Out of Africa: Interview with Ultrahiker Justin Lichter

In an attempt to hike the continent's wild divide, one ultrahiker does something he's never done–quit.

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Justin “Trauma” Lichter of Truckee, California, has hiked 10,000 miles in a single year. So no one bet against him when he decided, in 2007, to hike continental divides worldwide. He ticked off New Zealand and crossed the spines of Iceland and Norway in short order. But last summer, when he trekked solo in Africa, nothing went as planned.

BP: Tell us a bit more about your continental divide quest.

JL: Let’s not call it a quest. More important than checking off lists is just to be interested in what I will see and experience. Africa fits. I planned a nearly 3,000-mile route through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa.

BP: How hard was it to find water?

JL: Not as tough as you’d think. I had a 45-mile stretch without water, but there are small villages everywhere with inhabitants who walk miles to graze and water their livestock. Most paths lead to a village or to water. Sometimes it’s silty; sometimes, certainly contaminated. I thought of some of the bad water as milkshakes–some look chocolate, some vanilla, some strawberry. I treated it with tablets and UV, closed my eyes, and chugged it down. So far, no intestinal issues.

BP: Found any local delicacies that pair well with milkshakes?

JL: Bread made over a fire and pasta were my go-to items. They eat a lot of raw meat in Ethiopia, but I didn’t have the guts to try any. In Kenya, I found cornbread muffins, pineapples, and bananas, which I picked right off the tree. Yes, I carried all of these heavy things, a first for me.

BP: You also decided to call it quits, another first. Getting soft?

JL: Well, I had a few trip-altering moments where I almost died, so after about 1,500 miles, I stopped my continuous route to summit Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru and head home. Each of the following things happened within the span of a week: I was cornered by a few guys who tried to mug me. One of them pulled a knife, so I ran and eventually lost them. Then I was charged by an elephant, which locals say is the most dangerous animal, so I ran–and spooked a lion sleeping in the grass. He ran the other way, and the elephant chose to chase him instead. Lastly, a couple of nights later, I peeked outside my tent and saw one lion 25 feet away, while another was sneaking up from behind. It walked right up to me, then inexplicably just kept going. I decided to bag the trip. I’d already gotten lucky three times.

BP: So, besides a comparatively safe backcountry, what did you miss most from home?

JL: Cold drinks. English. Ben and Jerry’s. And bears–way easier to deal with than lions and elephants.