Howdy all, today I want to write about what I consider my personal ‘Ultimate’ Itinerary, a trip which I undertook over sixteen years ago now through countless countries and destinations, an overland route which saw me travel to three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa. And that was my journey from Dhaka in Bangladesh, to Dakar in Senegal.
I’ve certainly, in this incarnation of my blog, written about the different places I visited on the journey, but I haven’t really written much about the planning, the route, and the ‘overall’ experience. And this was a journey that was not completed in 2004. Or in 2006 when I returned to travelling. In fact, in was complete in 2007 when I finally made it to Dakar, Senegal, which in itself was a great achievement. But the truth is, I never felt like I did it ‘properly’. And with all this time to think and dream on my hands right now, well, the idea to do it again has popped into my head. Doesn’t mean it would happen. But the idea is suddenly there. Hence today’s post.
The original plan
I mean, the original plan was simple. Travel from Dhaka to Dakar by land. Don’t take any flights. A ferry? Sure, maybe, but that wasn’t the route I had originally planned. The key factor was to get to Dakar, from Dhaka via land. In the end though, that is not what happened. And the main reason for that was that although the first part of the journey was planned out well enough, the second part was more of a ‘wait and see’ approach. In fact, I had left myself a huge ‘out’ in 2004 and I had a round-the-world ticket to get home, which in the end meant I spent over two months in North America and longer in Europe and didn’t go to Africa at all.
So What Did Happen?
Well, in 2006 I set off to move to the UK for a year or two, something which never happened. I did make it 2004 all the way from Dhaka to Europe, to Budapest in fact from where I flew off to North America. I spent an awful long time in Eastern Europe – which I loved in my defence – and then came home feeling guilty that I didn’t do what I set out to do.
So, 2006 I decided to complete the missing link in the chain, and on the way to the UK flew into West Africa to make it overland from Accra, Ghana to Dakar, Senegal. One option I had left myself was to fly from Europe to Accra in 2004 and do this portion. Because it was West Africa that fascinated me at the time. So in 2006 I did make it there. And it was bumpy to start with, had it’s challenges but I was getting along when I got hit by malaria. Many keep on going, but I made the choice to return home. The original treatment didn’t cure the malaria and I ended up pretty sick and sorry for a while.
So, not one to be defeated, I flew back to Burkina Faso in 2007, where I had caught Malaria, made it overland to Mali next door and then flew from Bamako to Dakar, as overlanding that is time consuming and tricky. Not to mention they call the train that ran that route the ‘malaria express’. Ironic in a way – it doesn’t move that fast! And hence, I did eventually make it to Dakar. Three and a half years later but not 100% by land. And actually not the way I had planned.
So What was the Original Route through Africa?
Well, the original route was beyond adventurous! In fact I mentioned it to a friend the other day and he said it was crazy. But bare in mind that the situations in different countries in 2004 have changed a lot, and principally I am talking about the Sudan which I would have needed to cross.
So in short it would have involved going through Syria (again, not going to happen today) and Jordan into Egypt, going south into the Sudan, then south and west to cross into Chad. At the time Syria was fine, the situation erupted after the GFC. Sudan at the time was the two countries as one – South Sudan was ruled by the north, from Khartoum and it wasn’t – and still isn’t – safe but I wouldn’t have been going that far south.
Crossing from Sudan into Chad across to the capital N’djamena would have been the most difficult bit. N’djamena has never been on the top of ‘Cities you must visit’ list, but I believe at the time it was no more dangerous than Niamey, where I went in 2006. The interweb today certainly classes the Chadian capital ‘unsafe’ citing high levels of civil unrest.
From Chad I’m not sure I had a clear idea of where I would cross or exactly where I’d go, but presumably I would cut through the very northern bit of Cameroon into Nigeria, cross Nigeria to possibly Niger. Down through Benin, across to Accra in Ghana, then up to Burkina Faso, Mali and finally Senegal.
It’s not exactly the most direct route, I know, but the goal was never to do the most direct route, I wasn’t going at a very fast pace. I went from Dhaka to Tehran in a little under three months for example.
Why did I balk at the idea?
Frankly, I decided against it because I wanted easier travel! And more precisely, I’d had, literally, a gutful going through India and Pakistan. I had been in hospital twice for gastro/food poisoning, once for nearly a week in Delhi (one of the main reasons I am not a fan of Delhi! – read posts ‘Surviving Delhi’ and ‘First Taste – Delhi’ for more details) and then for an afternoon whilst they ran an IV through me in Quetta, Pakistan – both stories are covered in ‘Travel and Hospitals – Delhi and Quetta’.
Although Iran was a better experience, my gut has never been very reliable. And I could only imagine Africa was going to be harder. In fact, I was wrong on that count because my gut has held up a LOT better in Africa than it ever did in India or Pakistan. But live and learn I guess! Having a weak stomach is something I’ve had to deal with ever since I started travelling and I have a much better idea of what to avoid these days, beyond the whole ‘don’t drink the water or eat anything washed in it’ tip, which is still ‘step one’.
Would I have made it?
And I guess this was the underlying question on my mind, and I feared I wouldn’t. In fact, with 16 years more experience, even if the security situation was as it was in 2004, I’m not sure I would make it today. When I finally made it to West Africa in 2006 I was struck down with malaria, and that would have been worse if it happened in Chad or the Sudan. Some connections would have required hitching I think. Which would have been cool in a way, but after both experiences I realised that in some parts of the world it really pays to NOT travel solo.
