Bandits, disguises and some very helpful pygmies: How a larger-than-life, modern-day David Livingstone travelled 5,600 miles across swamps and crocodile-infested rivers to find the true ‘Heart of Africa’ – never touched by humankind
The most travelled man in Africa Kingsley Holgate has just completed his most epic quest: to find the Heart of Africa
The hazardous route took him through Botswana, Zambia, Angola, the DRC and deep into the Congo rainforest
With a band of ‘delightful pilgrims’ he faced extremes of danger and delight and the damned strange
For more than four decades, the piratical figure of Kingsley Holgate has been making great strides across the African continent, crossing each and every one of its 54 countries, facing up to bandits, man-eaters, endless mosquito bites, malaria, and mind-boggling bureaucracy in search of the next great adventure.
Holgate – nicknamed the ‘Greybeard of African Adventure’ – has traversed the continent by foot, canoe, bicycle, inflatable raft and Land Rover, following the overgrown trails left by the world’s most famous explorers, meeting legendary tribes and crossing its crocodile – and hippo – infested waters.
And now the 69-year-old has travelled to the very centre of the continent, the Heart of Africa – a place so remote that it has never been touched by humankind – for his most exciting, and dangerous, expedition to date.
Modern day David Livingstone: Kingsley Holgate, 69, and his team pushed themselves to extremes, dripping with sweat, wading through rainforest rivers and fighting off the constant swarms of insects
Setting out: Holgate, the most travelled man in Africa, at the start of the team’s trek through dense rainforest to find the Heart of Africa
Adventurer: Kingsley has criss-crossed Africa from south to north, east to west, using everything from a canoe to Land Rovers
Success: ‘Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just home. It is all these things, but one thing – it is never dull,’ said Kingsley, quoting Beryl Markham, the British-born Kenyan aviatrix
‘This was an absolute world first,’ Kingsley told MailOnline. ‘No human footprint has ever stood there before to my knowledge, not that we know for sure, but why would they go to a deserted swamp in the middle of nowhere?
‘Even the elephants’ footprints have dried up.’
The Heart of Africa, however, is not simply an evocative concept, but a precisely calculated point which scientists at the University of Cape Town have categorically said is the true geographical centre.
It just so happened to be buried in the rainforests of the Republic of Congo, 5,600 miles from his home in South Africa. It is a route which travels through some of the most dangerous places on earth, and would not only require the help of a convoy of Land Rovers, but also priest, a vet and an astronaut to reach – not to mention a tribe of pygmies
‘As a family we were able to embrace all 54 African countries through several journeys of discovery. It was only natural that our next challenge would be to find her heart, African’s geographical centre,’ explained Kingsley, who was born in what is now Kaw-Zulu Natal, South Africa.
It is an inescapably romantic voyage, a pursuit of the geographic centre of the continent that he has criss-crossed from south to north, east to west, circumnavigated and, many would say, conquered.
But this is more than just an adventure: this was also a chance to raise awareness for the global fight against malaria – a disease Kingsley has suffered from more than 50 times.
Determination: Despite pushing their Land Rovers right to the very limits of their endurance and reaching the edge of the rainforest, the team was faced with a mammoth seven-day trek through the dense rainforest to tackle the final miles
Wild times: The eccentric explorer, in the same vein as his hero David Livingstone, has dealt with bandits and man-eaters, and has had malaria more than 50 times
Traditional: The group had to fight through vicious, twisted vines which tore at their clothes and skin, although the pygmies had an ingenious way for sealing up their bleeding wounds, with green broad-leafed Marantancea leaves, favoured by gorillas to eat and nest in
Imposing: Kingsley poses with a gun-wielding police officer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the third largest country in Africa
Transportation: Kingsley and his group of ‘delightful pilgrims’ set out in their fleet of Land Rovers to find the geographic centre of Africa, taking with them mosquito nets and reading glasses to help the communities they met along the way
Epic journey: The team crossed through six different countries and traversed 9,000km in just seven-weeks travelling
But in order to raise the money, they first had to reach the ‘Heart’, which sits at at the coordinates 17.05291 degrees east and 2.07035 degrees north.
It was discovered by UCT’s Department of Environment and Geographic Science, which used a method known as ‘centre of gravity’ to determine the exact centre – and at times reaching it seemed an impossible task.
The route took them from South Africa, through Botswana, Zambia, across the Zambezi River into Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and into the deep, perilous Congo rainforest.
The mysterious and almost completely unexplored region is home to the world’s largest populations of great apes and forest elephants, and is Africa’s most important stronghold for wildlife.
