"I think I'll walk across Africa..."

5th July 2008

Ever made a ridiculous New Year’s Resolution? Woken up next morning, shrugged your shoulders and forgotten it? Jill Glenn meets Fran Sandham, whose idea – to cross Africa, alone, on foot – wouldn’t go away.

As New Year’s Resolutions go, “I think I’ll walk across Africa” must rank fairly high on a list of intentions-least-likely-to-be-realised. Fran Sandham doesn’t make plans lightly though, and when he woke the next morning to find that he could not only remember the party and how he got home (on foot, as it happens), but also the mad idea he’d conceived in the middle of it, he couldn’t shake off the conviction that he might just have hit upon the goal he didn’t know he was looking for.

And so began 12 months of scrimping and saving, living on toast and porridge, and walking everywhere – not so much for the fitness training (although clearly it helped!) but for the opportunity to save a few pounds here and there towards his Africa Fund. He could have looked for sponsorship, of course, or sold the idea to a reality television show, and set off with a support team and a brace of cameras in toe. It wouldn’t have been his journey, though, and doing it on his terms was very much part of the plan. Solo it would be.

Not that there really was much of a plan. He didn’t quite stick a pin on the map to pick out Namibia and Tanzania as beginning and end – but it wasn’t really much more technical than that. Sandham is a words man, seduced by the romance of names and ideas. “After all,” as he says, “how could you resist starting a journey at somewhere called the Skeleton Coast?” And equally, how could he resist the lure of the Spice Island of Zanzibar as an exotic destination?

Traversa, Sandham’s memoir of the crossing, newly published in paperback, is a wickedly funny read. His dry sense of humour and sharp observational skills bring his bizarre experiences to life; his wit and obvious intelligence make it an engaging and thought-provoking account. He’s refreshingly honest about the fact that he’s there by choice; he doesn’t grumble about his hardships (or when he does, acknowledges he’s no business to) and keeps a level head about him. He needs it.

Evidently Sandham makes it from one side of Africa to the other; it’s hardly giving away the plot of Traversa to reveal that. The point for him, though, was the journey, not the destination – and the point for us as readers is to marvel, to understand and to laugh. This is a highly amusing book by an amusing and energetic man. He’s full of energy; as he stands and talks he’s half-bouncing on his toes, as if any minute he might suddenly conceive of another continent to cross, and rush off to begin. I wonder how he sat still for long enough to write.

It has required nearly as much determination to pursue his idea of publishing an account of his trip as it did to cross Africa in the first place. His big adventure didn’t grab the imaginations of publishers for a long time – it’s ten years since Sandham dabbled his toes in the Indian Ocean, and then flew home: ill, broke and clutching a sheaf of minuscule notes, stuffed into plastic money bags, which had all but dissolved over the course of 3,000 miles, and needed to be painfully reworked into something resembling a narrative. In the last decade he’s written the book, trawled it from publisher to publisher (there must be some out there who are kicking themselves now) and watched the hardback, which came out in October last year, win praise and plaudits both sides of the Atlantic. It must feel like a vindication. It’s also led to some interesting opportunities – his next trip abroad is to lecture on a luxury cruise in the Indian Ocean, which, he suspects, “may have its compensations”.

You might expect, from such an expedition, that Sandham was always keen on walking. Not so, he avers, or “not unless there was a real purpose to it”. He was, however, always keen on Africa, on the idea of Africa, and this journey enabled him to combine purpose with a childhood passion. Walking kept him connected to the weather, the people, the land. The rhythm of the journey – despite the draughts of restorative alcohol and the cigarettes – was almost spiritual. He developed a self-reliance that stands him in good stead today.

In conversation he’s prone to dismiss his focus, his drive, as bloody-mindedness and natural insanity. Reading Traversa there are times, many times, when you can’t help agreeing with his description of himself. I’m glad he did it though. And I’m glad I don’t have to.

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