No Road Too Remote“People with beards should never flambé,” says adventurer Kingsley Holgate as he plonks a slab of steak onto a garden spade.
But he does so anyway, sploshing rum generously over the meat and thrusting the spade into a blazing campfire. Flames flare up to sear the meat and sparks leap up and twinkle in his Father Christmas beard. Holgate has spent a lifetime doing things that people probably shouldn’t do, and flambéing meat is the least of them.
He’s giant of a man, the sort who could cleave a path through a jungle with his bare hands. The Incredible Hulk and the Duracell Bunny rolled into one old-fashioned khaki-clad explorer. He’s also extremely bright, and plays on his striking image to raise money and generate publicity for his efforts to fight malaria.
Holgate began exploring decades ago with a less altruistic aim. The idea was simply to have fun travelling the length and breadth of Africa with his wife Gill, and later with their son Ross. Yet after a few bouts of malaria and heartbreaking encounters with mothers whose young babies were dying of such a preventable disease, Holgate adapted his journeys and adopted the motto of ‘using adventure to improve and save lives’.
Now on every trip their Land Rovers are packed with mosquito nets from United Against Malaria, which they take to some of the most remote villages on the continent. “A lot of people do much greater things, but we pride ourselves on visiting villages in areas far from regular health services, where you don’t have a single mosquito net. Every 35 seconds around the clock an African baby dies from the blood sucking bite of a mosquito. It’s not just about dumping some nets, it’s about getting into a village, spending a night chatting to the chief, and having a bit of theatre to show them how to use the nets,” he says.
Holgate is delighted that South Africans are embracing his campaign so eagerly. More than 100 women in Khayelitsha are making bead bracelets that sell for R25, of which R8 goes towards mosquito nets. Their efforts have raised $250,000 so far.
“African mothers, many suffering from Aids or looking after Aids orphans, have got together to make simple strings of beads which are more than a string of beads, they’re a lifeline,” he says. “For the first time in history from selling these bracelets we were able to donate $250,000. People in malaria prevention programmes are saying it’s the first time Africa has given to the fund instead of received.”
Holgate’s vehicles are also loaded with spectacles donated by the Rite To Sight campaign. “When we hand out the nets at the back of the crowd are always are old people who can’t see, and you wouldn’t believe how a simple pair of specs can change their lives,” he says.
Each departure is now a media event, with daily missives dispatched to newspapers, magazines and TV stations tracking his progress. Yet the commerciality makes very little difference once Holgate and his crew are alone in the remotest parts of Africa.
In June, their entourage left Johannesburg in three Land Rovers on a Journey To Juba, the capital of South Sudan. “We’re off to celebrate the birth of the newest country in the world,” Holgate declared. “We have spent 30 years trying to embrace all of Mama Afrika by travelling to every country on the continent, and now there’s a new one.”
The family had just completed an odyssey that took mosquito nets and spectacles to every country on the continent. But they came home to discover Africa was giving birth to a new nation as southern Sudan split from the north after 30 years of war.
It took a week’s hard driving to reach Bujagali Falls in Uganda, where the Nile flows out from Lake Victoria. There the party split, with one group travelling 600km down river in inflatable boats to Juba, and the others going overland. It was slow going, with only 50km of tarred road in the whole of South Sudan.
On Day 12 the Land Rovers ground to a halt because a broken down lorry was blocking a bridge across a river. Hundreds of trucks were gridlocked on this main artery between Uganda and Sudan. A day later the truck was pushed into the river, and traffic began to flow again.
On Day 14 the two groups reconnected at Sudan’s Fula rapids. “Too dangerous and completely un-navigable, will have to portage around,” wrote Holgate. “The journey is challenging, with the rapids as turbulent as South Sudan’s difficult past.”
Both teams handed out thousands of life-saving mosquito nets en route. “Sudan is a high risk area,” Holgate said before they left. “Most people think it’s desert, but it’s heavily wooded with a lot of rain and mosquitoes.”
Surely the high risk in Sudan is the threat of death from a bullet, not from an insect bite? Ah, the war, he said. Well yes, it is a problem, and six people who planned to join the expedition as volunteers had pulled out for safety reasons.
“Violence has broken out again on the border because southern Sudan is oil rich and northern Sudan isn’t, so there’s an escalating situation of violence.”
Holgate acknowledged it may be dangerous, yet the war made the need for aid greater than ever. “There are thousands of misplaced people running to the safety of southern Sudan from the north and that’s going to put a huge demand on the government of a country just being born and flooded with refugees looking for sustenance.”
On the plus side, the world would be watching Juba as presidents and high profile peace campaigners like George Clooney attended the Independence Day celebrations on July 9. “They refer to Clooney as the sexiest man in the world and now they’re sending the ugliest,” Holgate laughed.