Humanitarian and Land Rover ambassador Kingsley Holgate attempts a world-first Land Rover and land yacht traverse of Chew Bahir, southern Ethiopia’s Great Salt Ocean
People are stupid. Mention the country Ethiopia and they have visions of starving, skinny people and Bob Geldof. Chat to anyone who has been there or read any Ethiopian travel guides, then a very different picture of the place emerges. The author of my Ethiopia Bradt Guide (I never travel to Africa without a country-specific Bradt guide) calls it “culturally, historically and scenically, the most extraordinary country I have ever visited”. I have never been to Ethiopia and it will be the 30th African country that I have visited. Most of these visits have been in a Land Rover, and this adventure is no different. It all began on a cold, rainy evening at the Royal Geographical Society a few months ago.
Land Rover ambassador and last of the true great African explorers Kingsley Holgate was giving a talk to a bunch of journalists tucking into their posh nosh. The old greybeard has them spellbound as he tells interesting tales from his Land Rover driven life of exploration. Kingsley has been to all 54 countries in Africa, he has had malaria over 70 times and written several best-selling books about his exploits. He finishes off his talk by announcing the details of his forthcoming expedition. He calls it “The Living Traditions Expedition – A Journey to Chew Bahir”. Just as I ask myself exactly where the hell is Chew Bahir, Kingsley formally invites LRM along as the only expedition journalist. As I leave the RGS that night, I have a little spring in my step as I make my way towards the South Kensington tube station. I feel a bit like Henry Morton Stanley after he was formally asked to go and look for the missing Livingstone. Now I find myself on a plane to Addis Ababa on the pretty impressive Ethiopian Airlines. How do you know a flight out of Heathrow is Africa-bound? The line at the check-in counter is longer than normal and just about everyone is carrying more than the legal baggage allowance. If live animals were allowed on flights to Africa, I’m convinced that we would’ve had a few chickens and goats on board. Our touchdown in Addis is delayed by a few hours due to the extra time it took to load the plane. I literally have to run to make my connecting flight south to Arba Minch, currently the most southerly serviceable airport in Ethiopia. There is no time to go through immigration or get a visa at Addis, so technically I’m now an illegal alien. That though is a problem for another day.
The flight to Arba Minch is less than an hour and as we swoop down to land I cannot believe how green everything below us is. It looks like the Garden of Eden. Arba Minch is surrounded by several rather large lakes and I suspect that fish might be on the menu tonight. Though I make it safely to Arba Minch, my main bag is still in Addis; it is not the end of the world as I have my camera with me. The airline gives me $5 as compensation and I use this to buy a toothbrush and some toothpaste. I am ready for my week-long Ethiopian adventure. From Arba Minch it will take me several hours by local taxi to get to Kingsley and his crew. They have driven up from South Africa, passing through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya before crossing into Southern Ethiopia. The plan is to rendezvous with them in Turmi this evening, the closest big town before we get to the imposing Chew Bahir. First though I need to get there. I meet Adimasu Gebeyehu in Arba Minch, he too has flown in from Addis and he will be our Ethiopian contact and guide for the next week. Adimasu was born in the southern part of the country where there are more than two dozen different tribes. He is well versed in the local history, politics and disputes between the various tribes so his skills will come in handy.
Adimasu has secured the services of a local driver and taxi to take us to Turmi in his Toyota minibus. We are his only passengers and I worry a little because the windscreen is cracked and there is a sticker of Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding it together. Our driver straight away fills his mouth with the leafy plant called khat; its bitter leaves act as a stimulant. Khat is a multi-million dollar industry in these parts of Africa, the popular plant is said to speed up the user’s mind and body. Fortunately it does not speed up the Toyota and he seems to be more or less in control, which is useful as we are making our way through the foothills of the Rift Valley Escarpment. After a few hours I realise that we have not yet seen a single Land Rover yet. Why is this the case? “I don’t like Land Rovers. I sold my 300Tdi Defender and bought five Toyota Land Cruisers. The problem is the mechanics in Ethiopia don’t know how to fix the Land Rovers.” When you go on the Land Rover test track at Gaydon in the UK they have a very short section of really bad tar road, this is so that you can see how a Land Rover will perform on the worst roads in the world. In southern Ethiopia it sometimes feels as if you are on that section of test track at Gaydon for miles and miles. As we drop off the escarpment into the South Omo valley, the temperature seems to rise with several degrees. With the late afternoon light fast fading we turn off the tar onto a gravel track just after Key Afer, less than an hour later we are in the dry, dusty town of Turmi. Finding the expedition is easy, just look for the Land Rovers; the three are parked outside the basic Turmi Tourist Hotel. They crossed into Ethiopia yesterday from the south and spent last night in a quarry next to the road. The Defender 130 is carrying the land yachts on her roof and loads of other gear in her canopy. The two Discovery 4s have not escaped the load bearing and their official Land Rover roof racks are packed with recovery gear and much-needed mosquito nets, these will be distributed to mothers with babies over the course of the expedition. Speaking of which, as I disembark from my taxi I am attacked by several mosquitoes. Did you know that every minute of every day a child in Africa dies from malaria?
