Some years ago, Kingsley Holgate and his team dreamed up an ambitious plan: to sail their ‘land yachts’ across the Chew Bahir, a dry salt lake on the floor of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. It turned into an adventure of note, and even included the one and only rendition of the ‘Chew Bahir wind dance’ – as performed by Kingsley and company. Kingsley tells the story.
Sitting around the campfire, we reminisce about a crazy expedition we cooked up called ‘Land Rovers, Land Yachts and Living Traditions’. The two specially kitted-out Disco 4s and the big 130 Defender take us through eight countries in eight weeks to the wild, nomadic South Omo region of southern Ethiopia to do what nobody has done before: land yacht the dust-devilled, barren and blistering Chew Bahir, a dry salt lake on the floor of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. To get to Chew Bahir, we cross Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, a dramatic, sometimes empty landscape where you can easily die of thirst. The area is full of wild-looking nomadic tribes, cattle and livestock wars, too many old rifles and Kalashnikovs traded from South Sudan and Ethiopia and bought with cattle and camels. We reach the vast Omo River delta where it flows into Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake.
There’s no official border post out of Kenya but the friendly police checkpoint lets us through, which means a bit of a negotiation with Ethiopian immigration at Omorati. This journey is about Living Traditions so we request Adimasu, our Ethiopian expedition member and interpreter, to take us into the lands of the Mursi, undoubtedly one of the most fascinating tribes of the kaleidoscope of cultures that make up this South Omo region of southern Ethiopia. We arrive on the third day of their fierce Donga stick-fighting ceremony, in which the men often fight to the death with long, 2.5 metre sticks. One of the fighters has his wounds wrapped up in pieces of cloth. The ‘prize’ that two of the warriors are fighting for is a beautiful Mursi girl, who moves from the shade of a thorn tree to lean demurely against the bull bar of my Land Rover Discovery. I jump backwards as an AK47 round goes off close to my ear.
Down comes a fighting stick and then another AK round is shot into the air. The tension is building; some of the warriors have dazed looks as they circle each other with their sticks at the ready. Some of the Mursi women are wearing their strange, clay saucer-like ornamental lip plates. A Mursi girl at the age of 15 or 16 has a slit made beneath her lower lip, and over time, the gap is progressively stretched, forming a lip loop large enough for a small circular clay plate. As the lip stretches, larger plates are inserted until eventually, the loop is large enough to hold a decorated clay plate up to 12cm in diameter, known as a dhebi or a tugoin in the Mursi language. Without fitting the clay saucer, a Mursi woman can ideally pull her distended lip loop over her head; we’re told that the larger the lip plate the greater her bride price: a real whopper can fetch up to 50 head of cattle. For us ‘non Mursis’ it’s a disturbing sight when the lip plate is out and the lower lip flops around. Hot and dusty, the women just plop the distended lower lip into their mouths to moisten it up, and then spit it out again. Malaria is rife in this area, so we distribute life-saving mosquito nets to pregnant Mursi women and mums with young children.
Our man Adimasu is getting fidgety. “Time to go, the drinking has started,” he says. Closer to Chew Bahir, the Landies progress one behind the other travelling up a dry riverbed, Adimasu takes us to a Hamer tribal ceremony where girls are whipped by their suitors. It’s tough to watch as blood spurts from a deep gash; one of the many that criss-cross their naked backs. One of the girls grunts in wide-eyed pain and then dances forward, tossing her head, spraying her admirer with butterfat and ochre from her thick, plaited hair that hangs in a fringe above her face, taunting him to whip her again. Down cracks the whipping stick; more blood. Metal bracelets, armbands and anklets jingle as she dances forward again, her leather skirt decorated with beads and cowrie shells swinging from side to side, revealing her strong, shapely thighs. As proof of her Hamer tribal culture, she will proudly wear her horrific scars for life.
The girls then form a circle into which a number of bulls are driven. “It’s part of a coming of age,” explains Adimasu as a naked young man leaps into the air and jumps across the backs of a number of bulls. “If he falls between them, he is shamed and not allowed to marry for another year. If he succeeds, he’s seen as a hero and is allowed to take a wife.” It’s late afternoon by the time we drop down over the Great Rift Valley escarpment to the great, dry salt lake of Chew Bahir. The heat that bounces off the white salt crust is mind-numbing, and we constantly have to rehydrate from Lumbaye’s kettle of thirst-quenching chai maziwa (sweet, milky tea Maasai-style) as we offload the land yachts from the roof of Ndlovukhazi, the big 130 Defender. The booms and masts are almost too hot to handle as we repair some of the batons. As always, it’s a race against the setting sun.
Like a bunch of heat-crazed aborigines, we perform our own ‘Chew Bahir Wind Dance’, pointing up at the sails. Somehow it works. The wind picks up, albeit in gusts, and Ross and Bruce race off over the rock-hard crust and then back again in the dark, with the Land Rover headlights to guide them back for camp stew and bedrolls under a Milky Way, punctuated with falling stars. The wind drops and the bloody mozzies chase us into our pop-up tents. Next day, ‘Shovashova Mike’ Nixon crosses Chew Bahir. It’s another first for one of the greatest adventure mountain bikers in the world. In strong winds – with dust devils racing across this vast, unknown place – we sail the land yachts into Borana country and for a short distance, according to our GPS, cross the boundary back into northern Kenya. We draw a line on the pan’s crust and I scribble ‘Kenyan Border’ on a piece of scrap cardboard, attach it to a stick and wedge it into the crust.
The feeling of endless space and solitude is wonderful and the high-speed sailing is exhilarating as once again, steering with our feet and juggling the main sail to get the most of the winds that gust across this moonscape, we reach speeds of 70km/h and more. It’s a huge adrenaline rush, but dangerous, too; if one of the land yachts gets blown off course, it would soon be lost in the heat haze and if the driver loses radio contact and is becalmed, his water supply in this severe heat would soon be finished. On the final evening, we empty the traditional Zulu calabash of symbolic Cradle of Humankind water, carried all the way from South Africa onto the white-hot crust of this ancient lake. Somewhat dehydrated, with sunburnt noses and rope-burned, blistered hands from the land yacht mainsheets, we pack up and take the Land Rovers along the base of the jagged Hamer range of mountains to do more humanitarian work and interact with more fascinating tribes in Ethiopia’s South Omo region. “But the road, she’s terribly gone…,” says Adimasu.