Count down clock 120 days..

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It’s that time again where the symbolic calabash is filled again to mark the start of another Kingsley Holgate led expedition – this time it’s a Land Rover journey from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, linking 9 Countries, 7 Transfrontier Conservation Areas, 30 National Parks and Reserves and the Communities adjacent to these areas. Its all about Nature, Culture and Community. Eben Human from Die Burger gets these dispatches from the Greybeard of African Adventure, a story best told in Kingsley’s own words.

The filling of the symbolic Zulu Calabash.

I’ve got that normal feeling of nervous anticipation in the pit of my gut. My beard blows sideways in the strong southerly wind.

The Shakaland Zulus chant and wave their spears and shields. The waves crash against my knees.

Cameras click and flash to capture the moment.

Slowly Indian Ocean Sea Water glugs into the same Calabash that has carried water from Cape Point to the mouth of the Nile, circumnavigated the globe along the Tropic of Capricorn and followed in the footsteps of the great explorers. More recently the calabash has successfully carried cold South Atlantic seawater from the Cape of Good Hope on an expedition to track the Outside Edge of Africa through 33 countries, to be emptied 448 day later at the same place on Madiba`s birthday.

Today marks the start of the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition – this time the Calabash will take water from the Indian Ocean on a 120 day journey across the continent to the Atlantic across 9 Countries, 7 Transfrontier Conservation Areas, 30 National Parks and Reserves and the Communities adjacent to these areas. It’s all about Nature, Culture and Community.

The official launch of the expedition will be from the International Tourism Indaba in three days time. Whilst on expedition we’re going to send you regular dispatches, sometimes they might even be a bit irregular, depending on the circumstances of the day. But whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.

The Launch of the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition

It’s 10 am on Monday 11th May 2009 and there’s frenzy of activity outside the Tourism Indaba in Durban, Mahlembehlembe (a Zulu chief from Shakaland) points his stabbing spear skywards as Mad Mike Rumble and Graham Field of the Garmin / Garmap Skydiving Team, swoop in from the air like fish eagles.

They come in fast over the crowd, bringing with them the scissors for Miss South Africa to cut the symbolic ribbon to mark the start of The Boundless Southern Africa Expedition.

Ministers of Environment and Tourism and Conservation Officials applaud the expedition, traditional dancers from all over Southern Africa sing a Boundless Song, a masked mkishi dancer from Barotseland walks tall on high stilts.

“Hambani Kahle Nondwayiza” Hlube Chief Baba Dlamini shouts as he urges sponsors and guests to endorse the scroll of Peace and Goodwill for Conservation that will be carried like an Olympic Torch across Africa.

Miss South Africa writes, “Prosperity Health and Environment, we wish you all well”.

Escorted by a team of chanting Zulu dancers, Mike Nixon – one of only 4 South Africans to have conquered the world’s 7 summits – leads his mountain bike team forward, carrying the symbolic Zulu Calabash. The drums beat and the Zulus chant as Miss South Africa gracefully cuts the starter ribbon. The blue lights flash as a Police Motorcycle unit escorts the 100 strong Land Rover convoy out of Durban – The Boundless Southern Africa Expedition has begun.

uKhalamba Barrier of Spears

A long line of colorful Boundless Southern Africa Landies group outside the famous Nottingham Road Hotel, the well-known watering hole known as “Notties”.

“It’s the last outpost of the British Empire” chuckles the barman as everybody raises foaming glasses of the Captains brew. I look at the faces around me, adventurers from all over South Africa all with the same vision of a journey to connect The Transfrontier Conservation Areas across Southern Africa.

There’s my wife Mashozi, that’s Gill Holgate’s Zulu name. As always she’s the expedition bursar and will be in charge of juggling the budget and all the paperwork and supplies. Ross Holgate, my son, is in charge of logistics and filming the journey, Anna Muller types up the notes from my expedition journal, Babu Cossa from Mozambique is an old expedition hand, our Portuguese and Shangaan interpreter and malaria prevention educator.

