Back to Gondwanaland

Print edition : September 22, 2006

An expedition starting in Asia and across the length of Africa by road, in an effort to retrace the long-lost land link between the continents.

BORDERS may divide us, but land acts as a connecting factor. Africa, West Asia and the Indian subcontinent have connections that go far beyond boundaries, politics, and history.

Throughout most of geologic time there were only two primordial continents: Laurasia in the north and Gondwanaland in the south, separated by the Sea of Tethys. Gondwanaland consisted of Africa, India, Australia, South America, Antarctica and the Eurasian regions south of the Alpine-Himalayan chain. About 265 million years ago, this continental togetherness began to split. For 200 million years India drifted across the ocean, and finally collided with Asia 65 million years ago. The collision uplifted the Himalayan mountain range. The Indian plate is still going under the Asian plate, causing disastrous earthquakes and tsunamis.

DRIVING PAST MOUNT Ararat in Turkey.-

The Gondwanaland expedition that we embarked on in March 2006 was a scientific and friendship mission. The expedition team had 10 scientists, who were to observe the geological features of the places toured and exchange the knowledge gained with scientists of 26 universities en route. The studies and observations, it was hoped, would provide a better understanding of the evolution of flora, fauna and mankind, and of the movement of tectonic plates, which cause catastrophic natural disasters.

Driving from the top of India to the tip of Africa, the expedition traversed 17 countries of West Asia and Africa - regions affected by political instability, civil wars, terrorism, banditry and famine. Many people advised us not to risk such a venture. But we were undaunted by the strife and tension.

AT PERSEPOLIS, NEAR Shiraz in Iran. The ancient Persian capital was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.-RAJENDRA JAIN

Mahindra and Mahindra loaned the expedition three vehicles. We christened them Ganga, Tigris and Nile - after the three great rivers of India, West Asia and Africa. While these were shipped to southern Iran, we began our journey, in another set of vehicles, from the Jakhoo Temple near Shimla on March 24. We drove to Delhi and took a flight from Delhi to Bandar Abbas in Iran on March 26.

After collecting the expedition vehicles from the Bandar Abbas port, we drove north through the Zagros mountain range towards Shiraz in heavy downpour. All of Iran seemed to be out on the road, celebrating Novroz - the pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian festival - which they have been doing for the past 3,000 years. Iran is comprised of five micro-continents, landmasses that were joined together at different periods, making the region seismically hyperactive. While we were in Shiraz, a 6.1-magnitude quake hit western Iran, killing 66 people. Speeding across the countryside, through the cities of Isfahan, Teheran and Tabriz, we crossed into Turkey. Driving along the 5,137-metre-high Mount Ararat, supposedly the resting place of Noah's Ark, we entered the wondrous snowland of south-eastern Anatolia, north of the border with Iraq. Anatolia is predominantly Kurdish, affected by a violent separatist movement.

AT THE WAILING Wall in Israel during the Passover holidays.-

We climbed higher and higher, along towering walls of ice, on roads wet with melting snow. For two days we drove along the picturesque Lake Van, 3,750 sq km of extremely alkaline water, rimmed with a series of snow-clad extinct volcanoes.

On the way to the Syrian border from Diyarbakir, we joined in the wild merriment of Kurdish weddings - stunningly beautiful women and handsome men yodelling and dancing and firing in the air with assault rifles and pistols, shouting pro-Kurdistan slogans.

ZEBRAS AND WILDEBEESTS in the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.-

Driving through the dry hills of Syria and Jordan, we entered the holy city of Jerusalem. Israel was observing the Passover holidays and all roads led to the Wailing Wall. We also visited the Dome of the Rock, the most revered site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, supposedly the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.

From Jerusalem, the 850-km drive to Cairo in Egypt was completed in a day. We drove along the length of the shrinking Dead Sea until we reached the border at Taba, idyllically located on the Red Sea. Driving through the Sinai Desert and under the Suez Canal, we entered Africa. The heritage hotel we stayed at in Cairo had the Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza as its immediate neighbours. The team scientists made a two-day off-track excursion to the Western Desert to look at fossils of petrified wood, bones of the primitive ape, elephant tooth, crocodile jaw and turtles.

