Kingsley Holgate, the last of the true great African explorers, attempts a world first Land Rover and land yacht traverse of Chew Bahir, Southern Ethiopia’s Great Salt Ocean.
The success of our “The Living Traditions Expedition – A Journey to Chew Bahir” is in serious jeopardy. Our negotiations with the police at Arbore have reached an unfortunate stalemate. The Swiss might have invented the clock, but it is the Africans who own the time. Arbore is the last village of significance before our convoy of three Land Rovers makes its way onto Chew Bahir, Southern Ethiopia’s Great Salt Ocean, for a historic world-first attempted traverse by Land Rover and land yacht. Very few tourists come this way and for very good reason. In the 1960s the lake was up to eight metres deep in places, now it is nothing more than a dry saltpan with small insignificant swamp sections during the rainy season.
In April 1888 Count Samuel Teleki, who was the first European to set his eyes on Lake Turkana, christened this place Lake Stefanie, in honour of Princess Stefanie. Even back then the water was too salty for human or animal consumption. Today locals prefer to call it Chew Bahir instead of Lake Stefanie. These are very tense times in Ethiopia’s South Omo valleys, home to as many as two-dozen different tribes. The cattle conflict between the Arbore and Hamer tribes is threatening to explode into an all out war, and we now found ourselves slap-bang in the middle of it all.
To help negotiations along, we decide that now might be a good time for all of us to enjoy some coffee at a roadside café. Just about every male here over the age of 15 is carrying a Kalashnikov, probably purchased in the nearby volatile Southern Sudan with stolen cattle. Incredibly coffee has its origins in Ethiopia and today you will struggle to find a country more passionate about its coffee. We are looking for an armed escort to join us on the dry lake, but the Arbore police are too scared to travel with us as we will be passing through their enemy’s stronghold. Incredibly, the border between the two tribes is a Chinese-built cell phone tower. Eventually, they relent and give us permission for the attempted traverse but without any armed escorts.
The Defender 130 I am in was used on a drive to the geographical centre of Africa last year, but this is the first expedition for the two new Discovery 4s. Land Rover South Africa gave these standard vehicles a bit of a makeover. The front bumpers were removed and replaced with black ARB steel bull bars, useful if driving at night and you hit a cow or some wildlife. Spotlights, a winch, roof rack, 18-inch wheels and Coopers Discoverer STT PRO tyres, complete the list of nonstandard additions to the two Discovery 4s.
I ask Ross about taking modern, highly computerised Land Rovers into deepest, darkest Africa. “We have done about 200,000km in Discovery 4s over some of the worst tracks in Africa and never had any engine, gearbox or turbo problems, we’d rather focus on the things that can go wrong. The diesel we’d put in this morning is no different to the diesel you get in South Africa. The only difference is that it was in a barrel and not administered via a pump. We only use the best clean oil and regularly change filters,” he hastens to add. It feels almost surreal sitting in the cocooned air-conditioned comfort of the latest Discovery as we make our way along a rough track towards Chew Bahir.
It is early afternoon when our convoy eventually comes to a stop somewhere in the northern reaches of Chew Bahir. Nothing could’ve prepared me for when I climb out of the Discovery 4. The oven-like heat bounces off the blindingly white surface and starts to boil my brain. There is absolutely no wind, so we decide to set up camp and wait.
It is all hands on deck as we have to assemble the land yachts. This all takes a couple of hours; sporadic gusts whip up from time to time, and we are all able to do a short sunset sail to test the equipment. Sadly this wind will not be enough for us to achieve our goals of the traverse. The gods are in a good mood and treat us to a shooting star display after dinner but the lack of wind means there are loads of bugs and mozzies about, so we all sleep in our tents instead of out in the open.
We awake to even less wind, and the next morning out of desperation we all decide to do a crazy wind dance around the land yachts. Also with us on expedition is the legendary mountaineer and cyclist, Mike Nixon. He likes to call himself an expedition cyclist as he cycles most of the route that we drive each day. Today, while we wait for the wind, he is going to attempt a west to east crossing of Chew Bahir and we wave him off just after breakfast.
Suddenly, without warning, the wind starts to pick up. I can see dust devils on the opposite side of the salt ocean. That is Borana country. Ross and Bruce grab some grub, water and gear and take off over the rock-hard crust of Chew Bahir in the land yachts. This is what we have been waiting for, the rest of us start to break up camp. By about 11:00am Mike returns on his bike, he has done it. He is the first man ever to cycle across Lake Chew Bahir.
Time to look for the land yachts then. After about 30 minutes we catch up to them with the three Land Rovers, at times they are doing about 60 km/h. At this rate we should be in Kenya, Chew Bahir’s southern border, in no time at all. We race ahead of the yachts as they obviously have to tack to and fro, across the stony surface while we just go in a more or less straight line. Once we reach Kenya, there is no border post or fence, so we put a stick in the sand to mark the spot. Soon the yachts join us, there is no time to celebrate our achievement, after a photo session they sail back the way they came. By now the wind is blowing wildly. To see the Land Rovers and the land yachts all speed along the white surface at a decent speed is a sight to behold. We take advantage of the good sailing conditions and carry on until sunset, when we are almost back to our starting point. We have completed our land yacht traverse of Chew Bahir.
