A journey to Chew Bahir, Ethiopia – Best told from the scribbles in Kingsley Holgate’s expedition journal…
The three expedition Landies are loaded up with humanitarian supplies, a Zulu calabash of water from the Cradle of Humankind, a Scroll of Peace and Goodwill in support of malaria prevention and Elephant Art materials for kids. We’re off to the sound of marimbas and drum beats from Lesedi Cultural Village outside Johannesburg.
A new adventure is about to begin. Once again we’ll need the zen of travel to be with us as we point the three Kingsley Holgate Foundation expedition Land Rovers towards a place called Chew Bahir, the Great Salt Ocean, situated in the cultural kaleidoscope of southern Ethiopia – close to the borders with unsettled south Sudan and Somalia on the Horn of Africa.
Here cattle wars are a way of life; AK47’s casually swung over the shoulders of tribesmen protecting their wealth. Scarifications, tribal initiations, leather skirts adorned with cowry shells, clay lip plates and red ochre make living traditions alive and well here in one of Africa’s last great frontiers of real adventure.
Having spent much of a lifetime adventuring in every country in Africa, including her island states, we are keenly aware of the rapidly changing face of ‘Mama Africa’. This expedition will be part of a series of once-off journeys called Africa’s Living Traditions, to document, record, research, photograph and participate in Africa’s richly colourful traditional cultural practices, many of which are fast disappearing.
But our objective is also to, in a world-first, cross the salt pans of Lake Chew Bahir in land yachts – the same contraptions we used to navigate the Makgadikgadi pans in Botswana a few decades ago.
It’s with great excitement and anticipation that the expedition team all arrive at the sacred mountain of Sepache in Samburuland in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District, marking the true beginning of our Living Traditions Expedition.
We meet with an old friend, warrior captain Dipa and a feast of colour, Morane age-set warriors, red ochred bodies and bead-work with all the colours of the rainbow greets us.
A friend of Dipa’s is getting married and we’re invited to the traditional ceremony: there’s the slaughter of animals, drinking of fresh blood from a goat’s neck and, at sunset, the singing and dancing reach a crescendo with the Morane leaping into the sky and women ululating. As we leave the bride gets ushered off to be circumcised on her wedding night. Life on expedition is never dull.
The next morning the Samburu elders give us a blessing, Dipa grabs his AK and with his gang of Morane, jumps into his old green Defender to escort us north through the badlands towards the Omo Delta. These age-set warriors have a thorough knowledge of the area and have even been known to hunt down Al Shaabab operatives and hand them over to the military.
Dipa joins our convoy of two Landy Disco’s nicknamed Phokot and Turkana (after two warlike tribes of the Northern Frontier District) and the big 130 Heart of Africa Land Rover Defender nicknamed Ndhlovukasi (the great she-elephant).
We travel north through the the Northern Frontier District; the region consisting of wild-looking nomadic tribes, cattle and livestock wars, dramatic, sometimes empty landscapes where you can so easily die of thirst, too many old rifles and Kalashnikovs traded from South Sudan and Ethiopia and bought with cattle and camels.
At the Chalbi Desert we try out the land yachts for a practice sail. Late afternoon runs into moonlight. Booms, sails, batons, tyres, steering mechanisms, ropes, pulleys and the bolting on of the seats. And then we’re off, racing across the desert crust, the thrill of the wind in the sails; the adrenaline-rush as you fly a wheel, and the squeal of the tyres as you make a flat-out turn into the wind – transfer your weight to the opposite seat – tug on the main sheet and you’re off again, heading for the pin-prick of light that marks the distant campfire. And so with Landy back-up, we sail the Kaisut, Karoli and Chalbi deserts – but ahead of us lies an even greater adventure, our land yacht crossing of Chew Bahir.
At a middle-of-nowhere fork in the north-west track to the Omo Delta in the north of the world’s largest desert lake – Turkana, we say goodbye to our Samburu friends. They have added much colour and culture to our humble Living Traditions expedition to Chew Bahir and beyond! Will keep you posted.
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