The Holgate Flying Circus
We had left the big Jo’burg smoke at 4am, mid-winter, hammering through rain and endless traffic before the roads cleared towards Polokwane, a messy conurbation now with a 2010 stadium. We’re cruising at pace in comfort in a light green Discovery 3 lugging a roofrack stocked with jerry cans of fuel, a huge water tank and trommels of food. Inside is a staggering array of Land Rover branded kit – everything from fridge to cups and cutlery, all immaculately kept by Land Rover PR Lesley Sutton. In the driver’s seat is the burly former forward Dean Schurman, a Frenchman fluent in Afrikaans and making good as an engineering consultant, though his passion is the bush. He’s a veteran of Holgate’s Africa Outside Edge expedition, and he’s blocked out a brief interlude between meetings to join the Kingsley team and to check up on the olive green TD5 Defender that he kindly lent this latest expedition. After breakfast courtesy of a 1-Stop Wimpy, there’s no stopping, apart from a brief refuel at Makhado, the former Louis Trichart, to ensure lots of time for the langorous border crossing. The ‘guide’ who is meant to meet us fails to appear, though dozens of other touts are ready to take on his cash fee for expediting the bureacratic shuffle, but we manage anyway.
Beit Bridge is a roiling hub of excessive charges. Everywhere cars are in storage, brought in from Japan at killer prices and offloaded without any comebacks. Entry fees are ridiculous, with road tax, a ‘carbon tax’ (whatever that might mean in this context), vehicle fees and insurance plus other charges of unclear purpose. There are no signposts, no apparent system, and petty officials ready to play up their petty authority. Hopefully the border crossings from within the TFCAs will eliminate this sort of mess, I muse. Time means nothing in Africa, especially when it’s your time being wasted. Goods importers scraping the breadline are having their stock combed through by the customs officials, very, very slowly, waiting for the inevitable folded paper to change hands. Until the process runs its course, everyone else waits. Perhaps a notice in the ablutions on the South African side of the border is indicative. Amongst other things, it warns that Zim Dollars are not flushable. The US dollar and Rand are unofficially recognised, but there’s still lots of paper around, worth more in itself that for its notional value as currency.
It’s a sad indictment of the country’s recent policies. But Zimbabweans are resourceful. And long suffering. The roads after South Africa have deteriorated to narrow tar strips with ancient road signs, unchanged in at least 30 years, probably longer. It’s quaint, in a way, except that the one we need to indicate the turn-off for our destination via Chipise has been flattened and lies pointing uselessly skywards. No matter, Garmin has some pointers. We’ve been a bit cavalier about turn-offs anyway, heading errantly towards Masvingo for 150km before realising the mistake and turning back. Perhaps the wonder at the dramatic forms of the roadside Baobabs and relief at leaving Beit Bridge had dulled our sense of direction and made an extra three hours seem worthwhile.
We’re heading for the Sango border post with Mozambique, or near it, and after another six or seven hours of deteriorating tar followed by a series of not too clear turns and rutted dirt roads, we catch up with signs of the expedition in the Chefu Wilderness area. Apparently a big circus passed this way. Feasting and festivities have been had. Now they’ve disappeared, and we’re on to the radio to get word. It’s patchy. Eventually Clive Stockil, a concession owner and area expert, comes on line and guides us, mentioning some very obscure branches placed on the road – invisible in the dark, and which we euphemistically dub ‘African Waypoints’. We eventually find the twigs and head down a grassy cutline track to the night’s camp at Centre Pan.
‘Watch out for the rogue elephant,’ comes the warning crackling over the radio. We must be close if the stories are starting already. It’s a shock to leave the cocoon of the car after 17 hours on the road, and as the diesel clatter dies down we’re greeted by a bizarre aural treat. A glorious African aria is coursing through the bush. Ben, one of the Kingsley team, has a prodigious operatic singing talent. The big beard also steps up with wide arms. Bonhomie and enamel mugs flowing with warm coke and Captain Morgan are handed out, we are urged towards the campfire and a meal. Everyone is starving. For the expedition team it’s been another long day. But Clive raises important points around the fire – the desperate shortage of funds to keep the Gonarezhou park and surrounding wilderness areas on track. There’s nothing for ranger training, little to establish facilities, let alone maintain fences and finesse conservation practice. The flow of visitors from African and especially Europe and the US has trickled to a standstill as Zimbabwe became uncertain as a tourism destination. The Transfrontier Park initiative is a way to change this, to bring the park’s link with Kruger and Gaza in Mozambique back into play.
