The Road Less Travelled: Heading for Harar
Adventurer Kingsley Holgate’s Extreme East adventure is in full swing. This month, Kingsley tells the story of the first part of the trip.
This is our 33rd journey of discovery and yet again, there was that same feeling of excitement as we filled the Zulu calabash at the most easterly point on the coast of South Africa at Kosi Bay in the beautiful iSimangaliso Wetland Park, at the start of the Extreme East expedition.
Our first objective is to carry it through eight countries to the ancient walled city of Harar, the most easterly historic city in Ethiopia. And then, if the Zen of Travel is on our side, we’ll empty the calabash into the Gulf of Aden on the Horn of Africa.
The volatile areas that we will be travelling through are not called the badlands for no reason. But in the words of the 18th century Scottish explorer, Joseph Thomson: “He who goes gently goes safely; he who goes safely goes far.”
Dating back to the 12th century, Harar is known as Africa’s Mecca. It is celebrating its 1 010th anniversary this year and is considered the fourth most holy city of Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Enclosed by crumbling medieval walls, over 300 cobbled alleyways connect the rabbit warren of colourful stalls, shops, shrines, markets and 90-odd mosques, said to be the largest concentration in the world.
It’s also said to be the place where coffee was discovered and an old coffee factory is still in operation. Harar is also famous for its ‘Hyena Man’ who feeds them with bits of camel meat dangled from a short stick in his mouth. Hyenas are venerated in Harar and it’s not unusual to bump into one of these nocturnal visitors should you walk the streets at night.
Given what’s happening in the world today, it’s wonderful that the largely Islamic society living within the walls of this ancient city overlooking Somaliland on the Horn of Africa is so tolerant of the larger Orthodox Christian population that lives outside the walls. There’s even a beer called Harar. Some years ago, the city won an international award for tolerance.
We’re using specially equipped All New Land Rover Discoverys to tackle challenging mountain and desert terrain en route. We’ve fitted them with 18-inch rims and tough Cooper Tyres, rear-mounted winches and Front Runner roof racks and accessories.
The ‘mother ship’ as always, is our old Landy Defender 130 that’s been kitted out by 4×4 Mega World and Front Runner. She carries all the humanitarian items and expedition supplies.
As always, these expeditions are in bite sizes and we start by handing over wheelchairs to a special needs school in Zululand and launch the educational Elephant Art programme to kids at Abuyeni School opposite Tembe Elephant Park, home to one of the last remaining gene pools of big tuskers in Africa. Across into southern Mozambique, we support the Goodbye Malaria initiative (Tchau Tchau Malaria, as it’s called in Portuguese).
Started by old friend Robbie Brozin, the founder of Nando’s, it’s a hugely successful project in which tens of thousands of homes in towns and villages are being sprayed against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, so important if we are to stop the spread of malaria into Zululand, Swaziland and the Kruger Park area.
And then it’s north, following the old Zimbabwe-Maputo railway line to Chicualacuala – a memory lane of past expeditions – as we enter Gonarezhou, place of elephant, in south-eastern Zimbabwe, where we set up a base camp under the old leadwood trees below the beautiful Chilojo Cliffs on the banks of the Runde River.
Elephant are everywhere, massive baobabs scarred by their tusks and the dry land criss-crossed by hundreds of well-worn elephant paths. It seems so timeless. At night, the sounds of the wild mingle with our laughter around the campfire. This is why we do what we do: it’s about a passion for Mama Afrika, and to try, wherever possible, to improve and save lives.
Soon we’re putting the all-new Discos to the test, wading across rivers and further on, in the lower Zambezi (after doing Rite to Sight in a remote village with partners Conservation Lower Zambezi), grinding them up the seldom-used, seemingly endless rocky track to the top of the escarpment, to join the Great East Road, which takes us to Lake Malawi and then through dust and corrugations to the banks of Tanzania’s Great Ruaha River.
What a wonderful wilderness. Lion in camp, hyena cracking bones in the dry riverbed, and fat crocs gorging on a dead hippo.
It’s the first time these state-of-the-art vehicles are tackling such a tough expedition route, and the motoring world – I’m sure – is standing by to find out if they are boulevard cruisers or as tough or better than their Disco 4 predecessors, which we used with such great success.