Ian Packham: the man who circumnavigated Africa

WE TALK to Ian Packham about his circumnavigation of Africa and what inspired him to take on the challenge.

Ian Packham

Ian Packham’s circumnavigation of Africa involved cross no less than 31 countries.


IAN PACKHAM drew plaudits from around the globe when he completed the first solo and unassisted circumnavigation across Africa, using only public transport. You can find out more about his wild adventure, during which he visited 31 countries and travelled 25,000 miles (40,000km) over 13 months, by purchasing his widely acclaimed book, Encircle Africa: Around Africa by Public Transport.


But what made Ian capable of completing such a challenge across the world’s wildest continent? Find out all in this exclusive interview in which he also talks about other adventures and what he has planned for the future. 


When did you first realise you had such a passion for adventure and how did your upbringing help to shape the person you are today?


I guess the passion was always there, though as a shy child it probably didn’t show. Growing up on an unhealthy dose of Michael Palin travelogues and David Attenborough documentaries I realised I wanted to explore the parts of the world that aren’t normally visited, or visit destinations using unusual means. I had a very normal upbringing and headed from school to university, more university, and ending up as a medical researcher; so I guess I fell into adventure more than anything. I certainly don’t feel I have any specialist training, I was never even a scout.



Bush taxis were one form of transport Ian found himself relying on during his African adventure.


How did you come up with the idea for Encircle Africa and what were the main purposes and aims of the expedition?


I wanted, or at least dreamed, of travelling for an extended period – Encircle Africa lasted 13 months – and it all started from there. I had a world map in my room and I’d just stare at it, considering possible journeys until I was struck by the idea of circumnavigating Africa. It was only much later that I realised doing so by public transport would be a first.


The only real aim was to get back to my starting point in Tangiers, Morocco and close my circle. The journey had no real purpose other than just of travelling, observing, experiencing, and interacting with the people that call the coast of Africa there home.


Ian Packham

Ian pictured inflating a kayak in Sri Lanka.


What were some of the highlights and how often did you find yourself confronted by danger or potential difficulties?


The highlight was certainly the unplanned encounters I had with people along the way. It was these ordinary people that made the journey for me. There are countless instances of people going to extraordinary lengths, going far out of their way, to help me, which seemed to come from a desire to show their countries – places like Sierra Leone and Nigeria – in a positive light. They succeeded massively.


There were plenty of difficulties to be overcome ranging from some tough border crossing to a couple of pickpocketing attempts, and the shear strain of travelling for such a long time completely alone. I’m quite proud of the fact I’m probably the only person ever to have been teargassed trying to visit a museum (during student protests in the Sudanese capital Khartoum) but I genuinely never felt myself in physical danger.


Ian Packham

Ian pictured on the Three Edwards forest path to Horton Plains.


Tell us about some of your other adventures and where in the world have they taken you?


One of the great things about adventure is the way it enables you to visit places you otherwise wouldn’t visit, or see places you think you know in a different light. Since completing the book of my African circumnavigation, Encircle Africa: Around Africa by Public Transport, I’ve headed to Sri Lanka to kayak the country’s longest river without having set foot in a canoe or kayak previously, travelled through Scandinavia using a guidebook dating to 1960 to see how the journey has altered in the intervening decades, and circumnavigated the Isle of Man, this time on foot.


How can our readers get behind you and support what you do?


The best way readers can show their support is perhaps to buy a paperback or eBook copy of my book, Encircle Africa: Around Africa by Public Transport. They can also sign up to receive updates on my adventures from my website encircleafrica.org and join me on twitter at @ianMpackham and Facebook at facebook.com/EncircleAfrica.



Ian smiles for the camera having reached the Mount Cameroon summit.


Tell us more about your work as a writer and a speaker?


As a freelance writer I’m able to contribute to a range of outlets including travel websites seeking out expertise on Africa, and magazines both online and in print. I’ve recently written about a controversial bird hunt that takes place each spring in Malta, for example.


Speaking to the likes of schools and travel clubs is a fantastic experience in itself, but what I love is confounding people’s expectations about me and the places I have travelled too, as well as being able to impart my enthusiasm and motivation for travel and adventure.


Cape Agulhas

Ian pictured at the southern most point monument in Cape Agulhas, South Africa.


Do you have any exciting new challenges or projects set for the rest of the year and beyond?


My next big adventure will be quite a personal one, retracing the steps of a conscripted relative during World War II, in order to recreate the photograph album he left and see what has changed in the intervening 60 years. Heavily into the planning at the moment, I’ll be setting off to North Africa and then Italy later in the year.



Ian pictured on a road outside Obock, Djibouti.

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