Words: The Big Issue
Images: Othmane Zolati
Trekking on foot from his family home in Morocco to Mauritania, along its treacherous roads hiding post-war landmines, Othmane still felt “too close to home”. On arrival at the coastal town of Dakar in Senegal, stranded without accommodation or food, he pitched camp on a beach, his tiny pop-up tent facing the sea. That afternoon he befriended local fishermen and helped with their boats. In return, they fed and hosted him.
Othmane’s uncanny ability to adapt, chameleon-like, to different cultures in an open, accepting manner has facilitated his extreme task of travelling ‘on foot’ from Morocco to Cape Town. In Mali, Othmane hitched a ride on a veggie truck sleeping on top of the canopy on good nights, and underneath the truck in bad weather. When heavy rainfall brought mosquitos, Othmane fell ill. After a slow recovery from malaria and tired of hitchhiking, he decided to make his own bicycle. With his sights still firmly set on Cape Town, he made off on his two-wheeler.
From Ghana to Somalia, he fitted in easily with different situations and cultures, always smiling, always adapting. “Same continent, but different climate, diverse people and cultures,” he says.
After joining a travelling band of skateboarders for a month, he continued onward to Kenya. Traversing the Ethiopia Kenya border – a harsh no-man’s land – became potentially life-threatening with warring tribes and cattle theft. “The area is full of AK-47s used by the tribes to settle disputes over cattle,” explains Othmane.
Cutting a lone figure deep in the arid desert on his bike under the burning sun, entirely dependent on his physical and mental strength, he was stopped by a group of nomadic people. “I remembered everyone back home saying I would be kidnapped or killed, with my body parts sold on the black market and at that point, I thought it was over.” But after sharing his water, the group shook his hand and they parted with smiles.
Further setbacks occurred. Using the sun to navigate the desert, he lost his way trying to find a lake for water. Dehydrated, he began hallucinating. Determined to survive in the desert, he kept moving.
After a few days of pushing his bike through thick, hot sand he heard a truck in the distance and, unbelievably, it had a sign on the side with the words ‘clean water’. “The driver and crew were on their way to supply a military base with water, so I refilled my supply and followed the truck’s trail for 15km to the next village.”
Inspired by the skateboard crew he travelled with in Ethiopia, Othmane discovered a new, hybrid way of travelling – skating/hitchhiking became quite viable. However, hampered by issues at the Mozambique Malawi border and further illness, his travels were impeded.