The team finds themselves on the banks of Djibouti’s Lake Assal, deepest point on the continent at -155 meter below sea level.
Good news! Thanks to Messina shipping lines and DP World, the three expedition Landies, the kit and the seven-strong expedition team have all arrived safely at Djibouti Port (thank God no pirates!) We were last here as part of our Outside Edge Expedition to track the outline of Africa. It’s good to be back.
The team finds themselves on the banks of Djibouti’s Lake Assal, deepest point on the continent at -155 meter below sea level, for the start of their odyssey to follow the Great African Rift Valley. With an 80 m thick salt crust in about one third of the lake and about 380 grams of salt per litre of water, Lake Assal is the saltiest body of water on the planet. Ethiopia’s Danakil, here we come.
And so as the world’s ‘glitterati’ descend on Durban’s ‘COP’ 17 Summit on how to slow climate change and reach their agreed goal “to limit the average global temperature rise to 2°C…”, we find ourselves in Ethiopia’s Danakil, hottest place on earth!; close to drought stricken famine rid Somalia on the Horn of Africa. Let’s hope for peace and a green revolution!
Ethiopian greetings from remote Afar villages where the Awash River ends its journey. Malaria is bad here and we continue with our United Against Malaria, Rite To Sight and LifeStraw campaigns. Tough going, we travel with armed militia. – we’ll keep you posted.
Whilst going through a bit of research about our first expedition chapter, we uncover this interesting bit of information… The Danakil, also known as the Afars, used to be in the habit of castrating and murdering intruders into their territory. A young man could only marry when he had overcome an adversary and cut off his testicles as a trophy. The early British explorer Wilfred Thesiger found himself in a few sticky situations in which he managed to preserve both his composure and his testicles and win over the Afars. Hopefully we’ll be able to do the same – we’ll keep you posted.
Greetings from Erta Ale the most active volcano in Africa. With armed guards and a camel to carry the water we walked through the night to avoid the fierce heat of the Danakil Depression to stand on the rim of an erupting lava lake. None of the expedition team has witnessed anything like this in their lives before.
To propitiate the spirits of our Rift Valley odyssey, we toss a silver coin into the bubbling caldera. Several earthquakes have been recorded in the vicinity of Erta Ale suggesting that a major eruption maybe imminent. It's tough going back to base camp, hard underfoot over blistering volcanic landscape.
Here people survive by drinking what ever water they can find be it stagnant pools or puddles left over from the last rain. Later we distribute LifeStraws to Afar communities. Each LifeStraw filters a thousand liters of clean drinking water. It is fulfilling to improve lives through adventure`- thank you Nikon for making it possible. We’ll keep you posted.
Visit www.vestergaard-frandsen.com/lifestraw for more on LifeStraws.
Our Rift Valley humanitarian journey continues. Behind us now is Djibouti and Lake Assal (lowest point in Africa) Deset island (lowest island in the world) and Erta Ale (Africa's most active volcano) Now we must cross the dangerous Danakil desert. We check water, fuel and supplies. Our guide Ali Abdella has organised two men each with a Kalashnikov (AK 47). The Danakil's climatic inhospitality is mirrored by the reputation of its nomadic Afar inhabitants, who as recently as the Italian occupation in 1937 had the somewhat discouraging custom of welcoming strangers by lopping of their testicles. Hope we keep ours!
Flash floods in the distant highlands have made part of the Danakil track impassable and we are having to navigate by the seat of our pants – very difficult when Ross who is navigating has got dysentery and is being fed antibiotics and Rehidrate. With tyres down to 1 bar we grind through choking powder soft dust and then pump them hard again to bounce over ancient solidified lava flows. It is incredibly tough on man and machine. Get lost out here and that will be the last you hear from us. We’ll keep you posted…
The Zen of Travel is with us. We find the salt caravan route to Hamed Ela. Our next objective is to cross the actual Danakil Depression – officially the hottest place on earth, but it's not that easy. This close to Eritrea security is tight and already half a dozen AK47- toting freeloaders are wanting to make a quick buck by securing our safety. We’ll keep you posted.
Somehow it works out! For a fee of 600 Birr the military give us an escort of three well-armed camouflage clad soldiers. In the three Nikon branded Rift Valley Expedition Landies we race across the Danakil Depression. Miss the track, break through the salt crust, and it’s tickets. Expedition member and epic adventurer Mike Nixon has left ahead of us on his mountain bike, a speck in the distant heat haze, as he peddles against a headwind on the hottest place on earth. To our knowledge it’s a world first, no other mountain biker has been crazy enough to crisscross the Danakil all the way from Djibouti. His early morning departures from camp and the visuals from a small camera attached to his cycling helmet add an exciting element to the adventure. We’re trying to get to another Rift Valley icon in this lunar landscape studded with active volcanoes. This time to the multi coloured sulpher springs of Dallol. The soldiers point across to Eritrea and warn us that we mustn’t delay.
Leaving one of the soldiers with the Landies we cross a blistering hot solidified lava flow on foot to reach Dallol – it’s as if we’re on another planet as we step gingerly through a surreal bubbling, multi-hued field of sulpherous hot springs studded with steaming conical vents, caramel coloured mushroom shapes and rippled rock formations. These craters are the lowest known subaerial volcanic vents in the world. The area hisses and steams, the heat is unbearable – we undoubtedly stand at the hottest place on earth.
From the Dallol hot springs in the Danakil Depression, Ali the Afar expedition interpreter collects some hot, bright orange coloured water for the symbolic calabash that we are carrying down Africa’s Great Rift Valley. Later that afternoon, closer to Eritrea, warm oily green water from a salt encrusted pool of bubbling geezers is added to the Zulu calabash mix. Over twelve months, historic sip-fills of water will be added from every Rift Valley lake and waterway. The Ethiopian soldiers are getting edgy – too close to Eritrea and they want us off the salt flats before dark. ‘Make sense, especially as this place is also said to be haunted at night by a devil spirit called Abu Lalu.’ We’re at -116 metres. Ross is still struggling with dysentery. Hell in this heat.
On our way off the Danakil Depression, we pass hundreds of cameleers with their camels, making their way to the salt flats to cut tablets of trade salt. Eugene in the big Land Rover 130 radios in to tell us that he’s found a place to camp on the banks of a river fed from the mountains of the Rift Valley escarpment high above us. It’s our first bath in weeks. We wash the desert dust from our bodies and around a hardwood fire, under a canopy of Rift Valley stars, we drink a ‘Captain’s toast’ to the fact that we’d survived the Danakil Depression. Zulu expedition member Willie Gwebu knocks up a camel stew spiced with some hot Nando’s sauce. Ross keeps down a bowl of oats with goat milk – he’s getting better – Bloody luxury.
In first and second gear, low ratio, following the salt caravan route, we climb the Landies out of the Danakil to reach the Tigrean capital of Mekele where we drop off expedition volunteer Andre Bredenkamp who needs to fly back to Cape Town. Andre, together with expedition member Mike Nixon, has climbed the seven highest peaks of the world. He’s a great adventurer and we’ll miss his eccentricity, come-what-may-attitude and good humour around the campfire. He promised to join up for another of these crazy Rift Valley chapters. Our mission is to now experience the Northern Rift Valley escarpment of the Afar Triangle – We’ll keep you posted.
