In Tanzania he was shot at, in South Sudan he got arrested, but in Berlin he feels welcome. Frenchman Guillaume Combot walked for three years from Cape Town to Berlin - and still has a long way ahead of him.
When Guillaume Combot talks about Germany, he's all full of praise. "I love this country – here you can be poor and you still will be accepted."
Since more than three years, Combot has been living on the street. Out of his own free will. He sleeps in ruined houses, in caves or just under the open sky somewhere in the African bush. A camping mattress, a sleeping bag and a quiet spot – that's all the 33-year old needs for the night.
His current home is in a hallway in the very heart of Berlin. Not too far from the famous Potsdamer Platz square. In the morning he improvises with a few water bottles to take a small shower. "I'm not a homeless tramp," he says. "I wash every day, I want to be clean."
Extreme and intense
"I have chosen this way of live. Sometimes it's hard and I'm suffering – but I am happy," the lean Frenchman says. "I'd rather die than have to give up this extreme and intense way of life."
"Extreme and intense" sounds fascinating – but most of all it means having to give up things. Combot travels light and on a tight budget. In Africa he needed 1,50 euros a day, in Europe around 5 euros. That really covers only the most crucial necessities.
But that's the point, he says. "If you travel on such an extreme budget, then even small things like food, drink, sleeping or washing can be an adventure. You experience society and other people in a completely different light."
Nights in hotels were never part of the schedule. It's just too far off from real life, Combot says.
The adventure began some three years ago. On February 9, 2009, Combot left South Africa's Cape Town, headed for Paris. He had 20,000 kilometers ahead of him, through Africa, the Middle East, East and Central Europe. On foot. Any form of public transport was a taboo.
Until Jerusalem he had French woman Enora Nedelec as a fellow hiker. And not everywhere they were met with understanding. In South Africa and Mosambique, he recalls, they felt welcome. In Malawi, Tanzania or Uganda for instance, people were rather skeptical.
White people are seen as rich in those countries. "People could not imagine, that white people would voluntarily walk across the country and just sleep somewhere in the bush. They thought we were just pretending to be poor and wanted to exploit them.," he says.
So they rarely got invited in those countries – and often had to sleep somewhere in the wilderness. For safety reasons they chose spots far away from cities, towns or villages.
That caution was not unfounded: In Tanzania, the two got shot at. The bullets missed them, and they managed to escape. But Combot still did not doubt his journey. "I'm an optimist. I always think that in ten kilometers from here, things will surely get better."
In the war zone
In South Sudan, Combot needed that spirit of optimism. The country has been ravaged by civil war for decades, many people are still armed, shootings are nor rare.
Again and again, Combot had to pass through checks. Sometimes he got stopped several times a day, had to strip off all his clothes and kneel on the ground. The most dangerous moment, he recalls, was always when some soldiers showed up. "That's when you had to be extremely cautious. If you make a mistke, or move to quickly in suspicious way or look into the eyes of the wrong guy – they might just shoot you."
Many of the soldiers in South Sudan are child soldiers. "Sometimes they were drunk, and then they wanted to show me how powerful they are. They threatened to shoot me." Even though he was rather confident they wouldn't actually pull the trigger, he was still extremely nervous in those situations. "I've never been that scared in my entire life. Every day I feared for my life."
Why he's putting himself through all those ordeals? Combot smiles: "I knew what was waiting for me on that trip. It was a challenge, I wanted to do this for my ego." The difficult time in South Sudan, the fear of soldiers, land mines and wild animals have given him self confidence, he says. "No I know that all the remaining fears in my life are really nothing compared to that. I know now that everything is possible." But he also knows that things could have gone wrong.
War journalists often can't do without the tension of the war zone, extreme athletes always are looking for new challenges. Combot too needs the extreme. "I wish, I could live without the adrenalin." But he can't imagine doing a "normal" job, nine to five in an office.
He says he always has been restless. Aged 17 he left his parents' home, tried his hand at several jobs, went as a monk to a monastery and worked as an aid worker in the aftermath of the Southeast Asian Tsunami.
Now that his journey has taken him to Germany, he says he could quite imagine living here. For about two months he's been hiking though the country. Before that he walked though Eastern Europe. Germany, he says, is surpassed in terms of hospitality only by the Muslim countries he crossed. In Eastern Europe only few people approached him to talk to him. In Germany, his experience was different. "The people are not at all arrogant, are not shy and are always interested in what I do."
But while he likes people and country in Germany, he doesn't know where his journey will take him. Paris might be his official destination, but already he thinks about continuing to Britain and Northern Europe. "Who knows – maybe I'll keep doing this for the rest of my life," he says with a smile.
Author: Nils Naumann / ai
Editor: Andrea Rönsberg