‘I’d do the whole thing again’

When people dream of holidays in Africa, their thoughts are often of wildlife safaris. Kruger National Park, the Maasai Mara, the Serengeti, the Ngorongoro Crater and others rank high on many travellers’ bucket lists. But when you’ve set yourself the challenge to run the entire length of Africa, there’s no time, energy, or finances for safaris. That’s something that Russ Cook, 27, and his team found out when they set out to travel by foot across 16 different countries, from the continent’s southern coast to its northern tip.

Instead of leopards and lions, what Cook and his crew experienced was the beauty of the people of Africa. Over 352 days, Cook’s mission, dubbed Project Africa, took him through many destinations that aren’t big hitters on the mainstream tourism trail – from Cameroon and the Ivory Coast to Senegal and Mauritania.

And while Cook’s physical endurance was the primary focus of his regular YouTube video updates, his interactions with those he met along the way challenged many prejudices about the continent that are often portrayed in Western media – that many countries are too dangerous and hostile for visitors.

Supported by a team of people, mostly from the UK and Europe, Cook also counted Jarred Karp, a director, cinematographer, and photographer from South Africa, among his crew. Following Cook’s completion of Project Africa, The National got the chance to chat with Karp, who uses the Instagram handle @saint_yared, about the perspective he gained by travelling through the continent alongside the Hardest Geezer.

With Cook running on foot and setting a slower pace to the mission, Karp and the team, who travelled by camper van, had plenty time to fully immerse themselves in local life and culture.

“You’re travelling a maximum of 60 to 80 km a day, so you’re really taking in every little thing,” said Karp.

While mostly a financial and practical choice, travelling and sleeping in the team’s trusty van led them to some unique and unexpected places such as the town in Angola where they stumbled across one of the oldest Catholic churches on African soil. Some of the places they ventured to were so far off the tourist trail that the team were often the only people visiting local restaurants and hotels. When accommodation was scarce, bush camping was on the agenda and even in seemingly isolated spots, locals passing to and from their homes would always stop for a chat, filled with curiosity for this ginger-haired British man and his van full of filming equipment.

The people who own the least, often give the most

Despite this, Karp rarely felt uneasy about the attention.

“The general consensus was intrigue: Why are there white guys with cameras getting out of a van in the middle of Africa? People were always very welcoming, receptive and open. The only protocol we had to follow was of meeting the chief when we arrived in new places.”

This warm reception extended into unbridled hospitality, where locals permitted Cook and the team to park up on their properties or invited the crew into their homes for food and much-needed showers.

Often the people who owned the least gave the most. In the Republic of the Congo, on a dirt track off a logging path, local villagers gave the team four smoked catfish as a welcome gift.

“These catfish were their well-being and income; produce they’d typically sell standing on the side of the road. Yet, they gave the fish to us and refused to take any money,” said Karp.

On one occasion in the Republic of the Congo, the team approached a woman asking where they could buy fufu, a staple food in the country that’s made from cassava root. Instead of pointing them in the right direction, she went and fetched her own bag of fufu grind.

“In the middle of the jungle, with the sounds of monkeys and insects, there she’s sitting, whisking this fufu for us right next to the van in the burning day sun. She wanted nothing in return.”

In Ghana, the team met a man whose story made the biggest impression on Karp.

“He’d travelled in search of a better life, and at one point had been sleeping on the streets. One day, a Muslim man approached him, found out he was homeless, and gave him a job and a place to stay. The man converted to Islam and decided to continue this legacy of giving and helping others.”

When the team pulled up outside his house to ask where they could camp for the night. His answer?

“Here,” said Karp.

“He brought three massive buckets of water so we could shower in his home, where there was only a toilet and a bed.”

While kindness like this almost became the norm throughout the mission, the team had to tackle a few dangerous situations.

Kidnapping and robberies don’t define a nation

In the Congo, Cook was kidnapped by a machete-armed gang and driven into the jungle on the back of a motorbike. Karp recalls that this was the moment the team all realised the true dangers of the mission. And it’s an incident that Cook has yet to speak publicly on.

In Angola, the team were robbed at gunpoint – their cameras, phones, cash and passports stolen. “The cops are on it and trying to get to the bottom of this. Gun crime is not the norm in the area that we were, and they are taking it very seriously,” Karp wrote on Instagram about the incident. But he’s keen to share that these isolated incidents don’t define the people or the places where they happened.

“I want to go back to Benguela, which was the town we got robbed in. I really loved it. I’m considering teaching at a school there that is always looking for first-language English speakers.”

Travelling has taught Karp not to judge a book by its cover, and to be open to anything.

“That’s how you find yourself in situations that give you an opportunity to tell a beautiful story. Even in war zones, people will show you respect and kindness. You can’t judge a whole country on one person.”

With 15 countries behind him, Cook ended Project Africa in Tunisia where Karp, after a break from the mission, supported the team during the final few days.

Even in war zones, people will show you respect and kindness.

Jarred Karp, Project Africa

“Tunisia is a stunning country. The only close comparison is the rolling hills of France. It was the perfect backdrop for the end of the mission – we couldn’t have asked for better views,” he said.

Landscape aside, Karp found the experience in Tunisia “surreal”. There, he was reunited with Cook and the team, and met the hundreds of people who flew out to cheer on and run the last section alongside him.

“These supporters, who really understood the premise of the mission, made us feel special. They proved that the mission hit the right note and reached the right people. Before we even started the videos, we wanted people to feel like they were part of Project Africa. Tunisia made us realise we’d achieved this. Everyone was there to celebrate the same human being, and the same ideology – get up and do something even when you don’t feel up to it.”

Bitten by the Africa bug

Project Africa might be over, but the photographer and filmmaker admits he’d jump at the chance to join Cook on another mission.

“I’d do the whole thing again. I wouldn’t say no. If Cook asked: ‘Hey man, let’s go again’, I’d say ‘cool, when are we leaving?’”

Until that time comes, Karp has embarked on his own mission to better understand his home country.

After Cook crossed the finish line in Tunisia, Karp flew back to the place where Project Africa started – Cape Agulhas, the southern-most tip of Africa, to work on a photobook about the diverse history of the local town.

“I’ve got this thing about exploring where you’re from,” he explained. “It’s special to experience your own country because you develop pride for where you’re from. South Africa is intense, with complex political issues, but step away from that and you meet beautiful people.”

South Africa is only the start. Joining Cook on his mission has inspired Karp to explore the continent further.

“The issue is, I’ve been bitten by the Africa bug,” he laughed. “One of my dreams is to tell African stories.”

He encourages people to look beyond the headlines, the stereotypes and the misconceptions, and instead take time to listen to people’s stories.

“Come and experience Africa. You can have a beautiful experience just by talking to people.”

But where to start with an adventure to Africa?

“The place you buy a ticket to,” answered Karp. “In 2019, Russ ran from Asia to London with a backpack, a can of food, and a second change of clothes. If I have a toothbrush, a wallet and a passport, I can figure out the rest. Where there’s a will there’s a way. If you want to do it, just do it. Stop with the excuses.”

Updated: April 23, 2024, 4:12 AM

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