On this expedition we’ve climbed from the lowest point on the continent to now travel along the 2000 metre high edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. Wrapped in jackets and beanies, it’s another world. For the Disco 4’s, it’s manual shift, dropping gears through the bends. In the big 130, it’s a juggle of clutch, gears and brakes. In Ethiopia they drive on the left and so our front passenger becomes a conductor shouting ‘All clear!’ or ‘No! Get in!’ as we dodge old Fiat trucks, livestock and pedestrians through a succession of hundreds of dizzying hairpin bends and mountain passes that make up the most awesome stretch of road in Ethiopia. We zigzag through the hills around Maychw which on 31st March 1936 were the scene of the final decisive battle in Mussolini’s bid to conquer Ethiopia which led to the 1936-1941 Italian occupation, the only period in its 3000-year history when outsiders ruled Ethiopia. It’s wonderful to feel cold.
On every expedition we carry a Scroll of Peace and Goodwill. These have been messaged by chiefs, ambassadors, government officials, governors, Nobel Peace Prize laureates Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and even on one occasion by a near naked Himba girl who endorsed the scroll with a simple red-ochered handprint. Today’s message is from an Afar tribe M.P. who scribbles… ‘Welcome to the land of Lucy…’ – he’s referring to the 1974 discovery of an almost complete 3.5 million years old hominid skeleton named ‘Lucy’ – the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ was playing in the archeologists’ camp shortly after the find close to where our convoy of three expedition Land Rovers now travel in a cloud of dust along the floor of the Rift Valley’s Afar triangle. It’s close to sunset but Ali our guide warns us that it’s too dangerous to camp wild in this area. ‘There’s bad blood between the Issa and the Afar – it’s about livestock, available water and grazing rights.’ We push on into the night – we’ll keep you posted.
Greetings again from the Horn of Africa – the fascinating area that contains the countries of Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia. Still zigzagging down the Great African Rift Valley we reach Awash Station on the old 1929 French-built railway line that joins Addis Ababa to Djibouti. The train no longer operates but we find rooms in the old Greek owned railway hotel called ‘Buffet Awash’. It was from here in 1932 that the great British explorer Wilfred Thesiger departed in a caravan of 22 camels, 32 men, some Somali cameleers, 15 khaki clad soldiers and an Afar hostage to ensure their safety. It is hard to believe that as recently as 1932 no expedition had survived a journey through these still dangerous lands of the Afar tribe who collected the testicles of their enemies as trophies. Our next objective is a 300km dash through the lands of the Nilotic Oromo people (also known as the Galla) to the ancient walled city of Harar high up on the opposite Rift Valley escarpment overlooking Djibouti, Somaliland and the Danakil plains. We’ll keep you posted.
For many years I’ve dreamt about one day reaching the ancient fortified trade terminus of Harar. Considered to be the fourth holy city of Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. On foot we pass through the Showa Gate, enclosed by the crumbling medieval walls, over 300 cobbled alleyways connect the rabbit warren of hobgoblin stalls, shops, white washed homes, mosques, shrines and markets that are home to some 20 thousand Harari inhabitants. What’s so cool about this place is just how friendly and relaxed everybody is. In the heat of the afternoon the men gather in the shade to chew the green narcotic ‘leaves of paradise’ called chat or qat. Here on the Horn of Africa is a way of life. Old men whose teeth have rotted away, resort to using a small mortar and pestle to pound a green ‘chat’ paste which they rub onto their gums. I’d prefer to gargle with Captain Morgan,’ says Mike Nixon with a grin.
The first European to enter the then ‘forbidden city’ was the British explorer Richard Burton, who trekked from Berberer on the Somali coast in 1855. He survived to write that Harar was a great ‘halfway house’ for slave caravans, making their way from the interior to the Red Sea. His notes on the local honey-wine read… This is the Abyssinian “Tej… some write it “Zatsh.” At Harar it is made of honey dissolved in hot water, strained and fermented for seven days with the bark of the Kudidah tree. Every traveller has praised the honey-wine…, and some have not scrupled to prefer it to champagne. It exhilarates, excites and acts as an aphrodisiac; the consequence is, that at Harar all men, pagans, sages, priests and rulers drink it… We try it, it makes us talk loudly with numerous visits to the loo – we’ll keep you posted.
Still in the old walled city of Harar, Mashozi bargains for colourful cloth and a curved Afar dagger in a decorated leather scabbard whilst I buy camel meat from the Muslim market, where the butcher throws bits of intestine into the air to be caught by swooping yellow-billed kites.
Later we gather in the town square to drink strong black Ethiopian coffee from small china cups. (Harar coffee is said to be the best in the world.) That’s when ‘Ali the Afar’ tells us about the other Harar residents who at night gather at the edge of Jugal (the other name for the walled city) waiting for the humans to go to sleep so that they can prowl the streets. We’ll keep you posted.
‘Even the walls of the city have low doorways that allow the hyenas to pass,’ says Ali. ‘Hyenas are part of life here, they keep out the bad spirits (Djinns) and at night they eat the scraps and the garbage left out for them. They don’t trouble the people. There’s even man who feeds them meat with his own mouth.’ And so as night falls over the walled city of Harar we find ourselves back in the Land Rovers on our way to meet ‘Abbas the Hyena Man who’ve taken over from his father Yusuf who was the hyena man for 40 years! We don’t know what to expect.
With only the expedition Land Rover’s headlights to illuminate the crazy scene, we watch in amazement as Abbas the Hyena Man calls into the night. There’s that familiar whooping sound and hyena eyes shine in the dark, soon they are all around us. It’s breeding season so we must be careful, says Abbas, as the alpha male comes forward to snatch a piece of rotten camel meat from the end of a short stick held between Abbas’s teeth. He shouts out the carnivores’ names and I scribble in the expedition journal as he calls: Chalto! Chala! Ibsa! Ipsito! Jambo! Bruse! … and many more. Then the expedition members Mike Nixon and Willie Gwebu give it a go, the hyenas coming forward to greedily snatch the meat from their mouths – It’s bloody scary!. ‘Come, it’s your turn Pops, I need a piece to camera,’ says Ross. I shit myself! Sitting on a rock, the massively strong spotted hyenas all around me. Abbas parades the meat in front of my face – I hear the snap of their powerful jaws and smell the rotten meat. According to legend these wild hyenas are fed in good times so that in times of drought they won’t attack livestock or people (that’s if you’re not possessed by an evil Djinn). ‘Careful,’ says Mashozi, ‘you never know what they can find in your beard.’ So much still to see and do – we’ll keep you posted.
We survive the hyenas of Harar and back on the floor of the Great African Rift Valley at Awash, Mike takes off early by mountain bike and we do some Rite to Sight, Life Straws and United Against Malaria work with the local community. So continuing to use the adventure to improve lives. We meet up with Mike in the heat of the day. He’s sitting under an acacia tree playing bottle top drafts with Awash National Park rangers. They won’t let him ride any further. It appears there’s a danger of lions. Today is his last ride on this Rift Valley chapter. He’s been great company and will, I’m sure, be back. An armed ranger escorts us to the waterfalls on the Awash River below which there cruises a massive crocodile. We add some water to the calabash and then further down the Rift we add a sipfull of Lake Beseka water. It’s a beautiful area. Above the black lava encrusted lake there looms the active volcano of Fanteller and on the surrounding yellow grass plains we see Beisa oryx, long necked gerenuk and our first ever Soemmerings gazelle. These are the lands of the fierce Kereyu tribe and the men are noted for their hairstyles of short on top and huge afro on the sides. ‘Be careful taking photographs,’ warns Ali.