What Clive shows us over the next four days is ample reminder that Africa still has some extraordinary wild places. Gonarezhou, a name that loosely translates as ‘Safe haven for the elephants’, has always been a wilderness area because it is so dry in summer, but now with encroaching population, its survival will depend on putting politics aside for the sake of conservation, he points out. The TFCA initiative, which is sensitive to the diversity of the area and the needs of local communities, will not duplicate the Kruger model. It’s a 5000 square kilometre area, but will never be a high-impact park. More important, as the fences demarcating political boundaries come down, game will be able to revisit ancient migration patterns.
Through the mist the next morning emerges a motley collection of sticker-bedecked Landies – from two well kitted TDV6 Discoveries with roofracks and winches, to an ancient 110 TDI that’s already been around the African continent, to a short open 90 clad only in a canvas roof, to the TD5-powered 127inch supply vehicle, the MegaWorld 127 and a double cab 110. All are heavily laden. Tents packed, saddled up, we head for Chilojo Cliffs, an extraordinary bank of red rock soaring above a bend on the Runde River, which itself runs into the big, wide Save River. We stay at Hlaro campsite, a basic set-up ideal for those self-drive tourists. Getting there is a day’s drive through amazing Mopane veld, interspersed with Baobabs, each one unique and rich with history. Stockil tells us that the Testse fly initiatives begun in 1958 destroyed much of the area’s tree diversity – the belief being that the flies bred in dense riverine vegetation. Bulldozing, ring barking and defoliant spraying followed. Wildlife was culled in the interest of keeping cattle alive. Hindsight is often too late. Meanwhile its blazing hot and we wallow in the river to cool down. The water won’t contain bilharzia as there’s little settlement in the catchment, assures Clive. I take a bush walk and am awed and a little scared by the silence. Caution is rewarded when I avoid bumping into an elephant foraging among the Mopane. I beat a silent retreat, in time to watch another elephant saunter over from the opposite bank for a drink. Large lion prints in the sand leave no doubt that wild Africa is at hand. And a thin layer of ripstop nylon is all that shields us at night. Clive’s campfire discourse on the local elephant population drives home how important it is to re-establish the old migration routes and feeding patterns, destroyed by artificial borders and game fences. Those fences haven’t yet come down, but some will as the idea takes root and farmers in the corridors feel their crops will remain protected.
The next day the cavalcade heads on a long loop through the Sandveld around to the top of the Chilojo Cliffs, revealing a magnificent view of the Runde River and over to Mozambique. At a crossroads, we stare at a patch of bush changed subtly – where park rangers were ambushed, shot and their vehicle set alight by poachers. Bouncing along the dirt tracks, most well signposted, we reach the extraordinary Tamboharta Pan, a key wetland and birding paradise on the Save/Runde confluence that Clive calls the ‘Garden of Eden’. Hippos wallow, crocs slither, and a terrified buck shoots past our bows for freedom. One could spend a week, but the wardens are busy darting elephant and fitting them with collars in order to track their future movement. A spotter plane flies overhead, then it’s the turn of a helicopter piloted by one of Clive’s business partners. He’s an ace pilot, and an elephant is darted close to our lunch stop. Sarmies are packed away, adrenaline pumping and on to the vehicles to get close. The gigantic beast is down and the rangers work a thick collar around its neck. The noise from the animal’s trunk is like an outboard motor, the size of its feet and deep crenellations in the skin up close hard to believe. Then we all clear out, a shot of adrenaline, and the ellie is back up, now with 30kg of extra hardware strapped to its neck. A beacon for science, one hopes.
