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THE second to last time I saw Gill “Mashozi” Holgate, who has died aged 66, was in the Tanzanian village of Nansio on Ukerewe Island on Lake Victoria. She had been awake through the night nursing her husband Kingsley through his 37th bout of malaria.
Kingsley later wrote in his book, Africa: In the footsteps of the Great Explorers that “Lying in the dark room, sweating out the fever, I’m on edge and wish the people outside my window would shut up... my body aches and I’ve got the squits... Hell, I’m a mess.”
That was in September 2004. Rewind seven years to April 30, 1997. Mashozi – her Zulu name means “she who wears shorts” – Kingsley, their son Ross and I, plus the rest of our crew, are on the banks of the Zambezi at Shupanga in Mozambique. In the book, there’s a photograph I took of the family at Mary Livingstone’s grave. She died of malaria on April 27, 1862, at the age of 41. You can’t see it in the photograph, but Mashozi is weeping.
Kingsley wrote that “Mashozi is a tough and remarkable woman, but this is an emotional time for her and I find her sitting quietly in the old church, her chin cupped in her little hands. She is touched by Mary’s life, by the incredible hardships she endured...”
Ten days later, sitting on a high sand bank in the Cahora Bassa Gorge, I interviewed Mashozi. My notes reflect her saying “My biggest concern is malaria – this has happened so many times. I worry about Ross a lot, he doesn’t take care of himself, I worry about malaria.
“I wonder how the hell the Victorians like Mary Livingstone coped with their long, heavy skirts and thick boots, it must have been hell. I really relate to and understand Mary Livingstone. David Livingstone can’t have been an easy man to live with. It must have been terribly hard. We stand around at night and spray Tabard on ourselves, we have tents, malaria prophylaxis, a R4 000 medical kit, Mary Livingstone had nothing.”
Mashozi was a remarkable woman. The Holgates’ adventures are the stuff of legend, whether it is traversing the length of Africa from Cape to Cairo, circumnavigating the globe along the Tropic of Capricorn, the continent of Africa along the outside edge, or the many other expeditions distributing mosquito nets to fight malaria.
Even more remarkable was that although many of their adventures involved boats and rough water, Gill had a terrible fear of drowning.
In 1990, she and Kingsley were in a dhow off Mozambique. “The skipper was drunk, the wind changed and the sea got rougher and the dhow overturned. We came damn close to drowning. Ever since then I have had a phobia about water. I still get a very dry mouth when the surf is pumping or we’re hitting rapids on a river,” she told me.
And there was always a certain level of paranoia attached to being married to one madcap adventurer, and the mother of another. “I worry a helluva lot about Ross and Kingsley because they are both absolute chancers, they push things right to the limit physically. They will see a rapid and know they shouldn’t chance it, but they will go for it anyway, they always have to go that little bit further. That’s frightening when they belong to you.”
My friend and fellow journalist, Don Pinnock, who has also travelled extensively with the Holgates, relates how he once asked Kingsley “how long are you going to keep up the life of high adventure?”
Don takes up the tale: “I’ll answer by telling you a story,” Kingsley says. “I had this friend who’d done well in life – owned a business, making pots of money. But he told me he was dissatisfied. All that stress and what for? I asked him how old he was and he said late 50s. We were on a beach and I picked up seven pebbles and put them in a row. I said to him: ‘This is your life.’ Then I took away five and threw them away. I said to him: ‘You’ve lived these. They’re gone. Nothing you can do about that.’
“Then I took the last pebble and threw it away as well. I told him: ‘Not much you can do with the last 10 years of your life. Too old.’ He was staring hard at that last pebble... I picked it up and handed it to him. ‘You have 10 good summers left. Put that pebble in your pocket. Finger it till it’s smooth... Put it next to your bed at night. Think about those summers.’”
Kingsley stares into the night and chuckles. “You want to know what happened, don’t you? Well he sold up. Everything! He bought a farm in Zululand and he’s the happiest man I know,” he told Don.
Gill Holgate was robbed of her last pebble. Lala salama, Mashozi, safari njema.