Nearly four years ago, on 1 January 2018, Youssef SahSah started cycling. He left the country of his birth, Morocco, and rode down Africa’s western flank. Sometime in the future, he will return along its shores, although he isn’t too sure when that will be. ‘I set off without any sponsors,’ Youssef says. ‘What I had with me was my bicycle, my clothes, my food, my repair kits, my tent, my electronic equipment. In fact, everything I would need for my journey, I worked and saved for myself, including the bit of cash I had.’
Born in the Sahara Desert in Morocco, Youssef took nearly three years to reach South Africa. He battled cold, heat, rain, mud, slashed tires, a broken bicycle, yellow fever, malaria and a two-week illness due to expired antibiotics.
Youssef has called his trip Africa Dream. ‘It started years ago when I was still a student, with the big idea of cycling solo around my home continent. I wanted to discover, explore and experience Africa in her finest form. I wanted to meet her people, learn about their cultures and traditions, live with them, eat with them, talk to them. While preparing for my journey, I encountered many people in Morocco, including friends and family, who laughed at my plans and thought it impossible to achieve. I was the only one who believed in myself and that I could make my dream a reality. This made me even more determined to follow my dream and never give up, no matter what.’
Due to Covid, Youssef’s stay in South Africa stretched to eighteen months. He spent that time in Johannesburg, working as a graphic artist and general assistant in return for accommodation. He kicked off the second part of his journey in April. ‘For this part of my journey, I was in a better position than before, using my hard-learned lessons to equip myself in the best possible way with what I will need and eliminate what I won’t need.
‘During the last week of my journey through Botswana, I turned 30 years of age, my fourth birthday away from home. After Botswana I explored the beauty of Zambia, the tiny Kingdom of Eswatini and am currently cycling my way up Mozambique, towards Malawi, my next destination on my Africa Dream journey. I have in addition started vlogging on my return journey to give my followers a better and more intimate understanding and insight into my daily life on the road.’
What motivates you to keep going?
Before I started my journey, I had a wishlist of things in Africa I wanted to explore, experience and see for myself. This motivates me to wake up every day to follow my dreams, no matter what challenges I might experience. My biggest dream is to successfully conquer and complete the journey, but inside of Africa Dream I have many smaller dreams.
What is the purpose of your journey?
The first goal of my journey was about me, to find myself in Africa. To learn, to grow as a person, to challenge and conquer myself. While still in Morocco, I watched a lot of documentaries about Africa, which inspired me to experience the same. I wanted to showcase the true Africa as a wonderful and exotic continent, but through my eyes and through the lens of my camera. I think it’s important to venture off the beaten track and present different views and perceptions of Africa through the man on the street.
What have been the scariest moments?
When I was in Niger, I unknowingly drank expired antibiotics to heal a cut. This affected my liver, resulting in a yellowed complexion and eyes. For 15 days I couldn’t move and was taken care of by the local community, while sleeping. I wasn’t scared of dying; that for me is a normal and eventual thing to happen, but I didn’t want to die then because I still wanted the opportunity to live out my dream. Once I opened my eyes during the night, for some strange reason, I felt very happy. I saw the sky on the roof of my room and I was laughing, because then I knew it would be ok to die while living my dream, and I didn’t need to die with my loved ones beside me. This thought enlightened and empowered me to fight to get better and to make my dreams come true.
What have been the lowlights of your trip?
After it took me nearly three years from Morocco to South Africa, I was preparing again to start my onward journey from South Africa to Cairo. While in the final stages of preparing my bicycle, that brought me faithfully all the way, I woke up one morning at 6am, put my bicycle in the garden and went back to my room to fetch my luggage. When I came outside, I found my bicycle stolen. This was very hard for me, because my bicycle was a big part of my journey from Morocco to South Africa. Afterwards, this turned into something good. Due to Covid-19, I was forced to stay in Johannesburg for another year. That year eventually turned out to be great and South Africa was the best place I could have stayed during my journey. I learned a lot, I developed my English-speaking skills, and I became friends with a lot of diverse people.
Where do you normally sleep?
