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The long commute from Tokyo to Cape Town

South African expat Albert Retief had four years of savings from English teaching under his belt and a keenness for travel when he settled on a plan to travel overland from Tokyo to his home in Cape Town.

“I wanted to experience ‘the real world’ that marches at you head on, and where you realize how small you really are,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of going on a big mission like this and decided to put all my chips on the table and go.”

Retief embarked on the mission last year, using only public transport for the duration of the journey. It took him through 20 countries and nearly a year of overland travel.

A child is handed between a small boat and the MV Liemba, which takes passengers across Lake Tanganyika between Tanzania and Zambia.(Albert Reteief)
A child is handed between a small boat and the MV Liemba, which takes passengers across Lake Tanganyika between Tanzania and Zambia.(Albert Reteief)

He was inspired by travel writer Paul Theroux’s work and a desire to further his own efforts in photography.

“I love travel and photography and this combination is what keeps me motivated. I have read a few of Paul Theroux’s books, but I always wanted to see it visually. I thought to myself why can’t I be that guy who goes out there with no fixed plans and captures images from the world as I move from one destination to the next?” he said.

Funding the trip through his years of teaching, predominantly in South Korea, Retief flew to Japan to begin his journey.

He chose Tokyo as the starting point due to its symbolism as the land of the rising sun and an idea that he would travel from the eastern tip of the world to the southern tip of Africa.

Reliance on public transport meant that he could keep his expenses low, and gain access to local people, valuable both for forging friendships and capturing photographs.

“I was invited to two weddings -- one in Kazakhstan and another in Sudan. I camped with Iranian hippies in the desert, met people on the street and got invited to stay at their homes. I celebrated Eid with a Sudanese family, Lunar New Year with a Korean family and by Christmas I had made it home. … I went out to document the movement of people as I traveled with them and looked at the relationship us humans have with each other, family, neighbors, the state and religion.”

As his adventure progressed, his means of getting around became increasingly creative. Beginning with trains through Japan, Korea, China and Kazakhstan, and ferries to get him across bodies of water including the Yellow Sea, the Mediterranean and Lake Tanganyika, Retief also made use of many smaller scale modes of transport.

In Egypt, he opted to traverse the country by camel, and in Iran, Uganda and Rwanda, he caught pillion rides on motorbikes. Traveling down the length of Africa, he made use of local buses, minibuses and trucks.

From Malawi to South Africa, the final leg of the journey, Retief hitchhiked.

His adventure was not without its pitfalls. Carrying so much camera gear in remote locations, he was accused of being a spy in China, Israel, Egypt and Sudan. He also fell sick several times, ending up in hospital in Turkey from dehydration.

Over the course of the trip through varied landscapes and cultures, it was the universal things that Retief came to appreciate most of all.

“Most people around the world are also curious and … welcoming, generous and hospitable -- regardless of their race, faith, tradition or culture. We share way more commonalities than differences. … I can confirm that the world is not as dangerous as people would like you to think.”

By Louisa Studman, Intern reporter (