Give me your hand. I know you are tired. I am tired, too. But let us walk together, for a little while longer, down through these grey, round-shouldered hills—hills stripped to the bone by 10,000 years of hot winds, and steamed clean of all color—to the blinding edge of the Red Sea. Down to the final rim of Africa.
Houssain Mohamed Houssian, the Afar guide, leads the way, singing as usual.
We cross our first pavement in eight days. It is the Yugoslav-built road from the capital, Djibouti city, to the remote desert outposts of the north—Sagallou, Tadjourah, Obock. A car flashes past. Pale faces, possibly French sailors on shore leave, glance back through dusty glass. We coax our two weary camels over the fiery tarmac, across a field of basalt cobbles, onto a shingle beach. The instant Houssain toes the surf, he falls silent. He stops singing. A sweltering day of walking still lies ahead of us. But I will never hear him chant a caravan song again.
This is no random coastline.
At least 60,000 year ago, somewhere along this scribbled line of flotsam that stretches north to the Bab-el-Mandeb—the pinched “strait of grief” dividing Africa and Arabia—hardy bands of anatomically modern humans first began to walk out of Africa in earnest. Sea levels were 200 feet lower then. Ghostly archipelagos that lurk under the salt waves today provided these early wanderers the necessary stepping-stones to abandon the mother continent. Scientists tell us they coasted north and east, scavenging seafood along the margins of present-day Yemen and Saudi Arabia, all the way into East Asia.
Some human wayfarers branched off northwest to the Middle East and Europe. Still others paddled, somehow, to distant Australia. And the most dogged, the hungriest, the bitter-enders, continued trudging north and east for a thousand generations more, spanning the course of 20,000 additional years, over vanished grasslands, advancing perhaps a mile a generation under the fluid rose and emerald sheets of the auroras, north into Beringia, into the New World.
. . . for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
This is F. Scott Fitzgerald imagining what currents must have stirred Dutch sailors’ hearts as they tacked their reeking ships up the waters of the Hudson for the very first time, just four centuries ago.
Unlacing my boots beside our kneeling camels, I squint out across the silver bar of the Red Sea toward invisible Arabia. I try to relive that moment when the entire planet beckoned to us from this spot, this ocean door, almost 3,000 lifetimes ago. We were fully human then. Our nearest prehuman ancestors, the Neanderthals, had stood on similar beaches for hundreds of thousands of years and had not ventured to cross open waters.
“It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land,” the geneticist Svante Päabo told The New Yorker. “Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.”
It is the 43rd day of walking up the Great Rift Valley from the Afar encampment of Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, the starting point of this journey. I have covered perhaps 400 miles. Seven years of walking still lie ahead.
Houssain fetches the thermos of tea from the saddlebags of Modaita, our big, randy bull camel. The shot glasses, sticky with sugar. A last, hoarded sack of dates. The cameleers, Ibrahim Hagaita and Mohamed Youssef, both reliable men, chew in silence. When we speak, it is in loud, hoarse tones, the way people do by the surf. I sit, cross-legged on a cushion of wet pebbles, rubbing my feet, my numb toes. And I watch the green waves spin their thread of foam at the flank of a continent I have called home, off and on, for more than 10 years. I am leaving Africa.
The sea is a loom of time, ceaselessly knitting past to future.
Its waves roll in like a weaver’s shuttle . . . pushing westward, toward inland memory, back to the apricot dawns of the Danakil, to the laughing old Afar woman who dippered her scarce and brackish well water for us to drink, to the light-headed days of hunger, the days of pure horizon-eyed freedom, to the mummified bodies of the migrant dead, to the campfires where Alema the caravan boss exclaimed, with something like joy, No gun! No rock! No torch! I must throw my American shoes at the hyenas!
And they pull away . . . eastward toward Yemen and the Tehama Coast, toward fields of rhododendrons in the valleys of the Himalaya, toward ice, toward sunrise, toward the hearts of unknown people.