National Geographic

The Ocean Door

Gulf of Tadjourah, Djibouti, 11°47'52" N, 42°52'17" E

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.

From one liquid to another: sand to seawater. The Gulf of Tadjourah--and the world beyond. Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

From sand to seawater.  Photograph by Paul Salopek

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.

Tea by the Red Sea. Madoita the yawning camel is unimpressed. Gulf of Tadjourah, Djibouti. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Tea by the Red Sea. Modaita, the yawning camel, is unimpressed. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“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.

There are 53 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. melissa jenks (@marzipanj)
    April 22, 2013

    Thank you for for taking this journey on behalf of all of us. Your bravery astounds me–how you manage to knit eternal sentences–”The sea is a loom of time, ceaselessly knitting past to future”–and to do it all while walking and hungry and in pain. But you have the attendant exhilaration of these long pilgrimages. I envy you and wish you well.

    I love and want more of the stories of food, and toe numbness, and grit in your teeth, and the personalities of your companions on the way. Do you know if any individual has followed a longer path? I also think the slower pace of your dispatches and scheduling long breaks while walking shows you have thought things through and will be successful. But mainly I want to express gratitude that such journalism exists.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      Melissa: I am more concerned with numbness at the other extreme of my body. And I am certain there are people who have walked far longer distances than my route; indeed, even writers who never leave home tend to do a continent’s worth of pacing. Thanks for joining this shambling caravan.

  2. Linda Hoernke
    April 22, 2013

    Thank you again for taking me with you on this journey. To leave Africa…I sense a sadness as the people before you must have felt. Onward to new adventures…I will continue to walk with you~~

  3. Lorna
    April 23, 2013

    Wow. Hard to believe you’re on the coast of Africa ready to leave it behind. The water does look inviting

  4. Becky Ross
    April 23, 2013

    Thank you for bringing me with you.

  5. Michael Reid
    April 23, 2013

    Following your posts from the outset has been a wonderful experience. I was getting a bit worried not to see a posting for some days.
    Having read Thessiger, I’m looking forward to your experiences of the Arabian Peninsula too.
    Your reports are inspiring and thought provoking.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      Thanks, Michael. There may be even longer silences in the months and years ahead. It’s part of the idea behind the walk: slower-paced storytelling.

  6. David Day
    April 23, 2013

    Your perspective, from ground-level video, to the soaring prose of Fitzgerald, to the vision of Dutch sailors on the Hudson, add magic to this shared experience. Thank you for making my life larger.

  7. Eva Maria Huschka
    April 23, 2013

    I try to imagine the impression the first man must have had in front of the sea. Maybe he believed himself to have been transformed into another type of heaven.

  8. Chris Alleyne
    April 23, 2013

    Why didn’t you try to stop the car to get a ride farther up ?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      Then it would be hitchhiking in the footsteps of our ancestors, Chris. And I’m saving that for when the knees burn out.

  9. Noah C
    April 23, 2013

    How long did it take you to get out of Africa?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely out of Africa. It’s taken about six weeks, however, to walk up the Ethiopian Rift to the Red Sea.

  10. Karen Winterholer
    April 23, 2013

    Your words and the video tug at my heartstrings, a combination of sadness in leaving Africa, but also excited anticipation for the adventures to come. Once again thank you.

  11. Jimmy Pryor
    April 23, 2013

    I feel like I am there at that moment preceding our first crossing out of Africa, a landmark (or seamark) on our epoch odyssey. Only now just begun?

  12. David Quammen
    April 23, 2013

    Good job, Paul. Enjoy the tea and the surf. We await word on those hearts of unknown people ahead. You’re doin’ great.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      Yes, that endless, four-chambered maze, iterated into the billions. It is a wonder we ever find each other. Thanks, David. And congratulations on the new book.

