To Agulhas and back

Spending the weekend in the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje Theatre at their London headquarters for the annual ‘Explore’ weekend (see last blog) got me to thinking of those adventurers who predated me. The theatre’s wood-panelled walls are marked out in gilding with the names of the world’s most important explorers. Nothing can bring perspective on adventure as being looked down on by names like Bruce, Livingstone, Shackleton, and Everest.

This is the first of an ‘interesting people’ series of blogs. The subjects of future posts will not all be explorers, and not all visitors of Africa’s continental mass, but they will be people who I find interesting and deserving of mention in one way or another.

In April 1934 a man in South Africa took the decision to cycle to Europe. More astonishingly, he had already cycled down the entire length of the continent. Kazimierz Nowak, a man from Stryj in Poland, a town I hadn’t heard of, ended up travelling 40,000 kilometres (25,000 miles).

I first bumped into Nowak in Poznan, Poland in 2010. It was completely by accident. I was at the train station, where a small new memorial to Nowak in the form of a bicycle took up some space on a wall behind a florist’s stand. The man himself died on 31st October 1937, less than a year after having returned home. Five years of exhaustive travel in Africa with little money proved too much.

Though not all his epic trip ended up being by bicycle, Nowak managed to reach the southernmost tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas on two wheels. I reached Agulhas on four wheels, having already visited Cape Town.

The southernmost point is marked by a cairn, as the cold winds from Antarctica whip at hair and clothing. It’s an unforgiving environment. Vegetation remains low to keep out of the wind. The waves on even the calmest days can be rough, driving ships ashore. A shipwreck lies within sight of the cairn, and the lighthouse built in 1849.

Cairn, Cape Agulhas, South Africa

Nowak’s bike was incurably wrecked soon after he left Cape Town. The next 3,000 kilometres were made on horseback, until the rivers of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he swapped from horses to sailing. After many months of riding down Congolese rivers in locally made vessels and walking through virgin rainforest he reached Leopoldville (modern Kinshasa) in September 1935.

Obtaining a bicycle in the city he set of towards Lake Chad, 2,000 kilometres away on the limits of the Sahara desert. He spent much of the next six months crossing the desert with a camel called Ueli, finally returning to the Mediterranean coast at Algiers.

My own travels along Africa’s Mediterranean coast began in Port Said, Egypt, sitting at one end of the Suez Canal. My entrance and travels into Libya had some similarity with Nowak’s. We were both forced to alter our plans as a result of the situation in the country.

 Free Libya flags, Tripoli medina

While I was forced to fly into Tripoli from Alexandria in Egypt, bypassing the troubled eastern city of Bengazi, Nowak was ordered by the Italian colonial government to travel through Bengazi to Alexandria, after having already pedalled 1,000 kilometres into the Sahara from Tripoli.

As I followed the Nile north from the Blue Nile’s source at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, Nowak followed the river south. He followed the great lakes of the Rift Valley in East Africa into the very heart of the continent, before reaching Cape Agulhas in April 1934.


The River Nile, from Rosetta, Egypt

Sadly, very little is known about Nowak in the English speaking world. His book, By bicycle and on foot across the black continent, has yet to be translated from the Polish.
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