National Geographic

Baby Steps

Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, 10°17'12'' N, 40°31'55'' E
“Where are you walking?” the Afar nomads ask.

“North. To Djibouti.” (We do not say Tierra del Fuego. It is much too far—it is meaningless.)

“Are you crazy? Are you sick?”

In reply, Ahmed Alema Hessan—wiry and energetic, the ultimate go-to man, a charming rogue, my guide and protector through the blistering Afar Triangle—doubles over and laughs. He leads our micro-caravan: two skinny camels. I have listened to his guffaw many times already. This project is, to him, a punch line—a cosmic joke. To walk for seven years! Across three continents! Enduring hardship, loneliness, uncertainty, fear, exhaustion, confusion—all for a rucksack’s worth of ideas, palaver, scientific and literary conceits. He enjoys the absurdity of it. This is fitting. Especially given our ridiculous launch.

We broke camp this morning in darkness at Bouri, Alema’s smoky home—a village of hackers, of coughers—at the western foot of the Great Rift Valley, in the arid northeast of Ethiopia.

I awoke and saw snow: thick, dense, choking, blinding. Like plankton at the bottom of a sea, swirling white in the beam of my headlamp. It was the dust. Hundreds of village animals churned up a cloud as fine as talc. Goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, and camels—but, sadly, not our camels.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

The cargo animals I had requisitioned last October (a key arrangement in a project that has consumed thousands of hours of planning) were nowhere to be found. Their drivers were absent, too. They never showed up. So we sat in the dust, waiting. The sun rose. It began to grow hot. To the east, across the Rift, which is widening by the year by a quarter of an inch, lay our first border: Djibouti.

Are you crazy? Are you sick? Yes? No? Maybe?

The sky above is the color of polished lead.

The Afar Triangle is dreaded as a waterless death march, as a moonscape. Temperatures of 120°F. Saltpans so bright they burn the eyes out. Yet today it rained. And Alema and I have no waterproof tents. We have an Ethiopian flag, which Alema wraps himself in. We lead the two camels ourselves. (Whose are they? I’m not sure. Alema procured them Afar-style, off the cuff.) We inch across an acacia plain darkened to the color of chocolate by the warm raindrops. We tread on a photographic negative. The camels’ moccasin-like feet pull up the frail crust of moisture, leaving behind white circles of dry dust.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Alema is tired.

He forgot his new walking shoes from America. And his flashlight. And his hat—and the cell phone. So he got a lift back to his village yesterday, hitching a ride from our second camp, in Aduma, to retrieve these vital items. He has jogged all the way back to catch up. And now he complains, laughing, of a rash in a private place.

This absent-mindedness is understandable. It is impossible to remember every detail on a walk of this order, this length, this scope. It feels like an afternoon’s stroll. I have planned for many months and forgotten things myself. Nylon stuff sacks, for instance, Because of this, my airplane luggage, a city slickers’ rig with plastic rollers and collapsible handle, is strapped to a camel’s back.

Loading up for the trek from Bouri village to the Ethiopia-Djibouti border. Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

The scientists of the Middle Awash Project invite us to begin our walk at Herto Bouri, a symbolic mile zero in the Rift, which is among the richest human boneyards in the world. This is the famous fossil site where three of likely the world’s oldest human beings have been found. Homo sapiens idaltu. Gone for some 160,000 years. A robust, big-faced ancestor—us, but not precisely us.

The Middle Awash Project researchers, led by Tim White, Berhane Asfaw, and Giday Woldegebriel, have uncovered some of the most important hominid fossils of our day in Ethiopia, including Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4 million-year-old bipedal ape. (I will be writing more about these  prospectors soon.) My guide Alema, 60, is their veteran fossil hunter.

Raised in a nomad culture feared for its warriors, Alema speaks three languages—Afar, Amharic, and a profane English patois gleaned from the Middle Awash scientists. He is a paleontologist in his own right. He exclaims “wow” and “crazy, man” and “jeezus,” while identifying the Rift’s key geological strata. He is the balabat, or traditional leader, of the Bouri Modaitu clan of the Afar. His cell phone holds the numbers of Ethiopian grandees and French academics. With an eighth-grade education, he bridges more worlds inside his head than a Leonardo, more time than an Einstein. He is phenomenon.

We are camped at Aduma when the Middle Awash scientists find us. They have come to show us an archaeological site.

“These tools are still a little early for the people you’re following,” says Yonatan Sahle, an Ethiopian researcher. “But their technology was basically as advanced. They made throwing points that allowed them to outcompete the other hominids they encountered outside Africa.”

