02 February 2023
LRM Editor Patrick Cruywagen caught up with Land Rover ambassador and humanitarian explorer, Kingsley Holgate, in Athens, Greece, after he became the first man to take not one, but three new Defenders across the African continent
Before we start our interview with Kingsley Holgate, please allow me to introduce this renowned explorer and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. This larger-than-life man garners huge respect and admiration wherever he goes. He has no airs nor graces and mixes beautifully with everyone, from presidents to paupers. He is a gentle and kind soul who has been extremely successful in all his exploration thanks to his charismatic personality, enormous heart and humility. Like a true Land Rover man, Kingsley’s blood is green and he is driven to change, save and improve lives through adventure.
You (and your other five expedition members) have just become the first to cross the African continent in new Defenders. How does that feel?
Well, we feel humbled, privileged and proud. It has been a difficult crossing. We have done many crossings in the past and, as you know, there is a lot of old Land Rover history along the Cape to Cairo route. When this new Defender Trans-Continental Expedition eventually finishes at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey in August, we will be accompanied by the first Series Land Rover to ever cross the African continent. What made the crossing a tough one were the challenges presented by Covid and the situation in Southern Sudan.
Driving away from the pyramids of North Sudan
You have done expeditions in Toyota Land Cruisers, Series Land Rovers, old Defenders, the latest Discovery and now a new Defender. What are the main differences between the old 4x4s and the new ones?
These new Defenders are incredibly capable off-road but add into the mix speed and comfort. We love the old Series Land Rovers and all of the old Defenders. We have done incredible expeditions in the Discovery 4 and also the latest Discovery including the Cape Town to Kathmandu Trans-Continental Expedition, which you joined, Pat, and saw for yourself.
Most new Land Rovers are similar when it comes to capability and comfort but the new Defender has taken things back to the classic box shape we all so love. Just like the Disco 4 had.
This is our 40th expedition and we feel the new Defender will help to keep the iconic Defender brand alive. When we were chased by heavily armed militia as we crossed from South into North Sudan, the speed and capabilities of these new Defenders literally saved our lives. You would not want to be in a 300Tdi in that situation. It was the first time in 30 years that anyone travelled that route in the Sudan.
Not all African roads are dry and dusty, which is why the Defenders were fitted with serious and robust off-road tyres
You chose a rather interesting route instead of the safer traditional Cape-to-Cairo one. Why did you want to go through South Sudan?
Because of the war in Ethiopia and Covid restrictions in West Africa we opted to instead to do the traditional Cape-to-Cairo route. Instead of going through Ethiopia we decided to go through South and North Sudan. The disputed area between the two countries is known as ‘The Box’; this is where we faced our toughest challenges.
There were just too many militias and fighting between tribes, the one village we passed through had just lost 46 people in the fighting. We were there in 2011 when the country of South Sudan was born and it filled us with hope, but on this trip we saw for ourselves that there is still a lot of work left to be done to make it a safe country.
The expedition’s aim was to improve 300,000 lives across Africa through a range of hands-on aid projects
JLR has pledged to positively influence the lives of thousands each year. Tell us about the humanitarian work you’ve done so far on the Defender Trans-Continental expedition.
A cornerstone of all our expeditions is the humanitarian work that we do and this one has been no different. We use Land Rovers to improve and save lives, it is what gives our journeys soul or warmth. Everyone on our expedition would concur. Yes, the geographical challenges can be hard but without the humanitarian work our journeys would not have a purpose.
A vast continent, Africa is home to countless different cultures
On this specific expedition we distributed two million meals to rural mums and children in rural South Africa. Then we also upgraded 12 early learning centres and supplied them with teaching materials – some of them literally had nothing. We fixed roofs, put up fencing and gates, it was real hands-on stuff. This was all before we left South Africa. Then on the journey to Egypt, we did huge amounts of malaria prevention work by distributing nets. We also gave out thousands of pairs of reading glasses, did wildlife conservation art with kids and handed out water purification straws. Our goal was to improve 300,000 lives and we did just that.
Another humanitiarian project Kingsley contributed to
I don’t think anyone has the same intimate relationship with Mama Africa like you do. Share some of the special moments with us.
The humanitarian work and the joy and smiles you get from it, whether with a Christian community in Malawi or a Muslim village in Egypt, is the same. That instant gratification when the quality of someone else’s life is improved is why we do what we do. The warm-hearted nature of it all is just so special.
Visiting the Dinka people was a trip highlight
Spending time with the nomadic cattle Dinka people of South Sudan was pretty special. In the late afternoon they gather their cattle into a central area, they then sleep and live with these cattle.
Interacting with local people was one of the great joys of the expedition
Finally, seeing the pyramids of North Sudan which were built during the times of the ancient Kushite Kingdom and Black Pharaohs, was pretty special. They are so very different to Egypt where there are thousands of tourists. We were the only people at these pyramids. Walking around these archaeological wonders and having them all to ourselves was out of this world.
Given the team slept in them for more than 250 nights, good quality rooftop tents were essential
What would you say to overlanders or people who want to visit or cross the African continent?
We had to show the world that Africa is getting over Covid. Sure, at the beginning it was tough and costly with all the PCR tests, but we survived it and took it one country at a time. The further we went the fewer restrictions we had.
