Adventurer Kingsley Holgate’s latest adventure kicked off at the end of September. Called ‘Extreme East’, the journey will take the team all the way to the most extreme eastern tip of Mamma Africa.
Packing for the start point of our next expedition called Extreme East, this time in specially kitted new Land Rover Discoverys, with our old Defender 130 loaded up with supplies, we got talking about the wonderful African east coast adventures we’ve had over the years. One of the craziest was to travel all the way to the Somali border and back. With these thoughts in mind, I dug out an old journal. On its sea salt-stained cover are the faded words, ‘African Rainbow Expedition’. Our objective at that time was clear: travelling in Land Rovers, inflatable boats and by Swahili dhow, we were determined to explore the entire coast of East Africa from Durban to the Somali border and back to Ihla de Mozambique.
It was a year-long journey using the Kusi trade winds to sail north, and then the Kaskazi to sail back south, just as it’s been for centuries. We launched the expedition from the IMAX theatre at the Gateway Shopping Mall in Umhlanga Rocks. Once again, the much-travelled Zulu calabash – this time filled with Indian Ocean seawater from Durban harbour – was held high as, to the wailing of police sirens, our convoy of African Rainbow Expedition Land Rovers was escorted north out of town, destination Pemba in Mozambique, where Amina, an old Arab sailing dhow, was awaiting our arrival. It was an action-packed journey from the start, as on a sand track just north of Ponta do Ouro, just inside Mozambique, I rolled my big green 130 Land Rover Defender. In slow motion – overloaded with inflatable boats, outboard engines and mosquito nets – over she went. My excuse was the grass was too high and I didn’t see the bank.
The Landy landed on its side, with my large frame sort of crumpled down into the corner under the steering wheel, my feet, knees and legs caught up between the handbrake and pedals. Defying gravity, Mashozi got a foot onto the rear view mirror and held on for dear life – but then the mirror gave way and she fell on top of me. Once she realised we were okay, she got the bloody giggles. “What happened?” she chuckled, “you can’t believe how funny you look all curled up down there, just like a garden gnome with the calabash dripping onto your head!” Tears of laughter ran down her cheeks. Fortunately, the calabash survived, we rolled the vehicle back onto its wheels and other than my pride – which was severely dented – nothing was seriously damaged.
At Pemba, I instantly fell in love on seeing Amina, the dhow that expedition member Bruce Leslie had found and sailed down from Mafia Island off the coast of Tanzania. She was no dungu-dungu (ugly duckling) but she looked tired, a bit neglected, but still beautiful. She was a big girl, 15 metres long by five metres wide at the broad beam. Rising from a pile of woodchips many years before, painstakingly handcrafted from Rufiji Delta hardwoods by the fundis of Chole Island, she was a work of art built to an ancient design. Typical of the jahazi class of dhow, Amina had a squared-off, wineglass-shaped transom, a big, thick hardwood sloping bow, and a broad but gracefully curved belly.
We spent a month refitting her: a new mast, caulking the planks, removing the old waterproofing made from shark fat, repainting and attaching new machos (the wooden ‘eyes’ that ward off evil, embellished with a star and crescent in the traditional Swahili colours of red, white and black). What a journey! We took it in turns to sail Amina or be part of the Landy support team of two Defenders station wagons, and an old forward-control carrying all the humanitarian supplies. There is nothing like sailing an ancient dhow on the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean. No engine, just the power of the wind, barefoot on the creaking decks, and in the late afternoon, seeing the winking lights of the Land Rovers calling us into a safe anchorage and the stars overhead, eating freshly caught fish with our fingers.
But it wasn’t without its challenges: Bruce was knifed in the neck by pirates and was pulled, barely alive, from the sea and casevaced out; and then closer to Somalia, the crew mutineered because of the fear of piracy, and we had to continue to the Somali border by Land Rover and rubber duck to reach the frontier village of Khakani, where under armed guard, we distributed mosquito nets to the desperate villagers. We found a man under a tree dying from internal injuries and were told he’d been badly beaten by the Somalis. We gave him painkillers – it’s all we had – even though we knew he wouldn’t survive. We photographed the strange-looking, phallic-shaped navigational markers decorated with pieces of old porcelain, which are said to be early Portuguese or Chinese navigational markers. We looked across to Somalia. “Twende – let’s go!” urged an Askari who hadn’t left my side.
It’s great when a plan comes together, but ahead of us was the task of getting Amina back to Lamu to be refitted while we waited for the Kaskazi trade winds to arrive for the long sail back south to Ilha de Mozambique, and then by Land Rover, back home to South Africa. The full story of Amina is one of many tales in a book we’re currently scribbling titled, A Love Affair With A Continent. But back to the present; ahead of us lies the Extreme East expedition. In two days, we’ll fill the Zulu calabash once more, this time from the most easterly point on the South African coastline at Kosi Bay in the beautiful iSimangaliso Wetland Park, and then head north in the Landys to the ancient walled city of Harar in Ethiopia. We’ll keep you posted.