Francis Tapon first caught my attention as he was the first person to yo-yo the Continental Divide Trail. A yo-yo is basically walking the entire length of a trail and then turning round and walking back to the start again. He completed the 5,600 miles in just 201 days, an average of 28 miles a day.
Throw in thru-hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, two hikes across Spain and his outdoor CV is sure to raise an eyebrow or two.
I’d offer a decent argument that Francis is a classic example of a dromomaniac and I’m sure he’s going to be an interesting guy to share some of his experiences.
Now he appears to be turning a wandering eye towards other areas and he’s eager to share his latest adventure with all of you. Francis is currently in Africa driving a snazzy looking Land Rover on a 4 year trip to visit all of its 54 counties. 4 years? Crikey.
He’s also filming this epic journey which is the crux of why I wanted to talk to him. May 25th is Africa Day, the annual commemoration of the 1963 founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). It coincides with Francis launching a Kickstarter project to fund a TV travel series which he claims will be ground breaking and promises to reveal the side of Africa that CNN and National Geographic never show.
An Epic Adventure & Francis needs your help to raise $20,000 – Support his Kickstarter Project HERE !
I’ll come onto that but first there are a few questions begging to whet the appetite and give you, hopefully, some sort of glimpse into this man’s character.
1) Francis, thanks for talking to a fellow dromomaniac. I’ll start with your words;
When I was in the corporate world I just didn’t feel this was me. I would walk down these corridors and I’m thinking is this what life is really all about? So I said – You know what? I really don’t want to do this anymore. I’d rather travel, I also realised I’d like to write.
How hard was it for you to make that decision to leave your job, your career, to lose what presumably in the corporate world was a good income and risk it all for the relatively unknown and why did you make the decision in the first place?
“It wasn’t too hard because I think about my mortality often. I live with urgency because I always feel like my time is running out. I asked myself what I would do with my time if I had $1 billion? Answer: travel. So I said, why the hell am I waiting to amass $1 billion? Why not do it now?”
2) You jumped head long into thru-hiking and are a triple crowner as well as pulling off the first yo-yo of the CDT. You also walked El Camino de Santiago and your website offers plenty of positives, negatives and ‘make your own mind up’ areas on this Spanish experience. I love the trail so we probably have to beg to differ on this one although I agree with you on many points. Summing up the trail, would you recommend it to others or not and briefly, why?
“The article I wrote on El Camino de Santiago is the most popular article about that trail (besides Wikipedia’s), and yet it’s the most misunderstood.
Fortunately, you get it: as you noted, it does indeed offer plenty of positives (10, in fact) along with the negatives (10). So it’s pretty balanced, but most just focus on the negative.
Another misconception is that some people think I want to discourage all from hiking El Camino. No. I’m simply trying to splash some water on the face of those who love hiking in mountains and solitude, and make them realize that that’s not what El Camino is about. It’s about the people you meet. It can be about a spiritual pilgrimage, although I think the pure wilderness is better for such a spiritual quest.
Simply put: I recommend El Camino to everyone EXCEPT those who are hoping for a wild, mountainous trek. For that, go to the Pyrenees.”
3) You say you want to share the unique lessons that this world has to offer. What have you learnt so far?
“Short answer: Most people are good. One journey is worth one library. The earth is stronger than we think. Wisdom lies in the wilderness. Travel is the best university money can buy.”
“Long answer: read Hike Your Own Hike: 7 Life Lessons From Backpacking Across America.”
4) You had an impressive grounding in thru-hiking. Now you’re over in the Africa for four years driving around exploring. Both are nomadic adventures but your bipedal forays appear to be on hold. Why the change and do you intend to pursue any further hiking plans in the future?
“What most people don’t know is that I’ve been quietly climbing the tallest peak of every African country that I visit. So I haven’t hung up my hiking shoes! As long as I can move, hiking will be a big part of my life. It’s hard to function without it. My next long hike (over 1,000 km) will be a walk, north-to-south, across Madagascar. It’s about the size of California.
I also dream of doing the PNT, the Hayduke Trail, and the Darrien Gap. I want to trek across the Himalayas too. Ugh. Too much to do. See what I mean about urgency!”
5) Let’s talk about Africa where you’re currently on, let me get this right, a four year trip. Why Africa and why so long?
