- Great African Rift Valley Expedition
- A Journey to Juba
- The All Afrika Expedition
- United Against Malaria Expedition
- Africa Outside Edge Expedition
- Boundless Southern Africa Expedition
- African Rainbow Expedition
A buzz in Djibouti
Right now the battered Landies are covered in mud and dust, snatch blocks, recovery straps and rope still tied to the bull bars. Nando’s who are part of our Fight Malaria campaign have flown in a team of South African journalists and old friend David O’Sullivan from Radio 702 – we gather on the salt encrusted moonscape shores of volcanic Lac Asal, at 155 metres below sea level, it’s the lowest place on the African continent, temperatures are over 40 degrees, a volcano has recently erupted and the Djiboutians with us point out a huge recent crack in the earth’s crust called the Afar Rift – it’s said to be the Northern most point of the Great African Rift Valley. Afar nomads use camel caravans to carry salt from here through the mountains to Ethiopia.
Djibouti Port is land locked Addis Ababa’s thousand kilometre lifeline to the sea. The road in is a dangerous nightmare of dodging dodgy Ethiopian trucks, hauling fuel and goods up from the coast. Its dark by the time we limp into Djibouti city, dog tired but jubilant. 29 Countries behind us, four still to go. The last 16 days have been tough. We’ve survived a 1000 km journey through the Nubian Desert and then the Danakil coast of Eritrea – one of the hottest places on earth and an area inhabited by the wild nomadic Afar who, in the past, had the nasty habit of castrating their enemies and wearing the dried genitals around their necks as trophies. I get a nervous twitch in the groin when we come across them in the desert with their ornate daggers and camels. Of late it’s been just tracks or a Garmin GPS course - dry, rocky river beds as roads and then tyres down to 1 bar as we race the desert dunes along the Red Sea coast. Hell for the Landies, murder for the Cooper Tires, tough on the team. But the deserts and coastline of Sudan and Eritrea are some of the last frontiers of adventure. Dramatic unspoilt wilderness and coral reefs in areas seldom, if ever, visited by tourists.
There's a buzz in Djibouti city on the Gulf of Aden. Khaki coloured Hummers and lots of military in over tight camouflage and short haircuts. Stories of how the cruising schooner Le Ponant was recently taken by Somali pirates, the French Navy frigate that then freed the hostages and the crack helicopter unit that got back the ransom money. Now it's our turn to brave the pirates around the Horn of Africa - Zim Integrated Shipping Services, friends of our Grindrod sponsors in Durban, come to the rescue. They will sponsor the loading of the three expedition Land Rovers and the kit. A conservation stone will be dropped off at the most Easterly point of Africa and the calabash filled over 300 days ago with Cape Point seawater will get to round the Horn of Africa.
This morning there's a bit of a panic as Eritrean troops are said to be massing close to the Ethiopian and Djibouti border. Seems like we made it just in time – will there ever be peace in this troubled area!
In the cool of the afternoon there’s a buzz on the street corners – the daily plane that carries the bunches of fresh thin green stems and leaves called khat has arrived from Dire Dawa in Ethiopia. Money changes hands and the traditional chewing of this calming hallucinogenic begins. There’s the evening muezzin’s call to prayer, French soldiers walk in groups, frazzled businessmen clutch mobile phones to their ears. Tall sinuous Somali girls hang around the clubs – Djibouti protected by the French and American military is an oasis of peace and prosperity on the troubled Horn of Africa. At the beautiful old French colonial white washed palace, the president Ismail Omar Guelleh endorses the expedition Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in support of malaria prevention – he’s really a friendly character and we all get taken out to lunch – big pieces of goat.
Gerhard Botha – a boerseun from Durban who manages Djibouti’s busy container terminal, becomes the expedition’s guardian angel. The survival and success of our journey often depends on the friendly and supportive South Africans we meet along the way. Gerhard is phenomenally helpful. He puts us up in his villa – a fridge full of beer, there’s clean sheets and soft beds, TV, air-conditioning and good old South African braais. After the intense heat of the Danakil it’s as if we’ve stepped into another word. Suddenly we get the green light and race the three expedition Land Rovers down to the Port. The big 130 Defender has to have the big rolled up Gemini inflatable boats off-loaded from the roof-rack before being reversed into a container. The two Defender station wagons fit snugly one behind the other in the second container. The vehicles are tied down to the container floors with cables and turn buckles in case of a rough sea. And then we get the news that a Spanish trawler has just been taken by Somali pirates. Seems like they might be operating from a disguised mother ship. We learn that they have sophisticated equipment that picks up the radar of passing ships, they even have bank accounts in Dubai through which they channel the ransom money. It’s big business and right now there seems to be a spate of hijackings. It would be a shame if our Landies ended up as transport for gun toting Somali war lords – we’ll keep you posted.
