The fire was but a faint orange glow on the horizon when we set up camp, but it was moving
"Stay in your tent... the lions will visit tonight." His ivory white eyes appeared like two searchlights on a stormy South Atlantic coast, and his skin, dark as obsidian, was absorbed by the moonless Kalahari night like the featureless miles of bush surrounding our camp. Climbing into an old 70-series Toyota Land Cruiser pickup, he turned the key and disappeared into the night. I'd spent weeks camping in the wilds of Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe. I'd had elephants walk through my camp, baboons steal my food, and caught hyenas patrolling the perimeter of my fire light on a nightly basis. But with the park ranger's final words, things instantly changed. What we had thought would be another tranquil night in the depths of the Kalahari suddenly became one of internal mind games, strange and foreboding noises, and fear.
Four days earlier, we'd crossed into Botswana from South Africa. The other half of "we" was an old college buddy, Allen Andrews, who was wrapping up his doctorate degree from Rhodes University when I picked him up in Grahamstown, South Africa, and we were a week into the adventure of a lifetime. Though I like to consider treks like this as "one of many in a lifetime," I'd been offered a deal I couldn't pass up, and that deal was a new and fully kitted Hummer H3-and no time limit.
As a kid growing up in the '70s, there were only a few things that could draw my attention away from my dirt bike and the endless dirt tracks of the California desert. The first was 4x4 trucks, and the second, oddly enough, was a TV show-Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Sporting safari garb and trekking through a distant land called Africa, host Marlin Perkins would authoritatively describe the deadly prowess of a python or lion, as his sidekick Jim Fowler wrestled it into submission. I dreamed of one day pitching my tent on the African savanna and falling asleep to the sound of elephants trumpeting in the bush, lions making a kill, and hyenas scavenging for carrion. As an adult, I never let go of those childhood ambitions. This was my chance, to follow in Marlin's footsteps, to live the dream. Enter the Hummer Africa Expedition 2008.
Darwinism and The Food Chain
I'd chiseled two months out of my schedule, and the plan was to cross eight countries and cover approximately 10,000 kilometers. Allen would join me for the first 20 days. After that, I'd be on my own. Kalahari, which means "waterless place" in the Setswana language, may be one of the most diverse semi-deserts on the planet. Stretching through Botswana from South Africa to the southern reaches of Zambia, it is the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. And while services are more frequent to the north, in the southern Kalahari, from Letlhakeng to Rakops-about 750 kilometers of deep Kalahari sand tracks-you are on your own. There's no AM/PM, no In-N-Out Burger, no water, nada. Only deep sand and rolling bush as far as the eye can see.
The Botswana Park Service and all of the guidebooks strongly frown onattempting the Central Kalahari with only one vehicle, and for good reasons. Many tracks see only a few vehicles a month, temperatures soar past the century mark on a daily basis, park rangers rarely patrol most tracks, and there are no fences or warning signs stating, "Closed for your safety."
A trek through the Kalahari is like stepping into another dimension. One of centuries past, where common sense and preparedness are prerequisites, and Darwin's theory of natural selection rules the bush. It is the realm of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape buffalo), survival of the fittest, and a place where if you put yourself in the wrong situation, you may become part of the food chain. If we made it through the Kalahari intact, we'd cut east to the windswept and barren Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans. From Nxai, we'd head north through the Okavango Delta, the Chobe and Moremi Game Reserves, and ultimately into Zambia, via the Kazengula ferry crossing on the Zambezi River.
I'd flown into Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and hooked up with the guys at 4x4 Megaworld, one of Africa's largest suppliers of off-road gear. Awaiting was a new Hummer H3 outfitted with a Warn 9.5ti winch, a Hi-Lift jack, a set of Yokahama Geolander tires, two Optima batteries, IPF lights and a slew of gear from ARB including the first H3 bull bar off the mill, a roof rack and Simpson II tent, compressor and LED camp light. Anxious to get on the road, the guys at Megaworld spun wrenches for three solid days to make it happen. They also sprang for an open-ended shopping spree through their extensive racks of camping supplies: chairs, stove, water and fuel cans-everything I needed for two months in the bush was within arm's reach (thanks, guys!).