For Kingsley Holgate and his team, the road less travelled is a delight but not always easy. Over and above the co-ordination of the expedition route, kit and supplies, it is about coping with the logistics of the humanitarian and conservation work attached to all his journeys.
Our humanitarian work started several decades ago. We felt strongly about the need to give something back to the people of Mama Afrika and the by-line to our Land Rover expeditions still remains, ‘Using adventure to improve and save lives’. We carry what we can on the Landies; nowadays Discovery 4s and a big mother ship of a Defender 130. I remember on one expedition, we had to weld a two-inch water-piping frame off the bull bar and chassis to support the weight of the heavy bales of insecticide-treated malaria nets. It turned the 130 into a bit of a Mad Max lookalike.
Adventurers into Africa will know that malaria and dysentery can bring the most well-planned journey to a grinding halt. 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’s like a thud to the heart when we get to a village and see a mother not knowing what to do, a child dying from malaria and the nearest hospital or clinic two to three days away. It is unacceptable that for every minute of the day, a child still dies from the blood-sucking bite of the anopheles mosquito. And so, as a family and team (using our own funding initially) we started to distribute lifesaving mosquito bed-nets and malaria prevention education to pregnant women and mothers with children under the age of five. Other organisations joined forces with us and the programme has gone from strength to strength; it now includes a huge Nando’s-supported indoor residual spraying programme in southern Mozambique called ‘Goodbye Malaria’.
Dysentery is also a killer. Another of our humanitarian projects is the distribution of Life Straws – a water filter that hangs around your neck, providing close to 1 000 litres of potable drinking water – very necessary especially for nomadic tribesmen in dry regions where sometimes the only source of water is a muddy, dung-infested waterhole. ‘Shovashova’ Mike Nixon, veteran of every Cape Epic who incredibly, cycles almost every expedition with us (he’s the only man I know to have cycled the entire length of the Great African Rift Valley), is a huge fan of LifeStraws. Many a time, we’ve caught up with him kneeling over a stagnant puddle of water, backside in the air, as he demonstrates to amazed cattle or camel herders how to use the LifeStraws he’s handed out to them.
Of course, the Rite to Sight campaign, started more than a decade ago by Mashozi (Gill Holgate), on an expedition to track the Tropic of Capricorn around the world. Sight is something we all take for granted; need a pair of readers, pop into a pharmacy, pick your strength on the eye chart, even choose the colour and a spectacle case, and voila: you can see. But for millions around Africa, it’s not that easy. To date, thanks to support from Land Rover and others, we’ve distributed over 130 000 pairs of reading glasses throughout Africa, most recently, to the remote lakeshore villages of Lake Tanganyika where there are no roads and little or no regular health services. The instant gratitude from the Rite to Sight recipients and the immediate difference it makes in their lives is heart-warming. It’s all about improving people’s quality of life: allowing them to again weave a basket, thread a needle, do beadwork, bait a fishing hook, read a newspaper or book and see the numbers on a small cellphone screen.
Also of special interest to us – and great fun – is our community conservation education work. Through Rhino and Elephant Art and conservation soccer games, we raise awareness among thousands of children about the poaching crisis decimating Africa’s wildlife and use their art and messages as a call to action against all forms of wildlife crime. Some days are rough. I remember the mind-numbing heat of West Africa, where the bloody humidity is thick as golden syrup and malaria is rife. We were at a rundown hospital that did not have a single mosquito net. The team went from ward to ward, using a cordless drill to secure mosquito nets above each bed. While we were there, a baby died of malaria. At the maternity clinic, we made sure that all the mums received malaria prevention education and a good quality long-lasting insecticide-treated bed net. At the same time, in the baking heat of the hospital’s courtyard, others in our group attended to a long line of poor-sighted, mostly elderly people waiting to be tested for their Rite to Sight spectacles.
Later, exhausted from the heat and the one-to-one contact with hundreds of recipients, we made our way down a dusty rutted track to set up camp on a hill overlooking a vast swathe of Africa, as the sun dipped low on the horizon. We’ve become good at camp set-up; our record is seven minutes. Each expedition member throws out their pop-up tent, in goes the canvas bedrolls, squirt some mozzie spray inside and zip it closed; soon we’re around the fire, camp chairs out, a stew of whatever on the coals and dented enamel mugs in hand. We got chatting about this crazy way of life, magnificent adventures that have a purpose. I asked the good-natured team a question: is all this humanitarian work worthwhile, or aren’t just the many challenges of the adventure enough on their own? There was a thoughtful silence, then Ross piped up. “Do you remember that time in the Tugen Hills deep in East Africa’s Rift Valley when we were doing Mashozi’s Rite to Sight on the veranda of a small trading store?
“An elderly man with one leg and a homemade crutch pitched up. A tractor had run over him so he couldn’t farm anymore and had been forced to become the village cobbler, fixing shoes. Then his eyes failed and he could no longer work. We tested him: all he needed was a pair of +2.75 reading glasses. There and then, he called for his grandson to bring over his shoe-making equipment and immediately, with his new spectacles on, began working on a half-finished shoe. Do you remember the crowd roaring with delight? Of course it’s worthwhile.” Other expedition members joined in with their own special memories; Anna especially enjoyed the malaria prevention work with mums and Sheelagh loved the conservation education work with kids. Everyone agreed that the good work attached to our adventures is at the very heart of what we do and adds meaning to our geographic journeys of discovery. “Don’t change it Boss,” said red-bearded Bruce, a veteran of many tough expeditions.
Where possible, we encourage other adventurous souls journeying in Africa to also spread goodwill. It doesn’t take much: some soccer balls or stationery for kids, or other items that can make life easier for those less fortunate. It’s a great way of embracing Mama Afrika and having loads of fun, too.