National Geographic

Goodbye to Alema

Trail camp near Howle, Ethiopia, 11°42'58" N, 41°48'8" E

 “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together. “ — African proverb

Breaking camp near Dubti, after a night of walking in circles in the sugarcane fields. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Breaking camp near Dubti after a night of walking in circles in the sugarcane fields. Photograph by Paul Salopek

We camp on the flank of Asa Fatma mountain, a basalt sentinel overlooking the caravan trails that braid eastward to the old Sultanate of Tadjourah, a distant port where ivory, salt, and slaves were once shipped by dhow to Arabia. The tiny Republic of Djibouti sprawls below us: a waterless plain, hotter and drier than the Ethiopian desert, sere lake beds of blinding white salt, scarps of gunmetal grey, and, doubtless, huddled somewhere in the shade of a doum palm, more Afar nomads—herders cleaved from their Ethiopian brethren by a colonial border, speaking in halting French.

This is where I begin to say goodbye to my walking companions, the Afar camel men from Herto Bouri.

The Ethiopians declare themselves ready to push on. They are ready, they insist, to walk with me to the beaches of the Red Sea. But this is impossible. My two cameleers, Kader Yarri and Mohamed Aidahis, possess no documents, no scraps of paper attesting to their physical existence, no passport. (“This is all Afar land!” they say.) And Ahmed Alema Hessan, my guide and camel-driving mentor, has relapsed beneath his mosquito net into a mysterious illness. He issues his camel-loading orders lying down, from under his shire, his sarong, which he drapes like a sheet over his head. In a few hours, we will part ways in the grim border town of Howle.

What is it like to walk through the world?

It is mornings like these: Opening your eyes to nothing but seamless sky for day after day; a pale, numinous void that for one fleeting instant when you first awake, seems to suck you upward, out of yourself, out of your body. It is the clean hollowness of hunger, a lightness that seems blown through by the wind, the way an empty pipe is blown, to make it whistle. (We trekked 18 miles yesterday on short rations, on a single bowl of noodles and a handful of biscuits each. My wedding ring, once tight, jiggles loosely along my finger.) It is learning to interrogate landscapes with your eyes for camel fodder, for wind direction (dust), for wood, and of course for water—an antique power resides in this. And it is watching the vastness of Africa slip by at a walking pace, and coming to realize dimly that, even at three miles per hour, you are still moving too fast. It is the journey shared.

Mohamed Aidahis, cameleer, crosses the tamed Awash. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Mohamed Aidahis crosses the tamed Awash. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Mohamed Aidahis:

A powerful, ant-stomping gait—he plants his feet with force, with vigor, as if to correct the path of the Earth along its orbit. We call him the Third Camel. His appetite is bottomless. One night he gorged himself on bread intended for all. While I fumed, the others laughed. He laughed, too. This is the Afar way: to live (and eat) in the moment. We must disarm him in the towns—his jile dagger is long and sharp—before the police do. At dawn we hear his blade’s tok-tok-tok as he prepares the camels’ thorny breakfasts, chopping branches high up in an acacia tree.

Kader Yarri, the quiet cameleer. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Kader Yarri, the quiet one. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Kader Yarri:

The marionette looseness of a skinny man’s step, light, tireless, eternal, the continent-spanning gait of the ancestors. He is the quiet one, and thus listened to. Early on, I mistook his silences for aloofness: to the pastoralist, to the nomad, sedentary people who own no livestock are inferior beings. But this man’s silence is generous. A watchful steadiness. Without comment he always shoulders more than his share of work. “What will the camels eat?” he asked one day, worried about the cauterized deserts near the Djibouti border. I shrugged: I had no idea. I picked up a stone, held it out. It was the only time I saw him laugh.


Paul Salopek and his Ethiopian guide, Ahmed Alema, arrive in Haramfaf village to a welcoming song. Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Paul Salopek and his Ethiopian guide, Ahmed Alema, arrive in Haramfaf village to a welcoming song. Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Ahmed Alema Hessan, balabat, or leader, of the Bouri Modaitu clan (and, only incidentally, my guide):

Bandy-legged, energetic, with a spring-loaded step. In another place—in the tumbleweed towns of West Texas, say—Alema might have made a fine square dancer. He is the “road boss” of our shambolic little caravan: a human knot, complex, tough, a nexus of murky connections who plays all the angles, as one must on a lean desert margin. At first, his bawdy locker-room English made me doubt his seriousness: He seemed to consider the walk a cosmic joke, a windfall by which to add an executive wing to the shack of his third and youngest wife in the truck stop town of Mile. But Alema is beyond serious. In truth, he has taken possession of this journey, located himself fully within it. He rallies us when we are tired. He presses on. The walk now belongs to him. (“I don’t care about the money, man. It’s the history.”)

On our best days, we four ramblers recognize our good luck. We ricochet down raw mountain trails, almost running, with the whole shining desert of Ethiopia at our feet. We bounce our voices off the walls of black-rock canyons in whooping contests. Then we catch each other’s eye, three Afars and a man from the opposite longitude of the Earth, and grin like children. The cameleers catch the spark, and sing.

