When Choi Jong Yul saw the Red Sea on June 5, 1996, he began to
run. His blistered feet fumbled at first, trying to find a
rhythm on the jagged gravel steaming under the African sun. The
crowd of curious villagers in the Sudanese port of Suakin parted
before him, cheering as he splashed into the warm blue water.
Few could blame him for not stopping to strip off his filthy,
sweat-soaked clothes. Many suspected he was mad. Choi had just
walked the Sahara Desert, west to east. With his first step into
the Red Sea, the 38-year-old South Korean became the first
person to journey on foot across the wastes that scar the
breadth of northern Africa.
It was a seven-month sojourn through what Choi called "the
ultimate silence." But his path across five countries and 4,588
miles had been far from empty. In addition to heat, sun and
sand, insects, scorpions and snakes, there had been nomadic
tribesmen, bandits and border police. Choi had battled diarrhea,
sand blindness and malaria. Above all, he had battled himself.
Now, as he floated in the water, he smiled up at the sun, which
had punished him for so long. "I was so happy just to have made
it," he says. "I was alive."
There are easier ways to test your mettle than to challenge the
Sahara, the world's largest desert. Choi, an explorer, mountain
climber and marathon runner, had been pursuing the limits of
endurance for most of his adult life. In 1985 he completed a
one-month, 900-mile run around the border of South Korea. In
1987 Choi climbed the eastern face of Mount Everest, though he
did not reach the summit. Two years later he journeyed to the
magnetic North Pole and, in 1991, to the true North Pole. He
planted the South Korean flag in the frozen floes at the top of
the world. Choi was the first Korean to reach the pole, but, he
says, "others had already been there. I wanted a Korean to be
the first at something."
His friend and fellow adventurer Yu Jae Chun told him to fix his
sights southward, on the Sahara. The desert had been crossed
north to south by car, convoy and camel, but it had never been
crossed on foot in any direction. Choi was captivated by the
idea. "I had tasted extreme cold," he says, "but never extreme
Choi tackled the Sahara, which covers 3.5 million square miles,
as a tactician, planning and training for the expedition for two
years. When he set out from the West African coastal town of
Nouakchott, Mauritania, on Nov. 11, 1995, he was armed with the
latest high-tech trekking gear and with financial backing from
South Korea's Kia Motors and from the Seoul-based newspaper
Dong-A Ilbo, which would track his progress and publish reports
on the journey.
Traveling ahead of Choi were two four-wheel-drive trucks
carrying Dong-A Ilbo photographer Oh Kang Suk, a film crew and a
translator. Walking beside Choi was Yu, 36, and following them
was the first of several guides they would hire, leading a
caravan of camels carrying rations. On Choi's back was a
33-pound rucksack with extra provisions, in case the camels
escaped. At night everyone slept in tents.
The men expected the journey to take four months. The first day,
Choi and Yu walked through the golden grass of the Mauritanian
savanna. It wasn't long, however, before they felt the Sahara's
wrath. On reaching the first dry gravel, Choi was struck by
severe leg cramps. He dug into his pocket for the small tin case
containing his needles for acupuncture, which he had studied as
a young man. After a day of treatment and rest, he began walking
again, but his feet were swollen and blistered, so he borrowed
larger shoes from his companions. Before he was through, Choi
would wear through seven pairs.
All through the first month Choi and Yu were plagued by stomach
troubles. They had been downing coffee and chocolate for quick
energy, so they decided to cut those out and stick to water,
rice and dried meat, and their digestive disorders ended. Other
problems, however, were just beginning.
The harmattan, the Sahara's winter wind, blew sand into the
expedition's portable gas heaters, foiling all attempts to cook
and to purify water. The intense heat fried the solar-powered
walkie-talkies. The desert had defeated technology.
After changing guides at the border of Mali, the Koreans were
confronted by a sight that stopped them in their tracks. Before
them on horseback, armed with guns, swords and spears, was a
group of Tuareg, their white robes shimmering in the sun and
their eyes peering suspiciously through indigo headdresses. The
Tuareg, driven from their ancestral city of Timbuktu by Arab
invaders centuries ago, roam the wastelands scavenging the
desert's meager bounty. They are also raiders who show little
pity for those in their path. "Even our guide was frightened
when he saw them, and he was a Tuareg," says Oh.
Only Choi was unperturbed. "I looked like a beggar," he says,
"so why would they rob me?" They didn't. Choi donned a Tuareg
headdress. The boyish-looking Korean had grown a heavy beard and
begun to assume the fearsome visage of a desert warrior.
When the trekkers came to the first oasis, they gorged on dates
and fruits and talked with Arab and Turu salt traders. "The palm
trees were beautiful," Choi says, "but the water was filthy." It
also teemed with mosquitoes, and within days both Choi and Yu
had contracted malaria. Oh and other members of the team urged
them to quit. Yu had no choice; his body was too weak from
fever. As Yu was driven away, Choi silenced all protests. He
wasn't giving up. But as he struggled forward, pouring precious
water on his head to cool his raging fever, he began to doubt
whether he could finish the crossing.
For days Choi kept looking over his shoulder, convinced that his
departed friend was just behind him. He took chloroquine and at
night gave himself more acupuncture, and slowly the fever fell.
His strength was returning as he approached the border of Niger
on Jan. 31.
He was surprised to see the expedition trucks parked at the
single-story stone building that marked the border post. Inside,
an officer of the Niger border police explained that there had
been a coup d'etat earlier that day. No one could enter Niger.
For most of the day the team pleaded with the police. Finally
Choi slipped his wristwatch to the officer, who broke into a
smile. The foreigners were allowed to pass.
Choi was covering as many as 37 miles a day, yet after four
months he was little more than halfway across the desert. The
khamsin, the dry wind that whips down from the Mediterranean,
was building, blowing sand into his eyes, sucking moisture from
his body. On some days the khamsin blew at 60 mph, and all Choi
could do was dig into the dunes and wait it out.
After he crossed Chad and entered Sudan, Choi's plan was to turn
north into Egypt, but Egyptian border police refused to admit
the caravan. So Choi continued on through Sudan. After crossing
the Nile in a small rented boat and entering the Nubian desert,
Choi was headed straight for the Red Sea. By the time he reached
Suakin, hundreds of Sudanese had gathered by the shore to see
him take his historic plunge into the water.
The next day Choi flew to Cairo, where he was overwhelmed by
reporters. "I am confused," he said, flinching at the camera
flashes and the noise of the crowd. "I was used to walking every
day and now feel something is missing." After he returned to
Seoul, it would take him two months to adjust to his old life.
Choi says his adventures always change him. "I thought the
desert would be beautiful," he says, "but all I saw was
suffering. People struggling for the most basic necessities,
like clean water. Yet people find a way to live. Even flowers
bloom. Somehow, where it seems like nothing could survive, life
finds a way to triumph."
Though Choi's triumphs have made him a household name in his
homeland, few of his countrymen recognize his face. But as he
strides through the crowded streets of Seoul to meet a potential
sponsor for his next expedition, he walks just a little taller,
and considerably faster, than everyone else.
Robert Horn is a correspondent in Bangkok for the Associated