Nowak decided to head for the journey across Africa in 1931. Alone, he had but a worn-out, 7 year old bicycle and a strong will. He began the journey in October 1931. First travelled to Rome with a train and then to Naples by bicycle. He crossed the Meditarranean on a boat to Tripoli, Libya. Making him officially to start crossing Africa on 26 November 1931.
The road took him from Tripoli towards Cape Agulhas. His first great stop was the oasis of Maradah. He reached it on 26 March 1932, on Holy Saturday, according to Catholic Christians. His arrival in Maradah was a surprise, since it was unimaginable that anyone could travel with a bicycle in the middle of the desert. From there he had to head out to Benghazi, Libya and then to Alexandria, Egypt, because there was a crisis in east Libya. So from there on he could make his journey to south. He followed the river Nile and along the East African Great Lakes: Albert, George, Kivu, Tanganyika and Mweru. In April 1934 Nowak reached his destination - the southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas.
On the journey Nowak experienced Africa in the true bicycle touring spirit. He would take food from native villages and mingle with locals, listening to legends. He met all kinds of people and tribes: Tuareg people, Egyptian farmers who lived on the Shilluk’s swamps, Tutsi, Pygmies, Transvaal Boers, Khoikhoi, Bushmen, Babinga dwarf people, cannibals, Hausa people and many more. And each time he would meet new people seemed that the word travelled faster about the single white man travelling on a strange vehicle.
His trip was difficult since he had to struggle to survive in the harsh environment. But he was also not eager to seek shelter in towns. He preferred to camp in the wild African nature, than to mingle with the Europeans. This was also because he did not share the European colonial points of view. He gave respect to the natives they deserved and was not popular among imperialist and colonial Europeans. At times he felt lonely amongst Europeans and found sympathy and encouragement only amongst Polish people and the church missions in Africa.
He did not receive support for the trip, except bicycle tyres from the Polish company Stomil. He published and sold stories and photographs from his trip in Polish and German newspapers. He used a 35 mm Contax photo camera that he got only when he was already in Africa. He took more than 10000 photographs while on the trip.
His journey back was a totally different adventure and even more challenging. He had malaria and his finances were running short. Still, he decided to take a different route to get back home that ended up being filled with misfortunes. His bicycle broke down, better say fell apart in the middle of the South-Western African desert. Thus, Nowak decided to continue his trip on a horse. From Namibia he rode a horse for 3000 km to Angola. Then along the river Kassai Nowak steered a boat. Upon an accident with the boat, he had to walk for hundreds of kilometres. Upon reaching Lulua river in Congo, he got another boat and continued along the river. From Leopoldville, Congo, he was again on the bicycle, heading to the Lake Chad. However, he had to continue his journey across Sahara desert with a caravan, because the French authorities would not let him go alone. So Nowak made his own caravan. After five months he reached Uargala. Then on, again he travelled on a bicycle to Algiers and the Mediterranean Sea.
In November 1936, after 40000 km, Nowak got a ferry to Marseille. He got stuck in Beaulieu, France at a Polish mining settlement that he wrote about some years ago, because he did not have money to get a train to Poland. Finally, after getting a visa to cross Belgium and Germany, he got a loan from the Polish consulate to buy a ticket. On the night of 22 December 1936 Nowak crossed the German-Polish border. He was home, and greeted by friends and relatives at the train station in Poznan.
Kazimierz Nowak was a traveller, reporter, photographer and a bicycle rider. He was born in Stryj, Poland on 11 January 1897. After the First World War, at the age of 21, Kazimierz moved to Poznan where besides his working obligations he would regularly make bicycle trips around Poland. But also enjoying making photographs whilst travelling.
On his private life is known that he was married in 1922, with Maria Gorcik, with whom he had a son and a daughter. Their daughter, Elżbieta was born in 1922, while their son, Romuald was born in January 1925. It would be the economic crisis that would push him that very same year of 1925 to leave Poland and change his job. He was working at an insurance company in Poznan, but decided to become a press correspondent and a photographer. This new occupation of his made him travelling on a bicycle for his work. He made two big bicycle journeys across Europe, visiting Hungary, Austria, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands, Romania, Greece and Turkey on the way. He would make photographs and wrote articles about the places or issues he would see.
On one of his bicycle trips, in 1928, he reached all the way to Tripolitania in Northern Africa. It would be then when he would make a decision to travel across Africa. However, health and money issues would compel him to postpone this tour for a later date. He would constantly make bicycle tours in Poland and abroad, as a preparation for crossing the African continent.
When Nowak returned home to Poznan, he gave lectures and presentations about his trip there and in many places. He had a lot of materials to share, however he did not manage to publish a book. He was physical exhausted from the trip in Africa, and had malaria and even got periostitis of his left leg, thus he had hospital interventions that additionally gave him pneumonia. He died on 13 October 1937, about one year from his return from the trip to Africa.
I consider Nowak to be a great legend from the history of bicycle touring. It is only sad that his adventures are not that well known throughout the world. So I write this article to spread the word of the single white man that travelled around Africa on a strange vehicle. I hope that his life will be an inspiration to many to grab their bicycle and go somewhere far and experience life.
But Nowak left a lot of heritage: his photographs and his writings. The writings Nowak made were published only in 2000 in the book titled “Rowerem i pieszo przez Czarny Ląd” (By bicycle and on foot across the Dark Continent). However, the book is now available only in Polish language. An English translation is being prepared and expected to be published soon. Something to which I also eagerly await and which I will share it here as well.
The trip that Nowak made in the early 20th century looks very tempting to repeat. In fact, a group of 100 people from Poland, in 2009 organized a bicycle relay tour following the trail of Kazimierz Nowak, Afryka Nowaka - another effort that is worth cheering for. The web page is in polish language, so it is best simply to look at the pictures they offer from their 24 stage journey.
A foundation has been established to promote the work of Kazimierz Nowak. Further details about Nowak’s life can be found there, though mostly in Polish language.
The photographs in this article have been made by Kazimierz Nowak and are used with permission. Credits for the photographs go to Sorus Publishing House.