Kingsley Holgate, the bearded explorer

The man looks like Santa: with his shiny white beard, imposing stature, friendly and frank smile that breaks into a loud laugh, deep voice, and soft eyes. Even more so when he arrives in a remote village in the heart of Africa to distribute mosquito bed-nets, water purification systems, and sight glasses; or when he walks into a school with paper and crayons for the kids to draw elephants and rhinos.

Except that where he goes, reindeers would be pretty useless: it is with his trusted Land Rovers and loyal crew that Kingsley Holgate explores Africa. This humanitarian adventurer has a mission summed up by the slogan of the Kingsley Holgate Foundation: “using adventure to save and improve lives”.

Africa’s most travelled man has explored all 54 countries of the continent and its island states during more than 30 expeditions, from following the footsteps of Stanley & Livingstone, Joseph Thompson, and other early explorers to sailing its eastern coast, taking open boats from the Cape of Good Hope to Cairo, circumnavigating Africa by land in the 64,000-kilometre Africa Outside Edge expedition, and reaching the seven extreme geographic points of Africa in epic journeys that were often life-threatening:

  • The northernmost at Ras ben Sakka at Cape Blanc in Tunisia,
  • The southernmost at Cape Aghullas in South Africa,
  • The westernmost at Pointe des Almadies in Senegal,
  • The easternmost at Ras Xaafun in Somalia during the recent Extreme East expedition,
  • The highest summiting Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania,
  • The lowest at Lake Assal in Djibouti,
  • The centre-point in the Republic of Congo during the Heart of Africa expedition: a world-first discovery verified by the International Geographical Union.

Today, Kingsley is at Afrika House, his home about one hour north of Durban in Zululand, South Africa where he recovers from his latest expedition from South Africa to the most easterly point of the continent in Somalia and prepares his next adventures. Surrounded by memories from all over Africa, maps, and bush notes, we are seating on his terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean as Kingsley describes his passion for adventure and the humanitarian causes he supports.

ClaireHow do you prepare your expeditions?

KingsleyIt all starts here on this table, dreaming looking at the map of Africa. I get big paper maps printed with just the contours of Africa, borders, and countries. Then, we start scribbling on the paper map. This is how the expedition takes shape. We add the humanitarian work into the map, take it to Land Rover, and I tell them: “This is where we want to go!”

Over planning is bloody dangerous! Of course we have the first aid kit (and of course there are actually several of them in different locations in the cars in case one disappears), humanitarian supplies, camping equipment, maps, GPS’s and guide books for each country, 4×4 kits such as spare tyres, water tanks, sandmats and jerry cans for extra fuel… All our logistics is second to none. But we don’t plan where we will camp every night.

For instance, I have become very interested in cultural traditions. If a specific ceremony is to take place in a nearby village in a few days, we will just wait. After all, it’s all about the people so the route can change based on the people we meet on the way. We travel at the pace and rhythm of Africa.

Obviously, the goal of the expedition remains paramount, but I strongly believe it is important to take a journey in bite sizes and to not be too driven on the goal. This is the best way to cope with the physical and mental challenges such expeditions represent.

Marcella – Can you tell us more about your humanitarian causes?

Kingsley – The Kingsley Holgate Foundation is involved in distributing mosquito bed-nets to prevent malaria, water purification Lifestraws to fight against dysentery & spectacles as part of the Rite to Sight initiative.

On one of our recent expeditions to reach the geographical centre of Africa in the Republic of Congo, I saw the last three white rhinos of Northern Africa. Touching one of them is like touching extinction: bam! in your hand! Or take Ethiopia for instance. It used to be so full with elephants, and now there are hardly any elephants left. So more recently, we have been developing the rhino and elephant art projects to educate local kids about poaching and instil a passion for wildlife.

Marcella – And how did you start on your core initiatives?

Kingsley – Our key thing is adventure, but it feels empty if we don’t make an impact. The humanitarian side is the energy of our adventures. Every theme started differently.

Take malaria for instance. I got it myself 56 times, and it is a part of every of our expeditions. But seeing kids die is simply not acceptable. The three of us have been sitting together for about what, 20 minutes? Since then, 20 kids have died of malaria in Africa only… Pregnant women and young kids (less than five) are the most at risk of a malaria infection as their immune system is weak. So we started distributing mosquito bed-nets and educating pregnant women and young mothers about malaria prevention using our own funding. Working with women and on maternal instinct is the best way to ensure the nets are used and not sold. Today, Land Rover is a key sponsor of our humanitarian work, and so far we have distributed over 300,000 mosquito nets with their help.

The Right to Sight started on our Tropic of Capricorn expedition along 23’27°. One night the park rangers were about to take away an old man who was becoming a danger to himself and the camp. We went with them, and realised he was about to set his hut on fire. Looking more closely, my late wife noticed that he was struggling to ignite his stove with matches. He seemed to not see clearly. She had an extra pair of spectacles and gave them to him. With the glasses and a big smile, he ignited the stove instantly without any problems! Miraculously, the glasses had the appropriate correction, and they changed his life!

Today, we spend 5 to 7 minutes with every person, start by taking the person’s age, subtract 35, and divide by 10. This is roughly the needed correction of the sight glasses. We give away one pair and one with a bit more correction for later. We also give a bunch to the local medical centres. We try to have a three-year rotation either ourselves or sometimes with the help of other travellers to distribute some more and ensure sustainability of the project. As of today, we have been handing out 142,000 pairs of glasses!

Marcella – What about your conservation efforts?