Still fired up, we are led to one of the biggest Baobabs I have ever seen. It’s like an immense monument with a cave at its base that could house a party. Holes hammered in vertical lines into the trunk bear testimony to the honey hunters who used hardwood pegs to collect their bounty over the millennia. A whirl around and soon we are over a steep bank and churning through sand to reach the edge of the Save. The park ranger gets through in his Land Cruiser after virtually disappearing under the water, then it’s the turn of the Landies. Tyres are deflated to one bar, air suspension on high, into second gear Low Range, and a plunge into the water. A deep bow wave forms and eddies stream way over the leading Disco’s bonnet, obscuring the windscreen at the deepest point, but then the bank rises and the vehicles all churn safely out. A few of us are treated to a brief flip in the helicopter, taking in herds of buffalo and the magnificent plateau, before we route over our destination for the night, Chilo Gorge Lodge, a luxury establishment on the banks of the river owned by Clive and his American business partner. A magnificent place with separate suites connected by romantic pathways and a stunning bar and central reception bedecked in local hardwood carvings, it’s been mothballed for some time. Not enough bookings. It’s been opened especially for this event, so the bar is mildly understocked and the catering patchy, but considering the logistics of bringing the lodge to brief light, quite a feat.
A dance event put on by a local troupe is a harbinger of what is to follow the next day. A conservation theme is muddied by popular theatrical content, but the mixed message reflects local concern at wild animals roaming through unfenced land. There’s work to be done, and this is the intent of the day’s community event, one of thirty planned during the expedition. A day before the MegaWorld team had laid out the lines and goalposts for the Mahenye community soccer field, the environment minister Francis Nhema had agreed to speak, dance teams had polished their routines. Disaster strikes briefly en route to the local village as a branch smashes the windscreen of Deon’s Defender. He emerges shaken, with cuts, and his driving partner, the ebullient Hugh Row, comments that this is what the metal cables between bullbar and roofrack help avoid. The wheels quickly start turning to bring a replacement screen from Jo’burg to Messina as the Landy has another solid few weeks of travelling still to do. Things are hotting up in the village. Landies are arrayed in a great arc, flags are flying, Johnny Clegg’s ‘Scatterlings of Africa’ is blaring over the PA. Kingsley spends hours handing out ‘LifeStraws’ which purify drinking water and ‘One Net One Life’ mosquito nets to mothers with babies, who queue in the blazing sun for the privilege. His ever patient wife Jill, better known as ‘Mashozi’ (for shorts in Zulu) is keeping her spectacle-giving ‘Right to Sight’ campaign going and is manning one of the 100 mobile libraries that are going out to rural schools. A local wildlife art competition is judged, with the winners taking away desks that double as water bottles. Mad Mike the Garmin mapping man then parachutes in, having leapt from the helicopter, to huge applause. He’s bearing a soccer ball, signaling the moment for the soccer tourney to take centre stage. The intense barefoot action is commentated from the PA to critical crowd appraisal. That wrapped, the enthusiastic dance teams strut their stuff before the minister and assembled local chiefs. Everyone jostles ten-deep for a view. Kingsley, blazing red in the sun, plays maitre d, keeping the Boundless Africa patter flowing, sharing jokes with the ministers, explaining how to use all this humanitarian aid. This event will be remembered for years.
It’s clear Kingsley is an accomplished team leader. He defers on things technical to his son Ross, but he is the definitive master of the soundbite and the quick marketing whip-around. Assembling people for pictures, standing before stunning views and discoursing for the ever-present video camera hoisted by Ross, in no time he has another insert in the bag for National Geographic Travel. He’s a showman, and very good at it. It’s a business, after all, and he gets it done with charisma and at the same time a deep affection for Africa and its people that keeps the magic alive.