What is it like to walk through the world?

It is like this. It is like serious play. I will miss these men.

End of the trail in Ethiopia -- the descent into steaming Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

End of the trail in Ethiopia: the descent into boiling Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek






There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. timebombtimmy
    March 15, 2013

    “I don’t care about the money, man. It’s the history.” – Ahmed
    There are many of us who wish we could join you on this walk. I think you found the right man to start it with.
    Happy trails to you, until we meet again.

  2. kiera
    March 15, 2013

    why can’t he bring his camel? and he should definitely have a elephant to carry more stuff

  3. Julia
    March 15, 2013

    Beautiful thinking and writing. Thank you!

  4. h tucker
    March 15, 2013

    I am reading every dispatch as soon as it’s released, and plan to for as long as the trip continues. I’m in it for the long haul. I love not knowing what your next observation will be. The audio portion of the dispatches have been priceless. I wonder too about the physical experience, beyond observation, to walk, to eat (what are you eating, is it local? Did you pack it from the States?), to sleep, to bathe (or not?), the party (who’s there besides you and those of whom you write?)…I hope you will share some of those experiences as well.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 25, 2013

      Lately we have been eating very basic fare—the Ethiopian towns feature noodles and canned fish, sugar and coffee. I have been accompanied through Ethiopia by the same three men I’ve written about, Alema, Mohamed, and Kader. Occasionally, someone joins us for a few minutes or an hour or day and drifts away. It’s a bit like a round-robin dance, only on a vast and largely desolate dance floor.

  5. Wiremu
    March 15, 2013

    Fascinating journey and revelations, thanks for showing another world, another time…Power to you and your team.

  6. Maria S
    March 15, 2013

    Very few people experience a struggle in life, and now that his experiencing a tuff situation he is realizing how useful his canal was. ((:

  7. jaideep khodaskar
    March 16, 2013

    Good way to pass the time and be famous too.

  8. Tyler Miazga
    March 16, 2013

    Keep Em Coming! Great entertainment/inspiration for me! Do you think there will be anyone that will join you in the entire journey? Wish I could myself, one day will do my own 7+ year project visiting all the worlds National Parks. What do you think of that idea? Also you should post every so often a picture of all your gear/supplies in each region you go to. That would be real cool to see and will add depth to your project!

    • Paul Salopek
      March 25, 2013

      I’m delighted to hear that you’ve inaugurated your own walk, Tyler. Sounds like a beautiful idea to me. I will write about kit as it becomes pertinent to the larger story. If you’re interested, there is a post about this on the walk’s digital journalism website:

  9. Jan
    March 16, 2013

    I wiped away tears this morning as I read your post, Paul. What happens now? God speed

    • Paul Salopek
      March 25, 2013

      Indeed, Jan. What happens now? We muddle onward, to the east, to the sea.

  10. Ashley
    March 16, 2013

    i love national geographic!

  11. Charles
    March 16, 2013

    A poetic closure to this chapter. Thank you for sharing your insight and gratitude. Best of luck on the rest of your journey. It is uplifting to read your entries.

  12. Tevan T.
    March 16, 2013

    Fascinating….more power to you.

  13. David J.
    March 17, 2013

    The recorded narrative is a splendid companion to the written account.

  14. Chairul Bahri
    March 17, 2013

    Well, good bye Alema, Kader, and Mohamed …

  15. Joe Foster
    March 18, 2013

    The more I read your stories, the more I wonder about the changes you are inevitably experiencing. The physical transformation as well as the psychic adjustment required to adapt to this wild, desolate environment, this nomadic way of life. What you have sacrificed for such a journey, I can’t imagine. For the sake of the rest of us homosapians, please don’t stop. This is a worthwhile endeavor.

  16. Karen Winterholer
    March 18, 2013

    So very touching…thank you for sharing, Paul.

  17. Linda Laursen B.
    March 19, 2013

    It’s during such poignant transitions where insight is at its most acute. Exquisite writing, as usual, Paul. Thank you.

    • Paul Salopek
      March 25, 2013

      Thanks, Linda. I know Lisa would love it here.

  18. Linda Hoernke
    March 19, 2013

    I so enjoy your writing, your adventures and the experiencing of life in a part of the world I have yet to visit. Thank you~~

  19. Francis Xavier Mupinde
    March 20, 2013


    This is my first comment and it is to just thank you for the great work you are doing in helping some of us to understand what our ancestors went through. I wish you God’s Blessings but I wish to let you know that you have another person following and praying for your success!!!!!!!!!!!!

  20. Gary Boivin
    March 20, 2013

    The journey through fascinating Ethiopia has been riveting, for me at least. You have paid fine homage to the men who have seen you safely through the harshness of Afar Land, and by extension, honoured their families, who have graciously lent their fathers and husbands to a greater good. Godspeed in your passage through Djibouti.

