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 heat."
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.