We’re feeling the pace, all of us a bit travel worn. But everybody’s strong in the knowledge that we’ve got just a short distance of this section of the Rift Valley still to complete before getting to Addis Ababa and flying home for Christmas. There’s talk about family and friends, stuffed turkey, thick gravy and roast potatoes. We all agree that when we get home we’ll start with a Nando’s. Not that there’s anything wrong with hot and spicy Ethiopian food. We’ve learnt that thanks to the Italian occupation, spaghetti and meat is the best menu option, but none of us can get used to the local staple diet called injera, it’s a large pancake substance made from fermented tef – sour with a foam rubber texture. It’s served with a variety of sauces called wat, the hottest being the evil pepper filled red coloured kai wat which together with the Tej honey-wine, brings on ring-sting and smoke from the ears. Fortunately the fresh crusty bread dabo is good, as is Ethiopian coffee. Just 14 hours to go – a race against time to get to Addis Ababa.
As always it’s South African to the rescue. Greig Jansen who heads up Coca-Cola in Ethiopia gives us a safe place to leave the three expedition Landies and kit. There’s hot showers all round and a dinner party with his colourful team before racing to the airport for the Kenya Airways flight to take us home for Christmas.
Thanks to the Zen of Travel, a great expedition team and wonderful support from friends and sponsor partners, we’ve survived chapter one as we zigzagged across the sometimes dangerous Afar Triangle section of the Great African Rift Valley from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia. Continuing to use the adventure to improve lives, chapter two of the expedition will start in mid-January 2012 and will take us South from Addis Ababa along the Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes all the way to Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, in Northern Kenya. As they say in the Ethiopian Amharic language, ‘Ameseghinalehu’ which means thanks. We could not have succeeded without your support.
Note: Malaria kills nearly a million people a year in Africa. Most of these are women and children. You can make a difference by purchasing a UAM bracelet from any Cape Union Mart store. Add a few to your Christmas parcel and join the winning team to fight malaria.
Have a great festive season – Life’s a great adventure, isn’t it?
We welcome in 2012 by preparing to set off on the 2nd Chapter of our world first Nikon supported geographic and humanitarian Great African Rift Valley Expedition to complete the Rift from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to Gorongosa in Mozambique.
Behind us now is Chapter 1 with the colourful expedition send-off from the Johannesburg International Motor Show, the shipping of the expedition Land Rovers and kit around the dangerous Horn of Africa; The successful United Against Malaria event at the Nelson Mandela College in Djibouti at which we handed over a message from Andile Mandela (Madiba’s grandson); Making it to the Gulf of Tadjora on the Red Sea for the geographic start point of the expedition, following Seven Summiter Mike Nixon as he mountain biked across the salt flats of Lake Assal, lowest land point in Africa deep in the heart of Afar Triangle where the dagger-carrying, gun toting Afar warriors once had the unpleasant habit of lopping off the testicles of intruders like ourselves. Behind us now are the mountainous Land Rover testing camel tracks and the journey to the crocodile filled lake that forms the mouth of the Awash River and the Afar smuggling route between Ethiopia and Djibouti. We’ve reached ‘Deset’, the lowest island on earth and on foot through the night with a camel to carry the drinking water and men armed with AK47’s for protection we made it to the rim of the lava spewing active volcano of Erta Ale.
In the Nikon branded Landies we bounced and boulder hopped over solidified lava flows and moonscapes and with tyres down to one bar, crossed the Danakil Desert, got hopelessly lost, but eventually made it to the multi-hued sulphurous wonderland of Dallol near the Eritrean border, in where we followed Mike Nixon on his mountain bike as he battled a headwind across the glaring white geyser spewing salt lake of the Danakil Depression, known as the hottest place on earth. From below sea level we followed the ancient camel track passing hundreds of camels loaded with tablets of trade salt bound for the 2000 metre high Rift Valley escarpment markets.
Dressed in beanies and jackets we zigzagged the overloaded expedition Land Rovers through the hills of Maychew, and then we dashed through the lands of the Nilotic Oromo people to the ancient walled city of Harar where we watched in amazement as Abbas the Hyena Man feeds these carnivores pieces of rotten camel meat from the end of a short stick held between his teeth. He asked us to participate – Bloody scary!.
Thanks to the Zen of Travel, a great expedition team and wonderful support from friends, Nikon and other sponsor partners, we’ve survived chapter one as we crisscrossed across the sometimes dangerous Afar Triangle section of the Great African Rift Valley from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia.
Throughout the journey we continued to distribute life saving PermaNets to pregnant mothers and mums with children under 5, LifeStraws for safe drinking water and Nikon Rite to Sight spectacles to the poor sighted.
Chapter 1 – Mission accomplished. Ahead of the Nikon supported Great African Rift Valley expedition lies Chapter 2 – it’s longer and equally unpredictable and challenging: a journey to connect the fascinating Rift Valley lakes and nomadic tribes of Southern Ethiopia all the way South to the inland Jade Sea of Turkana, considered the world’s largest desert lake. Still 9 chapters to go – we’ll keep you posted.
Whilst setting up our Chapter 2 Rift Valley logistics with our Ethiopian contacts it’s important to note what calendar we are working to. You see, Ethiopia celebrated its New Year on the 11th September, they still work to the old Julian calendar so are 7 years behind us and have 13 months to the year. But hey! Ethiopia time can be equally confusing. Like the Swahili of neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania, Ethiopians measure time in 12 hour cycles starting at 06:00 and 18:00. In other words, their seven o’clock is our one o’clock, and visa versa.
Anyway, we all know that whilst the Swiss might have developed the clock, it’s good old Mama Afrika that owns the time and that the secret to the success of the journey is to travel at the rhythm and pace of Africa and to celebrate every sunset with a battered enamel mug of the ‘Captain’s Best!’ – We’ll keep you posted.
Preparing for the next chapter of the Ethiopian leg of the Great African Rift Valley Expedition and the expedition members are getting this print out to help them communicate with the locals in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. It belongs to the Afro-Asiatic language family which includes Arabic, Hebrew and Assyrian. Although other languages are spoken in Ethiopia, Amharic is the most widely used and understood.
An informal ‘hello’ is tadiyass. ‘How are you?’ is dehna neh for a man and dehna nesh for a woman; to answer ‘I am fine’ you say dehna. ‘See you’ is chow, ‘yes’ is awo and O.K. is e’shi.
When it comes to food, breakfast is kurs, lunch is me’sa and dinner is e’rat. It you want bread, ask for dabbo, water is wuhu, tea is shai, and if you’re interested in famous Ethiopian coffee, ask for buna.
If you only remember one word, use e’shi, say it with a smile – it’ll get you through and break the ice – Chow – we’ll keep you posted!
Greetings from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where we are united with our three expedition Landies and kit – everything safe and sound thanks to ex-Kearsney boy, South African Greig Jansen and his team who run the Coca-Cola Sabco operation in East Africa. Like most fellow South Africans we meet in Africa, they are superbly helpful and even assist us with the humanitarian work attached to the expedition.
Addis is a fascinating place where high rise buildings, shiny new vehicles and businessmen in suites with mobile phones clamped to their ears share the city space with a parade of cripples, pick-pocketers, con-artists, amputee war veterans, street children and naked beggars. The place grows on you, despite the occasional opportunistic con-artist and the occasional rude teenager who gratuitously yells ‘f-off’ at faranji’s (travellers). The vast majority of the Ethiopians we meet are superbly friendly and despite the recent attack on travellers in the Danakil area of the Rift Valley, one feels safer here than downtown Kinshasa or Joburg. Ethiopia is a must on any traveller’s calendar.
