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Kingsley Holgate: Extreme East Expedition

27 March 2018

We get behind the scenes and interview Kingsley and Ross Holgate who, with their team of adventurers, have recently returned from Somalia on a Land Rover expedition called Extreme East.

Kingsley, they call you the Greybeard of African adventure and say that you and your team are the most travelled adventurers in Africa. Is it true that you’ve explored every single country on the African continent?
Yes, we feel hugely privileged to have undertaken geographic and humanitarian adventures to all 54 countries in Africa, including all the island states. More than 30 crazy expeditions over several decades that include a 33-country, 449-day odyssey to track the outline of Africa, a journey in open boats from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo and the mouth of the Nile near Alexandria, taking Landies around the world along 23’27° (the Tropic of Capricorn), and in open boats, an east-to-west journey across Africa from the mouth of the Zambezi to the mouth of the Congo rivers.

We also sailed by Arab dhow up the Swahili coast to Somalia and back on the African Rainbow expedition, and land-yachted the Makgadikgadi Pans and Chew Bahir, the great dry salt ocean in Ethiopia. There was a decade of travelling in the footsteps of early explorers: men like Livingstone, Burton, Speke and Stanley, and a Land Rover African Rift Valley expedition from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to Lake Urema in Mozambique.

More recently, the incredibly tough Heart of Africa expedition located the geographic centre of the continent deep in the rainforests of the Republic of Congo, and now this latest Extreme East expedition to north-eastern Somalia. Just some of the many that we’re turning into a book called Africa : A Love Affair with a Continent.

Africa is a beautiful place but also dangerous. Guns and violence are a reality of travelling through the continent.

Ross, you were expedition leader on this latest Extreme East expedition. What does this mean to you?

Well firstly, it feels bloody good to be alive. Somalia and the Horn of Africa can be a bit dodgy, but it was really important for us to get to Ras Xaafun, Africa’s most extreme east point. For us, it was the final piece of the puzzle and something we’d talked about for years. We’d tried it once before, but were turned back because of the conflict in the Horn of Africa.

On past expeditions, we’d reached six out of Africa’s seven ‘extreme’ geographic points: the northern (Ras ben Sakka at Cape Blanc, Tunisia), southern (Cape Agulhas, South Africa) and western (Pointe des Almadies, Cap Vert Peninsula in Senegal), the highest (Mt Kilimanjaro) and lowest (Lake Assal), and then the centre of Africa – a world-first discovery verified by the International Geographic Union. So you can imagine how important it was for us to reach Africa’s most easterly point and wrap up our world-first goal of reaching all seven extreme geographic points in Africa.

Kingsley, you are an adventurer at heart, but you also tackle humanitarian challenges like malaria prevention and bringing eye care to rural communities in Africa. Why and when did this humanitarian focus become part of the Kingsley Holgate Foundation expeditions?
It started a long time ago. We felt strongly about the need to give something back to the people of Africa and the by-line to our Land Rover expeditions remains ‘Using adventure to save and improve lives’. It’s an incredibly important part of each expedition, and something that we’re passionate about. With the great support of our expedition partners, we’ve been able to touch the lives of more than a million people, and that is hugely humbling.

Just as malaria had so plagued the early explorers, our expedition team has also suffered from constant bouts of this silent killer: I’ve had malaria more than 50 times. On one occasion, a villager died in the Land Rover as we were rushing him to hospital. It is unacceptable that for every minute of the day, a child still dies from the blood-sucking bite of the Anopheles mosquito. It’s like a thud to the heart when we get to a village, a mother not knowing what to do, her child dying from malaria and the nearest hospital or clinic two or three days away. And so as a family and team, using our own funding initially, we started to distribute lifesaving mosquito bed-nets and giving malaria prevention education to pregnant mums and mothers with children under the age of five. Other partners joined in and the programme has grown from strength to strength. It now even includes a Nando’s-supported indoor residual spraying programme in southern Mozambique called ‘Goodbye Malaria’.

