In 2019, with a small and dedicated team, I realized the true power of taming the voice in my head and embracing the beauty of endurance. My American friend Brian Ash, his Kenyan wife (girlfriend at the time), Selina Nkoile, and Fred Omavene and Evans Nyaema (two Kenyan young men, former street children, that I now consider brothers) and I took on the feat of walking across East Africa — Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda – entirely by foot.
This journey took us 58 days as we covered 1,087.5 miles and climbed 73,930 feet in elevation gain across the 3 African countries, and was my most challenging, if not all of our most challenging feats that we have accomplished to date.
Our dreaded alarms blared every morning at 3:00am, and we started our walk by 4:00am. We chose this schedule to get a couple of hours in before being hit by the intense heat of the African sun. We would take breaks along the way and find a small “restaurant” or local shack for our daily lunch of rice and beans. Depending on the day, we would either look for a place to camp, or continue on to the next village after lunch. Lunch time was valuable to us as it gave us time to properly rest and replenish calories, but also to observe and appreciate our new surroundings. These were the moments we were able to get rid of any negativity or self doubt our minds were feeding us and reset for the remainder of the day. We would generally finish walking around 4:00 – 5:00pm to set up camp, find a guest house, take a bucket shower, wash our clothes, eat dinner and be asleep by 7:30pm.
On average we walked anywhere between 18-24 miles per day, with our longest day being 32 miles. We planned our days by using Google Maps to navigate and spot villages and towns along our route. Many times the towns were too small to even show up on Google Maps, so we would switch to Satellite View, in which we were able to see the reflection of metal roofs indicating structures and villages. We did not know if the village still existed or if it was deserted but this added fun, spontaneity and mystery to our walk.
Our journey began in Western Kenya. The first leg of the walk took us from Busia, Kenya (border of Kenya and Uganda) to Diani Beach (Kenya’s Eastern border). We followed the shores of Lake Victoria, the second largest lake on the planet, then descended into the deep, sprawling basin of the Great Rift Valley, climbing out to then stumble on another humbling feature. We passed the monumental Mt. Kilimanjaro — the tallest mountain in Africa, and crossed Tsavo National Parks — notorious for being home to man-eating lions. Over a month later, we finally reached the Indian Ocean after a grueling, yet thrilling, 33 days. We had already walked 621 miles, including 36,534 feet of elevation gain.
Our initial goal was to walk across only Kenya, but after completing the walk, we were completely adapted to this insane regimen of waking up before dawn to walk 18-24 miles a day and decided why not continue the journey across East Africa. So we continued just a couple months later our walk across Uganda and Rwanda, from Busia, Kenya to the Rwanda/Burundi Border. On this segment of the walk, we crossed the River Nile, the longest river in the world. We crossed the Equator from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. We passed through Mabira Forests and followed the shores of Lake Victoria, finishing our walk trekking up and through Rwanda, “Land of a Thousand Hills.”
While in Uganda, we had one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. We reached a small village in a remote region of the country where there were no guest houses and we were too far from any further civilization to continue walking that day. In that village, we were unable to verbally communicate with anyone as the people only spoke their mother tongue. Through hand gestures we were able to land a place to stay in one of the local’s homes (mud huts). There we were greeted by the chief and were welcome into the community for the evening to rest. It was a really interesting experience as the local people had never seen foreigners before, and to me really helped drive home the uniqueness of the adventure we were undertaking. This leg took us 25 days, 466 miles and up 37,396 ft. elevation gain.
This walk was a journey of discovery, a chance to explore a region of the world that is both beautiful and complex. It was a journey that took us through diverse landscapes, vibrant cultures, and a wide range of experiences that will stay with us forever.
Walking across East Africa was not just a physical journey, but a journey of the mind and spirit. It was a chance to connect with nature, to learn about different cultures and to challenge myself in new and exciting ways.
The greatest takeaway from this walk for me was that most people are good people. I can’t say enough good things about the people we met along the way! From the kids that we shared 5+ miles with as they walked to school to the guys who just decided to tag along especially when they had music and the many upon many friends we met as we stopped for snacks and rest, I just loved every second of it.
The scariest part of the journey, hands down, was sleeping in a tin structure (with holes in it), with a leopard purring and stalking prey all night just outside from where we were sleeping in Tsavo National Park.
Prior to this feat, I felt limited in my ability to truly endure. It wasn’t until I faced such an immense mental and physical challenge that I was able to identify my “limiting” thoughts and stand up to them, rather than hiding from or ignoring them. In turn, the journey was an introduction to a new-found love for endurance, especially my ritual of running, which has helped me evolve into who I am today.
Nell Pollak is a Colorado-based Altra Run Crew athlete and co-leader of Denver Run Club. She is currently ramping up mileage in preparation for the Leadville Silver Rush 50-mile race in July, and the Run Rabbit Run 50-miler in September.