I kept a notebook throughout this trip. When I wasn’t driving, I wrote down as many details as I could remember from each day while we were on the road through Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. I’m not really sure why I wrote everything down or why I decided to write a full account about it here. It’s long, so if you’d rather just skim through and take a look at the photographs, go ahead – the good ones are taken by Lena on her fancy camera. But maybe you’re bored in quarantine or have nothing else to do. If that’s the case, I hope you enjoy this story.
I waited like a dog on my stoup watching for them to pull up in the truck. They left a few days earlier on a towntrip to buy groceries, get their yellow fever vaccine, and pick up the rental. In the last couple of days I had packed, repacked, and looked carefully over our plan. Red Hot Chili Peppers blasting from my room, maps on top of maps covered my bed and notebooks with ideas lay strewn about. This would be a big trip and since it was my brainchild to create it into the monster it turned out to be, I felt like I needed to prepare as much as possible to pull it off for all of us.
I knew I didn’t need much and packed light. A few of the superfluous items I packed were my climbing harness and shoes (because you never know), a short story book that I had already read a few times, 4 rolls of film (which felt extra but were all used), and chunks of drawing paper with a handful of my colored pencils. There was still plenty of space in my yellow North Face duffel bag by the time I was done. Once my small yellow Patagonia day pack was filled loosely with my 35 mm camera, film, water bottle, notebooks, headlamp, and sunscreen, I stacked the bags and tossed my stuff sack with my sleeping bag inside on the top. A pile of yellow bags – I’ve realized I tend to have color themes for my gear. Yellow is travel packs, orange is camp (sleeping bag and tent), purple is climbing (harness and helmet), and blue is clothes (most of them). Bags were packed and I began getting the premature heart flutters as if I were about to step onto a roller coaster. It was 9 months now at the project with one 2 week trip at 6 months. I was chomping at the bit for some freedom. I was thirsty for an adventure – one I knew would be challenging and incredibly fulfilling. I paced watching the horizon for the plume of dust that would be kicked up behind the truck when it came down the road.
When I felt that I would literally burst from impatience, the tank rolled up. It was huge – an extended double cab Toyota Land Cruiser with two rooftop tents. Watching it crawl up to the farmhouse I wondered how I would manage to drive such a massive vehicle when it would be my first real drive in a manual car. I’d been taught a couple of times since I was 16, but never had to do it for an extended drive, especially one that I would be splitting the 80 plus hours of driving for. But as it goes, I decided it would be best to learn under pressure anyway. If I needed to figure it out, I would.
That night we practiced setting up the tents. At first we struggled – so many poles and clips and the ladder was in two pieces and it seemed like the tent would knock you off the roof once it was popped open. We loaded our bags, checked the tires and fluids in the truck, crawled underneath it to take a look (I’m not sure what we were looking for or at), then retired to the farmhouse. We drank beers and said goodbye. I would be the only one leaving on this trip that would also be returning back to the project – the others would go home to France and the UK. Also, some people would be leaving the project before I returned. Cakes were eaten and passionfruit vodka was passed around. After most retired to bed, Joachim and I had a few last minute activities to do before leaving. We wanted to leave a scavenger hunt for our friend and needed to place a few more clues. We had already glued a film canister with a written clue capsuled inside it to the side of the fire tower; we did that by climbing up fire tower, then I crawled off the platform and hung upside down like a bat with a tube of epoxy while Joachim held on to my legs – it eventually stuck. Another clue needed to be placed at the top of the flagpole. We printed off two stickers from the label maker in the lab. One said “behind the lab clock” and the other said “enjoy the view.” During a previous party, this friend had climbed nearly to the top of the flagpole. Now, with the “enjoy the view” sticker clenched between my teeth, I set off to beat his record and place the sticker just above his mark. When I reached the top, flagpole trembling beneath me, I realized it was tricky to remove the backing of the sticker with one hand gripped to the pole and the other fighting to find the corner to peel it between my teeth. It was dark so I couldn’t see the ground but knew it was a long way down. Eventually the label peeled, I slapped it on the pole, and slid down fireman style. Joachim was next and he placed the clue for the next step of the hunt about half way up. We mapped out the rest of the clues and placed the grand prize, a bag of skittles and bag of coffee, in the attic of the farmhouse – this required stemming a doorway as there is no ladder to the attic. This came easier to me than the pole and I padded my way up the wall and flung the treats up into the black void into the attic. By now it was 1 AM, we decided I could finish setting it up once I returned. Sleep never came that night, I was too excited.