Dysentery is also a killer, so another of our humanitarian projects is the distribution of LifeStraw water filtration units that provide thousands of litres of clean drinking water – very necessary in dry regions, especially for nomadic tribes, where often their only source of water is a muddy, dung-infested waterhole. And of course, Rite to Sight where we give out reading glasses to poor-sighted, mostly elderly villagers in rural areas far from clinics. Started more than a decade ago by my late wife, Mashozi (Gill Holgate), on the Tropic of Capricorn expedition around the world, it’s so gratifying to see how a simple pair of spectacles can instantly improve a person’s quality of life.

Recently, we’ve added community conservation education to our expedition efforts. We’ve seen first-hand, the appalling decimation of Africa’s iconic wildlife species from poaching and habitat loss, especially of rhino and elephant, and the very real threat of extinction is looming. If that happens, Africa will lose something that’s deeply unique and so much a part of her ancient mystique. We’ve teamed up with conservation bodies and launched the Rhino and Elephant Art education initiative, to instil a passion for wildlife among Africa’s youth.

Ross, planning an epic expedition must be a huge logistical challenge. Can you talk about some of the preparation and equipment required? How long does it usually take to plan?
There’s always that familiar nervous feeling of anticipation when we load the Landies at the beginning of each new adventure. The challenges of organising visas, money, equipment and sorting out the expedition Landies: carnets for the vehicles, first aid kit, basic food supplies, reference books and maps, letters of authority, GPS, bedrolls, tents, pots and pans, the old camp kettle, a Zulu meat dish, tools, hi-lift jacks, winches, sand mats, binoculars, cameras, humanitarian supplies…the list seems endless.

Preparation can take two months or longer. But truth be told, I think there’s sometimes a danger of over-planning. Long lists of where to camp each night and which routes to follow don’t work for us. We don’t overdo the detail as we like the adventure to take its own course; if there’s a big cultural ceremony up a river and we need to wait a day or two to see it, let’s do it. And invariably, we find fantastic, out-of-the-way campsites because we don’t plan where we’re going to sleep each night. Wherever possible, we travel at the pace and rhythm of Africa and by so doing, get to meet wonderfully hospitable local people along the way. The most important thing is that in all our minds, the team always plans to reach the goal and be true to the expedition’s objectives along the way.

Kingsley and his team have been trvelling in Land Rovers for a long time. These days, a mountain bike is also often involved.

Kingsley, your expeditions take time, sometimes months, and must be physically and mentally challenging. How do you go about picking your team?
Expeditions can be tough: tropical ulcers, malaria, dysentery and accidents are always a risk, but ‘touch wood’, we’ve never lost a person on an expedition. It’s hard work: long days in physically demanding terrain, from blazing desert heat to endless mud. I find that if you tackle a long expedition on a day-to-day basis, just chewing off bite-sized pieces, it makes it easier. If you are too focused on the end goal, that’s when you can get overwhelmed. To enjoy it and survive, you need to get into an ‘adventure zone’ – a sort of tunnel vision in which all the expedition members buy into the mission, have the determination to succeed and clearly understand the humanitarian objectives – they always do. Optimism is key: we don’t do negatives.

We’re lucky to have a highly experienced core team that have travelled with us for years and each member plays a valuable role. We watch each other’s backs, know each other’s strengths and get on with it. Most importantly, what’s needed is a sense of humour, a passion for Mama Afrika and a buy-in to that crazy ‘Zen of Travel’ that allows us to continue adventuring.