“A decade ago, I envisioned it being a 1-year trip. But then I did the math a couple of years ago: 54 African countries / 1 year = 1 week per country. That’s way too little. Most African countries are HUGE. Niger (where I’m now) is 3 times the size of California! One week ain’t enough. So I upped it to 3 weeks per country when I left. But after spending 3 months in Morocco (including a 2-week traverse of the High Altas Mountains), I realized I needed 4 weeks per country. Thus, 4 years.”
6) Explain your desire to reveal a side of Africa that we haven’t seen before and why do you think that this series will be ground breaking and something we haven’t all seen before?
“I’d never been to Africa before this 4-year trip started. All the images I ever saw always fell in one of two categories:
THE GOOD: Safaris, wildlife, tribal dancing, pyramids.
THE BAD: War, famine, disease, chaos.
Meanwhile, the travel media usually covers the same old countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, South Africa, and a couple of others.
I figured there was more to Africa than just that. I was skeptical that most Africans are starving and miserable. I was skeptical that most had to walk a kilometre to fetch water. I doubted that wild animals were everywhere. I wanted to see how “normal” people live. I wanted to climb mountains that are not called Kilimanjaro.”
7) Africa is a unique place with vastly varied landscapes ranging from the Sahara Desert to tropical rainforest and everything in between. It has many cultures, eye opening cuisine, strange traditions and deep history. Despite your extensive travels around the globe so far, has it surprised you and is it what you expected?
“Although I hadn’t been to Africa, I adore examining maps. So I knew the varied topography and ecosystems of Africa before setting foot here. Still, I was surprised by some things. For example, I was somehow surprised by how much rice they eat. Of course it makes sense when you think about the climate that makes rice growing ideal.”
8) It is undoubtedly true that many have a pre-conceived opinion of Africa. As you say, the bad points: war, famine, disease and chaos. Have you found this to be true or is this is something that the media has concentrated on to paint this picture?
“It’s a media image. I often joke: if you tell an African that you’re going to go to Colorado, he’ll get hysterical and yell, No! Don’t go there! They shoot people in schools and theaters! You’ll die!”
“Africa is a peaceful place, just like 99% of the planet. There are just pockets of bad news and they’re easy to avoid. Yes, sometimes bad news comes and finds you, but that’s true anywhere – even in idyllic Yosemite.”
9) Summarise in one line each:
– Your scariest experience out there so far?
“Crossing a creek with my car on a custom built bridge – there was a good chance that it would crash into the creek and destroy everything I own.”
– Most Surprising?
“Baking bread in the Sahara sand – that was totally surprising!”
– The most jaw dropping moment?
“Reaching the summit of Cape Verde’s tallest mountain – it’s a volcano.”
– The food which you really had to summon up some courage to put in your mouth?
“Nothing. I’ll eat anything. I ate snake in Benin. Tasty!”
– The one place that stands out and that you would love to return to?
“Mauritania or Mali. I love the desert.”
10) Is the filming for Africa done on a hand help smartphone or are we looking at something more much professional involving a film crew?
“I have a GoPro camera and a Canon XF300, which is a 3 kg beast. I’ve had help filming, but sometimes I’m solo, especially in the mountains. If my Kickstarter project is successful and I sell the TV series idea, then I’ll probably get a small crew (2-3 folks) to join me.”
11) Having started in Morocco, you’ve been out there for just over a year already so life after this trip, the hopeful fruition of your filming expectations and your book means your future plans are both a long way off and still being tossed around.
Do you have any idea what they entail?
“If the TV series happens, then that will be my first output from this adventure. If it doesn’t happen, that’s no problem. I’ll keep going. What is sure is that around 2018, I hope to have my book out. I have 10-year life plan beyond that.”
12) OK, last question. It’s a big gamble leaving employment to chase dreams, but I think any dream pursued strongly enough has a funny habit of working out for the best.
What would you say, or what advice can you offer to someone who is in the same position as you were, spending their life in a career that they don’t really like?
“They think it’s impossible to make money doing their passion. Reality: you can make money doing ANYTHING. And those in the top of their field can make a decent amount of money. Figure out how to make money and then go for it.”
“Failure is an option. People think, ‘But if I quit this job and fail doing what I love, then I’ll never find another job. Wrong. Industrious people can almost always find a job.”
“Persistence works wonders. When you’re passionate about something, you keep doing it even though nobody’s paying you. Ultimately, such persistence pays off. It’s like a thru-hike. You don’t just take 5 big steps to finish the trail. It’s millions of baby steps. Now take that first one.”