There is a lot to be said for wide-open spaces, especially when you're traveling with a good mate, a solid 4x4, and no particular schedule. You can kick that up a notch if those wide-open spaces are in the wilds of southern Africa. The previous two weeks had taken us from Cape Town, South Africa, to the red sands of Sossusvlei. We'd been camping under the stars in the African backcountry, searching out the remote two-tracks and indigenous wildlife. We were two weeks into a month-long African road trip, and we had just restocked our supplies and were heading north to find what people had said to us was the "real Africa" - a place where anything with a pulse and on foot is part of the food chain.
The ribbon of land from the Swakopmund to the Angola border, coined the Skeleton Coast, receives less than 1 inch of precipitation per year, most of it in the form of dew from coastal fog. Through the centuries, oceanic and atmospheric conditions, which form heavy fog and an onshore breeze, have sent hundreds of ships to their demise, running aground and breaking up in the pounding surf. Castaways who scrambled to the shore would think they were saved when they found the encampments of previous castaways. The sobering reality of their predicament became clear when they also found the half-buried, bone-clean skeletons of the previous occupants scattered about the dunes.
Travel up the coast is restricted to private tours, but our maps indicated a track east through the coastal range. We decided to take our chances and renegade it. As we lurched forward, a stiff gale blew in from the coast, whipping up foam from the surf and turning the horizon into a vast sandstorm. We found a faint sand track leading inland toward the Hoanib River and followed it for several miles. The wind was blowing ferociously when we reached the dry Hoanib riverbed. Alone, without a winch and the track becoming less visible, we recounted the tales of the castaways and opted for a more established route to the south.
The Hoanib and Huarusib rivers are home to the desert elephant and the rare black rhinoceros. Sorting through a dozen sand tracks from the village of Sesfontein, we found one that would lead us to the Hoanib. Blending with the vertical lines of the trees, giraffes plucked at the thorny branches of camelthorn acacias while baboons sat in the shade, picking lice and combing each other's hair. Within an hour, as shadows stretched long in the canyon, we were face to face with a family of desert elephants. Two months earlier, an Italian tourist was reportedly stomped flat as a pizza by an aggravated bull. We stopped in our tracks and waited for them to pass. Meandering down the riverbank, they took little notice of us as they lumbered by.
High-pitched shrieks of Burchell's zebras and the cackling of jackals and hyenas ricocheted off the canyon walls during the night. Jackals and hyenas, the canine rats of Africa, on their nightly hunt, zebras and everything else attempting to stay beyond fang range. At about 1 a.m. we heard a ruckus coming from beneath the truck.
I called to Allen, "Is that you?"
His response was a cautionary no.
We sheepishly poked our heads out of our tents to find four baboons trashing our camp table in search of a few pieces of bread left in a box under the truck. Welcome to the real Africa.
The Huarusib River lay 80 kilometers to the north, and we were told it might have water in it. If so, it would be the first running water we had seen since the Orange River, South Africa. As we climbed out of the Hoanib riverbed and headed north across miles of savanna grasslands, we saw small groups of oryx and springbok grazing at the base of the foothills. Dropping into the canyon of the Huarusib, we found flowing water and followed it west toward the Skeleton Coast. Reaching a "private land" sign and a tour guide who didn't seem to appreciate our presence, we turned around and headed upriver.
The water of the Huarusib was cool on our feet and the green grasses nearby grew in stark contrast to the parched surroundings. Elephants and giraffes, which grazed in the shade of riverside mopani and acacia trees, kept a guarded eye on us as we passed. Picking up a local boy named Kelly, who was on foot looking for stray cattle, we received a crash course on elephant behavior and Kelly's people, the Himba.
Breaking one of our primary travel rules for the second time in as many weeks, we motored on through the African darkness. As the track turned to graded gravel, I caught some shuteye while Allen drove. I awoke when the brakes locked up and seatbelt tightened around by torso. It seems Allen was catching some shuteye too and missed a 90-degree T in the road. We shot right though with four tires locked up. To our fortune, there was only a small berm and a few bushes in our path - a very close call.
Established in 1907, when Namibia was part of German Southwest Africa, Etosha is Namibia's premier wildlife reserve. Encompassing over 22,000 square kilometers, the park is home to over 100 mammals, 300 birds, and a dozen reptiles. Pulling through the gates (we made reservations: required) and past the 10-foot game-proof fence, we were immediately aware that we were in a game preserve. Wandering through the mopani trees and dry savanna grasses were dozens of elephants, zebras, and giraffes. Acclimated to a daily stream of tourist vehicles, they took little notice of us - so much so that elephants used the roads as access routes, creating temporary roadblocks and just hanging out.
