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Travel: Cape To Cairo


Words Paul Donovan, Images Various

There are two great continental highways on the bucket list of many an aspiring traveller. The first is Route 66 across America; the second is Cape to Cairo. As you pass through the various countries, experiencing the differences in culture, people, flora and fauna, as well as the endless queues of bureaucratic officialdom at some border posts, you have plenty of time to ponder life’s thought-provoking questions. One of these is, “Why is this route on which I’m travelling so famous?”

If you happen to be on the road from Cape to Cairo, you might wonder, “Why end at Cairo? Why not, say, carry on to Tunis in Tunisia?” The question then becomes, “Was this road built simply to fill the need to link one country to its neighbour? Or was there some hidden agenda behind this road?”

The road that spans Africa, linking Cape Town to Cairo, also known as the ‘Pan-Africa Highway’ or the ‘Great North Road’, was conceived during the era when British colonialism touched the four corners of the globe, and England was an all powerful nation… unlike the pitiful, sorry country it is today. And I’m allowed to insult it, because it’s my birth country.

Take a look at any geo-political map of the British Empire at the time, and you will see that, in Africa, the British Empire controlled an almost unbroken area from Cape Town to Cairo. (British domains are always identified in red or pink). The only hiccup was a chunk of East Africa called Tanganyika (now Tanzania) which had been colonised by the Germans.

In 1890, the audacious leaders of the Empire at that time came up with a grand scheme to build a road (which they called the “red-line”) that would run the length of Africa, linking Cape Town (and many of the most important cities along the way) to Cairo. The motive behind such a grand masterpiece of British construction was to unify its colonies, and give the empire enough political and economic strength to secure itself as a colonial power to be reckoned with.