came from far and wide to trade their goods.
I have no idea how the drivers navigated those roads. It was incredible. They were nothing more than desert tracks and it was so hard to distinguish which one was going where. Arriving at different villages was quite shocking. Again, I felt that sense of travelling back in time. No boats had engines. Instead, fishermen used pirogues, and paddled long distances to fish.
Villages are formed based on ethnicity. Lake Chad’s largest ethnic groups are the Kanembu, Boudouma, and Bougourmi, distinguished by the variously patterned scars on their faces, received during their initiations. These tribes remain some of the most untouched cultures in the world. For example, the faces of Boudouma tribesmen have one major scar in the centre of their foreheads and four scars on either side of their faces. This easily distinguishes them from the rest of the tribes.
I have met many indigenous people around the world and seen the rapid changes in their ways of life, by the ever-encroaching imposition of the modern world. And yet, in Lake Chad, the tribes seemed to have no connection with this modern world whatsoever. This is, perhaps, no surprise. The region is so remote, so hard to get to, and the lack of infrastructure makes any connection with the outside world almost impossible. Everything is done manually and the lack of access to modern tools is felt especially. I have seen how Amazonian tribes embrace technology, running their campaigns on Facebook, while a simple mobile phone has never made it to Lake Chad.
My guide said: ‘Technology here is a taboo. People don’t want to change their way of life.’
In the absence of any form of organised public transport, I relied on trucks operated by aid workers to make it to the east of Chad and into Sudan. My arrival in Sudan coincided with the Sudanese revolution: the country was in a state of emergency. I entered via notorious Darfur, finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Upon entry, I was arrested in Darfur and then eventually kicked out – into Ethiopia…
To be continued!
Reza would like to thank the Scientific Exploration Society for making the trip possible and Craghoppers and Eagle Creek for supporting the trip.