  13. LauraC
    April 23, 2013

    Wow. What a breath-taking video. The end to one part of your journey and the start of another. The contrast between the dry sands of the tundra you have been walking, to the refreshing and glistening sea must be overwhelming and exciting. Good luck and thank you for sharing this adventure with us x

  14. Catherine G. (Cathie) Freeman
    April 23, 2013

    We had our DNA analyzed by the Nat. Geo. Our ancestors headed west toward Europe for their grand adventure. How are your feet?

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      And that’s what it continues to be, even today, Cathie, doesn’t it? A journey without maps: something unknowable, at times debilitating, but occasionally opening out into grandness. The feet do their job—arresting my fall at every step.

  15. James Janega
    April 23, 2013

    Paul, just catching up to you now. What a glorious and worthy adventure, and what an epic cliffhanger to stand at the sea and imagine oneself past it — the ultimate leap of faith, repeated metaphorically generation after generation, the journey putting its mark on us, creating differences, as our collective will remains the same. I’m laughing with delight at this journey of yours. Let’s go.

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      Yes, the sea made us and remade us. Some scientists even hypothesize that it gave us genius, as we migrated along its margins for 60,000 years, eating seafood, which is brain food. Great to hear from you, James.

  16. RonVan Johnson
    April 23, 2013

    The walk of a lifetime, the journey of mankind. Having spent a small portion of my life in that region of Africa the cradle of man, I am excited for you. Your reports along the way are so vivid and important to your readers, followers and spectators. Be safe!

  17. barbara mahany
    April 23, 2013

    magnificent. pure poetry. standing in awe….

  18. peggy
    April 23, 2013

    Your lovely words allow so many to imagine this journey. Thank You.

  19. Gary Boivin
    April 23, 2013

    This moment must have been one of the most enormous revelations of your life- that there, facing one of the most rambunctious bodies of water on the planet, you were about to replicate what may have been the first journey ever by a human seafarer. I look forward to your posts from Arabia- be circumspect in their delivery and careful in your course of travel.

  20. fbartling
    April 24, 2013

    It is a known fact,that man originated from the
    African continent.
    He mus have been rather bewildered by these expanses
    of water surrounding the continent,
    and must have been put off for years,not knowing how to build
    a boat.Once this knowledge had
    been achieved,mankind could
    spread to the rest of the world.

  21. Simon French
    April 24, 2013

    Just a beautiful and poetic piece of writing. Just sums up so much feeling.
    Safe journey

  22. Hiker Bob
    April 24, 2013

    I find myself checking 3 or 4 times a day to see if Paul has posted here his progress and I find myself, as days lapse by, worrying for the well being of Paul, his current crew and those wildish camels.
    Thanks for arriving. Out of Africa now!

  23. Shirley Goode
    April 24, 2013

    I love the sights and sounds…and the writing

  24. Laura Jane Linck
    April 24, 2013

    The children of the world are walking with you and responding with wonderment and awe. This is what it means to learn, lead and inspire. We Thank You…

  25. laura Jane Linck
    April 24, 2013

    The children of the world are walking with you and responding with wonderment and awe. This is what it means to learn, lead and inspire. We Thank You…

  26. Greg J. Bennett
    April 25, 2013

    Paul: Every few weeks I remember to catch up on your progress … enjoying the poetry of your observations and the serial nature of your story. This entry was particularly satisfying. I looked for more information about your life and found that we were at UCSB at the same time.

    Good luck, travel safely, and find truths.

    Greg

    • Paul Salopek
      April 27, 2013

      Thanks, Greg. I learned my genetics on the California beach, from a professor who drew helixes in the sand.

  27. Antonio
    April 25, 2013

    Standing at the shore, looking out to the expanse of the sea. Wondering, in awe quite often. It’s always been thus. Never to stay in one place, if not us then our children or theirs.

  28. Carol M.
    April 25, 2013

    I’ve only just discovered this beautiful, fascinating blog of Edenwalk. I am caught up in Paul’s way of writing and with the concept of starting from where our first fully human ancestors first lived to the present. What an adventure – clearly not all fun, but all full of thoughts and ideas from a writer who can imagine what it must have been like to those first travelers and then be able to write about it in beautiful language. Thank you! I’m going back to the beginning and will follow you as far as you go! Am I the only one to link this final post in Africa to Earth Day?