I generally camp out for the night in the wild and sleep in my tent, some place safe. However, I always prefer to sleep in a small village where possible, even with three or four houses only. This provides me with the opportunity to also liaise with the local villagers or community, share and learn about their culture, language, history and heritage whilst sharing traditional meals with them. Through our interactive communications this in turn gives them the opportunity to see another aspect or perception about white people – that all white people don’t have money or live in big houses or have the most important jobs. Sometimes, where possible and being a Muslim, I will sleep in a local Mosque or even a church. I met people along the road who invited me to sleep on their farms, or even game lodges.
Do you plan ahead or just try to see how far you can get every day?
I don’t allow for my journey to have an end date. My journey will end once I reach Cairo in Egypt. I don’t plan ahead too much. When I enter each country, I know how long my visa for that country is. It might be one, two or a priceless three months. I research destinations to keep in mind in each country, some things to explore and see. In general, every day I wake up, pack my bags, get my bicycle ready, break up camp and prepare breakfast. When finished, I pack up my last things and start my cycling day. I am not in any race to cycle or reach a certain number of kilometres every day. I like to cycle slow. I stop and take photos for my future documentary and book, stop to vlog or to fly my drone to capture exotic footage. Mostly I meet people every day who invite me for lunch. I also meet people on the road who stop me to talk about my journey. This is a normal cycling day, so I relax and don’t go fast. By the end of the day, I always manage between 80 and 130 kilometres.
What have the people been like that you’ve met?
I’ve met rich as well as poor people. But overall, everyone has been very friendly, kind and generous. Both rich or poor people help me with what they have. Some people see me as their son and also people are intrigued by what I do. Everyone, through his or her own capabilities, tries to help me with something – food, a place to sleep, even offer a small job for a few days to earn a little money. I fully know that for me to succeed in my Africa Dream journey, I can’t only rely on myself, but also on the local communities and the people I meet on the road. With the help and assistance of these wonderful people, I can do a lot. My best friend in South Africa taught me the word ‘Ubuntu’, meaning I am because you are. If we help each other, we all achieve a lot. I can honestly say that there was only one incident where my life was threatened, when I encountered some youths with knives. I stood my ground, which seemed to scare them, and they eventually ran off.
Any advice for people wanting to do something similar?
Never let anyone tell you that anything is impossible. Believe in yourself first, and after that you can show them the outcome of what you have accomplished. In the end, it’s all about showing yourself what you’re capable of.
How do you fund your journey?
My journey is not about money, it’s about courage. There’s a lot of people with money but they can do nothing with it because they are too scared to lose that money. At the beginning of my journey, no one was prepared to fund me as no one believed that I could actually do it. I worked hard, bought everything I thought I would need with my own money (mostly second hand) and managed to save $1,000 to start my journey with. My goal was clear – I would, where possible, do odd jobs on the road to support myself. From the start I found that I received a lot of support from all people and communities in the form of a little donation of money, food, shelter for the night, even some equipment. It’s not about money, as long as there’s good people we can find everywhere in life, we will have their goodwill and can survive with very little money. When I have a challenge and my bike that needs fixing, I approach a bicycle shop and normally that owner will gladly assist me for free. On the road, during my journey, I formed formal partnerships with a businessman and a Moroccan tour-guide business, sponsoring me with visa fees, much-needed larger bicycle replacement parts, technical equipment and other items for me to be successful on my journey. My sponsors believe in what I do and they know that once my journey is over, together we’ll have equal success in collaborating on future projects together.
What are your future plans?
Dreams are hard to achieve, but dreams also bring a lot of new opportunities. One of my immediate future plans is to conquer the inhospitable, vast desert plains of the Danakil Depression, around 125m below sea level and one of the hottest places on earth, deep into the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. Within these desert plains lies the almost-unreachable ‘gateway to hell’ or ‘smoking mountain’ Erta Ale. The volcano, with its two active lava lakes is one of the most unique sites on earth. When I reach this point in my journey it would be a dream come true and would proudly make me the first Moroccan to ever stand on the edge of the Erta Ale volcano.
If you would like to sponsor, donate or partner with Youssef on his Africa Dream journey, then please get in touch on his website. He would appreciate any kind of support to help complete his epic ride.