Paul Salopek seeks to retrace the path of modern mankind

December 1, 2013

Paul Salopek is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and National Geographic fellow who is one year into an epic seven-year project to walk around the world, retracing the ancient footsteps of modern mankind. The first of his magazine stories about the project runs in this month’s issue of National Geographic.

Born in California, raised in rural Mexico, Salopek has traveled the globe for Nat Geo and as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He was arrested as a spy and held for more than a month in Sudan after crossing into a rebel-held portion of the country without a visa in 2006.

Now 51, he began this trek on Jan. 11 in Herto Bouri, Ethi­o­pia, at what is believed to be the oldest site of modern humans. Eating “lots of sandy, roasted goat and sheep so far,” he hopes to wind up at Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America, in six years. The journey will cover some 21,000 miles. Readers can follow his multimedia dispatches, filed almost daily, at outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com.

The Washington Post’s Neely Tucker, who has reported from more than 50 countries and territories in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, caught up with Salopek by phone recently in Aqaba, Jordan.

Their conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

Paul Salopek is tracing the steps of the world's first ancestors by literally walking around the Earth. Join him on the first leg of his journey. (Courtesy of National Geographic)

You started this trip in northern Ethi­o­pia, more or less on top of an archaeological site. Was that an easy spot to pick?

It’s a symbolic start. It’s the oldest-known site for archaic homo sapiens. There are 160,000-year-old fossilized bones there. It’s as close to our beginning as we know. ­­

You’re about 11 months in. How many miles have you walked so far?

Miles are a little problematic. I upload my GPS to a friend at MIT, and they calculate it with great accuracy, but I haven’t sent in my information from Saudi Arabia. I walked about 350 to 400 miles in the Rift Valley, then into Djibouti, then hopped a boat for about 500 nautical miles, then into Saudi Arabia and up into Jordan, which was about 700 miles — a rough estimate, 1,200 to 1,400 miles.

The idea is to follow the footsteps of our ancestors, literally, but is there a church/state divide about riding in a car, a bike or a plane?

If it’s just me being tired, then yeah, I think hopping in a car would be against the spirit of the project.

But let’s say you approach a neighborhood that is difficult or dangerous and walking into it would just be foolish.

Oh, if there’s trouble ahead you better . . . believe I’ll get in a car. The idea isn’t to be so doctrinaire about it all in some sort of “Guinness Book of World Records” way that’s an absurdity. If I have to use mechanized travel, then I will, and I’ll alert my readers. . . . Now, once I’m stopped at one place, I do use a car. During Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, I used a car to go cover stories. But when I put the bags back on the camel to move, I go back to where I stopped walking and start trekking again.

While a correspondent, you were arrested in Sudan for not having a visa. What went wrong in Sudan?

[Journalists] were going in from Chad. That was the back door. You’d be getting the rebel perspective, from their territory. People had been doing that for a couple of years. I didn’t have a visa, but I took a well-beaten path that others had recommended. The idea was to go in just for the day. We got taken at the border, as it was a particularly dicey period that I was unaware of. There were peace negotiations, and rebel factions were changing sides. My information, which I had thought was good and current, was about 48 hours old, and that was too old. The leader in the territory I crossed into had changed sides. It cost me, my employers and my family, very heavily. I’m talking emotionally — no money changed hands. It was 35 days in prison with two colleagues, one from Chad and the other from Sudan.

Where were you incarcerated?

A garrison town called Al Fashir.

What were the facilities like?

At first, we were held in a ghost-house prison, a black site, where political prisoners and such were kept. Later, we transferred to a standard police jail.

One account says you nearly starved.

That’s an exaggeration. All three of us went without food for several days. I went on a hunger strike for nine days.

Why risk going through that again? You’re out there, on foot in remote and difficult places, crossing sometimes hostile terrain. You get in trouble, nobody’s coming to the rescue.