Technically I still needed to be onsite Friday. I cleaned the lab and sent some emails to my supervisors. I had been keeping the empty 25 L jojos from the distilled water I use in the lab, I thought they may become useful someday. I filled two jojos with water since most of the locations we would be visiting in Botswana and Namibia did not have potable water. I labeled a third as fuel for the longer driving days in the parks where we planned to bring extra diesel. Joachim made apple cake, calzones, and millionaire shortbread (mostly butter and sugar). We had to drive all the way to Maun that night, which we estimated would take about 15 hours. The fewer the stops, the better, so making food ahead of time was clutch. By 1:30 PM I finished up in the lab and we packed the last items in the car. We said our last goodbyes down the line up, some more tearful than others, and did the two laps around the garage with the car – the first lap everyone waved, the second they mooned the car. Joachim queued Africa by Toto on the stereo as we left the reserve.
First, we drove to the nearest town to us, Van Zylsrus, for fuel and some snacks that would preserve longer than the already leaking calzones. We continued East and soon we were on roads that I had never been on before heading North to Botswana. After 3 hours of bumpy gravel roads and pump up music we arrived at McCarthy’s Rest, the border crossing. We went through departures of South Africa first, then drove maybe a kilometer, and pulled into the arrival station for Botswana. Filling out the forms took about 20 minutes but there was no queue to wait in for the small 2 man operated station. They took copies of our passports and made sure we weren’t transporting any meat, Botswana heavily monitored for foot and mouth disease. As soon as we left the border, the first thing we noticed were the donkeys on the road. This would prove to be one of our biggest obstacles in traveling the country.
We drove from Tsabong to Sekoma into the night. Donkeys were everywhere. As soon as the road straightened out and we threw on the highbeams and tried to pick up speed, another fucking donkey would show up in the middle of the road. Later we read that approximately 3 million donkeys free range throughout Botswana. As we pulled into Sekoma for gas, we passed the turn off for the station. Matild was on her first shift and on her three or rather nine point turn to turn around, we saw headlights of a tractor trailer breach the hill and head towards us. The lights caused some stress and the truck was stalled. I was passenger in the car so my side of the truck was closest to the incoming semi. As the lights got closer and brighter, I watched them as the other two in the back shouted words of panicked encouragement to get the vehicle moving again. The distance was deceptive and the truck slowed down by the time the gears were engaged and our truck lurched forward. We switched drivers at the station and realized we were starting to push it planning to drive throughout the night like this. Lena took over the wheel and I dozed off in the back seat. I slept for about 4 hours before the next switch around 1 AM. I moved to the front for the drive to Ghanzi, and once there we refueled again (fuel efficiency was a harrowing 6 kilometers to the liter). At around 3 AM it was my shift to drive. I’ve always enjoyed driving the graveyard shift. It’s the time of night when you know you’re one of the few people awake and moving – almost like you’re trying to be stealthy and move in secret throughout the night. I stalled once, then gradually accelerated the truck into the night. My lessons around the reserve had paid off for getting the feel of the clutch. The weight of all of us, our gear, and the tents made a slow start to get up to speed. I watched my friends fade to sleep while the engine purred into the darkness. Soon though I found I was not the only living thing awake after all – donkeys, cows, and horses milled around the road. The 120 kph signs were no longer relevant as I shifted down and back up through the gears avoiding the living obstacles.
