Amazing Nomads: Francis Tapon – Pushing Boundaries

Francis Tapon traveled to all 54 African countries, picking up hitchhikers as he went, from locals to police and military men, capturing great stories and creating memories.

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Amazing Nomads: Francis Tapon

In 2013, Francis Tapon set off to explore all 54 African countries, aiming to climb the highest mountain in each. After five years, 10,000 mi (16,000km), and a wedding at Victoria Falls, he achieved his aim but not without hurdles.

What’s in the episode

00:36 Francis' achievements

01:06 His list of goals

02:40 Escorted in Darfur

04:33 Getting married

06:43 How Francis got around in Africa

07:45 Picking up hitchhikers 

09:40 The benefits of picking up locals

10:40 Challenging your comfort zone

13:18 What's next for Francis

17:03 Ransom and kidnapping insurance

19:30 Disclaimer


Quotes from the episode

“And my favorite story was in Sierra Leone. There were four guys and they all had machetes and I actually invited them into the car.”

“I tried to get kidnapping and ransom insurance, and everybody was turning me down.”

“…whatever your limit is, I just encourage people to just stretch it, push it, because that's usually when the best stories happen.”

Who is in the episode

Francis Tapon is an author, public speaker and global adventurer.

He has walked across America four times, hiked the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, and in 2007, became the first to do a round-trip on the Continental Divide Trail. Francis has hiked Morocco's High Atlas Mountains, South Africa's Drakensberg Traverse, and the length of Madagascar. He has also climbed the tallest mountain in 50 of the 54 African countries. 

Resources and links

Learn how to capture meaningful travel stories and go on global scholarship assignments for World Nomads.

If in doubt take a look at the countries World Nomads Insurance covers.

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Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

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Phil: Question. How many countries are there in Africa and how long would it take to visit them all? Keep listening.

Speaker 2: The War Nomads Podcast bonus episode. Hear amazing nomads sharing their knowledge, stories, and experience of world travel.

Kim: Thanks for choosing this episode of the World Nomads Podcast. Kim and Phil with you and our Amazing Nomads episode featuring Francis Tapon, who has visited every country in Africa among other efforts, significant efforts, actually, and was recommended to us by Ellen who listens to the podcast.

Phil: Our amazing nomads or people who exhibit discovery, connection, transformation, fear, and love through travel. And Francis ticks all of those off. He's walked across America four times, hiked the Appalachian Trail, which is no mean feat on its own, and the Pacific Crest Trail. And in 2007, he became the first person known to do a round trip of the Continental Divide Trail.

Kim: He continually pushes the boundaries, Phil, and we'll share why in this episode, and he also fell in love and married when he was in Africa a couple of years ago.

Phil: It wasn't one of his goals though. What was, honestly, Kim?

Kim: To visit every country in Africa, to film it, and make a doco and TV show about it, write a book about Africa's unseen sides, and get a tan.

Francis Tapon: Yes.

Kim: Did you achieve them all?

Francis Tapon: That was very important.

Kim: Well, you look like a tanned chap anyway. It wouldn't have taken a lot.

Francis Tapon: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, I absolutely have worked on that ten and I've got it, and I'm very proud of it. Actually, there's one of the thing, is that I did want to attempt to climb the tallest mountain of all 54 African countries. And I managed to do it, 50 of the 54 countries. Four of them, I was not able to get to the tallest mountain.

Phil: Okay, so which ones could you not?

Francis Tapon: I could not get to, two of them are regarding Eritrea. So, Eritrea's own mountain and Djibouti's mountain, which the tallest mountain in Djibouti is called Mousa Ali and it's the peak actually shared by three countries. So, if you stand on the top of Mousa Ali, you are in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti all at once.

Phil: And that's not going to get you into trouble.

Francis Tapon: Exactly. And then Eritrea doesn't like either of those countries, and it's kind of like the North Korea of Africa. And so, now things have kind of mellowed out in 2019 or so, but when I was there in 2017 it was not good. So, that was one of them. The other one was Sudan. Tallest mountain is right in the middle of Darfur. I went to West Darfur, Central Darfur, East, West, all over Darfur, and I was escorted at one point. Guess how many people were escorting me?

