A strange sensation swept though my consciousness, the presence of a greater force of nature, an intruder or otherworldly and unexpected visitor. Glancing to my left, a double shot of adrenaline flooded through me as a massive gray silhouette appeared from behind the tree, illuminated by the glow of our campfire. Quickly covering my headlamp I motioned to my traveling mate in a forceful whisper, "Elephant, left... shhhh... still..."
Sitting on the opposite side of the fire, Allen froze: His eyes darted to the opposite side of the baobab tree as an escape route. In almost total silence, the uninvited pachyderm lumbered by and disappeared into the brush.
We had set up camp near the enormous baobab about 10 kilometers from the Botswana border. But whose camp was it? Several hundred yards away in the calm of a moonless South African night, several other elephants joined the large bull and cavorted with reckless abandon in what remained of a receding water hole. The baobab - our baobab - with a diameter of almost 5 meters at the base, provided a semidefensible location in a world where anything with a pulse is part of the food chain.
Looking up, we noticed a large raw area and gouges in a bloated, overhanging branch. This was the real Africa - one of the wildest places on earth. The baobab, at an estimated 1,000 years old, was a youngster in an area considered to be the origin of human existence. It was also an African elephant scratching post, and we were camped directly beneath it.
Two weeks earlier, ominously black clouds rolled across the horizon as we pulled on to the bitumen (pavement) heading north. In our rearview mirror, the diminishing lights of Cape Town, South Africa, slowly faded to a horizontal ribbon of white in a sea of blackness. We had been drawn to Africa's most southern region by a long-standing fascination with its ethnic diversity, tumultuous past, and exotic wildlife. Rather than booking a prepackaged safari, where everything from meals to toilet paper is prepared or provided, we had opted for a spontaneous self-guided adventure... and adventure is what was in store.
Our African odyssey was not focused on locking differentials, articulation, or extreme four-wheeling: We could do that on our trails at home. This was about thousands of miles of desert two-tracks, indigenous cultures of which we had no prior experience, and close encounters with species foreign to our native land. Guests in a distant and potentially unruly place, we were two semiprepared guys with a couple of maps and a rented 4x4. Our quest, to search out the roads less traveled: the Namib-Naukluft desert, Skeleton Coast, and Kaokoland of western Namibia; the Kaudom and Etosha game reserves; and cross the recently rebel-controlled Caprive Strip to the flooded plains of the famous Okavango Delta. With only 30 days, we would have to keep moving to make it to our final destination at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
The first drops hit the windshield as a British voice came over the radio stating that the entire South African coast was expecting four days of rain. Our party consisted of two: myself and Allen Andrews, an old college roommate. Fifteen years from our partying coed days and four years since our last face-to-face, we rendezvoused at LAX for a twenty-three-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa. We picked up a dual-cab Toyota Hilux 4x4 from Sabonazi Self Tours Cross Country Rentals in Cape Town, double-checked our gear, shopped for food staples, and headed north.
Stuck together for 30 days, you learn some interesting things about people. In the first hour, we found that the CD player didn't work, and five minutes later I realized that Allen was now into rap tunes and cab-karaoke. The scene became power play for the pseudomicrophone, my rendition of "Hotel California," and his babbling rap'o-whatever. After seven hours of this cacophonous bliss, we had outrun the southern rains and were nearing the Namibian border. Cutting east on a dirt track in the Orange River Basin, a full moon guided us to a campsite in the bottom of a dry tributary of the Orange. This was our first night under southern constellations.
Namibia has only been around as an official country since its U.N.-mandated emancipation from South Africa in 1989. But its tumultuous past spans several centuries to a time when Dutch farmers, the Boers, moved north into the Orange River Valley from Cape Town. In 1854, the British Parliament proclaimed it as the Orange Free State. Struggles for the land and its resources would occupy Namibia's political and human agenda for the next 150 years. Around the same time, the Germans had secured a foothold on the west Namibian coast, moving inland and south toward the Orange. The resulting conflict between the Boers and the British came to a head in 1880. The shots that were fired started a 20-year conflict known as the Boer Wars between the Boers (known as Afrikaners) and the British redcoats. England ultimately prevailed and in 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging sealed the fate of the Afrikaner republic, assigning it to the Union of South Africa and British rule for another eight decades. The unfortunate by-product of this European invasion, as is the case in most of the world, has been the continual displacement of the indigenous population and an absorption of its culture into a semi-Western lifestyle.