Still in Addis Ababa, before the expedition heads off again for the Rift Valley, we meet up with Nando’s founder Robbie Brozin and a support team of adventurers who have just got back from the ancient Timket ceremony in Lalibela. Their scribe Paul Appleton adds these interesting scribbles to the expedition log…
Wede Ethiopia enquwan dehna metachiu! (that’s welcome to Ethiopia in Amharic).
As we landed in Gondar, the early morning mist was slowly losing its grasp on the land – there was a chill in the air and huge excitement in our group – and we weren’t quite sure what to expect.
Ethiopia is a deeply spiritual land. A country where people of many faiths live peacefully, side-by-side, and home of important holy sites in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. We could feel this spiritual energy at almost every point in our journey – especially as our time in the country coincided with the main annual Ethiopian Orthodox Christian celebration, Timket (Epiphany). To read more about their fascinating journey go to the Great African Rift Valley ‘Adventure Diary’ in www.kingsleyholgate.net
A note from Ross Holgate’s adventure diary:
Chapter 2 of the expedition and it’s great to be on the move again, the three expedition Landies – two Discovery 4’s and the big Landy Defender 130 mothership. Driving on the right hand side of the road, dodging trucks, pedestrians and livestock – the Landies loaded up with life saving mosquito nets for distribution to mums with children under the age of five, Nikon Rite to Sight spectacles for the poor sighted and LifeStraws for safe drinking water. We drop down the escarpment into Africa’s Great Rift Valley – that great tear in the earth’s crust that extends from the Danakil Plains of Ethiopia on the Red Sea to below Gorongosa in Mozambique. We’ve got two new expedition volunteers: cheerful KZN boy Brad Hansen who runs his own safari company in Tanzania has flown in to assist with the humanitarian work, and American photo-journalist Mark Lakin who’s going to document Chapter 2 of our Rift Valley odyssey.
Our first destination is Lake Ziway. It has five islands which include Debre Sina, Galila, Bird Island and Tullu Gudo, home to a monastery said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant around the ninth century. Ziway, known for its birds and hippos, is one of the eight Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes that stretch like a necklace of jewels from below Addis Ababa to the border with Kenya. As is the tradition on this expedition, we will continue to add iconic sipfills of Rift Valley water to the symbolic calabash.
As always there’s that wonderful feeling, the excitement of the unknown. This Southern part of Ethiopia leading down into the Omo Valley and Lake Turkana can be wild and unpredictable – We’ll keep you posted…
The air is charged with tension you can cut the atmosphere with a knife. The well armed Bana war party that we had seen earlier, are sitting in a circle in the centre of the Mursi village. They are demanding the return of their comrades who have been abducted by the Mursi. With us is an armed ranger I can sense he is jumpy. I get pulled into the circle, a carved stool is placed in the sand and I'm offered chewy bits of njama from the coals. The young bloods finger their AK47's, the elders mumble amongst themselves. I notice that the expedition team start positioning the Land Rovers for a quick getaway. We’ll keep you posted.
We're alive. The Bana captives are released by the Mursi. We present the elders with a goat for slaughter – it’s a “Peace Accord in the bush”
We open up the Landies and every village mother receives a mozzie net. The Mursi women make a slit beneath her lower lip, over time the gap is progressively stretched forming a lip loop large enough for a small circular clay plate. As the lip stretches so larger plates are inserted until eventually the loop is large enough to hold a plate 15cm in diameter and the women can ideally pull her distended lip loop over her head. The larger the lip plate the greater her bride price – a real whopper can fetch up to 50 head of cattle. Africa's Rift Valley is full of surprises.
We are still following this massive sear on the earth’s face, visible from over 10,000kms out in space and first explored by the Scottish geologist John Walter Gregory who in 1893 named it the Great Rift Valley. For us it remains a fascinating yearlong chapter by chapter geographic and humanitarian journey – linked to the fight against the killer disease of malaria. So that’s why we’re back in South Africa for a while to support World Malaria Day on April 25, 2012. Please show your support by purchasing a United Against Malaria bracelet from your nearest Cape Union Mart store.
It’s exciting when a plan comes together, the team have all arrived safely at expedition base camp. New expedition volunteers are Barry and Cedric Leitch, colourful characters who will assist with humanitarian work. Our Swahili interpreter and United Against Malaria educator is Lumbaye Lenguru, a veteran of many Holgate adventures. As they say in East Africa "Safari Ndefu", meaning – it's a great journey.
Tough going in the Big Wet
The big rains have arrived late and we are in the thick of it - 15 people drowned in the Rift Valley whilst others made homeless by mud slides. Rained out last night but the sunrise views over the Rift with Mount Kenya in the distance made it worthwhile. We have commenced humanitarian work – doing what we came to do ... Will keep you posted.
At the source of the Nile
We reach the Lake Victoria source of the Nile, where Jon and Trish Dahl from Nile River Explorers continue to support the expedition’s humanitarian work. That night the rain drums down on the fly sheets of our tents. Tomorrow we must push to reach the Murchison Falls for the start of our journey down the Western Rift.
Village of Champions
Chief game warden of Bogoria , William Kimosop leads us in the foot steps of Gregory the Scottish geologist who in 1893 named this jagged rupture the Great African Rift Valley. We make it to the top of the Cherangani Hills to Iten where athletes and counselors endorse the expedition scroll - this high altitude village of champions has churned out a number of Olympic gold medalists. And they thank us for the humanitarian work we have done in the valley below. Uganda and the Western Rift - here we come ...
Journey down the Western Rift begins
Leon Steyn from Wild Frontiers leads us by boat into the turbulent waters below the Murchison Falls - where the wide languid Nile is transformed into an explosive froth of thunderous white water as it funnels through a narrow cleft in the Rift Valley Escarpment - is easily the most impressive sight of its type in east Africa. And we add more water to the expedition calabash ... Will keep you posted.
Small bite sizes
The ticks in the note book total 257 - our hippo count between Murchison Falls and our base camp. A massive croc, the biggest we have ever seen on any expedition, slides off the bank close enough to splash us. Elephant and buffalo abound. Later in the village of Mubako every mum receives a life saving mosquito net and those that need, Nikon Rite to Sight spectacles. South down Albert, formerly Lake Mabutu Sekoseko and on the other side the blue mountains of the DRC - small bites sizes, one day at a time, we inch our way down Uganda's Western Rift ..
It’s all about working together and uniting against malaria and with us on the floor of the Albertine Rift are malaria warriors Hervé Verhoosel from Roll Back Malaria in New York, David Kyne, also from New York who heads up United Against Malaria, Claudia Vondresak from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (who assisted with the production of the malaria prevention educational booklets), Hannah Bowen from Malaria No More, Aggrey Kagonyera from MTN in Kampala and Sherwin Charles who coordinated the volunteer visit. It was real expedition stuff – camping in the rain, the sounds of lion and hyena at night, equatorial rain beating down on their small tents and then slip-sliding the Nikon branded expedition Landies through the mud to assist with the distribution of high quality long-lasting insecticide treated PermaNets in the high-risk malaria areas of Hamukungu, Kasenyi and Katunguru. David Kyne even got to referee a UAM football game for kids. Their little homemade football of compressed banana leaves tied with string was replaced with a proper soccer ball – there were red and blue soccer bibs for the players, a proper whistle, a UAM trophy for the winning team and a prize for the little man-of-the-match. The colourful group of volunteers certainly made a difference and took home the story of a Nikon supported world-first Rift Valley Expedition using adventure to improve and save lives – Thanks for the support.