I can see that the crew have been here a while because the table they are sitting at is full of empty St George's beer bottles. “Welcome to Ethiopia,” says Kingsley while giving me a man hug at the same time, it feels good to be back among my friends. Soon it is dark and we order some dinner from the restaurant. In Ethiopia they don’t eat with utensils, they almost exclusively use their right hands. Dinner is a pile of goat stew on top of injera, which is a sour dough flatbread the size of a very large pizza. I follow Adi’s example and tear off a piece of bread, use it to pick up some goat stew and then dip it in the hot and spicy Awaze sauce before sticking it all in my mouth. It tastes good, this will be our staple diet when stopping at local restaurants over the course of the next week. Our plan the following day is simple: get to Chew Bahir as fast as the Land Rovers can go and then get the land yachts set up for the historic traverse of the lake. Ross Holgate, Kingsley’s son, best friend and expedition logistics man, informs me that the land yachts were tested during the crossing of the Chalbi Desert in northern Kenya a few days ago. They went well and while a few of the sail battens were damaged there are some spares so we are good to go for this historic world first. Noisy drunks, barking dogs, biting mosquitoes and a bus that decides to start up at 5.00 am all contribute to not one of us getting a decent night’s rest. This is why I prefer camping out in the wilderness away from other human beings. The bits of the goat that we did not eat last night are finely chopped up and chucked into an omelette for our breakfast. Before we leave town we stop at the village shop for fuel.
There is no pump in sight but someone quickly appears with a drum full of diesel and a funnel. We top up all three Land Rovers and buy some drinks which are chucked into the Engel travel fridge. The Defender 130 was used on a drive to the geographical centre of Africa last year but this is the first expedition for the two new Discovery 4s. Land Rover South Africa gave these standard vehicles a bit of a makeover. The front bumpers were removed and replaced with black ARB steel bull bars. Useful if driving at night and you hit a cow or some wildlife. Two Land Rover spotlights and a T-Max winch decorate the bull bar. A Land Rover roof rack, 18-inch wheels and Coopers Discoverer STT PRO tyres complete the list of non-standard additions to the two Discovery 4s. I ask Ross about taking modern highly computerised Land Rovers into deepest, darkest Africa. “We have done about 200,000 km in Discovery 4s over some of the worst tracks in Africa and never had any engine, gearbox or turbo problems, so we have focussed on the things that can go wrong.
The diesel we put in this morning is no different to the diesel you get in South Africa. The only difference is that it was in a barrel and not administered via a pump. We only use the best clean oil and regularly change filters,” he explains. It feels almost surreal sitting in the cocooned air conditioned comfort of the latest Discovery as we make our way along a rough track into the unknown. As we enter the dry Kaske Riverbed we spot some locals using a borehole pump to fill up the their brightly coloured plastic containers. The CB radio crackles to life, it's Bruce Leslie, the expedition chief, pharmacist and general top bloke. “We need to fill up the water containers,” and so the convoy grinds to a halt. We press on towards Chew Bahir and make our way through the towering Hamer Mountains. Today is a Sunday yet we still see Hamer people walking the 60 or so kms from Abore towards Turmi. I ask Adi why this is the case? “Monday is market day in Thurmi. That guy there is carrying wild honey while some of the others have maize or sorghum. They are off to trade.” I find it incredible that these people are walking such a long distance just to go to the market. No such luxury as Amazon Prime out here. Just about every male that we pass over the age of about 15 is carrying a Kalashnikov, probably purchased in the nearby volatile Southern Sudan with stolen cattle. Though we have Adi with us Kingsley still feels the need for an armed escort out on the dry lake for our traverse, so we follow the dry great salt ocean’s western shoreline towards the town of Abore, where we hope to find some armed escorts.