We lean over a stone point resting on the gravel where its maker dropped it about 80,000 years or ago. We look up.

Middle Stone Age point, Afar region, Ethiopia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

An Afar woman screams bloody murder in the desert. She waves her arms. Where did she come from? Is she warning us off her hill? Is she mad? No. She marches up to a team member dozing on the ground. She gives him a sharp kick. She hefts a stone—a Middle Stone Age tool, perhaps—and threatens to brain him. The collection of a debt? A matter of the heart?

I hear the victim laughing. I know this laugh. It is the man who, over the next six weeks, will guide me to Djibouti, and the Red Sea.







There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. doretha
    January 25, 2013

    “new walking shoes from America”, this is funny ;)).. at the same time triggers a thought in my mind “how many pairs of shoes do you need for a 7year walk..?”

  2. Roberta Estes
    January 25, 2013

    Are you crazy? Are you sick? Yes, all adventurers are. We can’t help ourselves. We are all with you in spirit and look forward to your posts.

  3. nancy
    January 25, 2013

    I remember blisters with new shoes. But I’m a tenderfoot.

  4. Penny Moody
    January 25, 2013

    I love the first photo-the dust. I am excited about sharing this adventure

  5. Joni Metcalf
    January 25, 2013

    Today, at age 81, I start reading a book that will perhaps take me seven years. Filled with gratitude and excitement, I wish you well, Paul Salopek!

  6. Michael
    January 25, 2013

    Bon voyage and I am looking forward to your postings. I will retire in 4 years, maybe I’ll catch up and walk along for a litle while……

  7. Christy Atkins
    January 25, 2013

    What a terrific personal and human experience. Thank you for sharing and teaching. I look forward to the journey!

  8. Sandra
    January 25, 2013

    I love this. I am with you. safe journey paul. Greeting to Alema from Canada.

  9. shawn olsen
    January 25, 2013

    Are you prepared for all the people that will join in the walk?

  10. Andres ciaño
    January 25, 2013

    So… 7 years is a long long time. I honestly don’t know what I will be doing one week from now, less one year from now.
    I’m truly amazed by this project and by the person facing all the challenges.
    Wheter he knows it or not he is basically giving up a big party of his life to complete this “dream?”
    In any case, I’ll be reading for as long as I can, and I thank you for sharing the experiences with all of us, mortals unknown by history.

  11. Linda Horne
    January 25, 2013

    I am sixty-two and retired. It was wonderful to open my email today and read Paul’s first dispatch. I know I could never make this trip, but I find the whole concept extremely exciting and I am so grateful that I can share in the adventure.

  12. Sarah Hegyi
    January 25, 2013

    I can’t think of a better way to spend the next 7 years!!
    May I join you?

  13. Linda
    January 25, 2013

    Thank you, thank you. I love travel; I love adventure; I love the idea and the dream. Looking forward to the next post with your wonderful stories and photos~~

  14. Brian Pollard
    January 26, 2013

    No matter how well you plan, something will always go wrong, it’s about how you respond and recover that counts. Alema reminds me of a friend – it’s a much smaller undertaking but I went with a group of friends to climb Ben Nevis in Scotland, driving to it from the middle of England. One friend crammed loads of superfluous equipment into my car and it wasn’t until we had driven a few miles that he realised that he had forgotten his walking boots!

  15. Elfidio Cano del Cid
    January 26, 2013

    I´m already 71 yrs. old, and I hope to survive in order to watch the end of this fantastic adventure from the past to the present, and the future. Keep going, crazy and optimistic, man of a scientific vision.

  16. Alba Lucía
    January 26, 2013

    Felicitaciones por lo que iniciaste, estoy muy emocionada. Te estoy siguiendo, aunque no se inglés me las arreglo para leer los informes.
    Alba Lucía

  17. Linda C
    January 26, 2013

    The excitement, the adrenalin, the smells and atmosphere. Paul, you capture this beautifully in your writing… I am really looking forward to each post and will be an avid follower. Good luck.

  18. Chairul Bahri
    January 26, 2013

    It is amazing to see cultural remnants of our ancestors of 60,000 years ago still within us, particularly in Afar. How this woman dominated Alema is still continuing in the world … Beautiful and subtle … Thanks, Paul, to capture this loving event despite wars and enmities occuring in most parts of the area of your trip.

  19. Charlotte Wheater
    January 26, 2013

    Amazing to read your story, I’m so looking forward to read more and more. Good luck, safe travels!