The Nikon supported Rift Valley expedition team have all arrived safely in Kigali where they have been joined by a group of United Against Malaria volunteers. Headed up by Robbie Brozin, founder of Nando’s. The clean, safe, bustling capital city is a tribute to the post genocide efforts of Paul Kigama’s government and the people of Rwanda.
Rwandan school children are encouraged to visit the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali. ‘We must make sure that we never forget what terrible things happened – this way we can ensure that they will never happen again,’ says young Rwandan school boy Fabrice Ngabonziza.
We all find the visit to Gosozi to be a deeply emotional experience brought alive by genocide video clips showing the killings. The stories from the survivors are heartbreaking and I scribble these words from the memorial into my notebook:
‘Many families were totally wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths.
The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotten flesh of their owners. The country smelt of the stench of death.
The génocidaires had been more successful in their evil aims than anyone would have dared to believe.
Rwanda was Dead!
It was no wonder that General Romeo Dallaire who led the UN observer mission in the infamously failed bid to stop genocide in 1994, later wept in rage, unable to forget that his repeated pleas to the Security Council in New York for more troops to stop the massacres were ignored. Will keep you posted.
Great energy as Robbie Brozin’s team of Rift Valley volunteers fully embrace the humanitarian spirit of adventure. We have a United Against Malaria soccer challenge where ex-springbok Morné du Plessis presents the man of the match with a bicycle. There’s a trophy for the winning team and every child receives malaria prevention education. The energy continues at a maternity clinic in the hills above Lake Kivu every mum receives a life saving mosquito net.
Nikon Dispatch 89 – A Rough Crossing
The Rift Valley Lake of Kivu is beautiful but the wind swells come up. The lightning flashes over the DRC and in a small boat we rock and roll as water leaks from between the planks. A bottle of Captain Morgan eases the passage but it’s dark by the time we reach the Northern tip of the lake.
Nikon Dispatch - Dian Fossey’s gorillas in the mist
Part of the Albertine section of Africa’s Great African Rift Valley are the forested volcanoes that are home to Rwanda’s mountain gorillas. The expedition had been successful in the impenetrable forests of Bwindi in Uganda. Now the challenge is to have gorilla sightings here in Rwanda. In the words of the great naturalist Sir David Attenborogh “There is more meaning and understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know.’
Nikon Dispatch – Her legacy lives on
It’s wonderful when a plan comes together – all the humanitarian work, the beauty of Rwanda and then the team members get to gaze into the soft brown eyes of a family of mountain gorillas in the same area where Dian Fossey was murdered by poachers. But her legacy lives on and now with peace in Rwanda, gorilla protection is tops.
Nikon Dispatch - Majestic encounters
Mark Turner, director of Game Stores Africa and partner of the Great African Rift Valley Expedition had this to say about his gorilla experience… ‘One of my most majestic and powerful encounters with nature…’.
Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda and his team have done a wonderful job of pulling this little 26,798 km2 country together after the genocide. In Kigali, the capital, you won’t even find a ‘stompie’ on the pavement. It’s spotlessly clean – no litter, and virtually on every corner you’ll find sweepers and cleaners and women with tins of paint and brushes painting the curb stones black and white. You can walk without fear at night. Motorbike taxi drivers all wear helmets; drivers buckle up and nobody jumps a red light. Corruption is almost unheard of, pot-holes get fixed, and, once a month, everybody joins the national clean-up day to remove rubbish, cut grass and fix fences.
This is a country that is easily the best-run, least-corrupt and most progressive on the African continent and in the words of a Rwandan friend, it’s all about leadership, peace and prosperity. We know that this country needs discipline and a good work ethic and Paul Kagame has been the right man for the job. Our Nikon supported Rift Valley journey continues South – Burundi here we come, will keep you posted.
Burundi at 27,830 km2 is after Rwanda the second to smallest country of our Rift Valley journey. Travelling out of Rwanda we follow the Rusizi River which runs down the floor of the Rift Valley from Lake Kivu to Lake Tanganyika. Across the river to the West is the DRC, a bit unsafe at the moment because of increased rebel activity resulting in thousands of refugees crossing into Uganda and Rwanda.
The Twa, Tutsi, and Hutu peoples have occupied Burundi since the country's formation five centuries ago. Burundi was ruled as a kingdom by the Tutsi for over two hundred years. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Germany and Belgium occupied the region, and Burundi and Rwanda became a European colony known as Ruanda-Urundi. Burundi like Rwanda suffered from political unrest and genocide killings between the Tutsi and Hutu. The country is still very French and still has an on-the-edge close to Congo feel. Nowhere in Africa have we seen so many bicycles piled so high with trade goods and produce – one Landy behind the other, our Nikon supported expedition makes it to the Delta where the brown waters of the Rusizi merge with the clear blue of Tanganyika, Mama Afrika’s largest fresh water lake where there’s rumoured to be a killer crocodile called Gustav who’s said to have killed more than 200 people. We hire a boat and rangers, but no Gustav. Will keep you posted.
It’s a yardstick for the expedition to reach Bujumbura in Burundi at the top-end of Lake Tanganyika. The Great African Rift Valley is wonderfully challenging with all its volcanoes (some still active), lakes and rivers, sip fulls of which get added to the expedition calabash, abundant wildlife, ancient tribes, snowcapped mountain ranges, equatorial downpours, mind-numbing heat, deserts, forests, the hyenas of Harar, village markets, rebels, cattle wars and the genocide of the Tutsi, roads that turn to goat tracks, the hottest and lowest places on the African continent and now, the challenge of Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s longest and deepest lake, all linked to the ongoing theme of using this world first expedition to improve and save lives. The expedition is 277 days old and there are still an estimated 88 days in which to bring the yearlong expedition home – we couldn’t do it without your support.
Today we get the good news that Seven Summiters (that means they’ve climbed the seven highest points on each of the continents of the world) Mike Nixon and André Bredenkamp, will be volunteering for the next leg of the Great African Rift Valley Expedition. Mike’s challenge will be to mountain bike the length of Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s longest and deepest lake, from Bujumbura in the North to Mpulungu in the South. André will be supporting him in one of the Land Rover Disco 4’s. The plan is that certain stages will be turned into United Against Malaria bicycle races, with local cyclists on their ‘made in India’, single gear, big wheelers competing for prizes with mosquito nets for the mums, Nikon Rite to Sight spectacles for the poor sighted, mostly elderly and LifeStraws for clean drinking water. Seems like the expedition will be hosting its own Great Rift Valley Olympics – will keep you posted.
Kingsley made it and is on the MV Liemba heading South down Africa’s longest and deepest lake. Mike has mountain biked the Burundi shoreline and the next challenge is for the Land Rover and mountain bike team to all meet up at the memorial where on 10 November 1871, the explorer was ‘found’ at Ujiji by Henry Morton Stanley, who greeted him with the most famous line in the annals of exploration: ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’
Good news! Mike’s made it by mountain bike from Bujumburu to Ujiji outside Kigoma to the place where H.M Stanley found Dr Livingstone. It’s a celebration and an opportunity to do more expedition humanitarian work in this historic area. No news from Kingsley, I presume.
