Wheeling in the Kalahari
Solo Trekking Through The World's Wildest Desert
"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!).
Border Crossing, Last Gas, and Giraffes
The sun burned a searing orange hole in the morning sky as we passed through the border post at Ramatlabama, Botswana. Unlike many African border crossings, this one was seamless. (I'd have several difficult crossings in the months to come). Insurance, registration, passports, and carnet were in order, and the guard issued our visas, stamped everything in duplicate, lifted the gate and we motored through. We set the trip meter to zero, and barring any major issues, we'd cover approximately 2,500 kilometers by the time we reached the Kazengula ferry.
The last fuel before entering the Khutse and Central Kalahari Game reserves was in Letlhakeng. Ahead lay 750 kilometers of soft sandy two-tracks before the next available fuel. Knowing it would be dicey, we filled the H3's 23-gallon tank and our four roof-mounted jerry cans to the brim, about 43 gallons total. We'd need to drive on the conservative side, avoid costly detours, and average 11 mpg. If not, we'd need to derail plans and go towards Namibia for fuel-or get stranded in the desert and be a candidate for the Stupid Tourist Award.
At 1,600 square miles, the Khutse Game Reserve is but a speck on the map compared with the Central Kalahari (32,000 square miles). But within its boundaries (an imaginary line in the sand), the arid landscape stretches into oblivion and it feels as though you are entering the burning gates of hell. The sun was setting and we'd knocked off 150 kilometers by the time we pulled into the Molose Camp water hole. After heavily scrutinizing our reservation printout, the ranger at the gate told us, "The park is fully booked," when we had asked to camp closer to the water hole. (Water holes are where wildlife congregates during the Kalahari's scorching dry season-and lions exercise their dominance of the food chain.) What we learned is that the park service has no idea what is happening in their park. During the next two weeks, even though all camps were "fully booked," we'd see no one, and camped in any site we fancied. Our first night in the Kalahari, we sat and watch in awe as the fiery orb settled into a distant acacia forest. A giraffe stepped into the scene, along with a few jackals and a variety of birds. We stoked up a good fire, listened to the sounds of Africa, and witnessed the passing of a billion stars across the sky.
The Road From Hell and Ticked-Off Rangers
The thin red line on the map didn't seem so long, but the trek from Molose to Xade Camp, at 266 kilometers, was a brutal day. The sand of the Kalahari, which is exceptionally dry and fine-grained, made for a grueling pace. Though the H3 floated over it like a genie on a magic carpet and the Yokahama Geolandars worked flawlessly, the tach was pegged at no less than 3,000 rpm the entire day-making for a really thirsty Hummer. Fire had recently swept through large tracts of the area, and the smell of charred wood hung in the air. Smoke from a distant fire obscured the skies, and it was nearly dusk when we saw a pair of headlights poking through the haze-two couples in rental Toyotas. They'd spent the day digging and towing each other out of the sand, and said there was a big military camp ahead set up to fight the fire (they call firefighters "fire extinguishers" there). They passed and wished us luck. With 90 kilometers to go, we flipped on the headlights as darkness fell. Suddenly, the suggestion in the guidebook, "Don't travel alone," was making more sense.
Park rules dictate that you are not allowed to drive at night. But you are also not allowed to bush camp. We drove and drove and drove, eventually reaching the military camp. They rerouted us to the XaXa camp "just a few minutes away." A few minutes turned into 25 kilometers and five precious liters of fuel (10 liters round trip), something we could not afford. The only highlight was that we got to tow a ranger's Land Cruiser that was buried to its frame.
It was well into the night when we found the XaXa water hole. Though we searched the area, there were no posted signs for the camping areas (it is illegal to camp close to a water source). With 12 hours and 194 kilometers behind us, we were dog-beat tired and said the hell with it-camp here. About that time, another ranger appeared, and an angry one at that. We got our butts royally chewed for not using the official camp. "It is illegal to camp here, you could be arrested," he proclaimed, and, "I'll take you there if you cannot find it. It is well marked." There was the sign, and in perfect English, but it was lying on the ground to the side of the track, in the bushes.
Lions, Jackals and Scares . . . Oh My!
As sound of the ranger's Land Cruiser faded into the darkens, our first thoughts were, "We need to get a fire started." Allen volunteered to manage spotlight duty while I scrounged the edge of the bush for dry grass and kindling. My heart raced, my eyes were trained intently on the darkness and the words, "Stay in your tent," swept through my mind. I scraped a few handfuls of grass together and quickly scrambled back to the safety of the camp. Lions have a distinct and ominous roar, and they did come to visit this night. Through the Camelthorn acacia and scrub brush, we could hear the unmistakable call of a pride of lions and a few scavenging jackals on their nightly hunt. Even with a campfire blazing, the ARB camplight on, and strobe in hand, we didn't stray far.
