The 23-year-old traveler, film-maker, photographer and blogger Zolati Othmane has hitch-hiked and walked across Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Mali and Côte d’Ivoire. From there he hopped on a bicycle and made his way through Ghana, Togo, and Benin. After facing visa challenges in Nigeria and Chad, he decided to fly to Ethiopia and continue to Djibouti, Somaliland, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. After visiting the island of Zanzibar he skated his way on towards Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Following a brief return to Mozambique, he obtained an entry visa for South Africa (a notorious challenge for a Moroccan).
Now in the kingdom of Swaziland, his next stop will be Cape Town by skateboard. Zolati believes that by using these specific modes of transport he is re-connecting with the natural environment.
At the end of his journey he will tell the story of how he achieved his dream of visiting as many countries as possible by pooling his footage to make a documentary. With this, his hope is to inspire others to chase their wildest dreams and to change perceptions of Africa by showing what is rarely seen – the beauty, diversity, hospitality and humanity.
As a child, I remember watching travel documentaries about African wildlife, cultures and the colourful attire of ethnic tribes. Even though Morocco is part of Africa it seemed to be so far away. Deep in my heart, I was sure that I belonged out there.
He then understood that the only way to experience that was to do it himself.
Once he graduated from college it was time. But he had big dreams and no money. Add to this the expectations of his family: find a job, save money, get married, invest in property… He says of this time, ‘I was fighting to live the life I always wanted to live, no matter how crazy it seemed to my family and friends.
‘You know that because you step on the toes of an official who is just not in the mood, you might risk not getting a visa. So you might think that it all starts bad, but then a series of small events occur, you meet some people and then, all by miracle, you solve the problem, with a cup of improvised Moroccan tea, or by sharing the joke you were told by the guy who let you camp out in his backyard. And only then, do you fully understand this crazy, profoundly human, real and authentic adventure.’
Life on the road
Some people choose the urban life, others the rural life – Zolati chose to live on the road on a continuous journey, living with ethnic tribes who become family until the next destination. ‘I know that choices are mostly influenced by circumstances, just don’t let circumstances limit what you can do or where you can go! Fight for your dreams or die trying.’
On the road he is the only place where Zolati finds stability. He considers the unknown his home, now part and parcel of his daily life. He is trying to go as slow as possible, to unlock the infinite possibilities of human encounters with as many people as he can.
For someone who started such an epic trip with the equivalent of no more than $30 saved from working as a lifeguard in his hometown, it was no easy task. He is not sponsored, but thankfully his resourcefulness never left him empty-handed. In Senegal Zolati worked as a fisherman and a tour guide. In Mali, he was a mechanic, and he sold shoes in Côte d’Ivoire. In his words, he says that ‘life was never boring. I’d work for food, accommodation or a lift. I was feeling totally independent, free and most importantly, happy. No stress, not the slightest notion of time, no plans, no rush, no monotony and no worries about the future. This has miraculously taught me how to live in the moment and be ultimately content.’
Currently, Zolati finances his trips by working as a photographer and film-maker for hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. He is also a social media manager for some private companies and for his own social channels. He still gets help and the hospitality of people he meets on the road, to whom he shows gratitude by offering them gifts from his travels across the continent.
The best part in Zolati’s trip so far has been the amazing encounters with different communities and tribes, whether in the cities, the slums, in remote villages or in the heart of the desert. ‘If I did not cross these countries the way I did, I would have never tried Mauritanian bitter tea, or experienced Senegalese hospitality. I would not have felt alive from the rhythm of the beats of West African music in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire or smelled the petrichor after the first rainfall on dry Malian soil.’
The magic and diversity of people is everything to Zolati: from youngsters in Zambia on their skateboards to the Himba tribe in Namibia, he enjoyed staying in huge African cities and empty spaces alike. Zolati stresses how the African continent is impressively changing to offer the explorer a variety of landscapes, sights and adventures. Whether you are looking for bustling urban scenes of life, or for a wild retreat into the African national parks, or for a cultural discovery in the ancestral sites of local tribes, Africa has it all.
Along the way he’s made genuine, long-lasting human relationships, the kind of connections that you can only make if you travel with an open heart and a tolerant mind. In his mind, the type of encounters drastically change when moving from big cities like Durban to the villages of Namibia, or when he spends weeks with skateboarders in Gaborone, Botswana, or when he decides to completely go off grid and take a retreat in the sacred mountains of Zimbabwe.
