A man and two camels. These simple elements dramatize a tale big and bold: the December National Geographic cover story on the first installment of author Paul Salopek's seven-year walk from Africa to South America, a 21,000-mile trek to trace how humans first discovered the world. Salopek writes of his hike through the scorching deserts of Ethiopia and Djibouti to the Gulf of Aden, near the place where our species ventured out of Africa 60,000 years ago.
It was a no-brainer, says Creative Director Bill Marr, to lead off with the iconic image of Salopek on foot leading his camels Suma'atuli (Branded on the Ear) and A'urta (Traded for a Cow) across the austere Afar Desert of Ethiopia. "It was the epic quality of Paul's journey that put it on the cover," says Marr. "It was a good fit too with our Year of Exploration theme. We wanted to get across the idea of a heroic, against-all-odds kind of journey that we can join in the pages of the magazine."
Salopek's Out of Eden Walk project also suited the special requirements of a year-end cover. "For the December issue readers seem to appreciate grand ideas," Marr says, "ones not necessarily religious but definitely reflective."
Article photographer John Stanmeyer says he was not "thinking cover" when he took the image of Paul in his sarong tugging his camels behind him. But he understands why it was chosen: It captures "the sense of meandering toward the unknown and the known, while carrying the few possessions we need."
Salopek, writing recently to me from a desert in Saudi Arabia, sounds a bit uncomfortable finding out that he will be striding on the cover with his "micro-caravan" in front of millions of readers. "The camels deserve the credit," he says. "They weren't paid, and it wasn't their idea. They did the job anyway."
He'd better get used to the attention. The magazine, a chief sponsor of the Out of Eden Walk, plans to publish two more of his dispatches in 2014, including one next December from Jerusalem.
Follow Salopek's journey at Out of Eden Walk: Dispatches from the Field from Paul Salopek.