Better Than Cure

Originally Published: October 2009

An expedition along Africa’s East Coast in three Land Rovers, two inflatables and a 35-ton dhow sounds challenging enough. But when your goal is to distribute thousands of mosquito nets to remote villages in the battle against malaria, getting there is just the beginning...

 Before you start reading this article, here’s something to do. Close your eyes and county slowly to thirty. No, go on, do it.

Thank you. Now it’s thirty seconds later, and you’re reading on. What has changed? Nothing much… except that during that time, another child in Africa has died of malaria.

A virulent tropical disease spread through the bite of the anopheles mosquito, malaria is so prevalent in much of Africa that it kills even more people than HIV. A global eradication programme begun in 1950 ultimately failed, and like an indestructible monster in a horror movie, it’s back – and it’s stronger than ever.

But it’s not just illness that kills the 300-500 million people who die of malaria every year. It’s something far more evil: poverty. The vast majority of victims die for want of education on how to avoid contracting the disease and, worse still, the means to stop the killer mosquitoes.

That’s why renowned South African adventurer Kingsley Holgate conceived the African Rainbow expedition. Three Land Rovers, a couple of inflatables and a traditional sailing dhow plied a coastal route from Durban to the southern border of Somalia as part of a programme to distribute more than a quarter of a million insecticide-impregnated mosquito nets to pregnant women and small children, while also presenting health education shows in remote villages where proper everyday medical services are an unimaginable luxury.

The expedition was in effect split into two parts. At its southern end, it was a straightforward overland affair, dependent on two Defenders (a 110 station wagon and a 130 double-cab) and a Series IIB forward control. Beyond the north-eastern Mozambiquan port of Pemba, where the dhow was launched, the trio of 4x4s provided support as the traditional Arabic craft continued the team’s work along the coastlines of Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya.

Both powered by TD5 engines, the 110 and 130 were supplied by Land Rover as one of several event sponsors. Equally important in allowing the vehicles to keep going over thousands of miles of hostile African terrain was the support of Cooper Tyres, which provided the rubber on which they rode. The third vehicle belonged to Pierre Roode, a South African volunteer; some 34 years old, it’s a fine example of the IIB. The team nicknamed it Mzee Kobe, Swahili for ‘old tortoise.’

Between the three of them, the Land Rovers formed a perfect team for the expedition’s purposes. The bonnets of the 110 and 130 provided a perfect platform from which to address crowds of locals eager for education on malaria prevention, while the IIB was fitted with a powerful loudspeaker used on many occasions as a public address system – and on many more to get the party started by blaring music out across the villages hosting the travellers.

In addition, having a forward control model helped the team carry as many mosquito nets as possible, as well as providing a very visible self-propelled advert for what the expedition was all about. ‘Research shows that an average of no more than two percent of people in rural villages can afford or have access to a mosquito net,’ say the organisers. ‘Our message is whilst malaria kills, it is an avoidable and curable disease that we need to keep on fighting.’

It was more than a little ironic, then, that a number of the expedition’s own members succumbed to the disease during the course of their trip. Of course, all had immediate access to quality care, unlike the many other sufferers in the regions through which they passed, but nothing could have illustrated Holgate’s point more effectively.

But malaria was just one of the many hazards the team faced as they pushed on northwards. Many of the dhow’s crew suffered tropical ulcers, a Land Rover was deposited on its side and one of the group, Bruce Leslie, narrowly escaped death while trying to save one of the inflatables’ Yamaha outboard motors. Confronting a would-be thief, Leslie was stabbed brutally in the neck and found floating in the water in a pool of blood – but after a lengthy recuperation back home in South Africa, he was able to rejoin the expedition for its final stages.

Compared to this, the rolled Land Rover was little more than a minor inconvenience. Once back on its wheels, the vehicle was ready to continue as if nothing has ever happened. But it could have been far, far worse had a ground-breaking river crossing gone wrong – which it very nearly did.

‘We joined forces with Colin Fitzgerald’s team from 4x4 Mega World in South Africa,’ said Holgate. ‘Using their massive inflatable pontoon, we floated one of the Landys across the crocodile-infested Munuwayo River. Over thirty years ago, during the Portuguese days, dug-outs were lashed together to do this crossing but since then, no vehicle has made it across. The villagers couldn’t believe their eyes!’

During the crossing, however, a vicious cross-wind began to blow. Even during a carefully executed manoeuvre, this had the potential to spell disaster. ‘I had visions of having to explain to the sponsors why a Land Rover full of mosquito nets had fallen into the drink,’ said Holgate. ‘Fortunately, we made it.’