An estimated 125,000 lowland gorillas live there, alongside endangered pygmy elephants, forest leopards, golden cats, eight species of antelopes, three species of crocodiles and chimpanzees, many of which have never seen humans. It’s not surprising: near the border of Cameroon and the war-torn Central African Republic, it is not a place where many would choose to tread.
Most of the way the group were able to travel in the relative comfort of their fleet of Land Rovers. But on reaching the edge of the rainforest, the team was faced with a mammoth seven-day trek through the dense rainforest to tackle the final miles.
‘Who would have thought that after a tough Land Rover six-country journey of over 5,.500 miles it would be the last 11 miles that would almost kill us,’ Kingsley would wonder later.
‘It became a physical and emotional nightmare of endurance that would run into the longest seven days of my life.’
But even before that point, they knew they needed help.
Safety precautions: Although the team of intrepid explorers had some help with keeping the bees and tsetse flies at bay
Crumbling: After thousands of miles the team reached the Democratic Republic of Congo (pictured). Throughout their epic quest, Kingsley kept his legions of followers well up-to-date with the team’s adventures, which were alternately harrowing, hilarious and enviable
Local knowledge: After being beaten back by the dense rainforest, the team decided to ask the local Ba’aka Pygmies for their assistance
Overpowered by the dripping rainforest and unable to hack their way through alone, the group were forced to call on the local Ba’aka Pygmies’ unmatched knowledge of the land for help.
Kingsley was the first to step up and beg the tribe for assistance, in their native Vivangkwako language.
‘I greet you Ba’aka, men of these great forests and swamps, it is only with your knowledge that we can survive and cut a path to the ‘Heart’.
‘My friends, we need your help.’
His plea for help was met with grins and laughter. The group’s interpreter Nazaire pointed out that, although the pygmies had extensive knowledge of the jungle, they had no concept of what a map of Africa looked like, nor of the map coordinates they were heading towards.
None had ever travelled to the nearest town of Pokola, 37 miles away through impenetrable forest, none had even attempted to cross the area before.
But they were more than happy to help, and launched into their usual preparations for a journey.
‘They reverently placed smouldering pieces of wood at the base of a massive tree and then in the smoke, to much foot stomping and chanting, the little men shook bunches of leaves up and down the tree trunk, some of them rhythmically clicking bits of wood together, while all the time shouting a blessing to their God Komba and his son Todia, the one who brought their tribe fire,’ Kingsley recalled.
‘Already the sweat was pouring off our bodies and the bugs attacked in swarms. We heard Mike spluttering with pain, while chanting he’d got stung inside his mouth by a bee.
‘It was his eighth sting of the day and the poison was too much for his system. Quickly we realised he was in trouble as his left cheek swelled and one eye began to close.
‘It was an emergency and Brad quickly jabbed the epi-pen before his airway was blocked – it was a close call, and it was just the start!’
Clash of worlds: The group’s interpreter Nazaire pointed out that although the pygmies had extensive knowledge of the jungle, they had no concept of what a map of Africa looked like, nor of the map coordinates they were heading towards
Contrasts: For Kingsley, the majesty of Africa lies in its ability to be at once beautiful and deadly, to be good and bad in one moment
Limits: ‘I’m very aware that travelling with local people is what has kept me alive for all my years of adventures,’ said Kingsley
‘Twende,’ shouted Ross, Kingsley’s 42-year-old son and fellow explorer, in Lingala at his companions. ‘Let’s go!’
Ross – his right-hand man, by his side throughout the most recent of his epic journeys – is one of an eclectic band of adventurers that follows Kingsley through his many travels.
With them this time was Bruce Leslie, a man with a big red beard who ‘lives in a castle’, who joined the team on an expedition 15 years ago ‘and never left’.
‘Then there’s Brad Hanson. He’s a bit short and round and said he was resigning if he found a pygmy who was taller than him. It’s important to keep up humour on an expedition.
‘But we always travel with locals as well. I’m very aware that travelling with local people is what has kept me alive for all my years of adventures. Once I was told by rebels that they didn’t kill me because I was so friendly. But I don’t know how much longer I can get away with it.’
One of the leaders of the expedition was local man Nazaire Massamba, who has an intimate knowledge of the area as well as a degree from Boston University.
And then there’s Big Deon Schurmann, from France, who used to play Club Rugby and is ‘made of iron’ – a strength they were certainly in need of in those final days.
‘Sopping wet, skins torn by vines, we made camp in the pouring rain,’ Kingsley wrote afterwards of that first day in the rainforest.
