South Africa’s modern day answer to David Livingstone, Kingsley Holgate is packing his compass and tent once again, this time in search of ancient cultures…
In Ethiopia, girls belonging to the Mursi tribe have their lower lips pierced with an acacia thorn around the time they turn 15. Over time, the piercing is replaced with a lip plate, but to reach that point, their lips must be stretched … and stretched … and stretched … Until they can actually pull the lower lip over their heads. If they manage this feat, they can command the highest possible bride price: 15 cattle.
Most of us will never get the chance to ask a Mursi woman how it feels to wear a lip plate, or whether that stretched lower lip makes it difficult to eat. But then again, most of us aren’t Kingsley Holgate, the adventurer whose life has been spent exploring Africa’s hidden pockets – like the great salt ocean of Chew Bahir in southern Ethiopia, where he and son Ross are headed on their latest mission.
As with all their expeditions, the father-son team have created a theme for their adventure: Living Traditions. Launching from Lesedi Cultural Village – a fitting departure point, says Kingsley – the journey is as much about documenting, photographing and researching the last few African cultures that remain untouched by Western influence as it is about distributing much-needed aid to the remote areas in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. At the same time, Kingsley and Ross will be pursuing one of their personal goals: circumnavigating Chew Bahir by land yacht.
This isn’t the first time the Holgates have made use of these unlikely vehicles. Ross recalls that when he was just 14, he and Kingsley knocked together an A-frame structure, affixed a mast from a Hobie Cat, and set out two plastic chairs, as they ventured forth on a mission to circumnavigate the largest salt pans in the world: Makgadikgadi in Botswana. They arrived in October, locally known as ‘suicide month’ because of the relentless heat – but also a time of wind, which they needed for their three-wheelers to propel themselves through the sand.
Using a rugby jersey as a sail, they stretched out their sleeping bags and ‘sailed’ away at 70 km an hour in a landscape so flat it is possible to see the curvature of the earth … until, three days later, that precious wind stopped. The Holgates would have waited for a breeze to start up again, but they ran out of water – and that’s when things got nasty. With Kingsley so ill that he was vomiting bile, it was up to Ross to find help. Which he did, in the form of a group of men loading their truck with salt crust. The only problem was that in this remote region, the sight of a panicking white boy sprinting at full tilt was an alarming one – which may explain why they took one look at him and fled.
They returned a few hours later, though, by which time Ross had lost his bearings, and lost Kingsley too. The men eventually helped Ross find his father and, with the help of an English-speaking headmaster from their village, helped them recover the land yachts, although it took three long days to do so. Finally, with Kingsley still man-down from illness, Ross had to make the drive from Botswana back to South Africa four full years before he was legally allowed to apply for his license.
Ross candidly admits that the experience was “horrific” – but not so ghastly that he was deterred from making more trips with his father. In fact, 10 years later, the Holgates travelled back to Botswana to complete their goal.
They’ve had many more hazardous trips since, most notably last year’s journey to find Africa’s centre point. They found their destination in the middle of a rain forest, but the goal came at great cost: Kingsley was so sick that the entire expedition team had braced for the fact that, at 70, he might not be able to make it home. “I was experiencing waves of emotion. Lots of people wanted to call an end to the trip, but we realised that after all we had invested in it, that would have broken us,” Ross recalls.
Even so, Ross admits that he was resigned to the loss of his father. Which makes it hard to believe that, just a year after the most difficult trial he’s faced, he’s trying to address another case of itchy feet. What keeps the duo going? “Our humanitarian work has given the adventures some dignity,” Ross says. And, indeed, there’s no doubt that life will improve drastically for the tribes around Chew Bahir, once the Holgates have left their donations of repellent-treated mosquito nets, ‘LifeStraws’ (a portable water purification device that is capable of removing 99% of water-borne diseases, including typhoid and cholera, from drinking water) and ‘Right to Sight’ reading glasses. But more than that, Ross and Kingsley cannot escape the drive to test themselves.
That search for the next challenge could make life after their adventures very boring, if it meant spending time browsing grocery stores and catching up with Facebook. But Ross says that the family “tries to avoid reality at all costs”. Living on KwaZulu-Natal’s Zinkwazi beach, they spend most of their time diving, fishing or exploring the coastline’s magnificent reserves.
In keeping their connection with nature, they’re keenly aware that – even in areas that have previously been untouched by progress – others are losing theirs. That’s what makes their current expedition so important, Kingsley says. “Just five years ago, if you were to walk through Kenya’s Northern District, a Samburu tribesman in traditional dress would have been a common sight. Now you’ll see the same person wearing western clothes, talking on a cell phone and riding an Indian motorcycle.” His sentiment is that this is progress and therefore unstoppable – but it’s a sad progress nonetheless. And that’s why he’s determined that this tour should pay homage to these cultures, before they disappear entirely.
Both men acknowledge that change is inevitable – already, says Ross, travelling through Africa is vastly different to what it once was. “Africa is currently the world’s ‘golden child’. The West is investing more, which means more greed and more corruption.” And this brings with it some challenges for the explorers; like the inescapable fact that, at some point, they’re bound to run into hostile locals. The only way to handle the situation, according to Ross, is with humour. “When someone is aiming an AK47 at you, the best thing to do is shake his hand, introduce yourself, and hope for the best. It helps to have a good translator who speaks the local dialect.”
With the current trip taking them through Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, southern Ethiopia, southern Sudan and Uganda, returning to South Africa eight weeks later, they’re certainly expecting a few uncomfortable moments. But for Kingsley, it will all be worthwhile. “Cultures don’t die, they simply mutate. Look at the Scots, they still wear kilts. The same goes for Africa, even as they change, they still exist in the spirit of Ubuntu, in our hearts and minds. How lovely, to bring to life these vanishing cultures in a colourful way.”