It’s better underneath the water
The word Red Sea conjures up romantic tourist brochure images of bikini beaches, palm trees and aquamarine water. This is true of some of Egypt’s Sinai resorts, but now we’re on the Sudanese coast of the Red Sea. It’s extremely harsh with dramatic mountains and in some places mud flats or desert dunes running down to the water’s edge, making our progress extremely difficult. It’s one of those afternoons where progress is slow. We winch the big 130 Land Rover out of the mud and at sunset find a totally deserted stretch of beach. It’s a shame about the litter. I count over 100 empty plastic and other bottles washed up in a ten metre stretch. God forbid, some of them are empty grog bottles – wish there were a couple of full ones, we’ve been dry for days. Booze is absolutely illegal here. We’re a little disappointed having expected to find a decent beach for the night. There’s no doubt that in many places the beauty of the Red Sea lies beneath its waters and the best way to explore is from a live aboard dive boats. Dive sites include the wreck of the Italian cargo ship, The Umbria, deliberately scuttled in 1940 to prevent surrendering the 3000 tons of bombs it was carrying from falling into the hands of the British. We get a small charcoal fire going and Mashozi and Anna cut the chunk of mutton we bought off a street side butchery in Port Sudan into chewable bits for the stew pots. The liver is cooked on the grid for a snack. Stew with rice, spiced up with Nando’s sauce, everybody goes for seconds but we have to “passop” for the bone chips. In the night a howling sand storm threatens to blow the rooftop tents off the Landies. Sleep is impossible and next morning visibility is almost down to zero. Sand in the eyes, mouth and nose, but fortunately the sand storm is blowing in the right direction, pushing the Landies towards Eritrea.
The authorities demand we enter Eritrea via Kasala in Sudan. A change from the desert, the town has fruit trees and mountains, bizarre sugarloaf jebels that can be seen from miles away. Kasala is a favourite destination for honeymoon couples from other parts of the Sudan. I open the guidebook to learn that in these parts it’s considered extremely erotic for a woman to show her chin. Once again there’s a ridiculous amount of paperwork and hassles and outside Kasala a roadblock that sends us back into town for yet another police clearance. Even in leaving the country the Sudanese have managed to make things as difficult as possible. But we make it across to the few mud huts that make up the Eritrean border. The friendly Eritreans are hugely surprised, not many foreign travellers come this way and they claim we are the first South Africans.
She gives me a wink and pats my belly
Out of Islamic Sudan and we’re dying for a drink. We cross wide yellow grass plains with scattered flat topped acacias. It’s like the Serengeti but with far pavilions of dramatic mountains. We get into a town. Old Fiat trucks everywhere – you can tell the Italians had been here. Bruce and I walk into a rough place that says “Hotel”. Immediately the two bar girls start touching us up – the chubby one pulls at Bruce’s t-shirt and rubs his hair, the other tall and Somali looking, feels my beard, gives me a wink and pats my belly. We point at the fridge. “Beer?” we ask. “Yes, beer,” the girls nod and giggle. The fridge is full of large brown bottles with no labels. They point to some plastic chairs. There’s no doubt that they want us to stay. “How much for beer?” we ask. Their English is limited – 10 Nafka for one bottle. ”We’ll take a case,” says Bruce with a grin. I am already changing some Dollars into Nafka and can already imagine the fireside scene tonight somewhere out in this beautiful countryside: Landies, tents up, camp chairs in a half circle, but now for the first time in ages, ice cold beers and the chance to unwind after “dry” Sudan. “Let’s try one quickly before we go,” Bruce grabs two glasses off the counter and opens a big brown bottle with a flourish. We pour the contents into the glasses. It’s bloody carbonated water – our disappointment is boundless. “Oh beer,” says one of the goofed bar girls with a lopsided grin. “You’ll only get beer in Asmara.”