  29. Chet Green
    April 26, 2013

    Paul,
    Excellent report on the data hole off Somalia and thanx for the update on Djibouti. I was wondering how much of a military presence you see. But is there truth to the pirates’ claims that overfishing by foreign nations forced Somalis to go pirate?

  30. OMAR AWALE
    April 29, 2013

    Paul,
    It was nice to meet you in Djibouti and wanted to thank you for the valuable job for memory you did.
    Omar

    • Paul Salopek
      May 1, 2013

      Omar, the gift of memory flows both ways—in countless directions—at the crossroads called Djibouti.

  31. Lara Weber
    April 29, 2013

    Paul, what a joy to read your dispatches. Sitting in a hectic faster-faster-faster newsroom, it is reassuring to see the beauty of such slow storytelling. Pole-pole…

    • Paul Salopek
      May 1, 2013

      Thanks, Lara. As my long-suffering editors can attest, I was slow even in a newsroom. Safari njema.

  32. Bob Dee
    April 29, 2013

    Thank you Paul.
    “The sea is a loom of time, ceaselessly knitting past to future”
    Perhaps the threads are DNA with the patterns forming into helix of life.

  33. Gary Calhoun
    April 30, 2013

    As a “Geno”graphic participant I was pleased to come across your journey, really…The Journey of All of Us. Because of a stroke i recently had to abandon walking a lesser trek: Camino de Santiago. I wish you well and look forward to following you through time & space on this epic journey…

    • Paul Salopek
      May 21, 2013

      Thanks, Gary. I don’t think there are any lesser treks. A slow circuit around the porch is an extension of Camino de Santiago, which is itself part of a life’s trajectory. I wish you a strong journey back to health.

  34. crystal okafor
    May 3, 2013

    i think this article describes how he is trying to survive and now he is leaving africa and about to cross the red sea. i think its amazing how he has walked so far.

  35. Monica Webb
    May 3, 2013

    In spite of the difficulties on your journey, I found the relative absence of development and commerce enticing. The contrast with Djibouti, ports where it is never night and barbed wire around cargo ships is jarring and slightly disorienting, like an emergency phone call in the middle of a deep sleep. Watching with interest your Djibouti impasse.

  36. julie
    May 17, 2013

    With much appreciation to Paul in reporting his journey, am intrigued by his venture. Just discovered this post…may you continue your journey safe and sound.

  37. Camden Hoover
    May 29, 2013

    Hello there i live in Michigan and hope you have a good time!!!!

  38. Omri
    May 30, 2013

    Hello Paul,
    I have been following your journey with great interest. I particularly appreciate the sound recordings you post from time to time – I find soundscapes, in their visceral quality, as fascinating, and many times much more intriguing, than landscapes. Also the singing in the video is beautiful and fascinating. I would be very glad for you to post recordings more often.

    • Paul Salopek
      August 4, 2013

      We’re on the same wavelength, Omri. My social media team is building a centralized page where you can access all the journey’s recorded sound. For the moment you can find many of the audio dispatches collected here: https://soundcloud.com/nationalgeographic-1

  39. Darcy
    October 11, 2013

    I really like this blog! Awesome work.

  40. Jill
    March 12, 2014

    I’m playing “catch-up”… Realize I’m a year behind, but this good-bye to Africa made me sad.

  41. Elisa
    April 14, 2014

    Hello Paul,
    I found out about your journey just some days ago and I can’t wait to catch up… This is the dispatch I liked the most until now. It’s an enthralling piece of writing. I would like to know what you mean by “Yugoslav-built road”, I’ve researched it but I couldn’t find any relation to Yugoslavia. Sorry, it may sound stupid, but I’m very curious. Thank you! Buon viaggio

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