After having our fill of Cairo, we drove south, upstream along the Nile to Minya. On the way we were stopped by the Egyptian police, who insisted on providing us security cover. Later, when we arrived at Luxor, the ancient capital of Upper and Lower Egypt, we heard about the suicide bombings on the Egyptian Red Sea. Thirty people had been killed, many of them tourists. In Luxor, we visited the 5,000-year-old Karnak temple, built by the Pharaohs, and marvelled at the grandeur of its architecture. Egypt's $ 8-billion tourism industry is powered by pharaonic architecture. At the Valley of Kings, we visited the burial chambers of Ramses I, Ramses IV, Ramses IX and Tutankhamen.

A SUNDAY WEDDING at Gondar Fort, Ethiopia.-

At Aswan in southern Egypt, we were told that there was no land route into Sudan. We would have to take the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser to reach Wadi Halfa on the Sudanese side in two days' time. However, there was a seldom-used border post at Arkine under the control of the Egyptian Army and permission would have to be obtained from Cairo. Many strings had to be pulled - and in the end, after a one-day delay, we got the permission.

The road ended at the barbed-wired border. On the other side was a vast sea of sand - the lifeless, treeless Nubian Desert. As our vehicles prepared to roll into Sudan, an Egyptian official said: "This is the first time any foreigner has been allowed to cross the border from here and that too in their own vehicles. You have made history."

Escorted by a Sudanese Customs vehicle, we were led to Argine village, 9 km away, to register with the authorities. Hardly had we gone 500 metres, when two of our vehicles sank in the loose sand. Slowly, we learnt the trick of driving in the Nubian - stay out and away from the deep tracks made by heavy trucks. Stay on the smooth desert surface, which is harder, rather less soft.

THE NOMADIC RENADILLES in northern Kenya.-

We decided not to take the regular route along the Nile to Dongbula, 450 km away, because that was more sandy and difficult. The alternative was to use a route that was 50 km inside the desert but less sandy. The disadvantage was that there was not a village or a soul on the way and we could not get food or help if we got into some trouble. We took the interior route as we had food stocked up. We left at dusk with our hearts in our mouths. Two kilometres into the desert, the vehicles sank thrice in the sand. Clearing the sand, we would heave and ho the vehicles but they kept getting bogged down again. Luckily, a truck driver came to our rescue. I decided to hire him as a guide.

After that, we breezed through the desert like the wind on that dark, moonless night. There were no signposts or landmarks or vegetation to guide the Sudanese driver. At 4 a.m., the sky filled up with stars; we hit the road again, catching the sunrise over the Nubian Desert. In a hurry to scorch the land, the sun shot up the sky in minutes. In full light, the desert looked more forbidding and hostile than in the dark. The sands were littered with the skeletons of dead camels.

By the time we hit the tarred road in the outskirts of Dongbula, it was 5 a.m. We had traversed 450 km of desert in 23 hours.

A tribal girl in Ethiopia.-

From Khartoum, the site of the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile, we followed the Blue Nile, on dirt tracks, to the highlands of Ethiopia. Reaching Bahar Dar on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, we immediately embarked on a painful 35-km drive through a rocky track to see Tis Abay, the Blue Nile Falls. The Nile, 30 km after it exits Lake Tana, plunges over a 45-metre high rock face. The sight is spectacular especially during the rains, when the river is 400 metres wide.

The 450-km journey from Bahar Dar to Lalibela was over agonising dirt tracks. The landscape was spectacular: rolling green meadows and pastures dotted with cattle, thick eucalyptus forests, deep canyons and gorges below and a continuous range of mountains.

The 750-km distance from Lalibela to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was again through amazing mountainscape.