‘It was incredibly tough going, six hours of skirting deep swamplands came with the harsh reality that we had only made just over one kilometre as the crow flies, and that was just the beginning in our quest to find the Heart.
‘Seven days of grabbing roots to pull ourselves on our bellies through muddy goo, constant deep mud wading, dragging, falling and cutting pole bridges. Swatting, cursing and scratching, sweat, bees crawling up our noses and into the corners of our eyes. Blood pouring from torn skin and one of the Ba’aka even took to binding our shins and forearms with green broad-leafed Marantancea leaves, favoured by the gorillas to eat and nest in.
Long: The sensational journey took the group through the very heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Botswana
Hidden: The heart of Africa is one of the continent’s most unexplored regions. It is buried in the rainforests of the Republic of Congo, close to where Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Congo all meet
Saving lives: For Kingsley, one of the most important aspects of the journey is the help they can offer to communities along the way, distributing mosquito nets against malaria and LifeStraws, which can create clean drinking water
Life changing: Through the family-launched Rite to Sight campaign, set up by Kingsley’s late wife Gill, they also provide glasses to local people unable to see
Vital: A group of smiling villagers pose for a photograph with one of their new mosquito nets, as the team passed through Angola
‘And then the moment of truth set in. With a mile of dangerous swamp ahead to reach the ‘Heart’, the Ba’aka realised we had bitten off more than we could chew and begin turning back.
‘I collapsed my stinking, wet, aching body into a sitting position at the base of a tree. I was so exhausted I could just give up and die.’
But Ross stepped in to save the day, refusing to let the team give up.
‘Later they told us that it was the wild determination in our eyes that they were touched by. Ross pulled me up by the hand, father and son, and with me the finest expedition team of diehards I could ever wish to journey with.
‘Seven hours later, in a daze of pain, I arrived at the co-ordinates.’
Throughout their epic quest, Kingsley kept his legions of followers well up-to-date with the team’s adventures, which were alternately harrowing, hilarious and thoroughly enviable.
Along the way, he and his band of ‘delightful pilgrims’ delivered humanitarian aid, in the form of LifeStraws – a drinking straw that purifies water; mosquito nets; reading glasses from the family-launched Rite to Sight project and much-needed conservation education.
‘It’s about realising what we take for granted,’ continued Kingsley. ‘A person’s quality of life is so diminished by not being able to see. And we felt wonderful helping them because then they were singing and dancing and playing these drums.’
But not everyone appreciated what the team was trying to do on their mission of goodwill, and at times it was bureaucracy that proved even more insurmountable that the hazardous terrain.
Difficulties: Loading the fleet of Land Rovers onto a barge, to make the difficult journey across the Congo River
Simple things: ‘It’s about realising what we take for granted,’ said Kingsley. ‘A person’s quality of life is so diminished by not being able to see. And we felt wonderful helping them because then they were singing and dancing and playing these drums’
Vigilence: But a journey through practically unexplored African lands is no joke, and the team had to stay optimistic in the face of countless dangers and difficulties
‘Finally we exit Angola at Kimpangu. Aah! But it’s lunch. You wait! The prickly equatorial heat beats down,’ wrote Kingsley, in a field note dated September 23.
‘We break out a Landy tailgate lunch. Standard fare of Bully beef, tinned fish, bananas and local bread.
‘I check out the body language of the DRC officials. This looks like it’s going to be a tough one. Left over from the past, a small forgotten concrete sign reads “Congo Belga”, “The Belgium Congo”.
‘”You came all the way from South Africa to do what??” I explain all about our crazy mission to get to the Heart. But that doesn’t stop the paper shuffling. Name of mother, father’s name, name of hotal in Kinshasa? You. Your profession? Today I chose to be a priest. Ross suddenly becomes a vet and Bruce an astronaut.’
But a journey through practically unexplored African lands is no joke, and the team had to stay optimistic in the face of countless dangers and difficulties.
‘Zambia is now behind us, Angola here we come,’ Kingsley wrote, on September 16.
‘We’ve been warned that further north, in this remote region, we could be mistaken for diamond dealers. “So watch your back, don’t get high-jacked. Don’t travel at night”. And “Oh yes, be careful of unexploded land mines, there’s still some knocking about…”’
Team: It’s an eclectic band of adventurers that follows Kingsley through his many travels across Africa, including son Ross (pictured)
Problems: The group had to hustle a private barge and crane to be able to get their fleet of Land Rovers across the River Congo
It is trials like these that make celebrating the small things so vital, if one’s to survive the epic journey. For Kingsley, one of the most vital is the ‘Kissing of the Tar’ ceremony which goes back at least 30 years.