  21. Yoseph
    March 22, 2013

    As an Ethiopia, I am happy when I first hear OUT OF ADEN WALK started from Ethiopia. Let me share this quote for your travel: Aren’t you from Ethiopia, that poor country?”
    um Not Poor but : -the ONLY African nation
    never colonized because we defeated the
    Europeans… – First Africans to win gold in
    the Olympics, Only African nation with its
    own Alphabet -The country that practiced
    Christianity before Europeans and accepted
    Islam before the Middle East! The first country
    that started with the flag colors that everyone
    rocks without even knowing what it means
    (Green, Yellow, Red) and the origin of Rastafarianism
    -One of the few countries in the world that’s mentioned
    both in the Bible & Quran over 50 times! -The country
    that is the origin of the coffee you drink, -The country
    with so much culture and spirituality that you can’t even
    comprehend! -Home to the earliest human sightings &
    human fossils on earth that date over millions of years old
    (Lucy, Ardi etc) Yes!! Ethiopia, The Birth of the world, The
    cradle of humanity.”

  22. Silabat Manaye
    March 22, 2013

    This story is very amazing

  23. Silabat Manaye
    March 22, 2013

    All programmer of national geography is best for me ,but it is difficult to get magazine,how do you get,pls give some info

  24. Antonio
    March 22, 2013

    Such are friendships, in all walks of this and any life: They last for as long as they will, until the common path comes to its end. Celebrate what has been shared! My salute to these men who walked with you; and thank you, again.

  25. Joris
    March 23, 2013

    I only recently discovered your trip by skimming through old mail, and as soon as I did, I read all of your posts. You got me hooked on the journey of man, the sincerity of endless travel, and the depth of personal experience.

    One thing I wonder, did you come up with the riverstones metaphor just there on the spot? “Smoothed by the tongue, rounded by repetition, improved upon by memory; so that only a core truth remains.” That’s poetry, right there.

  26. Joris
    March 23, 2013

    Correction, I didn’t mean to say ‘trip’. Rather ultimate journey. Although you could say that the pleasure and fun is in a travel’s sincerity, in learning what life’s about and broadening your horizon. Experiencing new things is in many ways a trip. Oh well.

  27. Kayla Jacobs
    March 27, 2013

    i hope you are having fun walk! keep up the great work!

  28. Cody Emelander
    March 27, 2013

    hope u have a safe journey

  29. Alli Key
    March 27, 2013

    hi im alli and i think that you must be really tired,i’m in s.s class and we’re studying you and your walk!

  30. Kavan
    March 27, 2013

    how long is expected to walk around the “world”

  31. Eliza
    March 27, 2013

    what happens to the camels when they are not were they are used to going

  32. Rama
    March 27, 2013

    Do you discuss with Alema, Mohamed, and Kader, philosophise with them…will you be meeting them again sometime later?

  33. Hiker Bob
    April 7, 2013

    This one is happy to join your round-robin dance,Paul, and to experience with you the vastness of all those miles of earth, on these pages.
    5 weeks ago I stood at the sidewalk in front of your house, behind the bank and down the street from the library, so close to the border, wanting to tap on the door and explain it was good you were still here to write, after the affair in Sudan, and to let you know I ate twice there at your house when it was still the old hotel.

  34. Jerzy Stanczak
    April 25, 2013

    Dear Paul. Love to read Your diaries from the journey. However, I enjoy looking at the photographs as well, and here’s my question – isn’t John Stanmeyer walking with You? He is the author of the fotos but You never mention of Him. Best of luck from Poland!

    • Paul Salopek
      May 3, 2013

      John photographed the Rift Valley of Ethiopia and Djibouti for an upcoming National Geographic story I’m writing about ancient human migrations. So we weren’t joined at the hip. He meandered huge distances and required a car for his work.

  35. Miranda
    May 15, 2013

    Stumbled upon your journey by accident and am now hooked. Will be following your progress with fascination. When might you get to Cape Town?

  36. Winifred Grace
    August 21, 2013

    I too just recently stumbled upon your journey and have become obsessed with catching up to your current postings. Just in these few days, I’ve become quite attached to your fellow trekkers and when the time came to say goodbye felt that loss myself as well! I can only imagine how it must be for you knowing this will happen many times over during your 7 year adventure. It helped me to realize just how precious friendships are and never to take them for granted. Even momentary friendships can have a lifetime effect! Thanks for sharing and looking forward to traveling along vicariously!

  37. Sally Sherman
    December 6, 2013

    learned of Paul Salopek in NYT 11/24/13, with thanks for his journeying

  38. Judy Rudolph
    March 4, 2014

    Surely Ahmed Alema Hessan’s “Mysterious illness” was simply the sorrow of thinking about leaving you.

  39. Bud Gaudreau
    June 3, 2014

    What a fantastic adventure and a thoughtful writer to tell us about it. Best wishes and good luck.

  40. Ruth Vilmi
    May 8, 2016

    Fascinating writing from a brave adventurer. I’ll be following your dispatches with my fingeres crossed for you. Thank you, and Bon voyage!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Travel Scanner: Travel addiction, best apps for road warriors, miniature photos and more |

    […] Goodbye to Alema Remember the story of that fellow who was going to walk around the world for the next several years to trace the migration of early man? Here he is in Djibouti writing about his adventures. Via @NatGeo […]

    March 21, 201312:21 pm

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