There’s Dave Pusey the researcher and Rob O’Brien as camera assistant. Mike Rumble, we call him Mad Mike, is mapping the entire expedition for Garmap, Johan Louw is the expedition coordinator. Mike Nixon, Leith, Shaun and Neels make up the crazy mountain bike team who are accompanying us for the entire Lesotho leg. Also joining us for the Lesotho leg is Lesley Sutton, the PR and marketing girl from Land Rover, the Tuffstuff sponsored adventure medics Bertus and Victor and expedition humanitarian volunteers Eugene and Chris from Nando’s, Greg from Captain Morgan, Hugh Roe from BAT and Big Deon Schurmann. Then of course there’s me the Greybeard with the title of expedition leader – a` position impossible to fill without these fellow pilgrims of adventure, most of whom have traveled with us in the past.

Its day one of our 120 day journey across the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, linking 9 Countries, 7 Transfrontier Conservation Areas, 30 National Parks and Reserves and the Communities adjacent to these areas. Its all about Nature, Culture and Community.

From Notties it’s west, into the setting sun – Izinthaba zo Khalamba, Barrier of Spears – The Mighty Drakensberg beckons us.

Dressed in beanies and jackets, we all pile out of the Landies to be welcomed by wonderful Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife officials, our hosts at Giant’s Castle. There’s a hushed call for silence, as umnumzane Hadebe the Royal Praise Singer to the amaHlubi announces the arrival of his Royal Highness King Langalibalele.

His Royal Majesty endorses the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition Scroll of Peace and Goodwill for Conservation whilst young Hlubi boys dance to their ancient warrior chants and the sound of rawhide drums echoing amongst the mountains. The clicks in their language come from the Abathwa, the San people who once inhabited these magnificent mountains. Now all that remains of these tiny hunter gatherers are their galleries of rock art, some of the finest examples in the world.

Tomorrow we’ll follow the footsteps of the San along the Bushman’s River into the forests shadows and caves of the uKhalamba Barrier of Spears Trance Dances in the sand.

After an early morning hike following the Bushman’s River high into the Drakensberg foothills of the Giants Castle uKhalamba World Heritage Site, we stand at the open entrance to the massive cave. It’s a museum display from the old Natal Parks Board days, a life like family scene of a group of San hunter gatherers.

Close to the mock fire seeking warmth lies an old woman, alongside her a young mother with a baby and another preparing food. Using a paint brush made from a bone splint and a feather, and paint from natural ochres blood and squashed barks and berries, a man paints a hunting scene on the cave wall. Walking into the scene is the figure of a returning hunter dressed in a small antelope loin skin with a bow hanging from his shoulder.

In years gone by, barefoot in the dust, they would have trance danced after a successful hunt, Eland were favoured for the fat which they used to soften their skin karosses. And then as a tribute to the wild animals the rock painting would begin.

Roger Porter of Ezemvelo KZN wildlife tells us that there are 35 to 40 000 of these San paintings still in existence, an enduring gallery of detailed rock art.

Set into the exhibit are bits of bone, bottle tops and even spent cartridges. Some of the rock art in the next cave is pock marked with bullet holes from the days when the San people were hunted and shot down as cattle rustlers. It was the “genocide of an ancient people”, says Roger Porter.

Near the Langalibalele pass we find the number 75 carved into a huge rock. It marks the place where Lieutenant Colonel A. W. Durnford encamped with the 75th Regiment in 1854. They had come here to close the pass into Lesotho and to subjugate King Langalibalele I, who was eventually arrested and banished to Robben Island, I guess he was one of South Africa’s first political prisoners.

As a lead up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup, a team of adventurers from 4×4 Mega World have traveled ahead of the expedition to put in goal posts, nets, white lines, supply whistles, ball and bibs. The expedition arrives to present the winning team with a floating trophy and a ‘Man of the Match’ award. It’s a rural soccer world cup for conservation. We are doing what we came to do, linking communities to Transfrontier Conservation across Africa. It’s all part of a Boundless Southern Africa Expedition Community Event, supported by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, King Langalibalele II and the amaHlubi present, a beast is slaughtered, black clay beer pots are filled, we’ve judged a conservation themed art competition at the local school, handed over mobile libraries and provided lap top desks to scholars.

Its day three of our 120 day journey across the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, linking 9 Countries, 7 Transfrontier Conservation Areas, 30 National Parks and Reserves and the Communities adjacent to these areas. Its all about Nature, Culture and Community. – We’ll keep you posted.

In the footsteps of cattle rustlers.

The Bushman’s Nek Border post is well organised, both governments are trying to put and end to cattle rustling.