‘Imagine the scene as with great relief, a bunch of unwashed, very dusty, ragamuffin travellers all pile out of their similarly dirty Landies, to kneel in a line on the road,’ he wrote, on September 19.
‘Whereupon, and generally amidst hysterical laughter, bordering on the insane, they make a great show of repeatedly kissing the Tarmac.
‘Don’t worry, we haven’t lost the plot, not yet anyway. Please be assured that this ‘Kissing of the Tar Ceremony’ is only allowed to happen after we’ve been subjected to the hardships of extremely challenging bad road conditions that have lasted for days.
‘This can mean goat tracks, no tracks, deep rivers, endless ‘tree to tree’ out of the mud winching, desert crossings, boulder hopping, wash-away pole bridges, getting hopelessly lost and sometimes the fear of unexploded land mines.
Bureaucracy: ‘Finally we exit Angola at Kimpangu. Aah! But it’s lunch. You wait! The prickly equatorial heat beats down,’ wrote Kingsley, in a field note dated September 23. ‘We break out a Landy tailgate lunch. Standard fare of Bully beef, tinned fish, bananas and local bread.
Family affair: Kingsley’s love for his ‘Mama Africa’ is all-consuming and utterly tangible. He has passed it on to all those who surrounded him and took his late wife – and fellow explorer – and son, Ross, along on many of his greatest adventures
Transport: The team travelled in a convoy of Land Rovers, but had to abandon them when they reached the dense rainforest
‘Today’s Kissing of the tar ceremony’ happens in Angola. That’s because behind us now is that supposedly six-hour road that had become a two-day nightmare.
‘Some tracks so bloody deep and the middle mannetjie [South African term for middle bit of the path, between the tyre tracks] so high that you could do a “Look mum no hands!” stunt on the steering wheel and leave the Landy to follow the track on its own.’
The team of intrepid explorers carried with them a traditional decorated goatskin gourde full of water from the Cradle of Humankind, a Unesco world heritage site near Johannesburg, and with it, an Expedition Scroll of Peace and Goodwill covered with hundreds of messages of greeting from across the continent.
Kingsley’s love for his ‘Mama Africa’ is all-consuming and utterly tangible. For him, the majesty of Africa lies in its ability to be at once beautiful and deadly, to be good and bad in one moment.
‘The beauty of the forest wonderland was unimaginable,’ he said of this latest undiscovered gem.
‘These are the lungs of Mama Africa. A Silverback crashed through the thick undergrowth as we walked in the soft light under a canopy of ancient trees with buttress roots that towered above us.
‘Using fingers and toes and monkey ropes, the Ba’aka climbed dangerously high to smoke out bees, allowing us to greedily suck out the energy giving wild honey from the waxy honeycombs.’
And this love of Africa has been passed on to all those who surrounded him, and, like a real-life Wild Thornberries, often took his wife, Gill, and son, Ross, along for the ride on many of his greatest adventures.
But just three years ago Kingsley suffered a heart-rending loss when Gill, his wife and fellow-adventurer of 45 years, died.
Although born in Yorkshire, Gill thoroughly embraced all the adventures and danger that life with Kingsley in Africa threw her way – to the extent that she was better known by her African nickname ‘Mashozi’, meaning ‘She who wears the shorts’.
The couple, unsurprisingly, met as young travellers, backpacking across the world. Throughout their expansive travels Gill was, in Kingsley’s words, ‘the bursar, the cook and the Mama of the expeditions’. Her domain was the paperwork: the visas, the passports, the money and the supplies. And even now, Kingsley finds her influence is still with him on his journeys.
Dinner: The team enjoy a night out under the stars by their campfire, before taking on the trials of the rainforest. Just three years ago Kingsley suffered a heart-rending loss when Gill, his wife and fellow-adventurer of 45 years, died
The Heart of Africa: Kingsley poses with the beacon that the group carried with them to the Heart of Africa, which they screwed to a tree stump that lay at the exact geographical of the continent. On it was written ‘Tribute to the Forest Elephant’
‘At this beautifully serene place, I can’t but think of Mashozi, my late wife Gill (certainly the most travelled woman in Africa). We had adventured together for 45 years and she’d loved this spot,’ wrote Kingsley, on September 16.
Kingsley, the most travelled man in Africa, sums up his country with the words of Beryl Markham, the British-born Kenyan aviatrix who, during the pioneer days of aviation, became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west.
‘Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia.
‘It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one.
‘To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just home. It is all these things, but one thing – it is never dull.’
– Find out more about Kingsley and his work by visiting the Kingsley Holgate Foundation Facebook page here.