The man who cycled from Morocco to South Africa

The man who cycled from Morocco to South Africa

Some people choose the thrill of urban life, others want the charm of rural life. For Othmane Zolati, the road is his perfect home.

When he started, he had no idea what he was doing, where the journey would take him, or how it would end. With just Sh8,000 ($80) and a small backpack, he left his hometown near Casablanca in Morocco and visited 24 countries, including Kenya, where he spent three months.

His epic African road trip that started in November 2015 and ended in 2018 is now the subject of a new 90-minute documentary titled Africa and I.

In an interview with the Sunday Nation this week, Zolati described how he walked, hitchhiked, cycled and skateboarded over 30,000km through 24 countries, saying he didn’t have another option or an alternative because that was his dream.

“I gave my 100 per cent of focus and energy to realising my dream,” he said.

Othmane Zolati

Othmane Zolati cycling in Kenya during his epic adventure through 24 countries in Africa.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

At 20, and soon after graduating, he had left his home country of Morocco for a nearly four-year journey to Cape Town, South Africa, with a small backpack and a borrowed cheap pocket camera.

His journey would land him in Kenya, where he would soon loose his bearing and get lost in the desert plains of Turkana for five days without food or water as he wandered in the lands somewhere between Ethiopia and Kenya.

“I kept pushing my bike through heavy sand; sometimes I could follow the path, but because of a lack of concentration, I could not tell if I had been there before or not,” he explains.

He eventually found his way out but ended camping in a national park in Turkana by mistake — and almost became dinner for wild animals.

“But for every near-death experience, there were many more moments of marveling at the beauty and diversity of Kenya, not to mention the kindness and generosity of her people,” he says.

Othmane Zolati

Othmane Zolati with friends he met in Kenya.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

“One of the best experiences was staying in a Maasai village for more than a week. It wasn’t long enough to understand everything, but it made me get in touch with the community.”

And he loved it: “I didn’t find a problem with communication since even children in small villages spoke English better than me. People were really friendly and I loved the diversity that Kenya has. Every tribe had its own culture — the Kikuyu, Luo, Turkana, Samburu, Swahili... I went to different tribe’s villages and each one had its own touch.”

He also had the opportunity to visit Nairobi and says that the city has a different kind of energy compared to Rabat.

“Nairobi was on another level of energy after being in the desert for such a long time in Turkana. It took me some time to adapt to being in traffic from the gate of your backyard. But once I survived cycling in Nairobi among the matatus, I knew I could travel around Africa safely without getting hit by a car or a bus. I loved the food.

"My favourite was githeri and the Kenyan pilau. Also, chapati served with eggs, cabbage, and onions was the best quick meal to get on the road.

Othmane Zolati

Othmane Zolati with a friend he met in Kenya.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

“The nightlife as well was really cool. I remember at that moment Tanzanian singer Darassa’s songs were trending in every club I went to. The people I met even taught me the lyrics of some of his music.  But I felt happy when I heard French Montana, the Moroccan rapper, playing in Kenyan clubs. It was unforgettable.”

Along the way he survived three bouts of malaria; tried to escape border police on a skateboard; was stopped in the middle of a no-man’s land by a group of people with guns; and ended up in Zambia with only Sh500 in his pocket.

“I did not get sick in Kenya, but I got malaria twice in Ivory Coast and once in Malawi.”

He also got to spend time with the Hamer people of Ethiopia and the Himba of Namibia.

“The diversity (of cultures) on this continent is unbelievable. In East of Africa, everything was different. It’s just like another continent.

“It’s mind-blowing to be in the same continent but with different cultures, different colours, and different climates.”

Othmane Zolati

Othmane Zolati next to a Manyatta in Kenya. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

On security and if he feared being robbed, he says the first country he felt unsafe in was South Africa, “but wherever you go there’s the bad side and the good one”.

Asked how he managed to travel for four years yet he had left home with only Sh8,000, he says he had to stop in different countries and work for upkeep.

“I worked as a fisherman in Senegal, a mechanic in Mali, shoe salesman in Ivory Coast, a tourist guide in Zanzibar...  name it, I did it.”

Having travelled across almost the entire continent, Zolati had his final visa application rejected four times by South Africa — from four different countries. Immigration officials even told him to return to Morocco and apply from there.

So when he finally reached Cape Agulhas, he says: “I was crying, because this was one of the happiest moments of my life. They told me that you can’t do it. They told me that they are going to eat you. They told me that it is impossible to achieve. But here I am. Looking at my goal. The southernmost tip of Africa.”

‘Africa and I’ is currently streaming on Showmax.