The eternal wanderer

2011-03-26 00:00

JUST when Kingsley Holgate and his party thought they had achieved the extraordinary milestone of having visited every country in Africa, they realised on their return that another country had been added in the interim.

Here was the excuse for yet another adventure to add to the travel journal of Kingsley Holgate and yet another reason why it is nowhere near time for him — despite his 65 summers — to hang up his wandering boots.

The man with the long, white beard and mischievous eyes is a legend in his own right in every remote corner of Africa. With his Land Rover convoy and Captain Morgan rum in the secret tank of one of the vehicles, as well as piles of malaria nets as part of his expeditions in the past few years, Holgate is probably one of very few people who have traversed every country in Africa.

And the most recent trip, during which his team visited their last six countries — the Cape Verde islands, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea — last year, was to have marked the final part of the achievement of that goal.

And that would indeed have completed the picture but for Southern Sudan’s secession from Sudan in the last elections to become the newest independent African country.

True to form, Holgate immediately set about planning the journey to Juba to coincide with the independence celebrations early in July.

The symbolism of a trip just at this time, to focus the world’s eyes on that beautiful country, has not escaped him.

He has previously been in the northern part of the country. So he can now cross the River Nile and use this expedition to show how to join hands in order to help Southern Sudan and all its wealth of natural beauty to get on its feet for tourism.

Holgate’s trips began “officially” in 1993 and have never stopped since. With his wife Gill (Mashozi in Zulu, “the one who wears short pants”) at his side, and nowadays increasingly his son, Ross, he has blazed new trails for everyone who has always been too afraid of travelling in Africa.

For those who are still hesitant, Holgate has recorded his wealth of experiences in his stories, books, documentaries and photos.

Holgate grew up as one of three sons in a missionary family in KwaZulu-Natal.

KZN is still the one where his heart is most at home, even though he rests his head more frequently on stones elsewhere than in his own home.

The wanderlust grabbed him when he was still young and, true to the hippie customs of the time, he went travelling all over the world in his old Kombi in the sixties.

It was while he was in Britain that he met Gill.

It took some persuasion to get her to move to the dark continent, but when she landed here, she fell in love with it.

That was more than 40 years ago and since then she has been the anchor of Holgate’s expeditions, administrator of all the accompanying documentation and his soulmate with whom he has been able to share sunsets next to crackling fires in remote corners of the globe.

The recently completed all-Africa adventure brought its own dose of adrenalin with it — from rebels in northern Central African Republic to military convoys enabling them to pass through violence-ravaged areas between Chad and the CAR.

The high and low points were the visit to the Sahel area in Niger and the Tuareg nomads’ capital, Agadez.

The area with its historical buildings and fiery inhabitants was devoid of tourists.

“There wasn’t a single tourist around. The recent kidnapping of foreigners and the fatal shooting of a French tourist had made all the tourists flee.

“On one hand it was sad, because the people need tourism so much. On the other hand, and from a selfish point of view, we had all these treasures to ourselves. What an experience.”

Holgate’s party have long become undaunted by the rocks rolled in their way by mother nature.

The pouring rain that raised the level of the Niger River to the highest it has been since 1929 and turned mud roads into seething streams did not unsettle them.

“Lake Chad, which always used to be the largest source of water supply for the bordering countries as well, but had almost dried up completely, suddenly became a lake again. One feels like saying along with nature, ‘Whew, thank goodness for relief’.”

But with the rain also comes the breeding of masses of Africa’s greatest enemy. Holgate has his knife in for mosquitoes — which is why his adventures over the past few years have been linked to a project to supply mosquito nets to pregnant women and mothers with little children.

While he hands out nets as part of his One Net, One Life campaign, Gill’s Right to Sight project is aimed at supplying reading glasses to people in remote areas.

Holgate believes that in his own way he is playing a part in the reduction of the malaria infection rate in Africa from one every 30 seconds to one every 45 seconds.

But what motivates him to pack his Landie again and again and hit the road?

“It’s the people. It’s the people of Africa and the people of South Africa that you meet in the most unexpected places.

“It is people who of their own accord help clear the way for us — even in those places where there is such a lot of bureaucracy that many people give up hope even before trying.”

On their recent expedition they landed in Dakar, Senegal, before the vehicles arrived in Accra, Ghana. From there they travelled through Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, the CAR and Cameroon before flying to Equatorial Guinea.

“When we landed in Dakar I saw a guy speeding along next to our aircraft in a bakkie with a South African flag flapping in the wind.

“It was Piet Bosduif, a technician with South African Airways, who had come to fetch us. Piet was fully kitted out in his Bafana Bafana outfit …

“There is always a group of fellow South Africans who will invite us to join them around a fire with boerewors and a long chat; who are keen to share rugby stories and who make one realise that the spirit of ubuntu is alive.

“It is our diplomats like Gert du Preez in Chad who press on through the nights to help us with visas.

“It is our Department of International Co-operation and Relations who eventually managed to get even hardened Equatorial Guinea President Obiang Nguema, who didn’t exactly love us after a bunch of South Africans attempted a coup in his country, to soften his heart and allow us to visit his country as well.

“It is people like the rebel leader in the CAR, with his AK, eventually giving us a letter for a safe passage through a violence-ravaged area when he realised we are only Africans who love Africa.”

A little while ago Holgate used seven pebbles arranged in a row to explain to a friend how valuable time becomes as one gets older. Each pebble represents 10 years of the average person’s lifetime.

He discarded five of them — five decades already gone. Then another one, because the chances are slim that one will still be gallivanting all over the place in one’s 70s. Only one remained.

Holgate keeps this little stone in his pocket and rubs it every day as if it’s a rosary bead. Every moment of his life still remaining he has to use as best he can.

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