Set deep in the heart of the African interior, inaccessible by road and only 100 kms south of Ujiji, white coves overshadowed by a chain of jungle-draped peaks, tower 2km above the shore of Lake Tanganyika – it’s the remote and mysterious Mahale Mountains and the Nikon supported expedition team’s next goal – still no news from Kingsley – Will keep you posted.
'Absolute impossible by vehicle', and then we found Tori, the missionary, who scribbles on our map and with Mike leading along a goat track on his mountain bike, we boulder-hopped and rock-crawled the Landies from village to village. Countless river crossings, a pontoon over the Malagarasi River – all in an effort to follow the Eastern shoreline of Lake Tanganyika, destination Mahale Mountains. So remote and seldom visited, that sometimes the villagers would run for their lives at the site of us. But then curiosity got the better of them and soon Nikon supported UAM and Rite to Sight work got into gear. No news from Kingsley who is still on the Liemba Ferry bound for Mpulungu at the very South of the lake. Will keep you posted.
We reach the rendezvous point - South African's Chris and Louise the colorful owners of the remote Lakeshore lodge at Kapili welcome the expedition to their special piece of Rift Valley paradise on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. They are a delightfully adventurous couple, ‘Yes,’ they say, ‘the old Liemba Ferry did stop out in the bay this afternoon on its way back to Kigoma from Mpulungu in the South." But still no sign of Kingsley.
This is not good, we'd seen him off, on board the ancient Liemba five days ago and the arrangement was that even if there was a breakdown in comms, we would all meet here at Chris and Louise's place. What now!!! Chris suggests contacting the port authority in Mpulungu or taking one of the Landies back down the road to ask the villagers if they have seen him come ashore from the Liemba in a local rowing boat. And then with a roar of laughter the Greybeard appeared from where he had been hiding behind a mango tree. No doubt he's got a story to tell, will keep you posted!
Comms have been difficult but with the expedition now reunited we now get the following dispatches describing Kingsley's Rift Valley voyage on the ancient Liemba following the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika from Kigoma to Mpulungu the Zambian port at the South-end of the lake then back to Kipili in Tanzania. It is a story best told in the Greybeard’s words......
The wind picks up, there has been some bad African ferry accidents – a terrible one off Zanzibar just recently. I look at all the moms, tiny babies on their backs, the fish traders knocking back the beers in the pub the grannies curled up asleep with their parcels of trade goods around them. I shudder to think if the old Liemba, built nearly 100 years ago, went down. Here the 32900 sq km lake is more then a km deep. That night a rain squall hits us and the deck class passengers race to cover their goods with bits of plastic and old tarpaulins. Despite the conditions, wooden plank boats sails out from the villages each time the Liemba blows her horn. It is wonderfully chaotic, small babies handed down to desperate mothers in the boats, bales of dried fish been loaded, small boats rocking and rolling in the swell knocking together against the hull of the Liemba - ropes thrown in the dark, a load falls on a women but fortunately one of the back-packers on board is a doctor. Every beat of the Liemba's old engines brings me closer to Mpulungu. Will keep you posted.
The ship is 100 years old next year and I think back to what she has been through. In the old days of the Imperial German Empire, the canteen probably served schnapps and Eisbein and then once the British had refloated her after the first World War, she would have ferried district commissioners up and down Lake Tanganyika with pink gins being the order of the day. But now the canteen is probably the happiest she has ever been – loud Congolese music and gyrating hips blare from a small TV set with cracked speakers – it’s delightfully chaotic. The bar runs out of cold beers and the galley serves up mountains of fish, goat and chicken, plantains, maize meal and rice. Later I meet Captain Titus up on the bridge. He tells me that the Liemba is their "proud" and is the heart of this Rift Valley lake. He then gives me the unwelcome news that we won't make Mpulungu today, we will tie up for the night below the old German fort at Kasungu. Rumour has that the captain has a girlfriend in the village. I explain politely that whilst the Germans might have built the Liemba in 1913 and that whilst the Swiss might have developed the clock, it is, on Lake Tanganyika, Captain Titus that owns the time! It is a great adventure.
At sunrise we cross into Zambia where the Kalambo Falls drops in an un-interrupted flow twice the height of the Victoria Falls. It is said that a mother with her children threw themselves off the top of the falls rather then being taken by slavers. Captain Titus allows me to distribute malaria prevention pamphlets on board. At the port of Mpulungu on the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika, the African Rift valley's longest and deepest lake, 100's of dry fish buyers come running down to meet the Liemba. For the expedition it is mission accomplished. Now my challenge is to sail back up the lake where we will all meet at Chris and Louise Wild's Lakeshore lodge at Kipili. This voyage on the ancient Liemba has allowed us to complete the world’s longest fresh water lake.
‘Never ever!’, shouted Mike into the dark as with his mountain bike over his shoulder, he jumped off the boat into the shallows and onto the baobab-ringed beach. ‘Never ever!’, he repeated continuing with his comical Sir Winston Churchill impersonation. ‘Never ever, in the history of this vast inland sea, have so many seasick passengers, been pushed by so few horsepower, across such dangerous waters!’
Mike off-course was referring to our dangerous 14 hour crossing of Lake Malawi, from the mainland to the islands of Chizumulu and now Likoma. It had been a nightmare of bailing and puking as Enoch Unandi, the captain of our hopelessly overloaded wooden dhow had struggled, with only a small 15Hp Yamaha outboard, to keep our nose into the wind and massive waves that threatened to capsize us. One of the first recorded drownings on this great African Rift Valley lake was that of Bishop Chauncey Maples, who, when on his way to the island in 1895, in the darkness his boat capsized in a squall and two weeks later his body was washed up on the Lakeshore, recognizable by his cassock shroud. The worst disaster however, was when the lake steamer Viphya went down in a storm costing 145 lives.
Reaching Likoma Island is an important yardstick for the Nikon supported expedition. Wet, sunburnt and somewhat exhausted, we are sponsored a night at intriguing ‘Kaya Mawa’, a small, romantic, intricately built lodge, that nestles amongst the baobabs and rocky outcrops, alongside a beautiful half-moon beach. Kaya Mawa (www.kayamawa.com) are our United Against Malaria partners on the island where they will assist with malaria prevention education and the distribution of nets to mums and babies. Will keep you posted.
Likoma is Lake Malawi’s longest island. Dotted with baobabs, sandy beaches and fishing villages drying small silver ‘usipa’ fish – it’s enchantingly friendly. It’s no wonder that this remote island was chosen by early missionaries as a site to build a replica of Winchester Cathedral in England. Ross clicks away with his Nikon cameras as I scribble this dispatch in the expedition note book. It’s unbelievable – built by hand using mud bricks and carved altars from soapstone, this Anglican cathedral is called St Peter’s complete with stained glass windows, was built between 1903 and 1905 on the spot where suspected witches were once burnt alive. We meet up with ‘Mike the Bike’ – he’s now added Likoma Island to his incredible challenge of mountain biking the Great Rift. Immigration is under a baobab tree. Down comes the Malawi exit stamp. It’s a short hop by boat to Kobue on the shoreline. Down comes the entry to Mozambique stamp. Our geographic objective is clear – it’s to collect a calabash sip full of Great African Rift Valley water from one of the most beautiful beaches on the entire lake South down the shoreline – it’s called Nkwichi. By the way, here on the Mozambican side don’t ever refer to it as Lake Malawi. Here it is and always will be Lago do Niassa – Will keep you posted.