There’s Captain at the Lion Hotel
The Catholic father allows us to climb the 300 narrow steps to the top of the 25 metres high tower of the old Italian style cathedral that was built in 1923. We all squeeze into the top of the tower between the eight massive bells each of which weigh over 100 kilograms. Below us is Asmara – it’s delightful and for me it’s a dream come true. The first thing that strikes you is that there’s no litter, streets are clean and there’s an air of orderliness. The city was built as the capital of the Italian colony of Eritrea between 1890 and 1940. Following the defeat of the Italians in WWII Britain administered Eritrea from 1941 to 1952. Then there was the Ethiopian occupation which resulted in the beautiful city being neglected. Nonetheless, following the liberation of Eritrea in 1991, the capital has regained its old charm. It seems wonderfully free and Western after Islamic Sudan, palm trees line wide boulevards, the packed sidewalk cafés have a mixed Italian and Eritrean cosmopolitan feel and the art deco architecture creates the sense of a city frozen in time. The people are lovely.
Thomas Rambau from the South African embassy recommends the Lion Hotel. It’s cheaper than the others, he says, and it’s got a bar, good food and even Captain Morgan.
At the tank cemetery
We have to wait for Eritrean government travel permits, we can’t go anywhere without them and they have to be checked out by military security. Because of the war and the closed borders with their sworn enemy Ethiopia, few foreigners visit the country let alone try to follow the coast. Today is the funeral of a military war hero and all government ministers are in attendance. We find them gathered in a big white tent outside the tank graveyard. Acres upon acres of wrecked military tanks, armoured vehicles and other relics of war, captured by the Eritreans or left behind by the Dergue while evacuating Eritrea. “We keep this place as a reminder,” says Peter from the Department of Tourism. We walk through the masses of mostly Russian vehicles, tanks and piles of spent shells. In a normal country this place would be a scrap metal merchant’s dream, but here in Eritrea it remains as a symbol of pride and victory over Ethiopia – it was the longest African war of the 20th Century lasting for over 30 years it cost more than 65,000 lives. In 1993, 99.81% of the voters said ‘yes’ to independence and Eritrea became one of the youngest countries in Africa.
But in late 1997, the two old rivals started squabbling again, first over Eritrea's rejection of the old Ethiopian birr in favour of its own new currency (the nakfa), then over bilateral trade relations, and finally and violently (in May 1998) over a ridiculously small piece of dirt on their common border called the Yirga Triangle.
Fierce pride from both sides seems to be the problem. Eritrea and Ethiopia welcomed back the bad old days by proceeding to kill tens of thousands of each other's soldiers and civilians, with the grisly encouragement of such countries as Somalia and Djibouti. Now there’s a ceasefire but the formal demarcation of the border is still pending and things are tense.
At the Lion Hotel we eagerly await travel permits. If we succeed they will allow us to follow the Danakil coast, considered to be one of the hottest places on earth. We are all on edge, if we don’t succeed in getting permissions, the expedition to track the outside edge of Africa will have failed – Hold thumbs, we’ll keep you posted.
Across the Desert to Port Sudan:
Our last dispatch from the Africa Outside Edge Expedition was that they had been turned away by the military from the Egyptian / Sudanese frontier on the Red Sea because of a border dispute – that meant a detour up the Nile and a 300 km ferry journey across Lake Nubia to Wadi Halfa in Africa’s largest country, the Sudan. Determined to get back to the Red Sea coast, Kingsley and his team were taking off on a dangerous 1000 km journey across the wild, waterless, trackless Nubian Desert, following a Garmin GPS line to Port Sudan. By BGAN satellite this dispatch is sent by the expedition, now almost one year old – best given to you in the Greybeards own scribbled words from the expedition journal.
If we’d known what we were in for we’d never attempted it. I guess it was a little foolish especially with our 7 year old little grandson Tristan Kingsley Holgate on board.
Ross is the navigator, his is the biggest responsibility – eyes fixed to his Garmin GPS above the Land Rover dashboard trying to follow endless wadis (dry river beds) in the hope they will lead us through the rugged moonscape and steep razor back mountains that run in formidable ridges across the dunes and gravel plains of a desert seldom travelled. Most tracks across the Nubian Desert lead South, following the old British Kitchener railway line from Wadi Halfa to Khartoum and Omdurman at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles – a line that was built to relieve General Gordon of Khartoum who was besieged by the Mahdi, but too late...
Cook’s Traveller’s Handbook for Egypt & the Sudan, published in 1929, had this to say about Gordon’s defeat: The Dervishes rushed to the palace, where Gordon stood on top of the steps…and in answer to his question, ‘Where is your master, the Mahdi?’ their leader plunged a huge spear into his body. He fell forward, was dragged down the steps, and is head having been cut off was sent over to the Mahdi in Omdurman. The fanatics then rushed forward and dipped their spears and swords into his blood, and in a short time the body became a heap of mangled flesh.’