Kim: 12?

Francis Tapon: More.

Kim: Oh, I love a game of higher or lower. 30?

Francis Tapon: 50.

Phil: No?

Francis Tapon: 50 military men for my wife and I, and that's it. And they were covering. We had rocket launchers, everything, we were just going across. And the thing about this you don't know, is it's overkill or not, right?

Phil: Yeah.

Francis Tapon: Because, until somebody attacks you, you think everything is fine.

Phil: It's a funny sort of reverse logic. The more heavily armed people you have around you, the less safe you feel. Hang on, why do we need rocket launches?

Francis Tapon: Exactly, right. So the other two countries were also military problems. One of them is Tunisia and then the last country, I'm blanking out on right now. I guess that's right there. There, I named them, all four.

Phil: Yeah, okay.

Francis Tapon: Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Tunisia.

Kim: Tell you what, your wife must love you because she didn't do the whole trip with you, you actually met her in Cameroon, is that correct? And then she sort of finished the whole leg off with you?

Francis Tapon: Yeah, she did about 31 countries with me out of the 54. Yes, she was quite a trooper and she actually walked across Madagascar.

Kim: But you met her in Cameroon, right?

Francis Tapon: Right.

Kim: Did you have a traditional wedding? Tell it, take us through that.

Francis Tapon: She was an orphan at the age of 14. So, her mom died at 14, her father died when she was 9. And so, she didn't have strong family ties, which is super unusual in Africa. And, as you alluded to, the marriage ceremony is a big deal in Africa. Because she was an orphan and because she didn't have strong family ties, she was unusual in that respect and so we didn't even get married in Cameroon. We got married by Victoria Falls in Zambia.

Phil: As you do.

Kim: That sounds pretty good to me.

Francis Tapon: Actually, we wanted to get married in South Africa, but the South African Embassy said no to her. So, then we said, "Okay, how about Lesotho?" But she couldn't get into Lesotho without getting a transit visa through South Africa, so that didn't work. So then we tried Zimbabwe and they didn't give us the visa either. So, in the end, we did Zambia. And she actually took a bus trying to go all the way to South Africa and she was literally a few meters, just like three or four meters, from entering into South Africa when she was apprehended. And then she was thrown into jail in Zimbabwe for three weeks.

Phil: Why wouldn't they give her visas? Is Cameroon sort of a country that doesn't have good diplomatic relations?

Francis Tapon: Phil, you're touching on a very interesting and depressing point, which is that Africans discriminate against other Africans. I'll give you two examples. Ethiopia. Rejoice was almost crying. I got a two-year visa as an American citizen instantly to get into Ethiopia, no questions asked. She had to beg, borrow, and steal, basically, to get into Ethiopia. I had to beg and beg and beg on her behalf, showing them my marriage license and everything like that. Second example and this is the more horrific one, if you want to hear a bad story. We're sitting in Nairobi, Kenya, we're going to the embassy for Tanzania, and she is spending time at the desk talking about it, and she's getting peppered with questions. Why are you going? And I'm sitting down just a couple of meters away from her, but I'm just not involved. I'm just, "You handle it, you do the application." I just sat back.

Francis Tapon: And, in the end, I was so bored. I was like, "What's taking so long?" So I just stand up and I say, "Hey, how are the things going?" And then the man who had been peppering her questions, asking her, "Why are you going? What's this? Show proof of this, that and the other." He said, "Who's this white guy?" And she said, "That's my husband." "Okay, great. Come get your visa on Tuesday."

Kim: Really? So is this showcased in your documentary? Is this the unseen Africa? Is this what you're talking about?

Francis Tapon: This and many other issues, yeah.

Kim: You did this by foot, didn't you?

Francis Tapon: No, I did not do it all by foot.

Kim: Right.

