Before you consider the saga of Kazimierz Nowak, think for just a minute what it would be like to ride the length of Africa today — and not just once, just twice. War zones, unfriendly locals, disease, traversed by a lone white man on a bike. That’s just what Nowak did, but from 1931 to 1936, when Africa was an equally dangerous but far less known and more mysterious place, when there was no safety net and a world on the verge of war cared less about a Polish traveler and photojournalist pedaling 40,000 kilometers.
Born in 1897 in Poland, Nowak had fallen in love with bikes and travel by the time he was in his early 20s, but marriage, children, and a job in insurance constrained his wanderlust. In 1925, though, he did what so many directionless adventurers do: declared himself a journalist and photographer and hit the road, riding across Europe several times and reporting from Hungary, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, Greece, and Turkey. In 1928, he found himself covering war in Northern Africa, and though sickness and lack of funds sent him home, he vowed to return and ride the length of what was still called the “Dark Continent.”
In 1931, he did. Pedaling a seven-year-old bike, he set off south from Tripoli only to be stymied by officials who couldn’t fathom a white man crossing the Sahara by bicycle. Several hundred miles into the journey, he was rebuffed, told to ride back north to the Mediterranean, head east to Egypt, then turn south. Which he did.
Smith rode alone and was happier far from European settlements. He found more comfort with the many and diverse tribes of the central continent — the Tuaregs, Watussi, pygmies, Transvaal Boers, Hottentots, Bushmen, Babinga dwarf people, wild Abasalampasu, Hausa, and others. Occasionally, he’d come across Polish ex-pats, who offered encouragement and a comfortable touch of home, but more often he’d meet rapacious and greedy white men looking for nothing but profit in Africa and he’d pedal away with a feeling of alienation until back in the welcome company of tribes.
In April 1934, he reached land’s end at South Africa’s Cape Agulhas, turned around, and headed home.
The journey north was beset by traveling challenges. In South-Western Africa, in the middle of the desert, his beloved and hard-ridden bike broke into pieces. He acquired a horse named Lynx, got a saddle horse named Wildcat, traded Wildcat for another horse named Cowboy, and rode for 3,000 kilometers. At the edge of the river Kassai, he traded the horses, got a boat named San Francisco, lost the boat in a waterfall, and then walked several hundred miles, got another boat, this one named Mary after his wife, then walked another long stretch. He took five months crossing the Sahara in a camel named Ueli, then rode another 1,000 kilometers Algiers to Uargla by bike.
Nowak had 40,000 kilometers under his belt, but he still wasn’t done. Selling photos and stories to German and Polish newspapers had financed his trip (his sole sponsor gave him bike tires), but he arrived in northern Africa near penniless, with just enough money to buy winter clothes for Europe and a ferry ticket to Marseilles. In France, he peddled photos from Africa, his wife sent money, and his tire sponsor co-signed on a loan to buy the ticket back to Poland.
He arrived inspired to lecture, write, and show his photographs before setting out again on another long journey, this time across Southeast Asia, but it wasn’t to be. Malaria followed him home from Africa, along with periostitis in his left leg. Less than a year after finishing his journey, Kazimierz Nowak died from exhaustion, malaria, and pneumonia. He was 40. A short life, but an unequivocally badass one.