The 34,000km, 7-year walk
It is a long, audacious and wondrous journey. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek is following what experts broadly believe is the trail followed by the first human migration out of Africa—the path traced roughly 60,000 years ago when we left the cradle of our origin and began to spread across the planet.
Starting off from Ethiopia in 2013, Salopek, in his “Out Of Eden” walk, has traversed Africa and West Asia, and has now reached Eastern Europe. His remarkable route will bring him back to Asia next, then on to North America (via China and Russia), where he will follow the coastline all the way down to the nethermost tip of South America; the last stop on his journey will be Tierra del Fuego in Chile—roughly 34,000km from his starting point—which he hopes to reach by 2020.
Retracing this ancient pathway, Salopek is attempting something very modern, and very different: He is documenting the world as it is now, using both the oldest (feet, curiosity, paper) and the newest (Twitter, Instagram, phone camera) tools of journalism.
He calls it “slow journalism”. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Where are you now on your walk? What are you doing today?
I’m in Tbilisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia, doing my usual thing—trying to build interesting sentences. The first rays of autumn have come to this part of the Caucasus. I am keeping an eye on the weather out the window. I’ll be walking through it soon as I restart the walk towards you—China and India.
How did the idea of the walk come about? Who did you first speak to about it and what was their reaction?
I was trying and failing to write my first book in a cowboy’s bunkhouse in West Texas. I kept looking out over those iron horizons, wishing I could just walk away…. I first shared the “Out of Eden” idea in a Chicago bar with my old editor friends from Chicago Tribune. All of us had left that paper recently, due to the downsizing of its journalism mission. My ex-boss, a phenomenal woman who once had walked into a prison yard in the war zone of Darfur, Sudan, in order to spring me out of captivity, gazed down at the global route I had penned on to a cocktail napkin. Then she cut me a look: I’m not going to bail you out again, buster. She still has that napkin.
Tell us a little bit about Day 1 of the journey? What determined the starting point (Herto Bouri in Ethiopia) and the finishing line of your journey?
I was wondering where the cargo camels were. They had been arranged months in advance. They had been forgotten. They were out somewhere in the desert pastures, unaware of their epic appointment with history. It took all day to find them (their handlers—the men responsible for renting them—caught up with me on the trail a week later).
Herto Bouri is the oldest reliably dated Homo sapiens site in the world at about 160,000 years old. I am following the dispersal of modern humans out of Africa. So it was natural to start there. I will end at Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America because this is one of the last places colonized by our species, back in the Stone Age. The curtain on the first human discovery of Earth basically dropped there.
You’ve said in an interview that you don’t have a favourite place, but favourite people. Tell us about one such person?
I’ll take an easy out: I’ve written about him—Mohamad Banounah, one of my Saudi desert guides. A true life force.
(Here is an excerpt from that article) “Mohamad Banounah, my friend and Saudi guide, has landed in intensive care after complications from an earlier surgery. He has walked 240 miles with an abdominal hernia. ‘I don’t know how he made it this far,’ marvels the Egyptian doctor at the hospital where we take him. ‘He must have put up with much pain. This is not a small matter.’
Banounah is an ex-soldier. He is trained to keep pain stoppered, this time to his detriment. (When is it not?) And this trek, this strange journey, this forever walk begins to circle a familiar, melancholy topography, the rolling basin and range of new friends made and left behind: beloved people waving, one hand up in a parting salute, on the horizons. ‘We were a great team,’ Banounah, gripping my hand in his hospital bed, says hoarsely. ‘Weren’t we?’ What can be said about this man?
That his medical condition has been aggravated by too much jollity? (By way of a warning during his current recovery, the doctors say his previous operation’s incisions may have never mended because Banounah belly-laughs too uncontrollably, too hard.)
Or that he is a library of fading Bedouin lore? (A bitter desert melon call hadaj, when cut in half and placed on your cheeks, sucks the thirst right out of your body.)” (For the full story, click here ).
Despite what you said about “favourite places”, tell us about a place that really moved you?
Waypoint #12,587,833.... A few days ago, a millennium ago, laying in the watery blue shadows of a pistachio tree, on a blistering hot day of walking with my Turkish partner Deniz Kilic. A 3x3m oasis of cool in a landscape of incinerating white light. In Anatolia (in Turkey). Among the oldest farm furrows in the world. We were two men stranded on a tiny raft of shade. We were brothers.
You said in an interview that what you do is an “anthropological way of doing journalism”—how do you see the space for “slow journalism”, seriously immersive journalism, changing? Newspapers around the world are shutting down, and the idea of journalism itself is changing with the digital age…
I’ve had many, many, many, many discussions—arguments—with my colleagues about this.
To succeed, we need to innovate new ways to capture mind-share online, and this often means we have to try out experimental approaches—innovations—that actually subvert the Web’s bias and predilection for speed and clickbait. We have to essentially invent brand new ways to draw our readers into a more meaningful and thoughtful engagement with the story (including engaging with “their” stories). This is damned hard for media institutions to do. And there simply is no formula for success. We are risk-averse as a tribe and prone to relying on the same tools that we grew up with during our careers in the industry (More pictures! Search-engine-friendly headlines! The writer as reality show host! Provocation in 10-second videos!).
I’d love the walk to become a signal laboratory for testing new engagement ideas—but this requires the willingness to fail. And while it’s easy for me to make grandiose, abstract pronouncements about experimentation, try making that pitch to overworked, real-world editors whose job performances are micro-measured by finger taps on the glass screens of iPhones.
Tell us about some of the “Milestones” (at every 100-mile mark, Salopek records the coordinates of where he is, takes a photo of the land, the sky, and whatever is in front of him, records a short interview with the nearest person, and writes a couple of lines on the place) that have stayed in your head?
I’ve actually walked past a couple of Milestones. I was too absorbed at the time in navigating, or in taking a fellow walker to a hospital, to remember that a Milestone was coming up. On the latter occasion, I had to hitch a car ride back to the Milestone to record it. I felt melancholic about this. But it turned into one of my favourites (Milestone 12, Day 157, 1,100 Miles, in the Hejaz area of Saudi Arabia, near Mecca).
Sometimes, looking at your Instagram feed, it seems that the world has not aged, has not changed; some of those photos look like T.E. Lawrence could have taken them if he had a portable camera…
The world. What can I say.
We all walk through the geography of time. Time pools deeply in some valleys. It hurtles like a torrent along certain roads. I am surprised we all absorb this temporal sorcery routinely, as a matter of course.
What has been the biggest impediment to walking? It seems from your posts that it’s not the terrain, not weather, but cars, motorable roads, the police?
Actually, it’s something even more intangible yet maddeningly granitic: borders. I love them and hate them. They unlock strange panoramas in our collective psyche; the boundaries of identity, of inward-outerness. Yet each one I walk across is also a threshold of human failure. A failure of imagination, of compassion, of curiosity.
They have diverted and stymied my journey more than any other single factor.
Do you ever feel strange when you have to wait in cities? Restless about not moving?
I used to. Not any more. Because now, at this stage in my life, a walk always awaits. It waits for me at this very instant, at the edge of Tbilisi.
What’s the next place you’ll be walking to and when do you start?
Central Asia. In a fortnight.
The photos, videos and stories that Salopek files through his journey can be followed in real-time at http://outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com