Ross, are there still places left for you and your team to explore in Africa and do you think this continent is still one of the last frontiers of adventure?
I guess you’d need 10 lifetimes to really understand Africa. And there are always new places to explore: lost valleys in Lesotho, old Italian-built mountain passes in Eritrea, some really out-of-the-way stone-hewn churches in Ethiopia, remote wildlife parks like Zakuma in Chad and the far corners of the Sahel and the Maghreb. Always, there are places that can’t be visited because of political unrest and war, such as the western desert of Libya or the deepest regions of the Congo. What you need is the ability to quickly seize the moment if and when a window of opportunity opens. Africa is indeed one of the last great frontiers of adventure and there’s still plenty to explore.

Kingsley, you carry a symbolic Zulu calabash and something called Nduku lo phefumula on all your expeditions. What are these and why are they important?
We love symbolism and we always carry a decorated Zulu calabash of water from the start to the finish of every expedition. On the journey to track Africa’s Great Rift Valley from the Horn of Africa, we added thimblefuls of water from every Rift Valley river and lake and finally emptied it into Gorongosa’s Lake Urema. We took a goat-skin gourd from Koobi Fora’s Cradle of Humankind in northern Kenya, filled it with water from our own Cradle of Humankind at Maropeng and emptied it on reaching the geographic Heart of Africa deep in the Congo rainforests.

Every expedition also has its own Scroll of Peace and Goodwill. Sometimes they’ve been more important than a passport and have gotten us out of sticky situations, like recently in Somalia. These scrolls – large, leather-bound books made by Melvil and Moon – have been endorsed by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, African presidents, kings, chiefs and thousands of ordinary people we meet along the way, such as the illiterate Samburu women, who, on our expedition to Chew Bahir, endorsed the Scroll with simple red-ochre handprints.

Behind my Land Rover seat lives a traditional Zulu talking stick: the Nduku lo phefumula. It gets passed round at campfire gatherings and community meetings giving everyone who wants to speak, ‘the power to breathe words’. On the dashboard of the Land Rovers, we stick the odd talisman: Voodoo protection fetishes, a sangoma’s fly whisk or something meaningful picked up at a special place. For overly curious traffic cops and roadside hustlers, there’s even a rubber snake. And no tailgate lunch would be complete without a symbolic Ugqoko – a wooden Zulu meat tray to cut the nyama on. Africa is full of great symbolism and these little touches certainly add colour to our adventures.

Ross, the Holgate team have a long connection with Land Rover: why are they your vehicles of choice?
It’s a personal thing and yes, we’ve have a long association with Landies. I grew up with old Series 1s (recently, we took a clutch of them across the high mountains of Lesotho), 2s and 3s and forward-controls. Then later, a host of old Tdi Defenders – three of which we used to track the outline of Africa – and the Td5s that we used in our Capricorn journey around the world. There have been a number of 130 long-wheel-base Defenders that act as ‘mother ships’ to our expeditions, carrying humanitarian supplies, grub-boxes and kit. Then we moved over to Discovery 3s and the incredibly tough and capable Land Rover Discovery 4s. Now, it’s the new state-of-the-art Discoverys, which we kitted out with 18-inch rims and tough Cooper Tyres, added roof racks, jerry cans and rear-mounted winches, and really put them through their paces on the 12 000km journey to Africa’s extreme east point in Somalia. Next will be the new Defenders, and we’re planning something really big.

But it’s not just about the day-to-day vehicles; it’s also about the unfailing support that Land Rover gives to every aspect of our humanitarian work. It’s also about Land Rover’s history and the good vibe that comes from Landy owners around Africa. It’s common to see old Series Land Rovers all over the continent still in use as daily workhorses. We really do believe that the heart of Land Rover belongs here in Africa.

Kingsley, what are the biggest misconceptions that even Africans – let alone foreign visitors – have about this continent we call home?
A common misconception is that Africa is only a continent of war, poverty, disease and desperation. Yet there is so much hope and possibility in Africa and we all need to rise above the doom and gloom stories. No other continent has such diversity of languages, tribes and cultures, so much colour and texture, wildlife and wild vistas. We need to celebrate and be proud of being African and not get bogged down in old perceptions of a ‘dark continent’.