By this time, the dhow had already been launched and the sea-borne part of the expedition was well underway. The idea was that it would progress at more or less the same pace on land and water, with regular rendezvous when the boat could put in to ‘port.’

‘When you’ve had a few long days at sea in the Spirit of Adventure dhow,’ said Holgate, ‘believe me it’s a wonderful sight to see the Landies’ lights flashing a greeting and hear Mashozi (the Zulu nickname for the lead driver, his wife Gill) on the radio. Looking forward to some nyama on the coals… we’re fast becoming tired of fish… a welcoming bottle of Captain Morgan and a bedroll that doesn’t rock and roll in the swell – it’s great when the land and sea parties meet!’

These meetings tended to take place every few days, with contact maintained using GPS and HF radio. Complementing Mzee Kobe, the 110 and 130 driven by Mashozi and Dane Hewitt respectively were nicknamed Livingstone and Stanley after the great explorers from the days of the empire.

For much of the way, the convoy of long-suffering 4x4s had nothing more positive to follow than goat tracks. ‘This is Land Rover country,’ said Holgate, ‘and in the villages old battered Series IIs and IIIs are still used as taxis. Stanley and Livingstone have got a few familiar squeaks and groans; they’ve worked really hard on several expeditions and are now overloaded with mozzie nets, so we’re being even more demanding, but they just keep going.’

Not that any expedition would be complete without a mechanical crisis or two – though in this case, the source turned out to be more than a little unusual. ‘While camped in the bush up north towards the Rovuma river, Stanley would run for three seconds and then stop dead. It must be the immobiliser, we thought. We change batteries, then get hold of Land Rover South Africa on the HF radio; they are incredibly supportive and even give us a secret code from the UK with which to bypass the system. But still nothing. We aren’t going anywhere, from the middle of nowhere!

‘One would maybe expect a rogue hippo to go for the inflatable boats as we distribute nets to remote rural villages. One might expect the fear of unexploded land mines, and the hassle of bridges that were washed away in the last rainy season. In the dhow, we’ve learned to handle the rough seas when the kusi trade wind blows wild. But who would expect the expedition to be brought to a complete standstill by a small furry long-tailed rodent? The little blighter had crawled in behind the Landy’s dashboard and, having merrily eaten its way through a fistful of wiring, had even made a nest of the pieces!

‘Hours turned into days as Ross worked his way through a labyrinth of chomped wires. “Okay turn the key,” he’d shout, followed by… nothing!’ Finally, Mashozi heard a rustling noise from the food box at the back of the vehicle, and the rat’s reign of terror was over. ‘Then,’ continues Holgate, ‘as Ross joins the last two pieces of rat-eaten wire, there’s a spark, the dashboard lights come on and there’s that comforting, familiar roar of a TD5 Land Rover engine. It’s dark, we squeeze the last few drops of Captain Morgan from the bottle and celebrate by throwing a “road runner” chicken on the coals.’

Celebrations were indeed a regular occurrence throughout the expedition. None more so than the party at Pemba, when the convoy arrived after its journey from Durban to ceremonially launch the Spirit of Adventure. Surrounded by mangrove swamps and giant baobab trees, Pemba Bay is the largest in Africa and played a central role in the expeditions through which the original explorers set forth to discover the continent.

‘I wouldn’t have missed this journey for anything,’ said Holgate. ‘It’s been a fascinating odyssey. The beauty of the palm-fronted coast, the colourful and friendly village people, the adventure of pulling and pushing our expedition vehicles across deep, wide rivers, the campfires at night and the fulfillment of saving lives. We bounce along goat tracks, the elephant grass taller than the Land Rovers. Last night a thundering downpour caught us unawares as we camped on the banks of the Rio Lurio. But our spirits are certainly not dampened as we prepare to launch the Spirit of Adventure.’

As if to emphasise the links between the two parts of the expedition, the Land Rovers even played a part in the launch as they were used to pull the vessel’s mast up. Then, after a final night’s preparation work by the light of a full moon, the fun could begin. In Holgate’s words: ‘Enamel mugs of Captain Morgan are raised in a salute to our historic journey up the East Coast of Africa. Flambos flicker on the beach, the tide is up and the inflatables ferry everybody back to shore. Barefoot in the sand, it’s party time as music plays from the horn speaker of Pierre’s 34-year-old forward control Land Rover.’ But everyone knew that there were tough times ahead, with the searing heat of the monsoon season building every day and countless miles of hostile terrain, some of it laced with landmines from spent conflicts, to be tackled by the three Land Rovers.

