Cape to Cairo Road

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The Rhodes Colossus: Cecil Rhodes spanning "Cape to Cairo".
Map showing almost complete British control of the Cape to Cairo route, 1914
  British control

The Cape to Cairo Road or 'Pan-African Highway', sometimes called the Great North Road in sub-Saharan Africa, was an imperial[1] dream envisioned by the British Empire[2] that would see a road stretch the length of Africa, from Cape Town to Cairo, similar to the Pan-American Highway. It will become a reality when the Cairo-Cape Town Highway project is completed.


From about 1890,[3] stalwarts[4] of the British Empire had a grand vision for a road that would stretch across the continent from south to north, running through the British colonies of the time, such as the Union of South Africa, Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Kenya, Sudan and Egypt. One of the main proponents of the route was Cecil John Rhodes,[5] the man after whom Rhodesia was named, though his preference was for a railway. German East Africa (Tanganyika, now Tanzania) was a gap in the British territories, but Rhodes in particular felt that Germany ought to be a natural ally. Shortly before his death he had persuaded the German Kaiser to allow access through his colony for the Cape to Cairo telegraph line (which was built as far north as Ujiji but never completed).[6]

In 1918 Tanganyika became British and the gap in territories was sealed. Even though Egypt became independent in 1922, British influence there was strong enough for Cairo to be viewed as part of the British sphere of interest,[7] and the idea of a road continued.

The road would create cohesion between the British colonies of Africa, it was thought, and give Britain the most important and dominant political and economic influence over the continent, securing its position as a global colonial power. The road would also link some of the most important cities on the continent, including Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Harare (then Salisbury), Lusaka, Nairobi, Khartoum and Cairo.

France had a rival strategy in the late 1890s to link its colonies from west to east across the continent, Senegal to Djibouti. Southern Sudan and Ethiopia were in the way, but France sent expeditions in 1897 to establish a protectorate in southern Sudan and to find a route across Ethiopia. The scheme foundered when a British flotilla on the Nile confronted the French expedition at the point of intersection between the French and British routes, leading to the Fashoda Incident and eventual diplomatic defeat for France.

One of the biggest problems was the decline of the Empire and fragmentation of the British colonies — after Egypt, Sudan was the next to become independent in 1956[8] — which put paid to the colonial part of the dream.

The first known attempt to drive a vehicle from Cape Town to Cairo was by a Captain Kelsey in 1913-14 but this came to an untimely end when he was killed by a leopard in Rhodesia. The first successful journey was the 1924 expedition led by Major Chaplin Court Treatt which drove two Crossley light trucks leaving Cape Town on 23 September 1924 and arriving in Cairo on 24 January 1926.[9][10]

The route today[edit]

Even today, the road remains a somewhat elusive idea, and there is no continuous all weather route, especially between Kenya and Egypt, and it is not feasible to drive even off-road vehicles between Sudan and Egypt as the tracks are closed, they have to go by boat on Lake Nasser or the Red Sea from Port Sudan.[11]

Starting from the south, the first section of the road that runs through South Africa is called the N1, linking Cape Town in the far south of the continent with Beit Bridge, located on the Limpopo River between South Africa and Zimbabwe. There are numerous alternative routes, especially in South Africa, and two possible routes through Zimbabwe, via Bulawayo or Harare. The link through Harare to Lusaka in Zambia is seen as the Cape to Cairo road, and the main north-south axis of Lusaka is named Cairo Road for this reason. From Lusaka, Zambia's Great North Road continues the route into Tanzania. The surface may be badly potholed in some sections through Zambia and points north. In Tanzania there are a number of roads could be deemed to be part of the route, the clear definitions and markings that are characteristic of the Pan-American Highway do not apply here. Most would consider it to be the road from Tunduma on the Tanzania-Zambia border, through Morogoro to the Arusha turnoff, and north to Arusha, then to Nairobi in Kenya. There was marker in the 1930s in Arusha, Tanzania, to indicate the midpoint of the road.[12]

Up to Nairobi and a little beyond, the road is tarred all the way from Cape Town, but between Kenya and Aswan in Egypt a four-wheel drive vehicle or a truck is necessary as most of the road is a rough track which may be impassable after rain. Kenya has a tarred highway to its border with Sudan but the roads in southern Sudan are very poor and made frequently impassable, so that even without the conflicts that have afflicted Sudan, the route through Ethiopia is generally preferred by overland travellers. The route from Isiolo in Kenya to Moyale on the Ethiopian border through the northern Kenyan desert is rough and has sometimes been dangerous due to bandits. Through Ethiopia the route is mainly tarred but some sections may have deteriorated severely. A track from Lake Tana to Gedaref takes the route into Sudan.[13]

The most difficult section in the whole Cape to Cairo journey is the track across the Nubian Desert in northern Sudan between Atbara and Wadi Halfa, but there is also a railway traversing this route which can take vehicles in piggyback fashion. At Wadi Halfa on Lake Nasser there is a break in the road, and not even a track continues around the lake, but ferries take vehicles to Aswan in Egypt. Tarred highways continue the route to Cairo.[11][13] An Egyptian and a Sudanese company committed in January, 2010 to build a 400 km stretch of highway between Aswan and Dongola in Sudan.[14]

The stretch of highway between Dongola and Wadi Halfa is now complete (as of June 2010) but there is still no open overland border between Sudan and Egypt, making the Ferry from Wadi Halfa to Aswan the only option.

A number of adventure travel companies offer Cape to Cairo overland expeditions using four-wheel drive trucks with bus bodies.[11]

The future[edit]

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank, and the African Union, have a project to complete the Cairo-Cape Town Highway as part of the Trans-African Highway network.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Citation needed
  2. ^ Citation needed - the "British Empire" was not an entity that was capable of having a "vision"
  3. ^ Citation needed - motor transport hardly existed in Europe then, let alone Africa
  4. ^ Citation needed what "stalwarts" are these, then ? Name some names, give references.
  5. ^ Citation needed - his interests were for a telegraph line and a railway. He died before road transport became important.
  6. ^ The Northern Rhodesia Journal online at NRZAM: S. R. Denny: The Cape to Cairo Telegraph, Vol V- No. 1 pp 39-42 (1962). Accessed 15 April 2007.
  7. ^ See article on History of Modern Egypt.
  8. ^ See article on Sudan.
  9. ^ Court Treatt, Stella (1927). Cape to Cairo. London: Harrap. 
  10. ^ "The Court Treatt Expedition". Retrieved 2009-05-22. 
  11. ^ a b c Lonely Planet World Guide: Sudan Transport website accessed 15 April 2007.
  12. ^ Tanganyika. Arusha. Half-way point from Cape to Cairo, 1936, Photograph by Matson Photo Service, Library of Congress
  13. ^ a b Michelin Maps: 745 Africa North East & Arabia, 1:4 000 000 and 746 Africa Central & South, Madagascar, 1:4 000 000.
  14. ^ Egypt, Sudan firms sign accord on Cape-to-Cairo road M&G