The Mahdi professed regret at Gordon’s death, saying that he wishes he had been taken alive, for he wanted to convert him to Islam…Khartoum was given up to such a scene of massacre and rapine as has rarely been witnessed even in the Sudan… But our journey takes us far away from the railway line to Khartoum. We must head East by South East, a thousand kilometre challenge to reach Port Sudan on the Red Sea. After five days we are about to give up. Diesel and water are beginning to run low and we are shredding tyres on the ragged black volcanic sharks tooth rocks. It’s late afternoon, the wind is howling across the desert. Do we abort the journey and head due South back towards Kitchener’s railway line? “Would be a bloody shame,” says Ross. “We’ve worked so hard to get this far East, and now to give up..”. Big Deon Schürmann who’s joined us for a while tallies up the water and the diesel. “There’s two and a half gerry cans of water, and twelve litres of bottled drinking water. It’s a way through the mountains that is killing the diesel consumption,” he says with a serious frown.
Everybody is a bit glum. Directly ahead of us is a narrow gap in the mountains, a dry river bed, but it’s to the North the zigzagging searches for and the Egyptian border, not the way we want to go. “Let’s give it a go,” says Ross, forever the optimist. Okay, I nod, and the three Landies difflock in low ratio grind through the gap. There are some nomads with camels. I stop next to a woman wrapped in a shawl, she has a leathery face and a gold nose ring. “Port Sudan?” I ask pointing East. She shakes her head. “Suakin?” I then ask, using the name of the ancient Arab slave trading port that’s just South of Port Sudan. She nods vigorously and points up the river bed. “Shukran thank you.” The Garmin points North, totally the wrong direction. But then it slowly swings North by North East and finally due East as it narrows and becomes closed in by the hills. Is this another blind alley? And then we get the surprise of our lives. A small track, a recent cutting that leads us through the mountains. “Direction’s great,” comes Ross’ voice over the radio. We bounce along over the rocks ahead of us are a few buildings, water tanks and the sound of a generator. Hope it’s not military, we don’t want to get into shit and get turned back. But luck is on our side, it’s a gold exploration company. We’re offered ice cold drinks and our gerry cans are filled with drinking water. “Follow the track, just follow the track, you can be in Port Sudan in only two days.”
What incredible luck. The gold exploration guys had cut the track through the mountain, but is wasn’t quite that easy – more lost trails and river beds, what a real slog through rough broken mountain country and desert scrub. That night tribesmen with long swords and huge woolly afro hairstyles pad silently on camels past our campfire. They raise a hand in greeting and then disappear into the night. “Woolly Heads,” whispers little Tristan, his imagination running wild. Later we dress Bruce in a Nubian galabyya and turban, panga in hand with a head torch lighting up his face. I shake the canvas of Tristan’s tent. “Woolly Heads, there are Woolly Heads in camp,” I whisper. Eyes wide, Tristan’s little face appears through the mosquito gauze as Bruce walks out of the bush shouting “Salam alekum!” Later on and for fear of nightmares we had to explain it was only Bruce and a practical joke. I’m sure the little fellow will never forget the Woolly Heads of Nubian.
Two days later the three battle-worn Land Rovers rumble into Port Sudan, established by the British in 1905 to facilitate the export of cattle, goats, camels, sesame cotton and sorghum. We grab a room in a run down hotel, but at least the beds are clean and there’s a shower – would kill for a beer, but no such luxury here, it’s illegal.
South of Port Sudan, the island of Suakin, is cloaked in myth and legend. Its name translates as ‘land of Ginn’. Apparently, Queen Balgies, of the Sabaa Kingdom of Yemen, sent seven virgin maidens to King Solomon in Jerusalem. On the way to the Holy City, however, a storm drove the ship off course to Suakin and, by the time it arrived in Jerusalem, all the girls were pregnant. They claimed they had sexual relations with the Ginn, a demon of Suakin. Whilst taking pictures of the area we are pounced on by the Sudanese military. Things get quite heated and we would have been in kak without Wimpy van der Vyver’s letter of introduction from the South African embassy in Khartoum. Our South African Department of Foreign Affairs have been incredibly supportive and have got us out of many a scrape. But as always it all ends well, this time with old Mr Mohamed, the curator of the ancient port endorsing our Mandela Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in Arabic – Eritrea here we come – we can smell home.