Likotsi Lemeke welcomes us. What a wonderfully friendly bloke. He represents the Ministry of Tourism / Environment and Culture of Lesotho and will hosting our expedition throughout our time in the Mountain Kingdom – we’re in good hands.

There’s still time to tap a little Captain Morgan from the secret tank that’s hidden under one of the expedition Landies. Just a small toast “khotso, pola, nala” to the mountain bikers and the members of the Expedition Team who are going to take Basotho ponies up Bushmans Nek Pass into Sehlabathebe Tranfrontier Area between South Africa and Lesotho, “we should make this a habit” chuckles Mad Mike, “a little celebration in every no-mans-land across Africa.”

We’re all in top form after a sponsored night at the Bushmans Nek Resort (beats camping in the cold!). It had been the scene for a great practical joke when Johan Louw – the expedition coordinator – was concerned at the non-arrival of the Lesotho horsemen team last night.

With Johan in the Bushmans Nek pub and Mike Nixon (head of the mountain bike team) wolfing down a giant plate of pasta in the dining room, I smelt an excellent opportunity for a harmless practical joke.

“Pretend you are phoning Johan from the British High Commission in Maseru” I said to Mike. And so he did – pretending to be a certain diplomat by the name of Peter Finch – he span a yarn about an attempted military coup that would put an end to the entire expedition.

It worked like a charm and we all walked into the bar to find Johan desperately trying to phone the minister of tourism and every other government official imaginable. “STOP we shouted…! ALL A BLUFF…..Sorry Johan, We’ll buy the drinks”. But the good fellow that he is, he stood us all a round, no hard feelings.

And so here we were preparing for our first symbolic crossing into a Transfrontier Conservation Area which will lead into another Boundless Expedition community day so linking local communities to nature and conservation.

The party splits.

Land Rovers around via Matatielle, up and over the escarpment through Ramatseliso’s pass border gate. Kingsley, the grey beard, is with the Landies for the drive around and over Ramatselisos Nek, and so we use these notes from Johan’s scribbles (he’s well over yesterday’s practical joke to tell the story of Bushman’s Nek Pass on the ponies).

Johan Louw, coordinator for the expedition is leading the assault on Bushmans’s Nek Pass, these are the scribbles from this filed note book:

Lemeke is our host, our guides are tough mountain men from Lesotho: Thabang Lerotholi; Poone Motsekinyane; Mapheellee Nkuebe; and Manaei Penane; they introduce us to our ponies. Shit! Looking at the mountain that they have to climb (approximately a 900m accent) and the size of some of our party, it looks like the “ponies” are in for a challenge.

And so we set off, following the course of the Bushman’s River at first, and then beginning to climb out on its western banks onto the mid slopes that would lead us to the plateau and the Lesotho and Sehlabathebe National Park boundary. The scenery is incredible – pristine, undulating, three dimensional – the air crisp and fresh.

As we progress up the mighty Maluti we increasingly become awe-inspired by the experience, the scenic beauty, the sense of adventure, and most surprisingly the incredible spirit, agility and ability of the Basotho ponies. These gentle animals have so adapted to the harsh mountain conditions that if they had to be entered into an endurance race at Fauresmith they would certainly have an unfair advantage.

We meet with a moment of sadness; a simple stone next to the footpath marking the grave of Nobandwana, a young woman that was struck and killed by lightening here and, according to Basotho tradition, buried on the spot by shepards. We humbly pay our respects, and continue our journey.

Ultimately, after a three-hour ride of crossing rivers, climbing steep slopes, loose rocks and boulders, we reach the plateau and the border fence. What a sense of euphoria! We cut the fence and form the horses up into extended line, and cross – not only a man-made boundary between two countries and one ecosystem, but also the African Continental Divide where rain falling this side of the fence flows into the Indian Ocean where we began the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition two days ago; and rain falling on the other side, flows into the Atlantic where we will finish the expedition 110 days from now. With our spirits heightened and the ponies smelling home, we charge down to Sehlabathebe. The sun dips over the Maluti’s, the moon is large and there is no sign of the Land Rover Team.

