My successful attempt to achieve a World Record to climb the highest peak in all 47 countries in Europe - a record I completed in August 1999 - led to the immediate planning of my next project, 'Africa's Highest Challenge', a project to summit the highest mountain in each of the 53 countries in the continent of Africa, a World Record that has not been attempted before.
With the European expedition I was to face many problems and hardships including muggings, knife attacks, avoiding landmines in Croatia, being robbed by Chechen bandits, avoiding Palace Guards in the Vatican City, and bribing my way to the top of Mount Ararat, a mountain which had not been climbed officially for 10 years or more
I have spent 18 years as a Clearance Diver in the Royal Navy and have been a Leading Seaman (Diver) for the past 10 years. I have been a member of many different diving teams with a wide variety of roles including underwater engineering, Explosive Ordinance Disposal, deep and experimental diving including a record 300 metre, and a 17-day dive in Norway. I have spent 5 years working on the Maritime Counter Terrorist Team in support of Special Forces. I have also taken part in some of the world's toughest courses such as the Commando Course for the Green Beret and I have twice taken part in the Royal Navy Field Gun Competition, generally regarded as the toughest team sport in the world.
Other non-naval highlights are things like 250 or more parachute jumps, Running the Bulls in Pamplona, as well as getting over injuries such as breaking my neck playing rugby in 1990 and suffering a heart attack climbing Everest in 1996 in a bid to become the first Royal Naval person to climb the highest mountain in the world. In my last two years serving on HMS Endurance in Antarctica, another record was carried out diving at the most southerly point, deep in the Weddell Sea at 77 degrees south.
In preparation for the African project I successfully completed an arduous three-week Tropical Survival Course in Australia learning all about living in desert and jungle environments. The course is run by the Australian Air Force for pilots and aircrew who could be shot down behind enemy lines. Most people, I found out, try and avoid this course for most of their careers. Once others found out I had volunteered for it they all thought I was mad. After the desert and jungle parts of the course, and days and days of eating insects and any other thing you can get your hands on was over, I'd quite enjoyed the experience which added to the Australian thinking that this Englishman really may be mad.
The European mountains had taken me 7 years on and off during my leave periods from the Royal Navy. The African mountains I wanted and needed to do in one hit, so to speak. Physically and mentally I was prepared, and after selling my house financially also. Climbing all the mountains in Africa I estimated would be a 15 to 18 month expedition but if Europe was anything to go by that could easily be extended. I'd needed the help of the Kurdish Workers Party better known as the PKK in Turkey to get me to the top of Mt Ararat, their highest mountain, and the very last mountain I needed to climb on the European project. Officially it was off limits and swarming with government troops. After 3 years of trying I eventually paid the PKK a big bribe and crept up under the cover of darkness with a shepherd as a guide.
Africa I didn't think would prove to be any easier and I was to be proved right. The UK Foreign Office advised not to travel to half of the countries in Africa unless absolutely necessary. I deemed climbing mountains as absolutely necessary and duly set off for Mt Tahat, Algeria's highest mountain.
I summitted Tahat on 25 December 2000. People had asked me "Aren't you overawed by the scale of the expedition, the dangers, the logistics, the hassles, just the physical hard work of it?" Up until I'd reached the top of Tahat I had said no. Once I was sat there breathless and with a slight headache due to the altitude and sweating from the heat of the Sahara sun, I had to admit to myself 52 countries left to do did seem a bloody awful long way off after all.
One year later I'd summitted 44 of the 53 countries in Africa. It had been rather entertaining and maybe on occasions I should have taken the Foreign Office advice. Logistically the Project was sometimes fairly difficult to organise, physically sometimes very hard, add to that the different wars, conflicts and military coups, the threat of landmines, the danger of snakes, lions and even crocodiles. Oh, plus the occasional life threatening moments such as being held at gunpoint in Somalia, arrested and taken for a mercenary in Liberia, held in a stranglehold and robbed by a gang of 5 in Kenya and coming within 10 metres of a wild elephant blocking the jungle path on Congo's highest mountain all has gone fairly smoothly.
Just locating some of the highest mountains in some countries had been the most difficult part of the project. I'd spent 10 days in Gabon, many of it in the jungle, with a machete in hand climbing what the Guinness Book and most other reference books said was Gabon's highest mountain; it wasn't. The map, a piloting chart, was wrong by 600 metres or so. I had to find myself another mountain. During my travels I've found new higher mountains for countries, found mountains that are miles and miles away from where they are marked on a map and found new names for previously un-named peaks.