No wonder, then, that there was a party to eclipse all others when the dhow finally put in to port at Omuhipiti, better known as Ilha Da Mozambique, at the end of its voyage up and down the coast. A flotilla of more than thirty smaller fishing dhows sailed out to meet it, part of a celebratory reception committee which included traditional dancers, local dignitaries and, of course, three battered Land Rovers.

But the trip didn’t end there, either for the vehicles or the dhow. Spirit of Adventure continues to work as a humanitarian vessel, assisting medical programmes and helping out on wildlife programmes – as well, of course, as playing a role in the never-ending battle against malaria.

And the team’s job wasn’t over, either, as it continued on another 400-mile leg up the Zambezi to hand out a further five thousand mosquito nets. This time, it was the inflatables that took the strain, backed up as ever by the three Land Rovers, before finally the expedition returned to the coast and made its final trip back to South Africa. There, the three expedition vehicles were joined by more than two dozen other Land Rovers in a gathering described by Holgate as ‘an act of solidarity against malaria.’ With a Captain Morgan bar at the centre of things, even he might have admitted that there was enough room for a little bit of mutual back-slapping after such a mammoth undertaking. The fight to contain malaria goes on… but at the end of the African Rainbow Expedition, Kingsley Holgate and his team, along with their three very well travelled Land Rovers, could certainly congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Kingsley Holgate

 Known by many as the Grey Beard of African Adventure, Kingsley Holgate is one of his continent’s most colourful characters. A fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he has undertaken many adventures along with his wife Gill and son Ross – including, in 1993, the world’s first voyage from the Cape to Cairo in inflatable open boats.

This was backed up by 4x4s, illustrating the importance of off-road vehicles to the sort of work the family do. Prior to the African Rainbow Expedition, he used Land Rovers as an integral part of Extreme Latitude, a circumnavigation of the globe following the Tropic of Capricorn which also involved bikes, dugouts and bullock carts. Between them, the three members of the Holgate family have survived countless attacks of malaria as well as the threat of bandits, wild animals and landmines.

Described on his own website as something of a latter-day David Livingstone, Holgate has followed in the footsteps of

many of the early explorers. Unlike too many of them, however, who rode roughshod over local customs and etiquette and had precious little respect for man or beast, he has

devoted his life to traditional African cultures, especially that of the Zulus. To

find out more about Kingsley Holgate, visit

The Dhow

As well as being an overland expedition of the highest order, African Rainbow sought to recreate the ‘excitement, dangers, horrors and beauty’ of the ancient dhow trade. Probably the oldest work boats still in existence, these lateen-rigged Arab vessels continue to ply Africa’s East Coast today. But where once they were used for carrying slaves or ivory – both ‘products’ redolent of the west’s readiness to plunder Africa without a second thought – Spirit of Adventure was loaded with mosquito nets to help save the continent’s poorest women and children from malaria.

The largest type of dhow still widely in use today is the Jahazi, whose design has remained largely unchanged since mediaeval times. Measuring up to a hundred feet in length and capable of carrying that many passengers, they remain a familiar sight in ports like Zanzibar – and with Spirit of Adventure’s launch from nearby Pemba, their familiarity became just that little bit greater.

Weighing in at 35 tons, the dhow was built entirely without the use of power tools. Drills were powered by string bows, nails were hand-beaten, timbers were pit-sawn and ribs were fashioned from naturally shaped mangroves. Cotton waste soaked in palm nut oil was used for caulking, while the hull was waterproofed using shark’s fat oil. The ropes were woven from coconut palm fibres, the lateen-rigged sail was made of cotton and the mast was adzed from a single tree trunk cured in sea water. Finally, as is the Swahili custom, hand-carved eyes known as machos, decorated with symbols of the crescent and star, were attached to either side of the stern to ward off danger.

Cooper Tyres

All three of the Land Rovers in the expedition were fitted with tyres from Cooper’s 4x4 range, allowing them to negotiate the worst of the African terrain in fine style. Cooper’s South African importer was among many sponsors without whom the African Rainbow Expedition would never have happened; as well as Land Rover, others included Grindrod Shipping, Captain Morgan, US Aid, PSI Malaria Control, Yamaha, Magellan, Motorola, 4x4 MegaWorld and Peaceful Sleep. For more information on Cooper in the UK, get in touch by calling 01225 703101.

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