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13 February 2018

Kingsley Holgate and his convoy of new Land Rover Discoverys have made it to Ras Xaafuun in Puntland, northern Somalia. It has been the most dangerous mission of his life. The legendary man tells the story.

Last month’s column was written on the banks of the Ruaha River in Tanzania, and we couldn’t reveal our Extreme East Expedition’s true destination for very serious security reasons. We had to keep it completely secret. 

We’d been warned: a single social media mention or news article could be tickets for us. Any mention could make us a target for kidnap and ransom, or an attack by Al-Shabaab.

Such was the threat that we even had to create a false story that our endpoint was the ancient walled city of Harar in Ethiopia, or possibly even onto Berbera on the Gulf of Aden in Somaliland. But now we’re safe and back from the Horn of Africa, we can give it to you straight, as it happened, from scribbles in the expedition’s notebook.

Our secret objective from the start is to reach the headland called Ras Xaafuun in Puntland, northern Somalia which, as the crow flies, lies 115km south of the tip of the Horn of Africa. Ras Xaafuun is the most extreme east point on the continent. 

The entire thrust of the expedition is to carry a calabash of Indian Ocean seawater from South Africa’s most easterly point near Kosi Bay, to Ras Xaafuun. 
But as it happens, it is bloody bad timing. It seems everything is against us. Around Harar and down to the Ogaden on the Horn of Africa, tensions erupted between the Oromo and the Somalis in a so-called ‘khat war’, the name given to the hallucinogenic, narcotic weed that’s traded and chewed be millions across this region.

Presidential elections are happening in the self-proclaimed but internationally unrecognised state of Somaliland, there’s ongoing conflict in Yemen and the Gulf of Aden, and a massive bomb blast in Mogadishu – the worst ever – kills 400 people. 

Then, to add to the tension, as we are preparing to cross the border from Somaliland through a dangerous no-man’s-land stretch of disputed territory, news breaks of a US military drone strike on an IS base not far from our end-goal. Shortly after, Al-Shabaab executes four supposed spies. 

Into Puntland we go at 4am. Protected by 25 heavily armed soldiers – AKs, plenty of ammo and light machine guns mounted on trucks – we race non-stop (except for goat meat and diesel breaks), our security constantly on high alert, flat out across challenging desert and mountainous terrain.  Dust so thick you can’t see the other vehicles, threat of landmines, it’s high speed, nerve-wracking, adrenaline-filled driving, swerving around thorn trees and gullies that make ideal ambush points.

Jeez, these new Discos go like the clappers. Just as well, our lives depend on them.

Red-bearded Bruce Leslie who’s driving the 130 Defender, comes over the radio: “We’re probably being watched by Uncle Sam’s ‘eagles in the sky’ right now. Bet there’s a pretty surprised drone operator wondering what three Landies are doing way out here,” he jokes. It breaks the tension for a moment and we all get the giggles.

As the sun sets, our convoy slows to negotiate a narrow, twisting, rocky mountain pass into the lowlands that stretch towards the coast. Hours later, we bounce across a 20km spit of land towards the fishing village of Xaafuun, as a huge full moon rises. Exhausted, we roll out our bedrolls in a grubby compound, our armed escort fanning out around the dust-covered, sandblasted Landies. Soldiers stand on guard inside the compound walls.

Early the following morning, hearts pounding and eyes constantly scanning for threats, we tackle the final 30km to the rocky headland of Ras Xaafuun, boulder-hopping the new Discos and the 130 through a moonscape of limestone and coral hills and gullies littered with black volcanic debris.

Mike Nixon, our expedition mountain biker who’s already cycled over 2 000km of the journey, completes the last few kilometres tucked in behind the lead armed vehicle.

And there it is! Set on towering, 20m-high cliffs above the Indian Ocean, we didn’t expect Africa’s extreme east point to be so dramatically wild, empty and beautiful. After 12 000km, six adventure-filled weeks and now constant danger, imagine the adrenaline as we attach a commemorative plaque of Peace and Goodwill written in Somali and English to the crumbling remains of the old Italian-built lighthouse.

Quite solemnly, we empty the Zulu calabash of water that we’ve carried all the way from South Africa’s most easterly point near Kosi Bay onto a small cairn of stones that we hurriedly erect. It now marks the most extreme easterly point of Africa.

Local dignitaries and members of our tough security detail scribble messages of peace and goodwill in Somali in the expedition’s Scroll. They too can’t believe it; this place is so raw and untouched, even they have never been here before. 
Somehow we’ve made it to Africa’s most extreme easterly point.

We feel emotionally drained by the danger of the journey. We must be crazy, but it’s a dream come true. Getting to the extreme easterly point of Africa is the ‘missing link’: we’ve now succeeded in reaching the seven most extreme geographic points of Africa: north, south, west and now east; Mt Kilimanjaro (the highest), Lake Assal (the lowest), and in 2015, discovering the heart of Africa, deep in the rainforests of the Republic of Congo.
It’s a world-first for any expedition team, made special by the great humanitarian work that has been so much part of these journeys of discovery and this Extreme East expedition was no exception.

As always, we’d never have made it if it weren’t for the solidarity of our tight-knit team of brave hearts (Ross, King, Bruce, Sheelagh and Mike), our incredibly capable all-new Land Rover Discoverys (our lives really did depend on them) and the wonderful people along the way who risked their lives in this crazy humanitarian and geographical quest.

But the journey isn’t over by a long shot: now the challenge is to get the hell out of here before things go wrong.