146 days and 10 countries after leaving Cape Town, and having survived the high-altitude mountain passes of Khyber and Karakoram in Pakistan, Kingsley shares the story of what it was like to finally reach their expedition destination in the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Nepal.
We crossed out of Pakistan into India at the Wagah border, famous for its ‘Retreat Ceremony’ where thousands of Indian and Pakistan citizens gather on either side every evening, chanting, ‘Hindustan!’ – ‘Pakistan!’ as they watch a pulsating military parade at the daily closing of the border gates.
But we have to endure a three-hour search of the expedition Landies – customs officials looking for explosives or any suspicious connection that could link us to the uneasy situation between India and Pakistan, before they write ‘Welcome to India’ in the Madiba100 Scroll of Peace and Goodwill.
We’ve faced the gridlocked traffic of overcrowded cities like Cairo, Kinshasa, Lagos and Nairobi before, but nothing prepares us for the chaos, pandemonium and sensory overload of being amongst 1,3 billion people and driving in India! But with it comes a reward: strolling barefoot at night with thousands of pilgrims through the Golden Temple in Amritsar; the colonial buildings and Red Fort of crowded, polluted, historic Delhi; the romantic beauty of the Taj Mahal; walking ancient Varanasi’s labyrinth of streets and down the colourful ghats to the burning funeral pyres on the banks of the spiritual River Ganges – at night by boat, the river lit by thousands of floating flower-candles in memory of loved ones to the chanting of Hindu priests and tinkling of bells.
Then it’s a chaotic and somewhat dangerous traffic-dodging dash to the border with Nepal. After all these months and the nightmare of paperwork and permissions we’ve had to endure to get our three South Africa-registered vehicles through 11 countries to reach this point, I have to pinch myself as the customs stamp comes down in our passports and finally, we enter Nepal. Now we can taste victory!
From the start, our expedition convoy generates huge interest with the friendly and gentle Nepalese people as they see the Cape Town to Kathmandu expedition logos. There are literally thousands of shouts of ‘Namaste – welcome to Nepal!’ from overloaded buses, taxis, scooters, water buffalo carts, cyclists, roadside vendors and pedestrians.
From Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, we zigzag over a verdant mountain pass to reach the jungle wonderland of Chitwan National Park – a major highlight for our wildlife-mad team. There, we have the incredible privilege of walking with elephants to see our very first Greater One-Horned Asian Rhinos – it’s a dream come true.
Our final stop before traversing the last daredevil-like mountain pass of the expedition to reach Kathmandu, is at a community school on the border of Chitwan for a much-anticipated rhino conservation event. The children are so excited they can hardly sit still as our dust-covered, well-travelled Landies arrive, the flags of South Africa and Nepal proudly displayed. It’s a wonderful day for youth conservation between the two countries, as the kids read out their hand-written appeals for the preservation of the world’s rhinos and exchange their best pieces of Rhino Art with those from South African children, which we’ve carried for over 17,000Km.
It’s all about instilling a passion for wildlife amongst the youth and Nepal shows it can be done: thanks to political will, excellent anti-poaching work and the support of local communities, Chitwan’s rhinos have gone from near extinction to a growing population of over 600 – and they have not lost a single rhino to poaching since 2011, despite being less than 200km from the Chinese border. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
146 days after leaving from the Nobel Square in Cape Town, what an incredible welcome we receive in Kathmandu. With lights flashing, a Nepal Tourist Police vehicle escorts our expedition convoy through the congested streets to the 600-year-old, high-domed World Heritage Site of the Boudhanath Stupa, the holiest Buddhist temple in Kathmandu, where we are welcomed by a group of school children waving South African and Nepalese flags. The temple’s senior monk, Khenpo Dorje Lama, leads forward a welcoming delegation that includes the South African Honorary Consul, senior officials from the Nepal Tourism Board and other VIPS.
Press cameras click and flash as reporters and TV crews jockey for position. We’re presented with colourful Nepalese scarves and traditional pillbox-style hats – we look quite daft but it’s an emotional moment. How fitting that we end this mountain-themed journey on International Mountain Day at this symbolic site, which stands on the old Silk Route from Tibet and represents unity and peace. ‘It is the Buddhist custom to make a wish,’ Khenpo Dorje Lama tells us, as he leads us three times around the Boudhanath Stupa, then gives a blessing as we slowly empty the expedition’s Zulu calabash, which has carried Atlantic seawater all the way from Cape Town, over a sacred, golden Buddhist shrine.
In the spirit of Ubuntu, the Madiba100 Scroll of Peace and Goodwill is endorsed with warm, welcoming messages. Ms Nandini Lahe-Thapa, senior director of the Nepal Tourism Board writes, ‘To all the expedition members, thank you for your great work and the love and joy that you spread across the continents. I strongly believe that this special expedition has been guided by the spirit of the great leader Nelson Mandela with his stance for morals and equality, and that you chose to end the expedition in Nepal, the birthplace of Lord Buddha – the apostle of peace.’
Special permission is granted for the three expedition Land Rovers to do a lap of honour around the Boudhanath Stupa, there’s an exchange of South African and Nepalese flags and a traditional feast – washed down with an Everest beer or two. We’re deeply touched by a congratulatory phone call from South African High Commissioner Ms Robina Marks; so much effort has been put into this wonderful end-of-expedition event and we are quite overwhelmed.
The travel-weary faces of the expedition team tell the story; Ross, Anna, Shova Mike, Sheelagh, Bruce…somehow and sometimes against all odds, they made this world-first Land Rover Discovery journey possible. I have an overwhelming sense of relief that we have all got here safely – so much could have gone wrong: there’ve been some tough security situations and on some of the mountain passes, one mistake and we could have easily plunged to our death – not to mention the constant danger of road accidents from crazy drivers with suicidal urges. We’re also grateful to Land Rover and our other supporters that once again and wherever possible, we’ve been able to link this adventure to improving and saving lives, and that our youth-based conservation education programme continues to engender a passion for wildlife amongst the youth.
With the journey now over, it’s time to reflect on the diversity of religions, cultures and the 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve been fortunate to experience, the grandeur of the landscapes and the world’s highest mountain ranges – the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakorams – and to remember all the wonderful people we met along the way, who helped push this expedition forward.
Of course, we can’t forget the two new Discoveries and our big Defender 130 ‘mother ship’ – not once did they miss a beat. All said and done, they are the true heroes of this trans-continental journey from the southern tip of the African continent to the top of the world.