Reza Pakravan: Maida Vale explorer encountered people smugglers, gunfire, and a bloody chicken in Africa’s Sahel region

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan - Credit: Archant

Not many summer holidays take in people smuggling, bloody rituals, dodging gunfire or spending time under house arrest.

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan - Credit: Archant

But while many in north London will have been jetting off to exotic destinations at the end of July, Maida Vale explorer Reza Pakravan completed a 7,000km trek across the width of Africa.

Reza is a filmmaker who is also a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and he also holds a World Record for cycling across the Sahara desert.

Born in Iran but having spent more than a decade living in Hampstead, before heading to W9, Reza's trip across the region directly south of the Sahara, known as the Sahel, came about after a visit to Chad last year inspired him to "tell the story" of an under-explored area.

He told the Ham&High: "There's much going on there that I had no idea about and the idea sprouted - this region hadn't been explored much at all because of instability."

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan - Credit: Archant

Hostile enviroments have never put Reza off - other expeditions include through the Amazon rainforest and a bike ride around the Himalayan mountain Annapurna - but with the Sahel home to a number of terrorist groups including Boko Haram and an off-shoot of Al Qaeda, the desert's creeping expansion has thrown an already volatile place into flux.

Reza added: "Being confronted first hand with the life and death consequence that climate change has wrought upon the land, and uncovering how desertification has contributed to the greatest internal migration ever witnessed and has helped feed a rise in terrorism and migration, was mentally hard to deal with."

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Supported by the Scientific Exploration Society and a number of sponsors, the explorer started in Senegal. There, Reza told the Ham&High, the country is "reasonably stable" but still subject to the same pressures from migration.

"It's affected by desertification and families find it difficult to make a living. Because of this, and it's common to the area, they have to migrate south.

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan

Reza walking with a local guide in Mali. Picture: Reza Pakravan - Credit: Archant

"There's anger with this migration, with people coming from the north and escaping the desert coming into conflict with those already there."

For Reza, who lived in Hampstead for 12 years, the journey was eye-opening.

He said: "As we crossed through this region, we realised that to understand it, you have to understand the belief systems.

"Now climate change is becoming a huge agent of change in the region.The Sahara desert is pushing people south. And when you are on the ground there, the story starts to make sense."

"In Burkina Faso, I attended an Animistic ceremony. I did this in order to really understand the society. The priest had a really, really bloody chicken. At the end of the ceremony he came and placed a hot ring in my palm."

Further east in Niger, Reza and his blistered palm "came face to face with the people traffickers".

"Niger used to be known as the gateway to the southern Sahara. Now, I met human smugglers and caravans of people there. It's one of the main crossroads on the route to Europe."

Next was a return to Chad, before continuing into Sudan at just the wrong time: at the culmination of the revolution which brought down President Omar Al Bashir.

He said: "Entering Darfur from Chad, the border was practically unused. As we got to border control, they didn't know what to do. The country was in turmoil."

"We were sent to the capital Khartoum, and from our hotel there we could hear gunshots minutes away. It was a really scary time."

After being escorted out of the country, Reza continued his way east into Ethiopia. Despite the darker moments, he said it was a journey with "incredible reasons for hope" including the steps taken by some Sahelian countries to turn back desertification.

Reza, who is hoping to screen a four-part documentary about his trip on national television this autumn, explained: "The great green wall is an initiative to stop the desert moving south and bring back live to the region, and it's also about land management. Some countries have implemented it more or less than others."

Reza continued: "I was really impressed with Chad. It's one of the poorest places on the planet but its hugely committed to this.

"And in Senegal it's coming along really well. People spoke about how its bringing back jobs, meaning people can move back to places they were forced to leave."

And what did his stint in the Sahel teach this Londoner? Reza reflected: "To understand migration and terrorism you must deeply understand religious and cultural dynamics - as well as take a deep look into climate change and desertification.

"There is no simple solution."

The Great Green Wall explained

The Great Green Wall is an Africa-led project which has seen the countries of the Sahel band together with a single aim - planting a strip of trees that spans the continent in order to prevent the expansion of the Sahara desert.

After being talked about as a solution to the degradation of fertile land in the region, in 2007 the African Union led 11 countries in signing up to the abmitious goal of planting 8,000km of trees from Senegal to Djibouti.

It's a slow progress though, hampered by the instability of many of the region's governments.

So far, the barrier - which would be three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef, is only around 15 per cent complete.

Reza said countries including Senegal, Chad and Burkina Faso had made great strides - but huge gaps remain.

He said: "If the Sahelian

countries and its people come together and get behind the Great Green Wall, it will raise hope for

solving many problems in the region."

Helping towards the UN's sustainable development goals, by 2030, the project aims to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land, lock-in 250 million tonnes of carbon and create 10 million jobs in rural communities.