For more info on the malaria story I wrote a three part post. Here’s the first post – A Date with Malaria Part One.
What was the route in the end?
Well, the 2004 route took me from Dhaka to Siliguri in India, a stop in Darjeeling and Calcutta and then across to Varanasi and Delhi. Delhi to Amritsar, then to Lahore in Pakistan. I visited Multan where I saw the first Pakistan versus India test match in many years, then north to Rawalpindi and Islamabad and then to Peshawar, where I took a day tour along the Khyber Pass.
Back to Lahore and then across to Quetta, then I had to take an overnight bus across the Baluchistan desert, still not considered very safe, to the Iranian border. When I crossed I met a nice guy who invited me to stay with his family in Kerman, and I did staying for 10 days until I managed to get away!
From there I explored Iran going to amazing mudbrick city of Yazd, Shiraz for Persepolis and for almost getting married, north to Isfahan, probably the most amazing city in all of the Middle East (see – My Favourite Cities in the Middle East), Tehran and Tabriz.
Following Tabriz it was a two-night bus journey to Istanbul in Turkey. This was the longest single journey of the trip. In Turkey I went south to be a cliché Australian and visit Gallipoli. I returned after stopping by to see ancient Ephesus to Istanbul, then overnighting to Plovdiv in Bulgaria and to officially be in Europe.
From there it was north to Romania, stops including Bucharest, Brasov, Bran, Sighisoara, Cluj-Napoca and a brief overnight in Timisoara before overnighting it to Belgrade, the Serbian capital which I loved. Down through Montenegro, enjoying a few days of beach life before hitting Dubrovnik Croatia – this involved hitching via truck from the border to Dubrovnik on a Sunday.
I moved quickly onto Bosnia, staying in boiling Mostar and then the capital Sarajevo. This was quite the experience, a strange air hang over the country, and bullet holes were all to visible on many buildings in both cities.
Across by train through Zagreb to Slovenia, checking out Ljubljana the capital and the small coastal area there wedged between Croatia and Italy. North to Munich, Germany where I stopped for a week or two. Then over through the Czech Republic and Prague to Bratislava, Slovakia and the little mountain town of Stary Smokevic. To Krakow in Poland followed by Wroclaw and Warsaw. To Berlin, back to Munich for my cousin’s wedding, back through Olomouc in Czech Republic to Krakow again and Zakopane for some hiking, then a night train to Budapest where I stayed for a few nights before heading to the states.
And that was just the 2004 part. I won’t go through the rest in such detail but in 2006 I flew to Accra, Ghana, working my way through Togo, Benin and Niger before finishing in Burkina Faso, and then going home thanks to malaria. Then in 2007 restarting in Ouagadougou and crossing through Mali to Bamako, and finally flying to Dakar, Senegal from its neighbour! The END!
How would I do it today?
Were I mad enough to attempt it again, well, yes I have considered it and the route I would take, and it would be quite different from the route (s) above. The first leg would still be Dhaka to Siliguri, but from there I’ve had a couple of possibilities come to mind. The first I talked about a while ago as an idea for another itinerary, so to head into Nepal from Siliguri and the north into Tibet. This would require a tour from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then train up to Lanzhou and across into Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan the goal is to get to the port of Aktau which is probably best accessed (or quickest) by going through Uzbekistan.
The other alternative would probably be more challenging and that’s to head through Nepal to western India and into Pakistan again. From Lahore north through Gilgit to the border with China and the Karakoram Highway. From there through Kashgar to Kyrgyzstan. Then Uzbekistan across to Aktau.
From Aktau you take a ferry to Baku in Azerbaijan, through the Caucasus including Armenia and Georgia to Turkey and west west west back into Europe proper. Whizz across to Spain anyway you like as fast as you can, make a couple of stops to rest of course, and then cross by ferry from Gibraltar to Morocco, southwards to Dahkla in Western Sahara, then to Mauritania and its capital Nouakchott. This little known country is just north of Senegal, so cross the border and a few hours later, it’s Dakar!
How possible is possible?
Well, firstly this is a minimum of 80 days, if you cut it fine I guess. The beauty of doing something like this is you can vary your pace a little bit. Move quickly at first and spend longer later, or otherwise you have to speed it up to make it in the end.
The biggest problem is that in 2004 I took a year off. In 2020, well let’s say 2022 at the earliest, I work full time and am married, I can’t just take off three months. So I reckon to give this a go I would need to split it in half and do two six-week trips. I think the best place to split the trips would be Tbilisi, one would end and the second would start here. And actually, I’ve described east to west, but I also think west to east might be the go this time, just because it’s different!
Even then though, who knows what will be possible in terms of global travel over the next few years, who knows when it will be open enough to even really IMAGINE a trip like this? But hey, it’s on the backburner as an idea right now along with a bunch of other possible itineraries. I am feeling not just an urge to travel, but an urge to be ambitious about how I think about travel. This is what happens, I guess, when you can’t!
So thanks for indulging me today. What do you think? Is it sufficiently mad? Have you ever attempted anything like this? Please do comment – and May the Journey Never End!