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Kingsley Holgate: Pebbles of life

21 August 2017

  • Following Africa's outside edge we cross the mouth of Africa's most powerful river, the Congo, that pushes out 50,000 cubic metres of water per second into the Atlantic Ocean, passports and bucks in our top pockets.
  • Following the Tropic of Capricorn around the world, the Greybeard crosses Lake Disapointment in Western Australia

South Africa’s famous bearded explorer and philanthropist Kingsley Holgate often gets asked the ‘how do you manage to do what you do’ question. That’s when he reverts to his tried-and-trusted Seven Pebble theory…

Damned mozzies are thick tonight. Out comes the Tabard; it lives in the back door wells of each Landy Disco, next to the bog roll. A headtorch, spare penlight batteries, biltong knife, gaffer tape, a pen and a notebook are generally in my driver’s door well.

You know what it’s like on a long overland adventure – when you and your Landy become like a hermit crab moving everywhere with your house and knowing where everything is. Canvas bedrolls, bucket, tent, grub boxes, first aid kit and that secret box of Romany Creams that you’re trying to hide from the rest of the team. (After many days of no luxuries, I love going on to the radio and to the sound of crinkling paper and an obvious mouthful, asking the other Landy occupants if they can guess how many biscuits there are in a box of Romany Creams.)

Life is a geat adventure! Floating Landys across the mighty Zambezi.

There’s generally a prolonged silence before an irritable reply like, “I suppose it depends on how many crumbs there are in your great big bloody beard.” Then later that night, much to everyone’s surprise, out comes the unopened packet just in time for dunking in the renoster koffie.)

Tonight there’s a friendly new face around the campfire. Filled with curiosity, he asks Ross about some of the many challenging humanitarian and geographic journeys which, over many years, have taken us to every country on the African continent. Land Rover stories of what it was like to track the outline of Africa through 33 countries and 449 days. Around the world by land following the Tropic of Capricorn and more recently, a harrowing adventure to locate the very heart of the continent, deep in the rainforests of the Republic of Congo, up near the Central African Republic.

Still around the fire with the cry of a black-backed jackal in the distance, expedition member Bruce Leslie relates the saga of how he survived a pirate attack while we were sailing an Arab dhow on a malaria prevention campaign to the Somali border and back to Ilha de Mocambique. There are fireside stories of mountains, rivers and deserts; a journey to Timbuktu and stories of strange tribes, cultures and traditions.

It’s no wonder I suppose that the newcomer asks, “So tell me Kingsley: how is it possible that you guys are so fortunate to have had a lifetime of so many great adventures?”
To answer his question, I switch on my head torch and scratch in the sand for seven pebbles which I place in a line next to the fire.

“Let’s pretend,” I say to him, “That each of these pebbles represents 10 summers, totalling 70 summers – the number of years in a fortunate person’s lifespan.

Adventure pebbles, they’re everywhere

“How old are you?” I ask. “54,” comes his response. “Well, I’ll give you four years free – for mahala,” I say and to his surprise, I reach down and toss five of the seven pebbles into the darkness. “50 years. Gone forever! Great experiences, wonderful times, hopefully no regrets, but they’re over and there’s no use gazing into the rear-view mirror of life. It’s a bit like an old Defender, when you’ve klapped so many Mopani branches that the rear-view mirrors are cracked like a spider’s web that you don’t worry about them, just concentrate on the road ahead.”

I poke the seventh pebble with a piece of firewood. “Sorry, but there’s no bloody guarantee that you’ll still be in good enough shape to enjoy that final pebble. If you are, it’s a gift, but in life it certainly can’t be relied upon.” So out into the darkness goes the seventh pebble. Both of us study the one lonely remaining pebble…

“It’s yours,” I say with a chuckle. “Put it in your pocket. It’s going to become a bloody nuisance. It’ll get caught up in your car keys and wallet and end up on the bedside table at night and then back in your pocket again the next morning. You’ll rub it between your fingers like a worry bead and it’ll become smooth and shiny with patina. But my friend, it will be a constant reminder about making the time to adventure.” Cheers! We clink our battered enamel mugs together.

“The moral of the Pebble story is all about turning the key, getting out and enjoying the wonderful adventures that Life and Mama Afrika have to offer. I’ll see you on the road.”

And strangely, we did meet again. He’d sold up, gone adventuring and his only regret, was that he should have done it earlier.

“It was that damned Pebble that did it,” he said.