Despite the red faces, rope-burnt hands and aching bodies, we are all in a good mood as we set up camp for the final time on Chew Bahir. The time has come to do what has become somewhat of a Kingsley Holgate expedition tradition.
Kingsley takes the traditional Zulu Calabash filled with water from the symbolic Cradle of Humankind; they have carried this water all the way from Johannesburg, where the expedition started several weeks ago. He then proceeds to pour it all out on the parched surface of the salt ocean.
While we may have succeeded in this objective, we still have some very important humanitarian work to undertake while interacting with the fascinating tribes of Ethiopia’s South Omo region. Not long after leaving Chew Bahir we reach a large Hamer village, there are about 70,000 Hamer people in the South Omo region. The women are particularly beautiful and they have thick plaits of ochre-coloured hair, decorated leather skirts and many copper bracelets on their arms.
They would not look out of place in the latest Beyonce music video, except for the fact that they are not covering their breasts. I notice that most of them have horrific scars on their backs and ask Kingsley about this. “During a previous trip to these parts we witnessed their bull-jumping ceremony, in which as part of his coming of age, a naked young man leaps into the air and jumps across the backs of a number of bulls. If he falls between them, he is shamed and not allowed to marry for another year. If he succeeds he’s a hero and is free to take a wife.
This ceremony is preceded by the whipping of the Hamer girls by their suitors. As a westerner, it’s tough to watch as blood spurts from a deep gash, one of the many that crisscross a naked back. The Hamer ladies wear their scars with pride.”
The men here are proud cattle farmers and we spot a few large herds as we enter the village. With the help of our translator, we can tell them about the three types of humanitarian work that we do: mosquito net distribution, reading glasses tests and water purification assistance. The mosquito net distribution is a massive success, and after carefully instructing the mothers with babies in attendance, on how to use them, we distribute about 50 nets. This is followed by several pairs of reading glasses to people who have probably never had the opportunity to purchase a pair because of where they find themselves. Small acts in the greater scheme of things, but potentially life saving or life improving. This is what Kingsley Holgate is all about, improving lives through adventure.
One of the expeditions’ main aims is to observe and document some of Africa’s fascinating living traditions, and they don’t come any more colourful than the Musri, the smallest yet most feared tribe in the area.
They might only number about 8,000, yet still they are easily one of the most popular tribes that tourists strive to see and experience. The reason for this is simple; their women wear a rather unusual piece of decoration, known locally as the ‘dhebi a tugoin’ or lip plate. They are normally made from clay and come in different sizes and colours. This lip plate tradition is part of a voluntary initiation process.
To get to the Mursi we have to drive through the Mago National Park, it is a national park only in name, and I have seen more live animals in an abattoir. Park rules dictate that we have to take an armed guard in with us. Game scout and Banna tribesman Mosku Guni, will be escorting us, he is not a fan of the Mursi.
“They are livestock raiders, sometimes they kidnap Banna people and to intimidate us they resort to displaying chopped up Banna corpses on our common boundary.” It does not sound pleasant, and he shows us the bullet wound scars on his leg, this probably explains why he brings his Kalashnikov with him.
We are in luck as several of the Mursi villages are currently partaking in a Donga Ceremony, in which the men fight with long sticks, often to the death. After we negotiate with them about how much we are willing to pay to photograph the ceremony, we get to watch the action. Incredibly, they have been at it for two days already. Eventually, two of the warriors will be fighting for the hand of a very young looking Mursi girl. As I get close to the action to take pictures, someone next to me decides that now is a good time to fire off a few rounds from his AK-47.
Despite my seven years in the military I still jump as I was not expecting it. While photographing some of the Mursi ladies with their lip plates, things start to get a little out of hand. Some of the warriors look as if they have been smoking giggly weed or drinking some pretty strong stuff. Mosku declares that now might be a good time to leave and so we all jump into our Land Rovers. The Mursi try and pull some of us out as they want more money. I tell Kingsley to step on it and we all speed off without any injuries, only priceless pictures.
On a personal level, it has easily been one of my most fascinating days of African travel ever. It was like being in a National Geographic documentary. We drop Mosku off at the park gate, pay him and then thank him before heading on. Sadly, our time in Ethiopia has come to an end. The crew drops me off in Arba Minch and I fly back to London via Addis Ababa. The three Land Rovers head southwards back to South Africa, several thousand miles away. Most average tourists to Ethiopia normally head north, buck the trend I say, point your Land Rover in the direction of Ethiopia’s deep south. You won’t see many other tourists, just a kaleidoscope of tribes and living traditions.