We’re getting unbelievable support from the people on the ground. Remote Nkwichi Lodge on the beautiful Mozambique shoreline of Lake Niassa had heard about our Rift Valley Expedition and offered their piece of paradise as a base camp for the next few days. Nkwichi is part of the Manda Wilderness Community Trust, started by the Simkin family after the civil war. They do great community work in the area and join us as United Against Malaria partners. Everybody – management, staff, community members, the Simkins and two brave young British adventurers who are sailing the lakeshore in a small sailing dhow, all get involved in the malaria prevention work.
We explore the exquisite shoreline by boat and Mike mountain bikes the steep bush paths that join the lakeshore villages.
At sunset Day 2 we all gather on the sugar white squeaking sands of Nkwichi beach for the ‘calabash’ ceremony to add a sipfull of Rift Valley water from the Mozambique side of this beautiful but capricious Rift Valley Lake. That night I toss and turn, listening to the sighing of the wind through the trees and the crash of the waves on the beach. It’s going to be an interesting boat crossing in the morning back to Likoma Island and then on a dhow to the Malawi mainland. Will keep you posted.
Travelling from Likoma Island the skipper got lost in the dark. This time the dhow was so overloaded with bales of dried fish that the captain had no forward view and had to rely on us to shout directions from the bow.
Fortunately Ross got a brief signal which allowed him to get hold of Nick and Zana Scheltema from Wilderness Safaris at Chintheche who guided us in with a flashing spotlight. We stumbled up the beach with our kit pleased as punch to be on terra-firma and to be reunited with the expedition Landies. Another colourful stretch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley is now behind us – a great adventure as we now head South down the lakeshore.
Mark Turner, Africa director for Game Stores, who are also supporting the United Against Malaria initiative attached to the expedition has flown into Lilongwe to assist. We meet with the press and the Malawi Ministry of Health officials at the Game Store in Lilongwe. They all endorse the Rift Valley Expedition scroll. It’s a wonderful positive vibe with Game Stores sponsoring a man-of-the-match mountain bike and footballs for the next United Against Malaria challenge which will take place at Chembe Village near Cape Maclear on the shores of Lake Malawi. Fiona Nixon has also flown in to join Mike, whose next challenge is to cycle from the lakeshore near Salima to Cape Maclear. From the Rift Valley Expedition team, we say thanks again to Nikon and all involved in this world first humanitarian and geographic challenge – we could not do it without you.
At the port of Monkey Bay Ross and I find the old lake steamer, the Chauncy Maples, named after the Bishop who drowned in the lake in 1895. She was built in Scotland in 1899 and then disassembled into 3,481 parcels, transported to Mozambique, barged up the Zambezi into the Shire River and then carried on porters’ heads for the final stretch with the boiler being dragged by 450 people. Reassembled in 1901, she worked as a mission ship (clinic, school and church). In 1965 she was converted from steam to diesel and converted into the lake steamer that most adventurers got to know until 1992 when she was retired from service. But the good news is that Africa’s oldest ship is being renovated as a mobile clinic to bring basic healthcare to Malawi’s lakeside people. If all goes well, she will be relaunched in 2013. What a great Rift Valley project and one that we will certainly support in the future. (www.chauncymaples.org)
Too much smoke from bush fires – visibility isn’t great towards the end of the dry season. Then there’s the crackle of a radio call and a light aircraft comes swooping in over the lake. They tumble out of the plane – it’s Robby Enthoven and his family from London. They’ve broken their safari to have time with the expedition. So it’s into the Landies and then a sunset boat crossing to sit ‘toes in the sand’ around a campfire on Domwe Island. It’s full moon, there’s nyama on the coals, Renoster Koffie and the cry of a bush baby. Through their interests in the worldwide Nando’s operation, Robby has for some years been backing our malaria prevention campaign. ‘Now I want my family to experience what you do,’ he says. Next day they certainly do, as with a team of malaria warriors from Game Stores in Lilongwe, they enthusiastically judge a ‘malaria prevention’ schools art competition, distribute bednets to mums with babies, help with Rite to Sight work and take part in a United Against Malaria football challenge on the beach.
At sunset at the Kayak Africa camp on Mumbo Island, with malaria warriors Mark Turner from Game Stores, the Enthoven family, Richard Anderson, Jurie Schoeman from Kayak Africa and the expedition team, we add a sipfull of Lake Malawi water to the Rift Valley calabash. Life’s a great adventure, isn’t it?
We reach Mangoche, the old Fort Johnson, a former stronghold for British troops. Near the town’s clock tower a naval gun off the HMS Gwendolin still stands. The boat’s captain Commander EL Rhodes earned a place in history when he captured the German gunboat the Herman von Wissman. This British victory was the very first naval battle of World War I, fought on this virtually unknown lake in Central Africa in 1914. But the story does have a humorous side to it. Prior to this Captain Rhodes had an excellent drinking relationship with the captain of the German vessel, which he found laid up out of the water on the German East African side of the lake. On sighting the enemy the crew of HMS Gwendolin opened fire and eventually scored a hit. The enraged German captain rowed out on a dinghy to demand an explanation for his friend’s behaviour, only to find that Germany was at war with Britain. They really should have let them know!
Reaching Mangoche means that our Nikon supported expedition have now completed Lake Malawi, our last of the big Great African Rift Valley lakes. The vast inland sea which Livingstone named Lake Nyasa, Lake of Stars, remains one of the most fascinating of all the Great Rift Valley lakes, especially if one includes the Tanzanian and Mozambican shorelines. Will keep you posted.
It’s 358 days since this world first geographic and humanitarian Nikon supported odyssey departed from the Johannesburg International Motor Show (JIMS) on the 9th October 2011. It’s been a long haul but we remain upbeat and ready to face the many Rift Valley Challenges that still lie ahead. The United Against Malaria educational pamphlets, a new supply of PermaNets, LifeStraws and Nikon Rite to Sight spectacles have all arrived in time. It’s the final chapter – Will keep you posted.
There is no doubt that the true unsung heroes of this Great African Rift Valley journey are the three overworked uncomplaining Landies. They’ve been through hell. The two tough Discovery 4’s and the constantly overloaded long wheel base Defender 130. They carry everything the expedition needs: bales of mozzie nets, boxes of United Against Malaria educational material and LifeStraws, Rite to Sight spectacles, expedition equipment and supplies, camera gear, extra fuel, water and tyres, Yamaha outboard, first aid kit, personal bags, footballs, bibs, whistles and UAM man of the match certificates, reference books, maps, the ‘Secret Captain Morgan tank’, two Engel fridges, toolbox, camp chairs, the braai grid that lives over the spare wheel, the ever important kettle, pots and pans, a sense of humour (bucketfulls) and still place enough for a local guide and translator, not to mention the Rift Valley volunteers who, like the Landies, don’t miss a beat when it comes to getting the job done. Will keep you posted.
There’s so much on the ground support. Game Stores in Malawi are back again to assist with United Against Malaria event at a small rural school they have adopted. Once again there’s a United Against Malaria football challenge and a bicycle for the little fellow who takes ‘man-of-the-match’. The pregnant mums and mothers with children under 5 each receive a PermaNet and malaria prevention education. We load up the Landies and head into the night. Will keep you posted.
Wilderness Safaris are again also our on the ground humanitarian partners for this chapter and help to facilitate the break-away leg down to the Luangwa Valley, an arm of the Great African Rift Valley that branches off from the Western Rift. South Luangwa is recognised as one of the finest wildlife sanctuaries in the world. The concentration of game around the Luangwa River is the most intense in Africa. Our research of this beautiful area of Mama Afrika will be mostly on foot. Will keep you posted.
