Kazmierz Nowak: One Pole’s Amazing Solo Journey Through Africa & Back
#lifestyle & opinion
default, Kazmierz Nowak:
One Pole’s Amazing Solo
Journey Through Africa & Back, Kazimierz Nowak, photo: National Digital Archives (NAC), center, kazimierz_nowak_afryka_6.jpg
Kazmierz Nowak was a Polish traveller, journalist and photographer who, in the 1930s, journeyed alone through the African continent – twice. This he did on bicycle, foot, horseback, camelback and by boat, avoiding the comfort of cars or trains. Culture.pl reminds us about this unique adventurer, highlighting the keen perspective that characterises his reportages and photographs from present-day Libya all the way to South Africa.
An astounding feat
Sometimes, people with office jobs fantasize about changing their steady work for something more exciting to become, say, a professional traveller. But most people never end up doing that, as convenience and habit ultimately take the upper hand. Yet that wasn’t the case with Poland’s Kazimierz Nowak, who behaved unlike most. When he lost his job as an accountant in the 1920s, Nowak decided to make a living as a reporter travelling by bicycle.
Eventually, his passion for this new line of work led him to accomplish an absolutely astounding feat – he travelled through the entire African continent, twice (from north to south and back up), on bike, foot, horseback, camelback and by boat. This took him five consecutive years (from 1931 to 1936), at a time when there were no services like Google Earth or GPS. The hardships he had to endure would’ve made most turn back, but he persisted.
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An unusual guest
Nowak was born on 11th January 1897 in the village of Stryj, and he attended gymnasium in the nearby city of Lviv. When he was 17 years old, World War I broke out, and he decided to join the Polish Legions – a Polish force created by the Austro-Hungarians. With the Legions, Nowak journeyed to many places and helped carve out Poland’s independence. This episode must have toughened him up and likely developed his taste for travelling. After Poland reappeared on the map in 1918, he stayed with the military, but was decommissioned in 1921.
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Nowak found employment at a bank in Poznań, where he became head accountant. In that city, he met Maria Gorcik, whom he wed in 1922. The couple soon had two children, a daughter named Elżbieta and a son named Romuald. For unknown reasons, Nowak was fired from his job in 1924, which caused the family to move to the village of Boruszyn, where they could live more affordably. But Nowak didn’t look for another office job to support his family. He began travelling by bicycle, publishing articles and photographs from his journeys in newspapers.
His first bike journey lasted from 1925 to 1926 and led through a number of European countries, including Hungary, Austria, Belgium and Greece. He covered a distance of 18 thousand kilometres. The next trip (from 1927 to 1928) also led through Europe, but this time, Nowak visited present-day Libya – the Italian colony of Tripolitania at the time – as well. After he completed that journey, he only took a two-month break before going on the next one, around Poland.
Nowak, who was publishing photos and articles with periodicals like Nowy Kurier or Ilustracja Polska knew that additional publicity would boost his stature as a reporter. That’s why during his bicycle travels, he always visited the offices of local newspapers in order to inform them about his journalistic activities. Here’s an example of the press coverage he received:
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The Wilno Cycling Society has an unusual guest. He’s Mr Kazimierz Nowak from Poznań, a banker, who decided in 1925 to travel around the world on his bike. Mr Nowak has already covered 30,000 kilometres, visiting 23 countries. The traveller is heading out from Wilno to Mołodeczno and will ride along the border to Lviv and further on through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy to Central Africa.
From ‘Kurier Wileński, 21 st July 1928, trans. MK
In 1930, Nowak went on his bike through Czechoslovakia and Germany to France.
Indifferent to pain
Nowak’s European travels were only a prelude to what was to come. He dreamt of travelling through Africa on his faithful, seven-year-old Brennabor bike. He eventually decided to go on that journey, which was to become the biggest and most important of his life. It started on 4th November 1931 – from Poznań, he took a train to Italy, and from there, he went to Tripolitania onboard a ship. His goal was extremely ambitious: He wanted to reach Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the African continent.
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This was more than a personal quest. Nowak had a family to support, and the reportages he wrote and pictures he took along the route would provide the money his loved ones needed. He would send his writings and photographs to Maria, who would publish them in Polish and European newspapers (e.g. Kurier Poznański or Naokoło Świata). Thanks to these reportages, as well as the letters he sent to Maria, we know a great deal about how Nowak fared in Africa.
