Kingsley Holgate and his team have now passed the most northerly point of their journey around the African continent, and are heading south again. We joined them in Egypt to see them reach the symbolic points of the mouth of the legendary Nile River, and to watch them turn their noses southwards towards South Africa, and home
Cairo has to be one of the most iconic of African cities, alongside Timbuktu, and yet from the air it looked like nothing more than an industrial sprawl.
A small group of South African journalists were flying in as guests of Land Rover to meet up with Africa’s most famous explorer, Kingsley Holgate, and his Outside Edge Expedition.
Our first impression of Cairo was confirmed when we emerged from the airport early in the morning, only to be greeted by a yellow smog that blocked out most of the city.
The roads of Cairo are as chaotic and madcap as they are reputed to be, and the vintage black-and-white taxis, all past French and Italian classics like Peugeot 504s and Fiat 128s, are guided more by the hooter than anything else. As Kingsley was to say later, “It doesn’t matter if the car doesn’t have lights, indicators, seatbelts or mirrors, as long as the hooter works the driver will be happy”.
Cairo continued to serve up surprise after surprise. Take the pyramids, for example. Perhaps we were being naive, but we were expecting these awe-inspiring monuments to human perseverance and toil to be in the middle of an empty desert. Instead, we were driving along a filthy canal when our guide told us to look to our left, and there, peering over neglected tenements, were the fabled Pyramids of Giza, shrouded in a haze of pollution.
To be fair, when we reached the pyramids they were as impressive as we’d expected them to be, and viewed from the far side you can still imagine that you are in the desert, apart from the throngs of people littering the landscape.
Cairo is obviously a huge tourist destination, and so there is the normal crowd of locals keen on liberating dollars from visitors. Our guide kept saying, “This is not the real Egypt”, so it was quite funny when he kept on taking us to other tourist traps where he obviously got a kickback.
That said, he was very interesting, and a trip to the pyramids, or any of the other historic sights in Cairo, would be a wasted opportunity without someone who can tell you exactly what you’re looking at.
It was the well-known Khan el-Khalili market that we found most interesting and closest to our preconceptions of Cairo. Unfortunately we arrived late in the day and while it was still alive and busy with locals and tourists alike, we had run out of time to explore the maze of small shops selling everything from blown glass to essential oils and Arabic coffee.
We met up with the Holgate expedition at the ancient Mediterranean port of Alexandria – a charmingly chaotic city where the ancient and modern co-exist side by side. Again Egypt managed to catch us unawares as we’d been expecting a small fishing village, or town at a push, surrounding a few ancient buildings.
Well, the buildings were there, but the sleepy little fishing village turned out to be the second-largest city in Egypt with a population in the region of four to five million people. All of them, it seemed, were driving their cars at the same time as we arrived, and trying out their new hooters.
A relaxing city it is not, but we loved our short stay in Alexandria, with the magnificent Citadel of Quaitbay, built on the ruins of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, guarding the entrance to the harbour.
It was at the citadel that we met up with Kingsley, and he greeted us “in the Egyptian fashion”, as he put it, with a big hug, and promises of fascinating sights to come.
He didn’t let us down, and that afternoon took us to see a South African connection he’d found. Egypt has so much ancient history that it would be easy to dismiss more modern events, but Kingsley was eager for us to see the war memorials at El Alamein, where hundreds of South African soldiers are buried under headstones marked with engraved springboks.
In the dimming light, looking over the western desert, it was hard to believe that the largest tank battle in Africa was fought over this barren piece of land.
Kingsley and his wife, Mashozi, placed flowers at the foot of a South African headstone in remembrance of all those who died in that desolate place more than 60 years ago. It would have been a truly poignant moment but for the icy breeze threatening to freeze off our ears…
Moving on from El Alamein, the mouth of the Nile was our next point of interest. Yet again Egypt threw us a curveball, and our first glimpse of the mouth of Africa’s longest and most historic river was an ugly, insignificant beach littered with concrete blocks, and with dirty sand. It was a symbolic point for the Outside Edge team, but the only thought I had was, “I thought there’d be more papyrus”.
Kingsley’s interest in history is probably as deep as his passion for Africa, so there was no way we were going to pass Rashid without having a closer look at the place where the Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers in 1799, finally enabling Egyptologists to understand hieroglyphics.
Less impressive on a historical scale, but just as interesting, was an impromptu visit to a small fishing village on Lake Manzala. Despite driving straight into the middle of this village, totally unannounced, we were greeted warmly, and even offered tea.
Kingsley had spied a group of masts from the road, peeking out above the marsh grass, and wanted to take a closer look. Since embarking on his African Rainbow Expedition aboard a dhow, he has had a strong affinity for them, and, in his words, “finding these dhows, which are of a type I never knew existed, has made my day. They’re especially designed for the shallow water, and the huge sail means there isn’t much wind, either.”
We wandered around for hours, investigating the boats when we were invited on board, and taking pictures of a scene that can’t have changed much in centuries.
Our drive along the Mediterranean coast gave way to the surreal sight of gigantic container ships sailing through the desert in the Suez Canal. Viewed from the 70m high Friendship Bridge that links mainland Egypt to Sinai, the sight was amazing.
The banks of the Suez Canal led us to Port Suez, where the Red Sea begins and where our short stint with the team from the Outside Edge Expedition came to an end.
From here the expedition continues south towards South Africa, and its eventual conclusion at the Cape of Good Hope, from where it set off almost 11 months ago – on 27 April 2007. On the way the crew will continue to give away mosquito nets in an effort to curb malaria and save lives. They are also distributing educational kits for children about the dangers of malaria, and how best to avoid it.
Travelling with a character like Kingsley is an absolute pleasure. He is so experienced at what he does – at living and travelling in Africa – that he manages to relate to the local people and communicate with them even when he doesn’t speak the language.
And because of his past adventures and his great sense of humour, evenings spent contemplating life with the “Greybeard of Africa” – and drinking Captain Morgan rum – are very entertaining, so it was with heavy hearts that we said farewell, once again in the “Egyptian fashion”.