Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sahara explorer taming the desert

From Vladimir Duthiers and Jenni Watts, CNN
updated 9:42 AM EST, Wed February 20, 2013
Newton Jibunoh is a Nigerian explorer, environmentalist and historian who has traveled across the Sahara three times. Newton Jibunoh is a Nigerian explorer, environmentalist and historian who has traveled across the Sahara three times.
HIDE CAPTION
In pictures: Sahara explorer
In pictures: Sahara explorer
In pictures: Sahara explorer
In pictures: Sahara explorer
In pictures: Sahara explorer
In pictures: Sahara explorer
In pictures: Sahara explorer
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Newton Jibunoh is a Nigerian environmentalist and explorer
  • He witnessed extreme drought and famine on solo expeditions across the Sahara desert
  • Jibunoh works to curb the scourge of poverty caused by desertification
  • He's traveled the world to find solutions and set up a pilot project in northern Nigeria

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- From going to the moon to the explosion of the civil rights movement, the swinging 1960s was an era of conquering new heights and sweeping change. So when Newton Jibunoh had to return back home to Nigeria in 1966, after completing his studies in London, the young engineer thought it was also time for him to blaze new trails.

An adventure seeker, Jibunoh decided to embark on a journey that was destined to change the course of his life.

"The Sahara was the largest desert in the world and very active -- so I decided to explore it," says Jibunoh, who was 27 at the time. Unfazed by the challenge, he drove home all alone by way of the desert -- from the UK, and ultimately through the vast, unforgiving sands of the Sahara, to Nigeria.

"Driving from Europe all the way across the Sahara, you must be ready to die," says Jibunoh, who has since traveled across the world's largest desert twice more.

Sahara explorer: I surrendered to death
Nigerian doctor talks solving famine
How MLK helped explorer deal with racism

"You have to tell yourself, 'look, it is possible I will die in the process,' and you must be ready for it because it's only when you're ready for that and you're confronted with death -- and I was confronted with death a number of times -- that you are able to deal with it.

"But if you're not ready to die and you're confronted with death, you panic and once you panic you lose focus and once you lose focus your life goes with it."

Read: An adventurer's journey to the top of the world

During his first solo expedition, Jibunoh was no stranger to near-death situations. He remembers negotiating for his life with bandits and having his possessions stolen; he recalls the intense loneliness of the epic journey and struggling through the desert without access to clean water.

Yet despite all the difficulties, Jibunoh says the beauty of the desert made it all worthwhile.

"You wake up in the morning at about 5 o'clock ... and then you watch the sun rise and this extremely peaceful and serene atmosphere and then you just look at the sun coming like a ball of fire, rising from the sand and then coming up," recalls Jibunoh.

"At that time the temperature is close to zero in the desert, in the Sahara, so you can imagine a combination of that temperature and then looking up and watching this ball of fire coming out of the sand and creating a kind of scenery that you cannot find anywhere else in the world."

Read: Nigerian doctor fighting blood disease

But apart from discovering the majesty of the Sahara, Jibunoh also witnessed how drought, deforestation and human intervention were turning fertile land into desert and condemning people to acute poverty. In 1999, after his second solo expedition across the Sahara, he realized he had to do something to help the people affected by desertification.

"I saw what is now known as the desertification, the encroachment of the desert," he remembers. "I saw the fact that it was depriving people of their farmland, I saw that it was also affecting water supply; in some areas of the desert they don't have rainfall for about six-eight years, so I saw a completely different life and that was what led me into starting some kind of advocacy that will bring this whole thing to the global arena."

Driving from Europe all the way across the Sahara, you must be ready to die.
Newton Jibunoh, environmentalist

Since then, Jibunoh has dedicated his life to curbing the scourge of poverty caused by the desertification.

Now a prominent environmentalist, he started giving lectures, speaking at summits and visiting other deserts around the world -- from the Gobi in China and the Negev in Israel, to Arizona and Las Vegas -- to study how people across the world had succeeded in taming the desert and dealing with drought and famine.

Read: Activist keeps family legacy alive

Jibunoh's desire to take more direct action against the problem also prompted him to launch the Fight Against Desert Encroachment (FADE) initiative and set up a pilot project in the desert area of northern Nigeria.

"The FADE issue became a topical one because people were now able to see that you can actually recover land from the desert by doing some, what we call, land reclamation arrangement," says Jibunoh, who also runs a museum in central Lagos.

Jibunoh realized early on that combating the encroachment of the desert is a process that takes decades and requires collaboration, so he teamed up with Nigerian officials and started working with schools and universities to create a long-term effort.

And in 2008, aged 70, embarked on his third and last expedition across the Sahara. This time he traveled with a group of scientists and environmentalists -- a means of passing on the torch to the younger generation, a process he enthusiastically continues to this day.

He adds: "I am in the process of putting together a formidable team ... of young men and women that can take over this crusade, that can take over this whole initiative and carry it to the next generation, that is my primary hope."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Australia's Tim Cahill appeals to the linesman after a disallowed goal during the Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Kenya's national football team may not have made it to the World Cup Finals in Brazil -- but one man will be there for his African nation.
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Mulenga Kapwepwe
Mulenga Kapwepwe has single-handedly created an explosion of arts in Zambia.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Wegkruipertjie, a short film playing at the Durban International Festival
From Ghanaian rom-coms to documentaries celebrating 20 years of South African democracy, festival-goers are spoiled for choice at this year's Durban Film Fest.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Kalibala with one of the children she supports.
In 2010, Ugandan journalist Gladys Kalibala embarked on a mission to bring attention to her country's lost and abandoned children.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Sunset at Camps Bay with one of Andrew van de Merwe.
A trip to the beach is usually for lounging in the sun. But for Andrew van de Merwe, the sand stretches in front of him as an enormous blank canvas.
updated 8:40 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
Esther Mbabazi, Rwanda's first female pilot
Esther Mbabazi wheels her bag towards the airstairs of the Boeing 737 sitting quietly on the tarmac at Kigali International Airport.
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
Jun 1978: Filbert Bayi #42 of Tanzania rounds the bend during the 5000 Metre event at the AAA Championships in Crystal Palace, London.
He's smashed world records and revolutionized running during his career. And yet the name of Filbert Bayi has largely been forgotten.
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
updated 5:26 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Explore a series of artistic street portraits designed to pay tribute to the people of the Sudanese capital.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
A growing list of popular African authors have been steadily picking up steam --and fans -- across the globe over the last several years.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
David Kinjah njau and Davidson Kamau kihagi of Kenya in action during stage 2 of the 2007 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race.
He's one of Kenya's premier cyclists but David Kinjah's better known as the man that trained Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
updated 5:42 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
The President and founder of the organisation 'Femmes Africa Solidarite' (Women Africa Solidarity), Bineta Diop.
Senegalese human rights activist Bineta Diop reveals why she is willing to risk her life to help women in Africa.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.
ADVERTISEMENT