  20. Gary Boivin
    January 26, 2013

    Everyone answers to somebody else. This tale of the Great Equalizer may be of little comfort to the children who will do without their father for a few weeks or so, but Alema will be a source of pride to them forever.

  21. Randall Bowie
    January 26, 2013

    I believe this will be a good trek, even epic, and more memorable than Forrest Gump´s run We will alll follow you with keen interest. May all our Gods walk with you, Mr.Paul Salopek. RaBo in Brussels

  22. Jan Dear
    January 26, 2013

    I enjoy reading the adventures of travellers; I wish you every success on your journey, Paul. Such an exciting event and your sharing this with readers is beyond thanks. Clearly, you have the toughest job; we sit back and will read and dream and pray,,,,

  23. kazuo
    January 27, 2013

    Waste of time is taste of life.

  24. Antonio
    January 27, 2013

    Perhaps some of those footsteps you’re leaving behind will one day be found by some distant being who’ll wonder where you were headed.

  25. Pride
    January 27, 2013

    Thank you for taking us on your adventure. Best wishes from Texas, USA.

  26. Alice Saunders
    January 28, 2013

    ISeven years is a long journey but it will seem short when you finally accomplish it and tell your grandchildren the wonders of it. Happy walking! Alice S. (age 86)

  27. Lorie Kelly
    January 28, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your adventure Paul. Looking forward to stories and photos. God bless from Irelad.

  28. Annie Williams
    January 28, 2013

    This is a great undertaking which requires personal passion, patience, and a willing spirit to focus on this quest. May each day be blessed with information or a lesson learned that can read by all who follow you on your quest. I truly enjoy the adventure and your writings, and the photos. Thanks so much & God Bless

  29. john mehliss
    January 29, 2013

    Good luck on your travels. I’ll be with you in spirit. Bon Voyage.

  30. Sridevi Srinivasan
    January 29, 2013

    It is a truly amazing adventure Paul. Apart from your objectives, I am sure this journey will be a life changing experience. Thanks to modern technology for enabling us to partake in this albeit virtually.

  31. Tom Dailey
    February 9, 2013

    What an epic journey! It is inspiring to just imagine it, and to follow its unfolding will be a treat. Thanks, Paul.

  32. Salman Siddiqui
    May 15, 2013

    “rucksack’s worth of ideas”! 🙂

    It’s this small (7 year small) idea that is going to change many lives. Already I see few people in their 80s following you with the assumption that they will survive to follow your travel.

    You have some genuine followers Paul.

    It is so true that a human brain cannot remember every single fact that it comes across. I am not sure if I will retain all the information that you pass along during your journey but I am sure that I will paint a picture in my brain which will be their for years to come.

  33. Ricardo Wilson-Grau
    November 24, 2013

    Just read about your adventure in today’s New York Times. As a journalist and someone who has worked in over 80 countries, I feel a profound respect for your adventure. The least I can do is support you by, first catching up, and then following you albeit vicariously.

  34. Anurag
    November 27, 2013

    I’m hooked up for next 7 years. I just started reading your blogs. Though it sounds stupid but does those African tribes teach us more about our ancestors than our modern science and technology? If not then why Paul decides to trace back homo-sapiens migration on foot.

  35. Jim Kasper
    December 30, 2013


    This is lovely prose. Poetic, evocative, strong. Loved seeing the minute linguistic changes between this blog and the December 2013 NatGeo article.


  36. Sharron Thomas
    January 4, 2014

    Today is 1/4/14. I read your article in Nat. Geo. Magazine. I have read your first two blogs (written a year ago) and am looking forward to catching up with you and then joining you as you continue the rest of your journey. Thank you and Nat. Geo. For giving the whole world this opportunity. May God bless you and be with you throughout this journey.

  37. Leslie
    February 14, 2014

    Have been following with you since I read the NatGeo article. Godspeed.

  38. sheila
    March 15, 2015

    Walk, brother, walk. Following you from New Orleans

  39. Rosana
    June 9, 2015

    I found this journey plan by chance when i reading the magazines in the bookstore, i’m not shocked by the picture the Djibouti Boy died in the journey for his destination is Arab world through desert and red sea, i have been to Djibouti, i know there is not a place for huanbeing to live;left unbelieveble impression for me, i wish one day i can back there to do something help the locals; and i want to email you to inquire details about that country, can i get your email address?

  40. Nurul
    January 10, 2016

    A rough start in a place as dry as Tatooine. Godspeed and may your route will get easier as you have endured among the most difficult routes first thing on. I am with you to the end, God willing!

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