Zolati describes the magic of travel through the African continent and living with its people. To Zolati, each and every African country is unique, for there is always something that will blow your mind: black magic in Benin; the generosity of Djibouti; the striking diversity in Ethiopia; the peace in Somaliland; the amazing wildlife in Tanzania and Kenya; the breathtaking landscapes of Malawi, Uganda and Rwanda; the extrovert nature of Zimbabwean people; the tranquility of Botswana and Namibia – the list goes on.
A changing Africa
The wilderness of the Ethiopian desert strengthened his adversity and resilience, while the generosity of the Oromo people, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Ethiopia, occupying the fields brought him back to life after he spent almost a week without water or food, lost in the middle of nowhere. When asked about the kind of people he meets along the way, Zolati says all kinds! He would work all day alongside fishermen in Senegal until sunset, then gather around a meal or share a drink; he would be offered shelter by a Tanzanian family and take the photos of the entire tribe the next morning, to show gratitude but also to document his adventure; he would get his bike fixed at a local mechanic shop in Côte d’Ivoire in exchange for manual work. People would help, share food, host him and guide him in the right direction towards the next city.
In this respect, Zolati is amazed at how Africa is changing: big cities are emerging, becoming attractive hubs for creative developers, designers, entrepreneurs who are changing lives of millions of Africans, as is the case in Nairobi, Durban or Abidjan.
While this is a fact today, bad things still can happen, especially in the slums, for example being chased by a thief in Abidjan. But, Africa is such an immense and great continent to travel through that the pros outnumber the cons for any adventure seeker. When comparing the atmospheres in different places, Zolati says that there were times when he felt lonely but once he got to places like Durban or Abidjan where the air was filled with music, he felt alive again. He was dying for some tea to remind him of home, and luckily he found it in Mauritania, but in Ethiopia for instance, coffeeholic locals made him discover the joys of buna (coffee in Amharic).
What the trip means for Zolati
If I were to repeat this trip again across Africa, I would definitely do it but not the same way. I failed to enter some countries for various reasons, mainly due to difficult visa applications and political instability.
When pressed for more, Zolati says: ‘Like many other people in the world, I used to have the same stereotypical image of my continent, thanks to what is conveyed on social media and local and international news outlets. But once I decided that this is my continent and I need to see it and visit it, this image started to fade away to be replaced by amazing stories of hope, of economic solidarity among communities I met along the way, innovation, uniqueness and simplistic beauty.’
During this journey, people invited him to sleep and eat under their roofs, offered him rides and called him a son or a brother. Zolati says that he received so much kindness, acceptance and love from people he did not know. He was humbled and his faith restored in the goodness of human beings. At the same time, he felt sad about what is being conveyed about Africa as an extremely negative and biased narrative from people who have probably never stepped on the continent or lived with its people.
Telling the story of Africa
Zolati was inspired to tell the other story of Africa, the one he came to experience, cherish and love. Now that he has reached South Africa, he remembers all the good and not so great things he had to go through.
People often ask what is the worst thing that happened to him: he once got lost in the desert for five days without food or water, in a difficult area between Ethiopia and Kenya. He kept pushing his bike through heavy sand; sometimes he could follow the path, but because of a lack of concentration, he could not tell if he had been there before or not. Five days later, Zolati remembers, he had lost 7kg (15lbs).
He also mistakenly slept in a national park full of wild animals close to where he put his tent, and he once spent 24 hours in jail because he did not have his passport on him, ending up in the police station in Malawi because he crossed illegally due to not having the $100 fee for the visa. There was another time when he contracted malaria – three times in a row – but this still did not stop him from appreciating all the beautiful things Africa has to offer. ‘There were no cannibals along the way, sometimes the wild animals avoided me and my tent, and left me alone,’ he recalls.
His journey is so full of many funny stories that he would need days to tell them all. The impossible does not really exist in his vocabulary. In these three years, he has learned to trust himself and his instincts, and know that nothing can stop him from reaching his goals.
Regarding future travel plans, Zolati says that he ‘still has a hell of a journey ahead of him on his skateboard’. He prefers not to reveal them right now, because he still has a lot of planning to do, but what he assures us is that his next adventure will be radically different from the African dream trip.
‘Africa has given me so much and continues to be generous with me. I have grown up in this journey (literally), I was only 20 years old when I started. I’m now 23. In these three years, I have learned things about life and people that I have never learned in my 20 years of life. There is me before Africa and me after Africa.’
Follow Zolati for more updates on his travel plans and adventures.