After the Pole left the Mediterranean coast, his route led through the Sahara Desert to the Oasis of Ghat. At this early stage, it was already apparent that this journey would be much more challenging than anything Nowak had encountered in Europe:
It’s hard to describe the greatness of a cyclist’s effort in the terrain of the Sahara Desert. Indeed, the bike becomes lighter every day, and you take food and water from your provisions, but at the same time, you also lose strength. Fortunately, you lose track of time, becoming indifferent to pain, and your self-preservation instinct works wonders. The days are tough and getting harder. It’s impossible to ride, and I often have to take my bike on my back to get over a sandy dune. The soles of my shoes are worn through; I’m almost barefooted. My clothes are falling apart […]
From the ‘Across the Dark Continent: Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936’ by Kazimierz Nowak, trans. MK
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In January 1932, Nowak reached the Oasis. Local soldiers, however, concluded that the unusual cyclist must be a spy – and so Nowak had to head to Egypt. On 21st June, the Pole crossed the Egyptian border, and by 6th October 1932, he was in Aswan. From there, Nowak headed to Sudan.
‘A farewell dance over a grave’
Because Nowak travelled by bike, he entered remote parts of the African continent, which were certainly passed over by those journeying from the comfort of cars or trains. He was also open-minded and curious about local cultures and customs, at which he looked without the arrogance and condescension typical of many Europeans of the day. In the village of Lul, near Khartoum, in Sudan, he reported about local burial ceremonies (from ‘Across the Dark Continent: Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936’, trans. MK):
[…] a great role is played by the wizard, the master of ceremonies. He decides how to place the deceased in the grave, how to cushion it; he hands out amulets to those gathered and performs a farewell dance over the grave, showing the various deeds the deceased performed during his or her life. […] Even in villages with missionaries, where there’s a Christian burial during the day, the deceased is taken out from the ground, so that the wizard can place posthumous clothes, a hyena’s skin, leopard’s paws and animal bones into the grave.
Through most of his journey, Nowak had very little money – which is why he usually slept in his tent, or sometimes as a guest of missionaries or friendly locals. Since he was travelling through the African wilderness, he was exposed to many dangers. In one of the letters to Maria, he wrote of a night-time encounter with a lion. Attacked by the mighty beast, he had to kill it with the two spears he was carrying:
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I didn’t lose my cool, and in time, I managed to assume a defensive stance. The lion jumped at me and impaled itself on the lance, breaking it with its weight; at the same time, it took another hit to the larynx…
From ‘Listy z Afryki, Tom I’ (Letters from Africa, Vol. I) by Kazmierz Nowak, trans. MK
Suffering, oppression & compassion
In the beginning of 1933, Nowak reached Rwanda, where he encountered and wrote about local ‘Pygmy’ populations. In September 1933, he travelled through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then under Belgian colonial rule, after which he reached today’s Zambia and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia at the time). In that area, he suffered from a severe attack of malaria. Later, he visited the famous Victoria Falls, and in January, he came to South Africa.
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It’s worth noting that Nowak was critical of colonialism:
I see with my mind’s eye the images of truly black Africa, suffering and oppressed – millions of locals who had their lands and old morals stolen from them, entire tribes and races obliterated by murderous civilisation. The neighbourhoods of white people consist of beautiful villas with well-kept gardens and wide roads, which are driven over by cars and shaded by magnificent trees. Nearby are the reservations for the locals, who are condemned to die of hunger. […] Shacks made of rusty gasoline containers, cans and other rubbish. A cluster of rust, dirt, decaying sacks, dumps in ruins.
Quote from ‘Across the Dark Continent: Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936’, trans. MK
On 30th April 1934, Nowak reached his primary destination – Cape Agulhas. When the Union’s British administration learned of his amazing journey, they offered him a first-class trip back to Europe aboard a ship. But the Pole declined the kind offer and decided to return all the way back to the north of Africa on his own. Perhaps he was too distraught with what he had seen to accept such a proposal coming from a colonial power…
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‘A piece of my homeland’
Kazimierz Nowak and his guests on his boat, the 'Maryś' in Port-Francqui, 1933, photo: National Digital Archives (NAC)
Already on 1st May, Nowak started pedalling back north, but along a route different than the one that lead him south. Through Cape Town, he reached today's Namibia – where his sturdy companion, the often-repaired bicycle, finally fell apart. Fortunately, he was aided by Mieczysław Wiśniewski, a Polish farmer living in that country, who gave the traveller a horse.