Veteran Wilderness Safaris game scout Joseph Mfuni lights the dry elephant dung in a tin can punched with holes that hangs from the back of an old open toped green Land Rover. The smoke he says helps stop the Tetsie flies. The Luangwa River is a Rift Valley paradise which we explore by Landie and on foot. Crocodile, Elephant and Hippo, Puku, Impala and the endemic Thornycrofts Giraffe come down to drink. The heat is building for the rains and the sun sets through the haze behind the Muchinga Escarpment. Our camp is on the edge of Kaloma Lagoon, this section of the Great Rift has more Hippo than anywhere in Africa. It's also an endemic malaria area and here Wilderness Safaris assists with our UAM work. Will keep you posted.
With the Luangwa valley behind us we are back doing the Malawi section on the Shire river below Lake Malombe where we are using Wilderness Safaris’s Mvuu camp as an expedition base. Big Deon Schurmann, a veteran of many geographic and humanitarian expeditions, is back on board. We head downstream with Mvuu ranger and boatman McLoud Kaliati. Nowhere on this expedition have seen so many crocs! The birdlife is unbelievable. A young bull elephant swims across the Shire River just in front of us. The sun sets behind the tall borrasus palms and all the while the pods of grunting hippo, the cry of fish eagle, African skimmers diving and swooping in front of the boat, the hadeda ibis calling it a day and Ross clicking away on his Nikon catching the last of another Rift Valley day. Tomorrow we wake at sunrise to head for Lake Chilwa, the last of more than 30 Rift Valley lakes! The heat burns down, the build-up before the rains. Some call it the suicide season! During the night elephants are everywhere in camp. Will keep you posted.
There's a crisis on Lake Chilwa, the drought has dried up the lake and hundreds of fishermen have had to turn to the trapping and hunting of waterbirds. But Dr John Wilson, leading authority on the lake, has organized 28 community bird sanctuaries. We meet the Chief, trappers and hunters. They endorse the expedition scroll; we urge them to not kill everything and to protect the sanctuaries so that their children will also get to observe the vast flocks of waterbirds that make Chilwa a special Rift Valley lake. We continue with the humanitarian work attached to the Nikon supported expedition. Will keep you posted.
Travel-worn but excited to be close to the finishing point. ‘Shovashova Mike’ made it down the South bank of the Zambezi, where the Landy party met him after cautiously (crocs!) collecting another sipfull of water for the symbolic Rift Valley calabash, this time from the old ferry point on the North Bank. Ross’s voice crackles over the radio: ‘Turning left,’ he says, ‘you’ll see the Catapu sign. James White has invited us in for lunch.’ Then he adds: ‘Pops, please don’t turn it into a late night campfire session – we’ve got to get to Gorongosa.’
Most adventurers will know James White or would have stayed at his forest bush camp at Catapu on the Southern side of the Zambezi just off the Caia Gorongosa road in Mozambique’s Sofala Province. James is one of nature’s gentlemen, a ‘true man of the bush’ with some fascinating stories to tell. Now he’s turned half of his massive concession into a nature reserve.
‘Selected hardwoods from the other half are used to make furniture, every piece is sold here in Mozambique’, says James, ‘none is exported and for every log I use I plant more indigenous trees. When I first came here it was landmines everywhere, wild, few people and the game plentiful,’ James continues. ‘I tried to set up camp under a Baobab, but unbeknown to me it was also home to a vicious swarm of bees. Tried to smoke them out, but they won the day, leaving me with over 100 bee stings in the head. I wanted to pack up but the men suggested the services of a local diviner who for a small fee, spoke to the bees and asked forgiveness from the ancestors.’ ‘Now’, adds James, ‘we live in paradise side by side with the bees and the baobab, the old diviner makes regular visits and I’ve never been stung since.’
James confirms that the end of the Great African Rift Valley is where the Zambezi floods into the swamplands that feed into Gorongosa’s Lake Urema. We hit the road, it’s mid-afternoon and a countdown to the end. We’re all a bit exhausted. It’s the slow sweat of the Zambezi valley’s suicidal October heat – Will keep you posted!
One Landy behind the other in the dust we follow the rutted dirt track that runs between Mount Gorongosa and the park. We were last here three years ago. Now logging, charcoal production and slash and burn agriculture are taking their toll. There’s simply too much population pressure along this section of the unfenced Gorongosa park boundary and to make it worse, everything is burnt black by end of winter bush fires. It’s getting dark, we can’t find a quiet place to camp. Eventually settle on an old disused quarry site. The mozzies are thick. You can tell it’s getting to the end of a long journey. We’ve forgotten to buy bread or maize meal. No rice or pasta in the ‘grub box.’ So Mike and Big Deon cook up a sauce to go over the last nyama – it’s inedible! We all get the giggles. 24 Hours to go. We must empty the calabash into Lake Urema by sunset tomorrow. We pour a few ‘Captains’ and roll into our tents. I lie on top of my bedroll. I can feel the heat coming up from the ground, there’s the familiar smell of mozzie spray and the sounds of the night. ‘Shovashova Mike’ leaves by bicycle at dawn – we’ll meet him at the main entrance gate to Gorongosa. After a yearlong Rift Valley journey, this is it!
Greg Carr, the wealthy American conservationist who has put up millions of dollars into saving Gorongosa National Park, together with Vasco Galante, Gorongosa’s director of communications and his assistant Domingos João Muala, meet us at the entrance. ‘I believe that together with the Mozambican government we are making a difference here by bringing Gorongosa back to being one of Africa’s greatest wildlife sanctuaries,’ says Greg with a handshake and welcoming smile, ‘we feel proud, you could not be ending your expedition in a more beautiful place.’
Soon we’re crossing the Urema plains, led by an open Land Rover camera vehicle driven by National Geographic filmmakers James Byrne and Bob Poole, whose recent award-winning documentary ‘The Lost Eden,’ has helped put Gorongosa back on the map. They want to include our Rift Valley story in the next one. (See http://gorongosa.net/ for more info on this fascinating park and to watch a video clip of the documentary ‘The Lost Eden’.)
We pass a herd of elephant. ‘They’re still skittish,’ says Vasco, ‘memories of poachers and over a million animals slaughtered during the war will take a long time to heal.’ We park the Landies. ‘Shovashova Mike’ pushes his bicycle forward, we follow on foot with the much travelled calabash. Crocodiles slide into Lake Urema, waterbuck in their hundreds move across the setting sun, a big male kudu looks up proudly, warthog scatter, tails erect. Whilst still at camp the environmental scientist had asked us to please boil the calabash water before emptying it. ‘Have to be careful,’ he said, ‘don’t want our Lake Urema infected with some Danakil gremlins from the Horn of Africa or strange bugs from somewhere!’ So with the cameras clicking, we empty the symbolic decorated Zulu calabash of water taken from more than 30 Great African Rift Valley lakes and rivers. It glugs slowly into Gorongosa’s Lake Urema. The adrenalin drains from our bodies, after thousands of Land Rover kilometres, millions of tyre revolutions, buckets of sweat, thousands of footsteps, boat and bicycle journeys, countless campfires and great humanitarian work, our world first Nikon journey to follow Africa’s Great Rift Valley from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa to Gorongosa in Mozambique is now complete – Mission Accomplished!