A Hamer warrior flags us down and thrusts his cheap Chinese cellphone into Adi's hands along with some airtime top-up cards. “Put the airtime on,” he demands in the Hamer language, “tonight we attack the Arbore [the neighbouring tribe]. I need more information from the other warriors.” The Chinese cellphone tower ahead is the unofficial border between these two warring tribes. Once we reach the police station at Arbore we put in a request for some armed escorts. After much negotiation it is denied. Who can blame the Arbore? If they did accompany us it would entail a trip through their enemies territory at a rather sensitive time. At least the police now know of us and where we will be, hopefully this is far away from any potential shoot out between the Arbore and Hamer tribes. It is around midday when our convoy eventually comes to a stop somewhere in the northern reaches of Chew Bahir. Nothing could’ve prepared me for when I climb out of the Discovery 4, it is 40 degrees Celsius outside and the afternoon heat bounces off the blindingly white surface and starts to boil my brains. There is absolutely no wind, so we decide to set up the camp and wait. Bruce starts a fire and his helper Lumbaye, a Masai warrior from Kenya, brews up a pot of Chai Maziwa (sweet milky tea) which is meant to help us rehydrate. It is all hands on deck as we have to assemble the land yachts. This all takes a couple of hours, sporadic gusts whip up from time to time and we are all able to do a short sunset sail to test the equipment. Sadly this wind will not be enough for us to achieve our goals of the traverse. Bruce decides to cook up a storm to celebrate our Chew Bahir arrival, dinner is a T-Bone steak each.
The gods are in a good mood and treat us to a shooting star display after dinner, sadly the lack of wind means there are loads of bugs and mozzies about so we all sleep in our tents instead of out in the open. We awake to even less wind and out of desperation we all decide to do a crazy wind dance around the land yachts. Also with us on expedition is the legendary mountaineer and cyclist Mike Nixon. He likes to call himself an expedition cyclist as he cycles most of the route that we drive each day. Today while we wait for the wind he is going to attempt a west to east crossing of Chew Bahir and we wave him off just after breakfast. Suddenly without warning the wind starts to pick up, I can see dust devils on the opposite side of eastern side of the salt ocean. That is Borana country. Ross and Bruce grab some grub, water and gear and take off over the rock-hard crust of Chew Bahir in the land yachts. This is what we have been waiting for, the rest of us start to break up camp. By about 11.00 am Mike returns on his bike, he has done it. He is the first man to ever cycle across Lake Chew Bahir. “Why don’t you have a go?” he asks me. It is only 60 kms across and back again and so I go and put on some cycling gear and head off. Mike has taken his GPS off the bike and after cycling for about 30 minutes I turn around and can no longer see any yachts or campsite. I pick a reference point on the peaks of the Hamer mountains and that will be my target when I cycle back. Being on my own in the middle of nowhere on a flat, dry salt ocean is definitely my idea of fun. Fortunately the surface is hard and I am able to go along at a decent speed. I pass an old water can and stop. A few locusts have made this their graveyard. Once I reach the eastern boundary of Chew Bahir I allow myself a five minute rest, there is no shade anywhere.
As I begin the journey back I quickly realise why I was able to go so fast on the way here, I am now fighting a slight headwind. After about an hour my mind starts to play tricks on me. I decide to trust my reference point and plough on but then I see the sails of one of the land yachts and alter my line. It is a fatal mistake because once I reach the other side of the lake the camp and Land Rovers are gone. Fortunately they have anticipated my mistake and soon I see the dust of the Land Rovers. “The land yachts are making great progress in this wind, load up your bike and let's go,” shouts Kingsley. I am chuffed to have completed the cycle. Soon we catch the land yachts. They are doing about 60 km/h at times. At this rate we should be in Kenya, Chew Bahir’s southern border, in no time at all. We race ahead of the yachts as they obviously have to tack to and fro across the stony surface while we just go in a more or less straight line. Once we reach Kenya there is no border post or fence so we put a stick in the sand to mark the spot. Soon the yachts join us, there is no time to celebrate our achievement, after a photo session they sail back the way the came. By now the wind is blowing wildly. To see the Land Rovers and the land yachts all speed along the white surface at a decent speed is a sight to behold. We take advantage of the good sailing conditions and carry on until sunset when we are almost back at our starting point. We have completed our land yacht traverse of Chew Bahir. Despite the red faces, rope burnt hands and aching bodies, we are all in a good mood as we set up camp for the final time on Chew Bahir. Time for celebratory cold beers all around.
The time has come to do what has become somewhat of a Kingsley Holgate expedition tradition. Kingsley takes the traditional Zulu Calabash filled with water from the symbolic Cradle of Humankind, they have carried this water all the way from Johannesburg where the expedition started several weeks ago. He then proceeds to pour it all out on the parched surface of the salt ocean. While we may have succeeded in this important objective, we still have some very important humanitarian work to undertake while interacting with the fascinating tribes of Ethiopia's South Omo region. You can read more about that in the next issue of LRM.Pictures: Patrick Cruywagen