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With adventures and exploits reminiscent of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel ‘Around the world in 80 days’, the renowned Kingsley Holgate explorer team has completed its Mzansi Edge Expedition to track the outline of South Africa by Land Rover and mountain bike, delivering over 250,000 nutritious meals to families in need and clocking up over 16,000km in just 80 days.

Starting at Kosi Bay mouth in northern KwaZulu-Natal in mid-September with the filling of the Holgate’s symbolic Zulu calabash that travels on every humanitarian and geographic journey, the expedition achieved the extraordinary feat of tracking South Africa’s land borders with Mozambique, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, circumnavigating Lesotho, and following the entire length of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastlines from Alexander Bay in the Northern Cape back to Kosi Bay.

Geographic objectives of the expedition included staying as close to the land borders as possible and reaching South Africa’s most eastern, northern, western and southern geographic points.  The team also erected symbolic ‘isivivanes’ (stone cairns) at the six points where South Africa’s border meets two other countries and collected thimblefuls of water from 50 important water sources on Mzansi’s Edge in the Zulu calabash. Staying true to the coastal edge of the expedition’s route, they also reached all 50 lighthouses along South Africa’s shoreline.

“This expedition turned out to be one of the most extraordinary journeys I’ve ever undertaken without leaving my home country,” said Kingsley Holgate, who with his team has completed over 30 geographic and humanitarian expeditions to every country on the African continent.  “Every day was a new adventure and we were constantly amazed at the spectacular beauty, geographic diversity and rich history to be found all along South Africa’s borders and coastline, as well as the kindness and hospitality of people who ‘live on the edge’ of our magnificent country, and who fully embraced the expedition’s mission and pushed us along.”

The challenging route was also the first long-distance test for the recently launched Land Rover Defender on South African soil, with Kingsley and his son Ross putting two expedition-kitted new Defenders through their paces over some of the most difficult conditions on the continent.

“As a family, we have had the incredible opportunity to adventure in every country in Africa using Land Rovers and now once again we have the privilege of driving the all New Defender, an icon reimagined, but with the same DNA and heritage,” said expedition leader Ross Holgate. “On this expedition we used the P400 model which has a 3.0-litre turbopetrol engine featuring mild-hybrid technology and an electric supercharger. It includes all the elements of luxury but still with incredible capability.

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“Who would have ever thought that the Mzansi Edge expedition could throw so much at man and machine? The odometer reads over 16,000km and there has been no time for slowly weaning the vehicle into the hardship of expedition life. It’s been straight into the gruelling conditions that Africa deals out – intense heat up to 50 degrees Celsius, soft red sand, high Kalahari dunes, torturous, rocky mountain passes and day after day of endless mud. Just starting them up in the morning and hearing the smooth roar of straight-sixes makes the hard day ahead all worthwhile. It’s also been interesting traveling with some old Defenders in the mix, as it allows constant comparisons and makes you realise you don’t have to be uncomfortable to have a great adventure. The new Defender is truly like no other vehicle we’ve ever driven.” 

The expedition included following the 500km straight-edge border with Namibia from Union’s End in the north of the Kalagadi Transfrontier Park to the Orange River – a three-day journey of cresting high Kalahari desert dunes, and churning through deep sand and deceptively sticky salt pans. Torrential rains had turned dirt roads into glutinous 4×4 mud tracks for days on end with thousands of kilometres of corrugations and steep, rocky ascents and descents along the Lubombo Mountains and the Drakensberg border with Lesotho.

The ultimate test, however, was reserved for the ‘Road to Hell’ in the Northern Cape on the border with Namibia – a brutally steep, boulder-strewn, narrow track that’s destroyed many of the toughest off road vehicles. The expedition’s new Defenders successfully completed South Africa’s most infamous mountain pass and took the worst it had to offer in stride.

Other members of the core team included Kingsley’s partner Sheelagh, Ross’s wife Anna, Kingsley’s 19-year-old grandson Tristan, and expedition veteran ‘Shova Mike’ Nixon. Nixon, a member of the Land Rover Absa Cape Epic team and one of only four people in the world to have completed every edition of the toughest mountain bike race in the world, cycled over 4,000km of the Mzansi Edge expedition route, including a gruelling, 300km solo journey along the beaches and cliffs of the Wild Coast from Cintsa to Port St Johns.

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Staying so close to the border created some interesting moments for the team.

“Following a fence line day after day and week after week, is not easy. The road conditions were a complete mishmash: deep sand ruts, sharp jagged rocks, overgrown tracks and wash-aways were part of our everyday journey,”  recalled Ross. “With travel bans still in place, some of the fence lines were heavily guarded by the SADF and we had to get permission from the top military brass beforehand. They were always very supportive of the expedition’s mission, but sometimes the message wouldn’t get all the way down the line and we’d have to do some fast talking.”

The expedition team also witnessed the illegal cross-border trade, particularly along the Limpopo border with Zimbabwe, where innumerable holes in the fence, well-worn tracks and a busy bush-taxi service showed border-hopping is rife. It also saw first-hand the devastation that closed border posts have had on local communities who rely heavily on tourism and the continent-wide trucking industry.

“It was disturbing to see border posts like ghost towns,” said Kingsley. “No business at all – from the shisanyama and fruit stalls lining the road, to short-stay hotels and upmarket game lodges – everything was closed. The loss of income must be terrifying; it really brought home the severity of the Covid-19 lockdown and how people in these outlying areas are still struggling to put food on the table.”

“Building on our motto of using our Land Rover adventures to improve and save lives, this expedition wasn’t just a geographic mission – we also used it to do good,” explained Ross. “Supported by Land Rover, the DoMore Foundation and our partners at Goodbye Malaria and Project Rhino, we were able to distribute over 250,000 meals-worth of vitamin-enriched DoMore porridge, thousands of colourful ‘shweshwe’ facemasks, sanitising soap and digital thermometers to early childhood development centres, orphanages and families in need along the expedition’s route, especially those living close to game reserves who have been particularly hard-hit by the loss of tourism.

“It was a mammoth team effort, and we were amazed at the inner strength of so many South Africans who seem more determined than ever, despite the difficult circumstances, to improve the lives of others.”

On the final dash from Durban Harbour to Kosi Bay, the expedition’s well-travelled Zulu calabash was borne up the coast on the National Sea Rescue Institute’s state-of-the-art ‘Alick Rennie’ vessel to Umhlanga Rocks and then flown by microlight from Ballito to the Tugela River mouth.

Reuniting with the Defender convoy, it journeyed up the KwaZulu-Natal north coast, still collecting water from key river mouths and lakes in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. To mark the end of its Mzansi Edge odyssey, expedition members carried it on a 14km beach trek from Bhanga Nek to Kosi Bay Mouth, where it was symbolically emptied at the exact point where the expedition started from, in a jubilant end-of-expedition ceremony.

“The expedition’s Scroll of Peace and Goodwill is full of inspirational messages from the hundreds of remarkable people we met all along Mzansi’s Edge,” continued Kingsley. “For our team, this journey has reinforced South Africa’s tagline as ‘a world in one country’ and I urge all our citizens to also get out and explore the incredible adventure destinations we have right here on our doorsteps.”

“The Mzansi Edge expedition has also been an epic test for the new Defender,” concluded Ross. “Now behind the wheel of this new legend, our focus remains to go above and beyond in using the energy of adventure to make a positive difference to the lives of people in need.”