Sethlabathebe community day

Last night we arrived in the dark and the cold, the Landies bouncing down a rocky track to meet with the mountain cyclists and pony trekkers who had made their way up Bushman’s Neck Pass to rendezvous at Sethlabatebe National Park. Huddled around a central fire it had been a great evening with Mike Nixon who’s heading up the mountain bike party giving us a talk on the adventures of climbing Mount Everest. Mike is one of only four South Africans who have successfully climbed the world’s seven summits and he ended by confirming that the mountain bike journey up Bushman’s Neck Pass ranked as a great adventure.

Today we are holding a Sethlabathebe community event at a remote soccer field which has been upgraded by a team of adventurers from 4×4 MegaWorld. White lines. New goal posts, nets, balls and whistles – it’s our clear expedition objective to link communities to conservation through a Boundless Soccer Challenge. The Lesotho minister of tourism arrives by helicopter from Maseru. Hundreds of local people have walked in or come by horseback.

Three sheep and a beast have been slaughtered. There’s traditional dancing and singing; an art competition with a conservation theme; the presentation by the expedition of box libraries; Rite to Sight spectacles for the poor sighted and a horse race. Expedition member Mad Mike Rumble begs a ride on the helicopter and parachutes down with a symbolic soccer ball which he hands over to the minister to kick off the Boundless Soccer Challenge.

The Scroll of Peace and Goodwill for Conservation that we are carrying through nine countries across Africa is messaged by the ministers and the community elders. The winning soccer team receives a floating trophy which local teams will continue to compete for in a run up to a 2010 rural world cup to be played off between the seven Transfrontier Conservation Areas – what a great day. The dignity of the event, traditional culture alive and well, people in conical Basotho hats and colourful blankets. So much is happening that , every day filled with activity – hard to believe it’s only day four of our 120 day journey across Africa.

Tomorrow we’ll leave Sethlabathebe to climb over the Matabeng Pass, then South through the Maluti’s following the banks of the Senqu River, on to Mokhothlong and then back to the edge of Drakensberg escarpment to rendezvouz with the mountain bike team at Sani Top. Lesotho has the highest average altitude in Africa. Tonight it’s minus five – we’ll keep you posted.

Sani Top

The expedition Landies pull up at Leqooa Primary School where the kids are playing soccer with a football made from bits of scrap plastic tied together. It’s amazing isn’t it when you think that the 2010 Soccer World Cup is coming to Africa and these little guys don’t even have a soccer ball. So we change all that. Out come three brand new balls, soccer bibs for the kids and whistles. They all gather round to look at a poster clearly demonstrating how their own special Transfrontier Conservation Area of Sethlabathebe links to the others across Africa.

“Anyone for Gluhwein!” shouts Jonathan Aldous the colourful owner of the highest pub in Africa as twelve hours later with the berg wind howling from across the Maloti’s perched on the edge of the Drakensberg escarpment at 2874 meters we huddle around the fire at Lesotho’s Sani Top.

I can’t believe it, they’ve peddled every inch of the way, up the 10 000 feet Matabeng Pass, camped for the night in the Senqu Valley, and then ridden the yoyo of Maluti Passes to meet us here at the highest pub in Africa.

“It was David Alexander,” says Jonathan , leaning on the pub and grinning from underneath his beanie, he was a man of adventure and vision and started the first motorized transport in old Landies up the Sani Pass and over the Black Mountain to Mokhotlong. Before then it had all been donkey transport.”

“What’s for grub?” we ask Jonathan as he races between pub and kitchen. The altitude and the wind has clearly made him a bit crazy. “Only two things on the menu, it’s called Take it or Leave it!”

We line up for great expedition grub, bowls of hot soup, freshly baked traditional Basotho bread, Hot ring-sting curry, and enough lasagna to carbo load Mike and his cycling team, who tomorrow morning will escort the Landies down to the bottom of one of the most historic mountain passes in Africa… It’s a symbolic ride down and back up the pass. We’ll be meeting a media team. Sani Top is an important part of our expedition and the vision for the entire escarpment to become a Transfrontier Conservation Area.

In the pub are the friendly Lesotho border officials. “Welcome to the Mountain Kingdom,” says the chief, “Agh. This wind – it will probably snow, and you must learn some Southern Sotho: there’s no L’s in the language. To greet you say dumelang or to make it easy, hojoang. Have you tried our local Basotho whiskey?” he says. “It’s called Qhoma u Cheche – jump and reverse. Tomorrow he’ll see us off from the border gate and receive us when we come up again.