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On horseback, Nowak rode all the way to Angola, where he encountered another Pole, Count Zamoyski. The plantation owner lent him a bicycle, which Nowak rode to the River Kasai. Next, he travelled by boat on that river and then for hundreds of kilometres on foot, until he reached the town of Luebo in the Belgian Congo. There, he purchased a new boat, which he equipped with a cabin and named the ‘Maryś’, after his wife. In it, on 1st July 1935, he began navigating the Lulua River:
In the morning […] the pier in Luebo became lively with guests, who had come for the ceremonial christening of my boat. I named it the ‘Maryś’. At its stern, for the first time in these parts, the Polish Eagle waved, and the boat became a piece of my homeland to me. […] People looked inside the cabin, which housed a photographic darkroom, a place to store food and my baggage, and in the back, I set up a quite comfortable sleeping room. On deck, there’s also a nifty kitchen, seats, as well as a comfortable armchair […]
From ‘Across the Dark Continent: Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936’, trans. MK
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Nowak travelled in this boat across three rivers to present-day Kinshasa (Leopoldville at the time) in September 1935. From there, he rode on bicycle for about 2,000 kilometres to Lake Chad. Once again, he had reached the Sahara Desert, but this time, he wasn’t going to cross it (entirely) on two wheels. Instead, Nowak formed a mini-caravan with a local drover and travelled on camelback for five months, until he came to the town of Ouargla in Algeria. From there, he rode a bike again, all the way to Algiers – where he arrived in November 1936. After 40,000 kilometres, Nowak’s African journey had finally come to an end.
‘An ordinary stroll’
With the little funds he had left, Nowak bought new clothes and a boat ticket to Marseille. In France, he was able to borrow some money, with which he purchased a train ticket to Poland. On 23rd December, he returned to Poznań – from where he had started out on his journey more than five years before.
After his return, Kazimierz Nowak gained widespread popularity in Poland. He received invitations to give lectures about his African travels at many places, such as the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Here’s what the Gazeta Polska newspaper wrote about a lecture he gave in the town of Kościan in March 1937:
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Listening to the African adventures and experiences of Mr Nowak, seeing the traveller with one’s own eyes – only then one can fully imagine the heroic deeds of this man, who journeyed on his own through often uninhabited and wild areas for more than five years. And still, this man of such great courage and achievement is so pleasant and speaks with such modesty about his adventures, it is as if he had only left… for an ordinary stroll.
From ‘Polska Kazmierza Nowaka’ (Kazmierz Nowak’s Poland), trans. MK
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Unfortunately, Nowak was extremely exhausted by his travels and the recurring attacks of malaria he had suffered. He eventually was put in a hospital, where he contracted pneumonia. He passed away in October 1937.
A man of imagination
Libya. Kazimierz Nowak accompanied by local people looking at his bicycle, 1932, photo: National Digital Archives (NAC)
Soon after Kazimierz Nowak’s death, World War II befell Poland. His amazing travels were soon forgotten. Only one book devoted to his African journey appeared in the 20th century – a 1962 album of his photographs from Africa, titled Przez Czarny Ląd (Across the Dark Continent).
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It was only in the year 2000 that a compilation of Nowak’s African reportages appeared, under the title Across the Dark Continent: Bicycle Diaries from Africa 1931-1936 (originally: Rowerem i Pieszo Przez Czarny Ląd: Listy z Podróży Afrykańskiej z Lat 1931-1936). The book was issued by the Sorus publishing house, thanks to the efforts of Łukasz J. Wierzbicki – an aficionado who heard about Nowak from his own grandfather. The book received much critical praise and started a wave of interest in the interwar traveller; it is also available in a 2017 English translation by Ida Naruszewicz-Rodger.
Eventually, a memorial tablet devoted to Nowak – in the shape of the African continent, with the traveller’s route marked across it – was unveiled at the old Poznań Główny train station. (Unfortunately, due to the opening of a new train station, it isn’t currently accessible.) A ceremony was held on 25th November 2006. There, the writer-reporter Ryszard Kapuściński shared the following words:
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For his feat, Kazimierz Nowak deserves to be mentioned in dictionaries and encyclopaedias alongside such names like Stanley and Livingstone. Nowak was a man of great imagination and courage; he was fearless.
— Trans. MK
Further expanded Polish editions of Across the Dark Continent appeared, as well as compilations of the letters Nowak sent to his wife from Africa. In 2010, the Kazimierz Nowak Foundation was started in Poznań, its mission being to popularize the adventurer’s achievements as well as promote bicycle tourism. The year 2011 saw the publishing of the book Polska Kazmierza Nowaka (Kazimierz Nowak’s Poland), devoted to Nowak’s Polish travels.
From 2009 to 2012, a group of Kazimierz Nowak fans organized a multistage expedition leading along his African route. They journeyed, of course, on bicycles.
Written by Marek Kępa, May 2019
Sources: ‘Rowerem i Pieszo Przez Czarny Ląd: Listy z Podróży Afrykańskiej z Lat 1931-1936’ by Kazimierz Nowak (Sorus, 2011); ‘Listy z Afryki, Tom I’ by Kazimierz Nowak (Sorus, 2015); ‘Wielcy Polscy Podróżnicy Którzy Odkrywali Świat’ by Maria & Przemysław Pilich (Muza, 2016)