Leaving Addis, we drove into the Great Rift Valley, stopping now and then. On our two-day, 700-km drive to the Kenyan border at Moyale, we saw termite hills, the sprawling Rift Valley lakes hosting countless water birds and beautiful, sharp-featured tribal girls, in their colourful beaded ornaments, herding cattle.

THE GREAT RIFT Valley in Mozambique-

The Kenyan authorities provided us with armed security to see us through the bandit-infested areas that we would be traversing the next two days. The rough and frustrating track was made worse by the rains. After driving 18 hours a day on broken, rippled roads we finally got to our destination. The nomadic Rendilles looked majestic in their beaded jewellery and spears.

Between Isiolo and Nairobi, we crossed the Equator.

From Nairobi, we drove across the Rift Valley and into the celebrated wildlife reserve of Masai Mara through herds of zebras and impalas. A lone tusker blocked our track for a long time and we had to fix a flat tyre behind his swinging back. A little later, around a bend, a lioness sat on the side of the track, keeping a greedy eye on a lone giraffe grazing in the distance.

We crossed into Tanzania at the Isebania border and, driving close to Lake Victoria, entered Serengeti. Giraffes, antelopes, zebras, wildebeests and exotic birds slowed our progress through the wildlife sanctuary.

A MARKET IN Maputo, Mozambique.-

On the way to the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, we drove past two lionesses perched on a high rock along the track. And sure enough, one of the vehicles had a flat tyre. We changed the tyre under the watchful gaze of the beasts. The sun had set by the time we got to the rim of the crater. Muddy ditches, watery troughs, sharply angled tracks and terrifying slopes guarded by wild buffaloes and elephants made the 40-km drive to the Sopa Ngorongoro lodge a hair-raising experience.

The next day, we descended into the crater down a wet, slippery track; herds of zebras, wildebeests, antelopes, and flamingos dotted the crater floor.

CROSSING THE EQUATOR at Nanyuki, Kenya.-

From Ngorongoro Crater we took the track to Singida, from where we would take another three days to reach the Malawi border. At Singida, we were advised not to proceed on the planned route, because of dacoit menace. The police were not willing to provide security either, as three of their men had been slain the previous week. There was no choice but to make a 700-km detour via Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania.

After two laid-back days at Nkhata Bay on the shores of Lake Malawi, we headed south towards Nkhotakota, the largest slave market in the continent for much of the 19th century.

The first 120 km of the narrow, curvaceous highway from Zambia to Harare is through a wildlife reserve. We saw nothing but hornbills and elephant dung. Much of the wildlife is said to have died in the last four years of drought. These days in Zimbabwe there is a shortage of everything but bad news. Inflation is at an amazing 1,041 per cent. Once the breadbasket of Africa, the country now imports food. Its terrible human rights record has put a stop to foreign aid. A trillion Zimbabwean dollars worth of precious timber wealth went up in smoke last year in forest fires. Petrol and diesel are almost unavailable. Yet the people are patient, hopeful of a less ruinous future.

THE EXPEDITION AT Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.-MARK OOSTHUYSEN

Floods had ruined roads in Mozambique and the Chinese were rebuilding them. Off the coast of Inhambane, on the Indian Ocean, I swam with whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, around 10 m in length and 10 tonnes in weight. They were an astounding sight.

After Maputo, the coastal capital of Mozambique, the roads were excellent. Transiting through the hills and sugarcane plantations of Swaziland, we entered South Africa. For five days we drove through the stunningly beautiful landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and Western Cape, clocking en route the expedition's longest drive in a day (the 1,068-km stretch from Durban to Port Elizabeth), until we reached our goal - Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of Africa where the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet - on June 26, bang on schedule. We had come to the end of the 24,800-km journey through difficult terrain and severe conditions in tip-top shape.

Akhil Bakshi is an explorer, author and film-maker. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he is also the Chairman of the Science and Exploration Committee of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Gondwana- land Expedition was the fourth international motoring expedition that he organised and led.