Francis Tapon: I climbed the tallest mountains and I did walk across Madagascar. I did walk across half of Morocco through the Atlas Mountains, I did all the Atlas Mountain Range. And I did the Drakensberg Traverse in South Africa. That's about 300, 400 kilometers, I think, if I remember correctly. And so I did do these long treks here and there, but Africa is a very big place. It is. You can fit Western Europe just in Algeria.

Phil: Okay.

Francis Tapon: And also there's a lot of parts of Africa that are relatively flat and I like mountains, so I wouldn't want to walk across things. But anyway, I did. So I had a car most of the time and I picked up, guess how many hitchhikers?

Phil: Oh, let's play.

Kim: Yeah, okay.

Phil: Oh, here we go, another game.

Kim: Over the entire 54 countries?

Francis Tapon: 54 countries. I didn't always have a car because some of them are island nations. I think there are seven island nations, so I didn't have a car on those island nations.

Phil: Everything you do, at least one per country, right? So I'm going to say 54.

Kim: I thought too, I was going to go 108.

Phil: Okay.

Francis Tapon: 3000.

Phil: Oh!

Kim: Whoa! And who were the people that were hitchhiking? What stories were you getting?

Francis Tapon: Everyday Africans.

Phil: Yeah.

Francis Tapon: Everyday Africans. Look, in many places, especially where I was trying to go to, there's just no public transportation, or very infrequent. And there's a lot of Africans carrying heavy objects on their heads. Usually their water, food, merchandise, peanuts, whatever it is that they're cultivating. And I just felt bad for them. I was just like, "God, you're going to be going for kilometers with this heavy thing on your head." So I would just stop and say, "Hey, do you need to ride?" "Yeah, great." And my favorite story was in Sierra Leone. There were four guys and they all had machetes and I actually invited them into the car.

Kim: You must have been in an insurance nightmare for all of this.

Francis Tapon: Yeah, it took me a while to get. I tried to get kidnapping and ransom insurance and everybody was turning me down. I finally found some idiot. I mean, some nice person to give me kidnapping and ransom insurance, because then they would ask me, "Where are you going?" And I was listing off the countries, "South Sudan. Somalia. Libya."

Phil: Hang on a minute, though. This so-called idiot, have you made a claim on the insurance?

Francis Tapon: I never tried because, of course, I've never been kidnapped.

Phil: Well, there you go. He's no idiot. He's got your money.

Kim: Yes.

Francis Tapon: Exactly. He's doing quite well, yes.

Kim: What were the guys doing with the machetes?

Francis Tapon: Yeah.

Kim: I'm sensing that they're just farming.

Francis Tapon: Exactly right. That's right. And that's the thing, is that you and I look at machetes as a weapon, but they just see it as an agricultural tool.

Phil: It's a bit like the men with the rocket launches. If you're going to be traveling around, you want the blokes with the machetes in your car.

Kim: Wow. On your side.

Francis Tapon: Yes, you're absolutely right. But Phil, what you're saying is so profound there, because so many instances I benefited from having hitchhikers in my car. So one of the key benefits of having hitchhikers is that you are instantly integrated with the locals and therefore, if you play the odds that most people are not thieves, therefore, if you invite five people in your car, most likely at least four of them are honest people. And so the thief is not going to pull out a machete and try to rob you when he's got four other people who are going to jump on him if he tries to rob you. So I like safety in numbers and I like the fact that the police officers would feel like I was helping out the community.

Francis Tapon: That was my favorite thing. I would often pick up police and military people because they would need to go from one station to another station and they would hitch a ride with me. And then that was the best because then all of a sudden I wouldn't have to pay any bribes anywhere along the way. And it was just great.

Kim: What an experience.

Phil: Traffic moving out of your way.

Kim: Yeah.

Phil: Beautiful.

