Kingsley Holgate, the greybeard of African adventure – on another journey, this time to the Heart of Africa.
He’s survived more than 50 bouts of malaria, traversed bone-dry desert and rain-drenched tropical forests while visiting every country in Africa and circumnavigated the continent in an epic journey stretching to over 400 days. Kingsley Holgate, the greybeard of African adventure, is a man in love with exploring off the beaten track in Africa, so it’s only fitting that he recently became the first man to touch the very heart of the continent.
“Over the years we have had the privilege to doff our hat at Mama Africa, perhaps even give her a hug!” chuckles Holgate, as we chat amid the forests of the Odzala-Kokoua National Park, in northern Congo. “Four or five years ago we came across this idea that if we have been able to embrace Africa through all of our travels, where is the beating heart? It’s been a growing idea that we need to find the heart of Africa.”
The team travelled in a group of three Land Rovers: an iconic Defender dubbed ‘Ndlovukazi’, and two new Discovery models. Remarkably, after more than 9 000 kilometres a single puncture on the pot-holed road back to Brazzaville was the only mechanical issue the team had to deal with en route.
Holgate and his son Ross, who is increasingly taking the reins as expedition leader, turned to the University of Cape Town and the International Geographical Union to pinpoint the geographical heart of the continent. The answer? West of the Unbanji River and southeast of the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in northern Republic of Congo.
“Once we had the definitive co-ordinates, that was the turning point. That’s when we knew the expedition was on,” explains Holgate.
With the co-ordinates punched into their GPS, Land Rovers stocked and an expedition team readied, Holgate was ready to leave. In late-August he set off from the Landy Festival in Vereeniging. His destination?
The heart of Africa.
The team’s route took them across Botswana, Zambia, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo on an epic journey to reach within striking distance of the heart.
Muddy tracks and steamy weather defined much of the journey as the team travelled northwards towards the equator.
There was little luxury along the way. The expedition was entirely self-supported, camping wild each night and cooking over an open flame. Bruce Leslie, logistics expert and camp cook, had to make do with what could be found in the local markets and shops.
Crossing the mighty Congo River was a hazardous affair. With no ferry or bridge linking Kinshasa and Brazzaville (the capitals of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo, respectively), the team had to pay R35 000 for a barge to transport them across the river. More bureaucratic wrangling followed in Brazzaville, before the team were finally free to set off on the last leg of their journey.
Humanitarian work is a hallmark of every Holgate expedition and, as they travelled, the team distributed malaria nets as well as water purification LifeStraws. In villages they would also assist the poor-sighted through the ‘Mashozi’s Rite to Sight’ initiative, distributing spectacles in rural villages.
North of the town of Etoumbi the team finally entered the rainforest to prepare for the daunting task of locating the heart of Africa. The stands of broad-leafed Marantaceae may keep the Western lowland gorillas well fed, but make for challenging jungle trekking when no path has been cleared.
Using logging roads to drive to within striking distance of the geographical heart, the team recruited a team of local Ba’aka porters and guides for the final stretch. These forest pygmies displayed remarkable knowledge of the forest and nimbly slipped through both woodland and swamps while the expedition team struggled through the final kilometers.
Battling heat, insects and impenetrable forest, the strains of the journey soon took a mental and physical toll on the team.
“Even for the youngest and fittest person on the journey, the dangers were ever-present. What if something happened deep in the forest? What if one of us got malaria? What if one of us got hurt? A twisted ankle or a broken leg? It felt like a very thin line between us and disaster,” said Holgate.
In one final push from heir forest base camp, the team summoned the last of their strength to fight on for the final 1,7-kilometres, a seven-hour ordeal that finally brought them to their goal: 17.05291°E, 2.07035°N. The heart of Africa.
“Looking around you’ll find twisted, almost tormented, roots and vines; and massive trees with aerial roots,” says Kingsley, describing the sight that awaited them. “The heart sits on a few square metres of dry land, surrounded by swamp, where we screwed the base of the beacon into an old root.”
With the team safely on their way home, the beacon now stands alone in the restless forest. A metal tube over two-metres high emblazoned with colours of the Republic of Congo, the geographical co-ordinates, and those words the team had long waited to hear they’d reached: the “Heart of Africa”.
For more about Africa’s intrepid adventurer, visit the Kingsley Holgate Foundation Facebook page.
All images supplied by Richard Holmes and Land Rover.