I like the words of Beryl Markham, the British-born Kenyan aviatrix who, during the pioneer days of aviation, became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west: “Africa is mystic, it is wild. It is a sweltering inferno, a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world, or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just home. It is all these things, but one thing – it is never dull.”

Ross, I’m sure that even in this modern day, with all the gadgets and well-equipped vehicles that make travel easy, expedition life is not all plain-sailing. What are some of the biggest dangers you’ve had to face?
It’s definitely not always plain sailing! We’ve had a rubber duck chomped by a croc on Lake Turkana, been chased by elephant – quite disturbing when your rods are around your knees – and it’s not much fun when an angry hippo is breathing down your neck, or when there are lion in camp or a snake in the bedroll. But the biggest danger from wildlife is always that little she-devil of a blood-sucking Anopheles mosquito.

More often than not, though, the danger comes from humankind: unexploded landmines, child soldiers high on drugs, warlords demanding extortion money, and sometimes, very dangerous interrogations by gun-toting militia. I remember Kingsley being taken by Unita rebels during our Cape to Cairo expedition and marched out of camp. When they finally brought him back, the Unita leader said that they hadn’t killed him because he was so friendly.

I’ve learnt from the Greybeard that a warm handshake, big grin and friendly slap on the back go a long way in Africa. But most of the time, there’s a strong sense of Ubuntu: people welcoming you into their village and although they have so little, sharing a pot of food and offering hospitality and a safe place to camp. So it’s mostly good; we love Africa and there’s certainly far more overwhelming friendliness than hostility.

Kingsley, if you could choose only six African countries to visit, which ones would you recommend for people to gain a perspective of this vast and varied continent, and why?
Only six? Well, you have to include our own beautiful South Africa and its neighbouring countries. To get a feel of West Africa, visit friendly Ghana: they call it ‘West Africa for beginners’. In the north, Morocco is so different with its exotic cities of Marrakesh, Casablanca and Fez, and ancient Egypt with its pyramids and ancient temples on the Nile. Then in Ethiopia, the extraordinary stone-hewn churches, the grandeur of the Simian Mountains and the colourful tribes of south Omo. And to wrap it up, the vast wildlife-rich plains of East Africa – the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Rift Valley lakes – and the incredible ‘Coast of Zinj’. What a wonderful continent!

The team celebrates the discovery of the geographic ‘heart’ – or centre – of Africa.

Ross, what advice would you give to others wanting to create their own expeditions into Africa?
Have a passion for Africa. Start with a vision, pick a route and departure date, pore over maps and research books, and tell your friends about it: you might just be the most surprised person on Earth when you find yourself loaded up and off on a great adventure. While on expedition, tread lightly, with dignity and respect. Learn to travel at the pace and rhythm of Africa to give yourself time to absorb the mystery and mystique of one of the last great frontiers of travel and adventure. Spread some goodwill around and importantly, have an empty seat to load up a local guide or interpreter, so bringing each leg of the journey alive with local knowledge and a connection to the people whose land you’re travelling through.

Finally, a question for both of you: You’ve become perhaps the ultimate father-and-son adventure team: is Ross taking over from you Kingsley, and when do you plan to hang up your boots?
Ross: We make a great team. I’m the more practical one and dad’s the dreamer who keeps us on our toes with his legendary practical jokes.

Kingsley: Ross is the best logistics man I know. He’s a bloody good leader and has already taken over as expedition leader. It’s a wonderful privilege to travel with one’s family and a tight-knit team and to share so many incredible adventures. We’re just an ordinary bunch of individuals with an extraordinary passion for Africa. But when it comes to boots… well, it’s probably the smell, but my size 14s don’t hang up too easily. There’s still far too much to see and do: adventure, exploration and so much humanitarian work still needed. It’s the life of my choice, with the sense of satisfaction that Ross and the team will keep the ‘Zen of Travel’ alive and continue to adventure for generations to come.