We would like people to know that Africa is open for adventure again. So, pack your Landys and off you go. Having said that, we never saw another overlander once we were in northern Uganda…
Mike Nixon giving out Malaria Nets
Expedition stalwart Mike Nixon is a pretty remarkable man. Tell us a little about his incredible cycling feats on this trip:
Mike is a dedicated athlete. He has climbed Everest twice and the Seven Summits of the world, too. Sometimes you forget he is over 60. He gets up at 4.00am and heads off on his bicycle while we are still asleep. Then at 11.00am we catch up with him again.
Often we find him playing soccer with the local kids or drinking tea with the elders. Sometimes he has already organised them into groups for our humanitarian work.
He is in his new D300 Defender with his wife Fiona. We love his endless energy and all he brings to the expedition. On this journey he wants to do 10,000km on his bike before we reach Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey. He did 5000 just in Africa. I suspect he will smash the 10,000km mark.
Kingsley Holgate: colourful character with a special knack for making friends
You must’ve seen some interesting Landies along the way. Are there still loads of old Land Rovers in Africa? When it comes to meeting other old Land Rovers it has been a lot of fun. We had several Series Land Rovers at the start of our expedition at Cape Agulhas, South Africa. What other 4x4 brand has this sense of history and solidarity? When we meet old Land Rovers along the way, we take the owners’ details, age of the Land Rover, get a pic and document it. We hope to reach 10,000 years of Land Rover history by the time we reach the end of our expedition in Anglesey.
Expedition tech talk
Ross Holgate is Kingsley’s son and is responsible for all the logistics and vehicles on the expedition. Ross has been going on African adventures with his father all his life. He spoke to us about how the new Defenders have coped so far
Ross Holgate in his natural environment
What spec new Defenders are you using on this expedition?
The Holgate’s Land Rover-sponsored Defender 110s are P400 S models while Mike Nixon is in his personal Defender 110 D300 Dynamic X. It would have been nice if they were all diesels, but we need to make the best of what we have.
Why did you not go for the D300?
These are 2020 models and in South Africa we only had the D240 and P400 options at the time, so the advice they gave us was that the D240 would not like the unhealthy diesel you find in some parts of Africa. It was out of our hands really.
What did you change? Wheels? Tyres?
What is wonderful about the Land Rovers we have used since we changed from old Defenders to the latest Discovery and now the new Defender, is that we have generally kept them stock standard. No adjustments to the suspension.
What we did do for this trip is put 18-inch rims and Cooper Tires ST Max 275/70 R18 rubber on which have made a massive difference. Standard tyres are not adequate for our expedition purposes. Land Rover put spotlights, bull bar, Warn winch and the snorkel on for us.
You carry a lot of weight on the roof. How did this affect handling/performance?
We always carry way over the recommended weight up there because we have to carry more than one spare tyre, humanitarian gear, extra fuel and water. One bale of 75 mosquito nets weighs about 75kg. [Pat: When the Discovery 3 came out in South Africa I took hundreds of mosquito nets up to northern Mozambique for Kingsley. I can concur they are rather heavy and bulky.]
How did you set up the vehicles?
For this expedition we have added Alu-Cab rooftop tents and 270-degree awnings. They are our rooftop hotel for around 250 days, so we wanted something that would keep us dry, warm and comfy. The cost of accommodation is crippling so we had to look at other alternatives. The Alu Cab system allows you to load extra stuff onto the tent, but you can only add as much as you can physically lift. Our tents come with their own ladders so we took off the Land Rover side-ladders and put a bracket there that can take a jerrycan.
Another adjustment to the rear was a rack over the rear-mounted spare tyre so that we can carry a gas bottle, water, fuel, litter or charcoal. You just need to remember the door needs to be able to handle that extra weight.
I don’t think the extra weight affected the performance of the vehicle. You just need to be aware that your vehicle is very high so you need to take care if passing under trees.
What spares did you take?
No fuel filters as you can’t access the fuel filter. We took spare piping for the air suspension. Some joiners, air filters, oil filters. Every 10,000km we replaced them all. We were operating in extremely hot and dusty environments.
Describe some of the challenges you faced
In the past you would not dream of doing an expedition like this in a petrol vehicle. The small motorbike as a form of transport or taxi has changed this. There is so much more petrol available now. That said, the quality in both South and North Sudan was not that great and this seriously affected performance. At times we would even have to go into low-ratio to stop the coughing and spluttering. This also massively increased consumption. All of that changed once in Egypt and the fuel improved.
How different is the new Defender to the new Disco that you previously used?
African expeditions throw it all at you: heat, rain, flooding, rocks, mud, ruts and dust. These Defenders have been absolutely phenomenal. I have done 82,000kms in mine. We own all types of Land Rovers from Series Is to these, and all of them are capable. No matter which one you take you will make it on expeditions.
You have done many expeditions in the newest Land Rovers money can buy. What advice would you give owners thinking about using theirs for an expedition?
I have heard all the jokes about electronics, but we have done a lot of our expeditions in the latest Land Rovers and I think we have shown that they are capable and reliable.
The great thing about the new Defender is that it looks the part. Once you put on the roof rack, winches, spots and bull bar, then even more so. We love the feel of the new Defender, too. As for the latest Discovery, maybe not so. You don’t want to arrive in the poor countries and villages in something flash. Having said that, I did 137,000km in the latest Discovery and it was without a doubt one of the greatest expedition vehicles we have ever had.
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