Incredible story of journalist who cycled across Africa to document life under colonialism
From 1931 to 1936 Polish explorer, reporter and photographer completed an extraordinary journey across Africa – from Tripoli in Libya to the continent's southernmost point and then back to Algeria.
Kazimierz Nowak travelled over 40,000 km on bike, foot, camel, horseback, and boat, leaving behind thousands of photographs and an astonishing testimony to Africa under colonial rule.
Nowak began his historic journey across the Dark Continent in November 1931 with a head full of grand ideas about the greatness of African colonies, taken came from reading books and accounts of European scientists, soldiers, hunters, different officials, and travellers.
However, his personal situation was quite different. For years, Nowak rode across Europe on his bike, working as a correspondent in Hungary, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, Greece, and Turkey.
All the while struggling to make a living and support his family. In 1927, he found himself in Africa for the first time – working in war-torn Tripolitania – now Libya.
In his letters, Nowak described the onset of his expedition: “Such a journey is of course very expensive, so not having any money I decided to ride my bike.
“All my capital consisted of a dozen or so zlotys, a pen, a camera, a bicycle, and a lot of strong will. I knew that my endeavour was not so much bold as it was crazy. But the desire to get to know Africa was too great for me to resist it.”
Taking the route from Italy to Libya and then through Egypt, Sudan, Belgian Congo (now part of DR Congo), Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) to South Africa Nowak reached Cape Agulhas – the southernmost point of the African continent.
The explorer travelled off the beaten track, choosing roads rarely taken by Europeans and as such far removed from the picture colonial powers wanted to paint. Nowak wrote: “I used to take mostly the least frequented and the wildest routes. My route ran through completely roadless countries, through emptiness and uninhabited lands.”
“The correspondent remarked, that there were two Africas – one rich, enchanting and for show, and the other not available to most foreigners. One you could only discover risking disease, dirt, and hunger.
Reflecting on this dualism, Nowak wrote: “As I delved deeper into the continent, I discovered a different Africa every day. Poor and sick, grey, black, dirty, without borders.
“I was discovering a sad truth and the expression that once aroused envy and pride in the peoples of Europe gave rise in my soul to a justified revulsion of the word - colony.”
The Polish explorer, once filled with awe and envy towards European colonial powers quickly became disenchanted with their actions. Nowak became a staunch anti-colonialist.
During his expedition, possibly the first solo crossing of Africa from north to south and then back, he was often dependant on the goodwill of local people, who would support him with shelter, food, or take care of him when he fell ill.
In May 1934, after reaching South Africa, Nowak turned back and journey through South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Belgian Congo, French Equatorial Africa (now Chad, Congo and Central African Republic), French Western Africa (parts of today’s Nigeria and Niger) to Algeria and the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The entire journey took exactly five years and four weeks.
Along the way, he met and stayed with Tuareg people, Egyptian fellahs, the Shilluk living in the marshes of Nile, the proud people of the Watussi, the Pygmy, the Boers of Transvaal, the Khoekhoe from Southern Africa, the Bushmen, the Baka people, only 1.5 meters tall, the Haussa tribes and many other inhabitants of the continent, whose pictures he brought back to Europe.
Nowak was born in Stryj near Lwów in 1897. He completed his first solo journey at only 15-years old – to the Vatican. After World War I, he moved to Poznań, where he worked as a journalist. Together with his wife Maria, to whom many of his published letters from the African journey were addressed, he had two children – Elżbieta and Romuald.
The traveller and journalist died only a year after his return from Africa in 1937. Although the direct cause was pneumonia, his health was already in bad condition, due to malaria, exhaustion, and harsh conditions he suffered during his expedition.
What he left behind, is an exceptional record of African life in the thirties, thanks to over 10,000 photographs and Nowak’s descriptions of his adventures, people, and nature he encountered.
The traveller’s photographs, letters, and journals were later on published in several books, one of which was translated into English – ‘Across The Dark Continent. Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936’.
This article was first published in July 2020.