Francis Tapon: Well, I mean, everybody's got their level of comfort zone, right? And so I think that for some people it's just going to some neighborhood that's nearby them, that they feel uncomfortable already. For other people, it's just going to France to speak a language where they're surrounded by people who don't speak their language. But for other people, they need more. But whatever your limit is, I just encourage people to just stretch it, push it, because that's usually when the best stories happen, that's the best memories, the travel memories. And, inevitably, you will survive and nothing terrible happens and you will then want to then push it a little bit further each time. And it's just, that's what I think makes travel fun, because I think nowadays in the 21st century, it's much harder to find some things that are exotic than it did in previous centuries.

Phil: Yeah.

Francis Tapon: Do you agree?

Phil: Ah, totally.

Kim: Couldn't agree more, yeah.

Francis Tapon: I mean, back in the day, I remember, because my mom is from Chile, my father's French, and going to France, we would see all sorts of things that you could not find in America. And then going to Chile was even more. The Chileans when they to Disneyland or came to America, it was just like their eyes would just go crazy. But now you go to Chile and Santiago, forget it. It just looks like more or less like any town in the United States, any city in the United States. They have all the same stuff. Even wasStarbucks, everything. So that's why I think people need to travel beyond their comfort zone.

Kim: You've been fortunate enough to win a couple of awards. In fact, you were inducted into the California Outdoor Hall of Fame this year. But you don't think it was the glories of backpacking that got you that honor. What did you think it was.

Francis Tapon: I think it's a combination. It's kind of like a lifetime achievement award kind of thing, so they look at your whole resume. So they consider the fact that I had walked across America four times. So I had walked across Spain twice. I'd walked across Madagascar and I also climbed the tallest mountain of these African countries. And they look at that kind of outdoor thing and they're looking for people who kind of inspire people to get outside, and Californians, in this case, and I just happened to be born in California by accident. So the award was given for that reason.

Kim: But you also said that you backpacked for 45 days without a shower, which you think was an impressive point.

Francis Tapon: I do think it's impressive, and that's why I think you decided to make this a call-in show and not to do this face to face.

Kim: Is there anything left for you to achieve? We do often ask people that have been out of their comfort zone, pushed themselves, what is next?

Francis Tapon: Well, West and Central Asia is next. And so that's my big challenge. So that starts in Pakistan probably, Afghanistan, and then all the Stans and then going into the Middle East and seeing Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and Saudi Arabia. And then finishing, after I've got all these Arabic countries, then trying to enter into Israel.

Kim: And he laughs.

Phil: You'd love a good customs [inaudible 00:13:55] challenge, don't you?

Francis Tapon: But I am blessed. I'm blessed because my mom's from Chile and my father's French, I actually have three passports. And so I've played this game many times where I get the stamps that I'm supposed to get on certain passports and I don't show those and I get in with a different passport. So I will save my U.S. passport for Israel, and then I will travel on my Chilean passport as much as I can through those Middle Eastern countries.

Phil: And that one works pretty well there. It's one of those powerful passports, the Chilean?

Francis Tapon: Not at all, but it's just that in the case that I was to get kidnapped or there's some anti, certainly U.S. haters, but even [inaudible 00:14:36] people who don't like the French because they're part of the EU.

Phil: Yes.

Francis Tapon: So it's a benign passport. It's a non-confrontational passport, non-threatening passport, so. But the downside is that there are no embassies, I don't think, in many of these countries but the Chilean embassies, so [inaudible 00:14:54] and, of course, I would be carrying somewhere on my body. So, in theory, somebody who kidnaps me or whatever would be able to find out that I'm actually also a U.S. Citizen.

Phil: [crosstalk 00:00:15:05].

Francis Tapon: ... none of those guys are listening to this podcast.

Phil: Yeah, that's right. And, of course, the idiot that sold you the insurance would be worried about that too.

Kim: Francis, when you say U.S. haters, you traded on being from the United States when you're in Kenya pulling out the Barack Obama connection.

Francis Tapon: Yes. Yeah, well, I mean, United States citizens are well-loved throughout Africa, except for maybe North Africa. That's where there's some dislike. But the Sub-Saharans absolutely adore, and they don't just adore Americans, I mean, they just adore any foreigners and they're happy to see anybody.