Although the park had an abundance of wildlife, it also had too many rules. It didn't really have the feel of the wild Africa we were looking for. We stayed only two of our five-night reservation before moving on. After restocking supplies in Grootfontein and visiting the 60-ton Hoba meteorite - the heaviest on Earth - we headed north to Rundu.
About an hour after dark, we crossed the veterinary fence, a 10-foot fence across the entire country. Open grasslands and farms transitioned to dense mopani, acacia, and shrub. Before shifting out of Second gear, we were dodging goats, cattle, and their owners who crossed the road sporadically in the darkness. Distant campfires cast orange and black shadows through the bush, illuminating small mud rondavels and the silhouettes of natives. We arrived at the K'wazi Lodge and camp area late in the night. Waking up on the banks of the Kavango River, we pored over old maps with K'wazi owners Wyland and Valerie. On their advice, we decided to backtrack south to one of the last truly wild places in Namibia.
The Kaudom Wildlife Reserve had lured us to the Bushmanland region near the Botswana border. The Kaudom is merely an outline on a map: no fences, hotels, Asian-made trinkets, or tourists - and very few rules. Prior to entering Kaudom near the village of Tsumkwe, we made a side trek to two enormous baobab trees. The first, Dorslandboom, was a campsite of the 1891 Dorsland expedition to Angola. Traveling in ox-drawn carts, they hacked their way through an area seen by only a handful of Europeans. The other baobab sat a few hundred yards from a waterhole and played host for our nightly camp. A few hours after settling in, we got the crap scared out of us by an unexpected visitor.
We thought we had become pretty savvy at selecting relatively safe campsites in the bush. On this night, we set our fire between a baobab and our truck. After a coal-cooked feast of bush stew and a few coldies, a large bull elephant decided to join us. Our hearts pounded as the uninvited pachyderm passed within 30 feet of our campfire and disappeared into the brush. An hour later the bull returned, bellowing out a roar from the edge of the bush. We could hear his snorts and heavy breathing for what seemed like hours (only a few minutes). Looking up, we noticed a large raw area and gouges in an overhanging branch. The baobab was an elephant scratching post - and we were camped directly beneath it.
The following morning, while we were stopped refilling our water bottles, a family of San appeared from the bush. The San are thought to be the planet's earliest inhabitants. The women and children appeared first, followed by the spear-wielding father. We learned that they lived in a local village to the east and were apparently on a bush hunt. In bare feet they navigated the hot sands and thorny ground cover of the bush.
The soft track required four-wheel drive and was deep enough to drag the differential over most of the whoop-dee-doos. The next two days we spent tucked into observation blinds near the watering holes, watching the local wildlife jockey for position in the bush hierarchy and avoid becoming part of the food chain.
Crossing into Botswana at Mohembo was a breeze. Twenty minutes of paperwork and we were rolling down a dirt track to Shakawe and a ferryboat east. The Okavango Delta is the jewel of southern Africa. Receiving annual floodwaters from the Kavango River, the Okavango draws a bounty of wildlife to its marshes and savannas. Hippos, crocs, and water buffaloes convene along the banks of its cool waters while kudus, elephants, and monkeys forage in the bush.
We awoke to a symphony of bird songs and the chomping sounds of hippos grazing on papyrus. We had hired a mokoro (dugout canoe) guide named Double and spent six hours during the previous day working our way through a labyrinth of narrow channels, lagoons, and thick reeds, ultimately setting up our tents on a postage-stamp-size island. During the sizzling months of summer, the delta shrivels to a core area of permanent swamps. Upon receiving an annual pulse of water from the Okavango River, the delta expands to over 14,000 square kilometers and attracts all manner of fauna. For the next two days we would be in another one of Africa's few truly wild places.
Geographically bordered by four countries and strategically coveted by the governments of each, the Caprivi Strip has been torn by strife and frequented by Angolan rebels. The only traffic allowed was by escorted convoy during daylight hours. The east end of the Caprivi put us on the Zimbabwe border near Victoria Falls. Other than the grandeur of the falls themselves, this area possesses few redeeming qualities. Crime, poverty, and a corrupt government keep everyone, especially tourists, on edge.
We had been on the road for 30 days and Victoria Falls was the terminus of our adventure. We had negotiated the rains from Cape Town to Namibia and the Orange River, climbed some of the world's highest dunes in the Namib-Naukluft Desert and traversed the desolate Skeleton Coast. Our camps were ravaged by hungry baboons and visited by hippos and rogue elephants, and we had paddled into one of the planet's most pristine inland deltas. Our adventure in southern Africa was coming to an end, but it seemed as if it had just begun. As the wheels of our plane left the tarmac, we searched our maps and scanned the horizon, already planning our next African road trip.