And so it was that the last night of my second African chapter was spent in a Cairo dive bar in the company of a Ghanaian/Egyptian IT technician and a Kuwaiti prostitute. Both were off duty, unfortunately for me as I was rather hoping to get a minor bug fixed on my laptop before flying home. Both were also excellent company though, as Gamal explained how it was none other than Colonel Nasser who convinced his racist grandmother to allow her pale-skinned daughter to marry a West African who was darker than the night itself, and Jenny regaled us with sordid tales of the behind-closed-doors sexual fantasies of Gulf State nobility – real freak sheikh speak, if you will. But tonight’s company was no more unusual than most of the people whose paths my own has had the privilege to cross on this trip.

The backpacker, the IT technician and the hooker…

Backpacking for an extended period of time is comparable to flitting between a continuous series of social Venn diagrams, with intersecting lives sharing a common experience for but a fleeting moment. As with most life experiences, you never forget your first, and this trip’s was an unexpected peach. There isn’t a significant amount on paper or papyrus that a nineteen year old medical administration student from northern Germany and an unemployed forty-one year old multicultural mongrel salesman would have in common, but Johannes and I formed a solid Cape Town alliance, cruising the downtown grid by day and frequenting rooftop cocktail bars by night in effortlessly enjoyable company. It was a great sign of what and who was to come.

The very first night of the trip: me, Johannes, and… one of the many that shall forever remain nameless…

From the French army girls based in Djibouti to the South African cannabis smugglers; from Yasir, the Sudanese government official sourcing passport-making materials to Thor, the twenty-one year old Norwegian fitness centre owner, via bipolar Maria and timid Timo: everyone had a life-enriching story to share and a starring supporting role in the film of my voyage. Helen, the English ophthalmologist about to study a rare eye disease in a rural Ethiopian village, made an excellent city exploration and trail running partner in Addis Ababa. And how could I forget Andrea, the crazy Mexican human rights lawyer living in Switzerland, whom I met in a German resort in Namibia and nearly married in Zanzibar?

And then there was Jeff. I have to admit that I had a soft spot for Jeff. Jeff, the Frenchman from Avignon and his trance-like permanent hand-sculpting of his inseparable walking stick. Choosing the only sensible solution to a troubled life situation in which friendship, love and employment complications had all come to a head simultaneously in a spectacular psychological meltdown, he had decided to follow in Jesus’ footsteps – spiritually at least – and disappear into the Ethiopian wilderness for exactly forty days. The candour with which he discussed his evolving state of mind and raw soul-searching, and his burning desire and childlike enthusiasm in embracing all things Ethiopian made him a delight to travel with for six days and provided refreshingly different human interaction from the typical backpacker fare: this was method travelling of the highest order.

Me, Patrick, and Jeff: volcanoes, mountains, and Ethiopian nightclubs

A more than special mention must go out to the wretched souls who actually chose to share their travel time with me for more than the cursory dormitory conversation or random night on the tiles. It remains to be seen how easily a friendship with my two longest-serving travel buddies in Africa (Patrick – 18 days; Alex – 10 days) would be cultivated in our normal everyday social circles, but I would join forces with them on the road again without a second’s hesitation. It was easy, it was fun, and most importantly we travelled well together – at least once Alex and I agreed to close our contentious cricket versus baseball debate. In a solo travel world of ephemeral relationships and frequent solitude, it is a pleasure to occasionally be able to construct a friendship with a little more substance. My Rwandan and Ugandan memories will forever be intricately associated with Alex, as will Ethiopia and Egypt with Patrick, such is the intensity of sharing remarkable experiences with a near complete stranger.

Alex & I in three countries at once, and conquerors of Mount Sabinyo

As I prepare for the third and final round of this African odyssey, I cannot help but smile at the thought of all the unsuspecting travellers quietly going about their backpacking completely unaware that their circle is currently moving inexorably towards mine. Whether the collision takes place in a hostel dormitory, on a bus or at a beach bar is yet to be decided; all that matters is that I can look forward to having some more hookers, ophthalmologists and passport-makers in my life very soon.

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