Kim: So how did Barack Obama come up? Did just the fact that you had an American accent?

Francis Tapon: Yeah, I guess so. They associate the United States with Barack Obama and they're very proud of him, so.

Kim: She's going to be disappointed now.

Phil: [inaudible 00:15:56].

Kim: All right, when can we expect to see the doco? When can we expect to be able to read the book? Is it all a big thumbs up?

Francis Tapon: Sometime in the middle of 2020 I hope that the book will come out and the documentary will come out. And, so then after that, after the book comes out, I do a little promo and then I want to go to Western and Central Asia and then after that, East Asia, so that would be India and all the East Asia. And so my life will get easier and easier as far as travel is concerned because then the final I'll be leading is Oceania where you're just jumping from wonderful tropical island to the next tropical island.

Phil: Will you come and visit us here in Sydney at World Nomads Headquarters when you do that?

Francis Tapon: Yes, of course.

Phil: I would love that.

Francis Tapon: I would actually love to, yes.

Kim: We would love that, Francis. I am certain that you would have many stories to tell, and if you've beaten Francis by not showering for more than 45 days while traveling, let us know by emailing podcast at worldnomads.com. A good way to contact us too for suggestions on people to interview, just like Ellen did. Now Phil, put your insurance cap on as we touch on a few things that Francis said.

Phil: Okay.

Kim: Why is it hard to get kidnapping insurance?

Phil: Well, it's not if you ask the right people. It's not hard to get, it's not impossible to get. There's quite a number of kidnap and ransom providers out there. That's the type of insurance that you're looking for. But it's really expensive because it's impossible to assess the size of the financial risk to the insurer. Are the kidnappers going to ask for a million bucks or 100 million bucks? Also, knowing there's actually insurance for kidnapping may actually encourage people to kidnap. So that's another reason. And travel insurance is that travel insurance for things related to travel, and given the above financial risk, how does a travel insurance company decide how much extra premium to add to all the other policies it sells to cover a potential ransom of one or two people?

Phil: And is it fair to ask someone going to Paris to pay a couple of dollars extra for the coverage of someone who's going to a dangerous place?

Kim: Yep.

Phil: And frankly, if you're going to a place where there's a chance you're going to be kidnapped, you might be gotten to the wrong place.

Kim: All right, something else.

Phil: Okay.

Kim: Is it okay to use more than one passport when you travel, i.e. Chilean into Iran, U.S. into Israel, on the same trip?

Phil: Yep. I've got two passports. Mine, Australian, and British. They're both part of the British Commonwealth so that might be a reason why I'm allowed to keep both. I know there are some countries which say if you take out citizenship in another country, then you have to renounce one or the other of them.

Kim: Yes.

Phil: So as long as you're traveling lawfully and you're not flouting those regulations, it'd probably be okay.

Kim: Finally, what countries are not covered by World Nomads Insurance?

Phil: Ah, anything where there is advice from your government or other governments to do not travel there.

Kim: Okay.

Phil: There are about 13 whole countries which are on that do not travel list. They're mostly in Central and Western Africa. And there are certain places within countries as well where there are do not travel warnings as well. So not the entire country, but parts of it. And if you're traveling to those then we can't cover you for anything that may happen if you travel against the advice of your government, which is why it's always a good idea to check your government's travel advice before you're going anywhere and make sure you're not going into the wrong spot. And the other thing, of course, is it is imperative that you listen to this.

Speaker 5: The information they provide about travel insurance is a brief summary only. It does not take into account your personal needs and does not include all germs, conditions, limitations, exclusions, and termination provisions of the travel insurance plans described. Coverage may not be available for residents of all countries, states, or provinces. Please carefully read the policy of origin available at worldnomads.com for a full description of coverage.

Kim: I love it. Thanks for listening. We're off to prepare our next episode. We'll see you then.

Phil: Bye.

Speaker 2: Amazing nomads. Be inspired.

 

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