Well, the risk is always there. We’re in the business of risk management. You can take steps to minimize it. Now, on this trip, there’s no crossing borders without permission. That’s just basic. I’m walking. To walk across an entire country without a visa doesn’t make any sense. My main media partner is National Geographic, and they supply a letter for me, that I’m a fellow and I’m working on this project, and we’d like official permission to do it. If a government says no, then we don’t go in. And it’s not like I’m just going to go walk into a war zone. I think those days are over.

Was being a foreign correspondent for a decade good training?

I think in some ways I’ve been preparing for this since I was 6, and my dad dragged me across that first border. I grew up in Mexican schools. . . . My neighbors were still plowing with mules. I basically had a 19th-century upbringing. It informs the practical nature of this project.

How much can you plan out in advance?

It depends on the human topography. It took a lot of specialty spade work to get Ethiopia to let me walk through their hinterlands. The other practical stuff was pretty easy. It actually simplified things not to have a car, a hotel or plane tickets. You’re living off the economy in ways that foreign correspondents don’t. When I bump into people doing that now, I see how cocooned by money it is. It insulates you from the society you’re covering. The complicated other side of that coin, though, is to walk through the Afar triangle of Ethiopia, a pretty rough neighborhood. It’s a whole other level of concerns.

Like water.

Like water. Like respecting boundaries between people, in this case the Afar and the Issa. There are flash points, and they take potshots at each other. When you’re driving through, you don't even notice this. But when you’re leading a camel in the distance, you could be anyone.

How did you arrive at seven years for the trip?

Mainly it was a mathematical calculation by how much I could do in a year. The formula is that I walk half a year, and six months of year — spread out, two weeks here, a few days there — I’m not walking. It’s stopping in places and getting to know the people and reporting. That’s about as fast as I can go.

Any home leave?

The original conception was to make it a journey in the classical sense. You left for a long journey, like a 19th-century whaler out of New Bedford, [Mass.,] or a medieval trader leaving Venice, you didn’t come back until the end, obviously. The idea is to have my family come visit me en route. But if there’s a family emergency or if I really miss my family, I reserve the right to go back.

Who comes to see you?

My brothers and sisters are coming to visit. My wife is already here.

No kids?

No.

Travel like this is all about changing plans. What are the big ones so far?

My original idea was to walk up the African coast [of the Red Sea] . . . but Sudan and Eritrea did not issue visas. So I had to get on a boat and go to the other side, into Saudi Arabia.

When you’re walking, what’s in the backpack?

So far it’s been pretty minimal. A change of clothes, batteries and cables and laptop and phone and so on. The first 10 months have been much more expeditionary than the next 10 months — I don’t have to walk between wells anymore. I mean, you have to plan for that. [Laughs.] Don’t let them tell you the American media isn’t expanding — National Geographic bought its own two camels in Saudi Arabia.

What’s on your feet right now?

Ethiopian sandals.

Those rubber things. How much did they cost?

About two bucks.

Are those your walking shoes?

No, no. These are my camp slippers. I’ve still got my first pair of walking shoes, believe it or not, but the stitching is coming out.

You’re in a hotel at the moment. What’s it like?

It’s a very fancy hotel, it’s by far the fanciest place I’ve stayed, and that’s mainly to do with what I’m doing now — I’m here for the phone lines. And it's been nice to have a hot shower. [Laughs.]

Where are you headed next?

I’m planning the next stage of the walk through Jordan. I’ll likely leave tomorrow.

Life-threatening emergencies so far? Sickness? Guys with guns?

Thank heavens it’s been relatively trouble-free. Amazingly easy, in fact. A joy. Ethi­o­pia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia — I know this is sort of trite, sort of kumbaya-ish — but I’ve really been received with tremendous and humbling generosity by almost everyone.

Neely Tucker is a staff writer in the Sunday Magazine. He has reported from more than 50 countries around the world and from two dozen of these United States.
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