I started the year 2002 with just 9 countries left to do. Here's where things became difficult. Most of the countries I had left to do had rebel activity in the country, even in the very mountains I needed to climb. Others were at war or the very least had a state of emergency in place such as Liberia. I did try though, but kept on getting turned back by the army and being arrested and advised to leave the country.
After my arrest and generally having rather a hard time of it in Liberia I headed to Sierra Leone to try my chances there. With luck, the help of the British Army and the first real ceasefire in their war in over 10 years I managed to get to Sierra Leone's highest peak. I was the first white person in the mountains in over 10 years. Children who had seen so many atrocities over the years swarmed around me having never seen a white person before. I knew I would start a hand shaking frenzy when I shook the first child's hand. Between 200 and 300 children followed me out of one particular village and walked with me for about 3 miles to the next village where it all started up again. It was a great experience, privilege even, to be the first person back there.
Zambia was the next country. A mountain I felt I had to return to after climbing what everyone thought to be the highest mountain. Last year I'd seen higher peaks in the distance. More research, more looking at maps. I'd been right and climbed a new higher but unnamed point in Zambia.
That's what had been so great about this expedition, every mountain has been special, every mountain different. One week I was in the desert, the next the jungle, then the African bush or on a snow capped mountain in East Africa. That's not to forget the wading through the chest deep, snake infested swamp to get to the Congo's highest peak. Well there had to be a swamp on Africa's Highest Challenge. I might have been disappointed otherwise.
Every mountain has held a surprise. Whether it was the lowest of the highest mountains as was the case with Gambia's highest point of 53 metres. 53 metres is quite hard to find, you can be sure of that when the average height of the whole country is 50 metres. Once I'd used GPS to get into the general area and to the nearest village, the village school stopped teaching and 100 school children led me the 400 metres or so to a high mound of sand that looked like it had just been dumped out of the back of a truck.
In fact it is some of the lower peaks which have held the biggest surprises. Senegal's highest point is a 581 metre gentle hill near the border with Guinea Bissau. I arrived there late in the day at the small village at the bottom of the hill, hired a guide and began the climb. Hiking through the quite dense bush we eventually neared the summit. Stood right on top of this rocky outcrop was a very large boulder about 16 to 20 ft high and almost a perfect cube shape with very few handholds. It's what I'd always thought and dreaded I might come up against on a mountain challenge like this and the one in Europe. Something unclimbed or something at the least very bloody difficult. This near perfect cubed rock was split down the middle by a crack of about 9 inches or so. Now I'm not averse to a bit of climbing and consider myself not too bad and quite strong in that department but, by heck, I could not get up that bloody boulder. I tried from both sides but it was absolutely no use. The crack was too big to get a hand jam in and likewise just too small to get your whole body in there. It was the perfect problem. In fact I liked that phase so much I decided to name the boulder the "Perfect Problem". That didn't help me out just how to climb it though. The time was knocking on, darkness was falling and the baboons were getting agitated and closing in on their mountain top. Carrying a big tree branch up the hill and leaning it up against the boulder I soon - and rather ungainly - scrambled my way to the very top.
Some of the most dangerous countries I originally listed are now some of my most favourite. With an escort of 60 soldiers from the local rebel group the SPLA in Sudan I summitted their highest mountain not climbed since probably around the 1970's due to the fighting. 20 soldiers escorted me up Rwanda's highest peak, keen not to let the first tourist in over 10 years to get shot and killed on their mountain. Angola I climbed at the third attempt. With more landmines than any other country in the world it is a dangerous place. Their highest mountain has not been climbed by many people, since the Portuguese put the original summit cairn there.
The last mountain climbed was in Chad, peak number 52 of the Project. Barring landmines, rebels, being off limits and unclimbed in several years there were no major problems. Most of Northern Chad you are not permitted to visit including all of the Tibesti mountains. Ongoing civil problems, rebel activity and landmines laid over many conflicts playing their part. The Tibesti mountains and Emi Koussi are some of, if not the, most remotest of mountains ranges in Africa. The peak had not been climbed since 1998 and that group of climbers had been taken hostage.
After much research and negotiations I had to bide my time to get the right contacts and for the right timing. I travelled to the Northern Town of Faya on a normal tourist permit then with my guide (who was born in the rebel strong hold of Yebbi-Bou) avoided Army and Rebels to get to the base of the mountain disguising myself when necessary as a local. We passed explosive ordnance but without incident. The normal 3-day hike was done in 1 day, much at night (a 65 km round trip). The mountain remains off limits and even when the area is fully open due to its remoteness it will not be climbed that often despite being the Sahara's highest mountain.