It’s also about enthusiasm and drive. As the crowds disperse, the whole circus is packed up, and the convoy heads out the park and south for four more hours’ bumping dusty drive to the Ndali School where another art competition is judged. The school is clearly without resources, peeling paint desperately needs a touch-up, but the garden is well kept. A teacher tells me he has been surviving on $2 a month. As the sun sets, we move on, following Clive in his well kitted 100 Series Cruiser to Swimuwini another four hours’ drive south in the Mabalauta area, where new accommodation has been built. We make a rocky river crossing back in the park, frustrated to be racing through this territory in the dark instead of taking in the sights. Then Ben, the ‘Pavarotti of the Bush’ warns that the fuel pump on his Landy, a long wheelbase heavy carrying all the food supplies, is making a noise. Thirty kilometers of pothole avoiding later, it gives up the ghost. Damn. A spotlight is found, a toolkit hauled out and Ross crawls under the truck. Within minutes he’s cleaned the fuel filter of water, the result of dodgy fuel bought earlier in Mozambique, and the convoy is back on track. Just before our destination as Swimuwini, Kingsley spots what he thinks is a leopard in the headlights. He’s clearly thrilled. Ross points his Discovery towards the bush and gets a clear image, those of us behind catch a fleeting glimpse. The exhaustion drains off, and not much later we’re into the gates of the lodge – with Deon and Hugh in the windscreen-less Landy looking like miners straight from the coal shaft, more dust-coated than the inside of the vehicle.
Fed, slept, photographs processed, Captain Morgan enjoyed, more tall tales told, the next day brings another ceremony as the environment minister draws back the curtain on an opening plaque. He’s preceded by many speeches, more dancing and a military routine from thirty singing rangers using AK-47s as props. The morning had revealed another stunning vista overlooking the Mwenezi River, with baboons barking from the opposite bank and kingfishers making busy sorties in pairs among the shallows. I had to agree with the minister’s sentiment: ‘The development is important and will lead to more arrivals, but I don’t want service stations and cellphones. I want to have wildlife.’
That ceremony wrapped up, we hurried on through more Mopane-lined tracks to the Devata area where Chief Sengwe and his community put on another massive show. After judging another art competition, it was down to a stretch tent for more dancing routines, speeches and hand-shaking, the indefatigable Kingsley flanked by his team of stills and video scribes. A local team trounced the Boundless hopefuls in a friendly volleyball game, despite some dramatic saves, and then as the crowd of literally thousands dispersed, we headed up to a school community hall for a meal of meat, pap and cooldrink. This was true rural hospitality. We made camp in the grounds, ironically enough safe from roaming animals behind a fence. More Captain Morgan flowed around the fire and the talking stick passed from hand to hand reviewed the previous days’ events. Kingsley as ever was on form, Clive talked about the early hunting days in the area and the next legs were planned on the satellite phone. After another night in Zimbabwe, the expedition was heading for Mapungubwe, then on to Botswana. We had to hit the trail back to Jo’burg early the next morning.
In four exhausting days we had seen just a few of the possible sights in Gonarezhou. One needs at least two leisurely weeks to take in the area’s richness, not this mad rush between commitments. But this taste had confirmed that it’s an extraordinary location, essential on an adventurer’s trip list. As the process for visiting TFCA zones becomes clearer, route planning across parks and political boundaries in southern Africa will be quite feasible. Importantly, benefits will accrue to the local communities, even if patchily.
When Kingsley wrapped up the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition in August, after 120 such punishing days forging through the nine countries, 30 parks and seven TFCAs on the schedule, he emptied the calabash he ceremonially filled and refilled with water from the dozens of rivers crossed between departure in May from Durban in KwaZuluNatal and the final leg in the Ais-Ais/Richtersveld TFC in Namibia. From the Indian to the Atlantic oceans, this represents a 10 000-kilometre continent crossing of note. Yes the Land Rovers survived, and even the Discoverys which everyone suspiciously thought of as soft town vehicles made the grade, coping with everything from the mountains of Lesotho to the mud in Botswana. Kingsley hasn’t gone soft, though they certainly provided a more comfortable ride than the hard-sprung Defenders. But this was more than a triumph for marketing, it represents the triumph of an important conservation ideal. Kingsley’s drive and get-up-and-go good humour is inspirational. He brings ideas to life. It’s part of his mantra, ‘saving and improving lives through adventure’. No doubt, he’s already planning the next expedition…