We awoke to a golden glow radiating off the canyon walls as the sun rose over the Orange River. Discovering that the regulators on our propane bottles didn't work, we cooked our breakfast over an open fire. It would be 10 days before we would be in a place to get this corrected. Crossing the Orange River Bridge, we negotiated the first of several border checkpoints. Each of these was separated into two sections: Immigration, where you register, pay a few rand (South African currency), and get your passport stamped, and Aduana (customs), where they search your rig. We would find that Namibia and Botswana have fairly simple and regulated borders: only a 40-minute process, and we didn't have to grease anyone's palms. Zimbabwe, which is run by a dictator and has been excommunicating white farmers from their lands, would be sketchy.
North toward the quiver tree forest and the settlement of Keetmanshoop, the landscape leveled off into a broad, arid savanna. At a crossroads of two dirt tracks, entrepreneurial locals had set up a roadside stand and were hand-carving elephants, giraffes, and bowls. A 3-foot carved wooden snake ended up on our dash as our trip mascot. The quiver tree forest is an otherworldly place. Growing from barren rock, the quiver trees' twisted and spiny branches silhouetted against a brilliant African sunset is a must-see.
We caught our first glimpse of an African leopard before reaching the town of Mariental and unceremoniously slammed on the brakes. Several hundred yards away, it was immediately aware of our presence. We had time for a single photo before it quickly disappeared into the bush. From Mariental, we would be on Namibia's system of dirt roads (highways) for several thousand kilometers.
We wound our way west toward the village of Sesriem and the Sossusvlei Dunes, some of the tallest in Africa. The Namib-Naukluft Park has one of the most impressive expanses of sand dunes we have witnessed. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to drive through a majority of the park. With the Atlantic lapping at its western slope, the red sands of the Namib encompass over 30,000 square kilometers, stretching inland for 100 kilometers to the north and south for another 150 km. An o'dark-30 start put us at the edge of Dead Vlei, a salt pan, in the predawn light. Along with our new German traveling mates who had been attempting the same hike, we made the hour hike up a knife-edge ridge to the top of the Sossusvlei Dunes, 782 feet from top to bottom. From the top, we looked across the tops of equally lofty dunes for as far as the eye could see. Walking a few kilometers into this sea of dunes might put you in a place that no human has ever set foot.
One of the cool things about traveling without firm reservations is the spontaneity of the adventure. Our German friends mentioned the Welwitschia forest and Grootinkas to the north, one of the few natural springs and a place where Burchell's zebras are said to frequent. Known as the Khomas region, the terrain transitioned through a dozen identifiable geological regions and ecosystems. One hundred and eighty million years ago, when the supercontinent of Pangaea began to break up into the seven terrestrial continents, southwestern Africa was akin to the Brazilian coastline. As the tectonic plates contorted and shifted, separating Africa from its western cousin, the Khomas was uplifted and folded like a crumpled piece of raw pizza dough. Precipitous canyons, crafted by a thousand millennia of wind and water, transitioned into alluvial plains. That night, we would have one of these canyons all to ourselves, with not a soul for miles around.
Staying off the main routes, we doglegged through the gravel plains and canyons, stopping to poke around for snakes and spotting a few ostrich and camels enroute. At the bottom of a small valley lay a caked and cracked mudflat at the base of a small earthen dam. The mud beneath the surface shown black, a sign that moisture was still seeping down the draw from the Grootinkas spring. The local wildlife would soon be digging up the mudflat in search of the season's last water.
We set up camp at the edge of the draw and stayed up until the wee hours in complete silence in hopes that a few zebras would happen by. We awoke to howling screams in the darkness. Constantly on the lookout for predators, zebras are extremely skittish and aware of their surroundings. They wouldn't get near our camp. Morning light exposed hoof prints of a half-dozen different species of animals that had sneaked down to the spring under the cloak of darkness.
A couple of miles north lay the welwitschia forest. With trees standing less than 2 feet tall, without leaves, and several hundred yards distance from each other, it is not exactly what we would call a forest. Unique in form, the welwitschia is estimated to be one of the oldest living plants, surviving up to several thousand years in one of the harshest environs on the planet. Appropriately named, we were told that welwitschia means "two leaves, won't die" in the native language. We had been 10 days on the road, eating canned chicken curry and peas, PB&J, and cold cereal - it was time to head to town for supplies and a shower and laundry.
Join us next month for part two of the "African Road Trip" as 4WD&SU takes you deep into the famed Okavango Delta on a mokoro (dugout canoe) and to the wilds of the Kaudom Game Reserve.