The "low fuel" light on the Hummer's instrument panel came on at 10:00 a.m. the next morning as we reached Xade Camp. We'd stopped to talk to the military fire extinguishers, who informed us that the fire had grown to 12,000 square miles. It was moving fast across the Kalahari and, "It could be dangerous, be very careful." Though we had 20 gallons of fuel on our ARB roof rack, the extra 50 kilometers to Xaxa Camp and the fuel-sucking soft sand had pushed our previous range estimates over the limit. An executive decision was made to head to Ghanzi for fuel-a 250-kilometer round trip. Other than giving a lift to another park ranger who ran out of fuel, the drive was quite dull-faster, but dull. Rather than backtracking, in Ghanzi we decided to change plans and re-enter the park via the Tsau north gate.
On long journeys such as this, the first few days have a definitive plan and schedule and seem to last forever. But after a week or so, the days meld together like a dozen scenes from a bizarre dream. Gemsbok, kudu, steenbok, and honey badgers darted across the trail on the route to Tsau, and two nights and 400 kilometers later, we set foot on the edge of Deception Pan.
Letiahau Water Hole at 6:00 a.m.: I'd turned the ignition key an hour earlier so that we could reach the watering hole by sunrise. We'd seen three lions there the previous night, and hoped, as sadistic as this may sound, that we might get lucky and witness them taking down a springbok or other ruminant. They were still there, in the shade, and with the enthusiasm of three lion-skin rugs. Jackals, kudu, springbok, and gemsbok waited at a cautious distance-and watched. Temperatures soared past 100 degrees, and this was the only water for miles. But no one dared approach the water. Other than elephants, the lions are the kings of the Kalahari. We crawled through the H3's sunroof and watched the scene for four hours. The lions didn't so much as raise a paw. Though they seemed dead, lions can go from sleep to full-speed in two seconds, and no one, no matter how thirsty or how hot, was willing to take that chance. Besides, stupid tourists can't expect to flick on a switch and have the foodchain kick into gear when we arrive. So we were patient-and another two hours ticked by.
Wildfires, and T4A
Deception Pan was launched into the global limelight in the early 1980s by a pair of young zoologists, Mark and Delia Owens. Living in tents on the edge of the pan for seven years, they studied the wild dog, hyena, brown-maned lion, and published a book, Cry of the Kalahari. Allen had a copy of the book and had been reading me excerpts. Driving around the pan, we identified the Tree Island on which they lived. Allen deposited some of his grandmother's ashes, observed a few moments of silence, and we envisioned life in this truly remote and wild place.
Smoke was rolling in like a fog bank as we headed back to camp, and by dusk we could see the faint orange glow of fire to the southeast. Hot winds blew from the south, and the faint glow was growing and moving. By 11:00 p.m., we were getting concerned. We packed everything for a quick departure and set our alarm for three hours. We were awakened by the smell of smoke. Peering out the window of our roof-mounted ARB tent, the entire horizon was fiery red, flames whipping into the air like a crimson geyser and we thought, "We need to get the hell out of here."
On my first trip to Africa, my only navigation aids were an old Garmin 12 GPS and a set of maps. But with today's technology and advanced software, I had sourced a Garmin NUVI and uploaded the Tracks-4-Africa (T4A) software. T4A is by far the coolest thing since the invention of four-wheel drive. It details almost every highway, dirt road, and two-track on the African continent. It was literally a lifesaver at this point. Our planned escape route was north, around Deception and to the Mangana park gate. But we had to go east to get there, and that would put us on a collision course with the rapidly moving fire. If we couldn't get in front of the fire, we'd have to retreat to the west.
By the time we reached Deception Pan, the fire had encircled the south end and was running north up both sides. Smoke and ash swirled through the cab and across our headlights as the road zigzagged east towards the fire, then north, then east again. We were certain that the fire had already crossed the road behind us, so turning back was not an option. Option number two was to park in the middle of the pan, let the fire burn around us, and wait it out. We didn't like that one, either. With maps and a compass we would have been toast, well, maybe barbequed. But the T4A map detailed the track precisely, and the decision was made: drive fast.
The flames ran like the wind, and were within a few hundred meters of us by the time we got in front of it. By the time we got to the park gate, though it was 4:00 in the morning, our adrenalin was pumping and we were ready for a beer. A ranger and a few Brits greeted us as we pulled in, and said, "We didn't know if you mates were going to make it. All we could see were the flames and two headlights coming out of it."
The trip meter clicked 3,339 kilometers as we rolled through the Mangana gate and headed to Rakops for fuel. We'd covered 1,097 kilometers through the Kalahari's deepest sand tracks, been visited by lions and hyenas, walked in the footsteps of a childhood hero, and survived the biggest fire in recent history. We hadn't seen the elephant, rhino, or hippo yet, but in the following weeks they'd become as common as traffic in L.A.
Next month, we head for Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan, the Boteti River and Okavango Delta, and ultimately roll the H3's tires onto the decrepit old bones of the Kazengula ferry and the Zambezi River, the gateway to Zambia.