Last month we caught up with Kingsley and his Extreme East expedition team, who had just succeeded in taking their specially kitted-out
all new Land Rover Discoveries on a dangerous mission to Ras Xaafun, Africa’s most easterly point in Puntland, Somalia. As always, the rest of the story is best told from scribbles in the expedition notebook with ‘Hope crosses any terrain’ scribbled on the cover.
Getting to the continent’s most easterly point on the Horn of Africa was tough for all of us. We felt emotionally drained after 12 000km through eight countries, and then the race through Somalia with our own band of security – 25 armed men with AKs and light machine guns – always with the threat of possible kidnap and ransom hanging over our heads. But we made it.
Back in the fishing village of Xaafun, it was time to use this adventure to do some great humanitarian work. We got to meet elderly villagers through Rite to Sight, conducting eye tests and providing the correct strength of spectacles. As always, the gratitude was quite humbling: how a simple pair of reading glasses instantly improves someone’s quality of life.
With the mayor of Xaafun in attendance, we distributed top-quality, long-lasting PermaNet malaria nets to pregnant women and mums with small children, and the local Ministry of Health official received family-size LifeStraw water filtration units for the village clinic and for needy families. These each provide up to 30 000 litres of clean drinking water, so necessary in this drought-stricken area.
At 3am the following morning, before the muezzin’s call to mosque, we were up and off again on the high-speed return dash through the rocky, broken, scrub desert landscape that covers much of the Horn of Africa. Sleep deprivation was a constant companion.
The going was tough and incredibly demanding. To avoid the billowing clouds of dust, we spread out – two armed vehicles on either side of our little convoy of two All New Discoveries and the big 130 Defender – going flat-out, dodging stunted acacia trees, ploughing through dry, soft sand riverbeds, and on the harder, more open sections, sometimes reaching speeds of over 120km/h.
It was damn dangerous; in conditions like these we’d normally be cruising along at around 40-60km/h. But our guards were adamant – the faster we went, the safer we were – all of them were hanging on for dear life on the open backs of their vehicles. I sensed they wanted to get us out of this isolated region quickly, but at these breakneck speeds, there was probably more danger from an accident.
The wind was howling – our armed escorts’ faces were covered in thick, white dust – it was a helluva ride back to Garowe (capital city of Puntland) through roadside towns, the colourfully hand-painted shop fronts displaying what was for sale inside.
The Somalis are born traders with a tough, independent spirit of survival and enterprise, good people who really do deserve peace and prosperity. We stopped to pump diesel and grab a quick roadside feast of goat and rice; a couple of friendly locals told us they’d lived in South Africa but had to flee from xenophobic violence. We apologised and explained that like here in Somalia, it’s just a few troublemakers that spoil it for the rest.
Tired out, we arrived in Garowe in the dark and a shouting match began outside the high walls of our secure compound. Our armed escort got very edgy as a group of agitated high-ranking government security officials demanded entry. A crazy, social media rumour had sparked gossip that we were spies, or South African geologists illegally searching for minerals. Soon, we were being interrogated and threatened with arrest if we couldn’t verify our credentials.
We showed them the expedition’s Scroll of Peace and Goodwill with its hundreds of messages of support collected throughout our journey from South Africa, and past expedition images of the team with Nelson Mandela and other VIPs. But they insisted on searching the Landies, checking they weren’t bulletproof. They were fascinated by the new Discos: such state-of-the-art vehicles showcasing the flags of every country on the African continent are still unknown in Somalia.
I sensed we had one chance, or things could have gone horribly wrong. Ross, who’s good in these situations, whipped out the laptop and showed them photos of Ras Xaafun and of the mayor of Xaafun and a local military chief endorsing the expedition’s Scroll on the bonnet of one of the Discos. Our interrogators were intrigued; they have never been to Africa’s most easterly point in their own country.
To try and add to our credibility, Sheelagh raced downstairs to our Disco and from underneath all the expedition kit, dug out a tattered copy of our book, Dispatches from the Outside Edge, with the Greybeard’s face on the cover. I autographed it for the minister of safety and security; the pen blotched a bit – a sign of nerves. He smiled and shook my hand. Satisfied that our travel-worn, dishevelled team were just ordinary explorers on a peace and goodwill mission to reach Africa’s extreme easterly point, they posed for photos and signed the scroll. The minister wrote: “You guys are very brave that you come and visit Somalia at this time. Thanks.”
But it was still not ‘mission-accomplished’.
Next morning, there was an adrenaline-filled return dash through the 50km disputed stretch of no-man’s-land back into Somaliland, our dusty, sand-caked Landy convoy jockeying with speeding taxis and old Toyota Cressidas.
We’re told that because of Somaliland’s upcoming presidential elections, there was growing tension in this border region that is claimed by both Somaliland and Puntland. At the village of Tukarak, our Puntland security team pulled over, they couldn’t go any further. We hugged and shook hands and there were smiles all round; over the past five days, we’d formed a bond with these tough Somali men who’d kept us safe.
A couple of kilometres up the road, an armed Somaliland military police unit was waiting for us. With lights flashing, we were escorted the final 20km, passing
a military camp with camouflaged tanks and a downed civilian plane (wonder what its history is), straight into flag-waving election fever.
Now we must cross more challenging desert and mountainous terrain in this self-declared, independent republic that wants nothing to do with the rest of Somalia.
Will keep you posted.