Kingsley – My early years have influenced me! When I was young, I met Ian Player [the initiator of the Project Rhino in Hluhluwe iMfolozi that saved white rhino from extinction], and I remember he used to say: “If you don’t hand the baton of conservation to the youth, we are doomed.” This is why we visit as many schools as possible and hand out our template to teach kids about what is at stake and let them express themselves by drawing. It is unbelievable how animal poaching, and more specifically rhino poaching leads to human tragedies. Some of the messages written are just heart-breaking.

[As Kingsley browses through some of his templates of the rhino art project and shows us the colourful drawings of the kids, we read some of their messages: “it’s the rangers themselves who are killing the rhinos”, “we owe to respect our rhinos like we respect Nelson Mandela”, “you’d better move all these rhinos out of Kruger NP before they kill them”, “please God, stop the poaching as I have already lost 2 uncles”, “we wish there were no dead rhinos”. One of the drawings catches our attention more specifically as it shows a dead rhino on the ground and a military helicopter with men with machine guns.]

 

Claire – To reach these remote areas of Africa, what vehicle would you trust on every expedition?

Kingsley – A Land Rover. All 4×4 vehicles today can do the job. But it’s more about the spirit of the company. I love the history of Land Rover in Africa and strongly believe that the heart of Land Rover belongs in Africa. They have been a major support on our expeditions.

Land Rover is turning 70 in April this year, and I am also very much looking forward to the launch of the new Defender. At the moment, we drive the All New Discoveries and really take them to the limit: sand tracks, goat tracks, even no tracks, through rocky mountain passes, desert terrain, deep mud and wading across rivers. We load them with 600 kilograms of mosquito nets on the roofs, way more than the max allowed and they still perform fantastically.

Marcella – Would you have specific advice for readers who are preparing a 4×4 trip through Africa?

Kingsley – Make sure you have two empty seats so that you can travel with local Africans. I speak a bit of various African languages, but a guide or interpreter is key. If you don’t travel with local people, you miss the point!

On top of this, it has saved my life quite a few times. One day, I was taken by militia during our Zambezi-Congo expedition. I spent six hours being interrogated by men with AK47s. I noticed that a short man was being greeted by all the other rebels and assumed he was the leader. I told my interpreter whom I had taken with me: “I am about to do something that may be the end of it, and I am going to use carefully chosen words and I need you to translate them perfectly”. Then, I stood from my chair, went towards the short man, and gave him a big hug. While hugging him, I whispered to his ear: “I’m really sorry to have disturbed you guys, I came as a friend.” The rebels took me back to our camp where the leader explained I hadn’t been killed because I was so friendly!

Claire – So no need to ask you if you have ever feared for your life!?

Kingsley – Indeed. Our last expedition to Somalia was very tricky as we had to travel to the easternmost point in Africa with 25 armed guards. This time, it is our Scroll of Peace and Goodwill that saved us. We take one with us on every of our expeditions [as he talks, Kingsley is flipping the pages of a large leather-bound book with photos, signed notes, red-ochre handprints…]. We were interrogated by military officials who thought we were spies: “You have no more than two minutes to prove you are not spies” the highest ranked officer told us in a very unfriendly way. I didn’t say a word and just took out our Scroll. Everyone who crosses our path writes down in it and signs it. It is also endorsed by no less than two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. He saw a message of support from the chief of the closest village, and a few pages earlier his suspicious eyes stopped on another one from a military captain who had accompanied us. He studied us carefully and then made a phone call. I asked the interpreter what all the screaming on the phone was about: he was warning the next roadblock that we were on our way and instructing them to not arrest us. Before we left, he handed us a letter of passage. We went through the next 16 roadblocks smoothly.

Marcella – What would you recommend travellers to bring with them for local communities?

Kingsley – Take some footballs. It’s easy, get a bunch flat, take a small compressor, and inflate them before giving them away.

Also check out our African Elephant Art website; print out the educational template and distribute with crayons to schools on your way.

Claire – And for girls?

Kingsley – Take some netballs. The girls love playing it: it’s hugely popular.

Leave a friendly footprint!

Claire – Today, you distribute mosquito bed-nets, water purification Lifestraws & sight glasses. If you could distribute another critical product for rural African communities, what would it be?

Kingsley – It’s critical to save our forests, especially with the insane logging by Chinese companies that is happening in Mozambique. Small solar panels for lighting and cooking would dramatically reduce the amount of trees cut down by locals on a daily basis. This could save our forests, one of the habitats that is quickly disappearing hence endangering our precious wildlife.

Marcella – If readers want to support your foundation, what would be the best way?

Kingsley – The best is to send us an email; we are always delighted to talk to people who want to help with our humanitarian and conservation efforts.

[Kingsley is flipping through the hand-written pages of his notebook for Afrika Odyssey with sketches of maps and gear. Next to it, his new manuscript is on the table.]

Marcella – How did you start writing?

Kingsley – I have always written during my expeditions. Once I’m back, I go through the notebook, and so far I have published four books. I have never had any formal writing training, and it comes more from storytelling, an African tradition. My latest book will be published very soon. It’s entitled “Africa – A love affair with a continent”.

As Kingsley loves quoting “Africa, all good, all bad, and all at the same time but never boring!” we can’t wait to read his next book and follow his upcoming adventures. Stay tuned and follow Kingsley Holgate, the legend of Africa on his Facebook page and website.

Marcella & Claire

Notes:

  • A special thanks to Ross Holgate for the expedition pictures.
  • With the help of the expedition partners, the Kingsley Holgate Foundation has been able to touch the lives of more than a million people in Africa.
  • This interview has been published in the online Xtreme Adventure magazine Beyond Boundaries:

Kingsley Holgate cover - Beyond Boundaries

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