The lights on the cruiser were perhaps higher than most cars as I got flashed by oncoming truckers. I’d flash the high beams back in hopes to assure them I wasn’t driving like an ass, but instead would get blinded by their high beams in retaliation to what they thought I was doing. By the time the sun came up I was stressed from the drive and my eyeballs were burning. Joachim took over and just as I was falling asleep in Lena’s lap, I felt the truck take a hard swerve as he avoided a donkey at 120 kph. I decided sleep could wait.
We pulled into Maun after 15.5 hours of driving. We finished the calzones and apple cake while rubbing our eyes awake after the long night of sleep deprivation. It was 7 AM, most of Maun was shut down still. We made our way to Old Bridge Backpackers just outside of town. I hadn’t reserved a campsite but we found that the town and hostel were pretty empty. It was a really nice place – a large open campsite with big trees for shade, a bar/restaurant, showers, communal kitchen, and even a crocodile we spotted in the riverbed below. The riverbed was mostly dry with some small pools still standing.
We reserved the site, but before setting up the tents decided to return to Maun to look for a market for some fresh food and find the community center to book a mokoro boat trip into the delta. We stopped at Shoprite and bought some fresh fruit (my most frequent request throughout the trip), meat to braii, a pot since somehow we forgot one, toilet paper, and some fresh vegetables. After no luck in finding the community center, we returned to the backpackers, set up the tents, and got some much needed sleep for another 4 hours.
With new found energy, we showered and made our way to the bar for wifi. I researched our options for the mokoro trip, Joachim created a “Boho-chill extended” playlist on Spotify, Matild wrote in her journal, and Lena worked on her Masters applications to universities in France and Switzerland. The bar had a good vibe as we drank the Botswana domestic beer. I found an outfitters that worked with the backpackers and could pick us up the next morning, drive us up into the delta where we would be taken on a pole boat to spend a night camping out, then boat back, and be dropped back off in Maun. It felt touristy but there wasn’t another option to explore the delta and this way the local communities could hopefully benefit from our visit as local villagers are the guides for the mokoro trips.
My mind wandered after booking the trip and I flipped to the back of my notebook and drew up a calendar of June and July. I played with dates to see if I could fit in everything I hoped to do before returning to the states in August. I jotted down some flight dates and prices, a to do list for the end of March, and some deadlines to have things sorted out by. That night we used the communal kitchen to cook up boerewors (sausage) with couscous, pesto sauce, peas, and kidney beans. We ate around the fold out table that came with the truck. Sleep beckoned us again; we climbed up into the tents around 9 PM.
We woke up groggy around half past 6 to pack up the tents and prepare for the mokoro trip. By quarter to 8 we were waiting by the reception desk to be picked up by our guide for the next two days. The large caravan came bumping across the potholes pulling up to the reception area. We tossed our bags in and the two tents we rented (since ours for the trip were fastened to the top of the truck). From the backpackers, it would be 30 minutes of driving on tar out of Maun then 1.5 hours of rough dirt road to the delta. The caravan vehicle was also a Land Cruiser with seats in the bed of it and a roof overtop. As we left the tar, we strapped in and were quickly tightening our seatbelts as the truck was tossed around the rutted road. We saw warthogs, wildebeest, and springbok as we made our way deeper into the mouth of the delta. I was surprised at how dry the mouth of the delta was and locals said it keeps receding further back each year. A few years ago you could take a mokoro canoe right out of the backpackers lodge, and now we had to drive nearly two hours to reach the water.
We met our guide, Mox, at a lean-to among a slew of canoes docked at an inlet. Mox was in his mid twenties from one of the small villages we passed through on the drive. We would be taking two mokoros with 2 people per boat. Mox would be guiding one and an older woman who spoke the local language would be guiding the other. We loaded our packs and tents in the canoes – Lena and Matild in one with Mox, and Joachim and I in the other with the older woman. She never shared her name. She seemed to enjoy being out in the delta but from what I could sense wanted to keep to herself. She hummed as she pushed the mokoro forward with the pole and would walk in the back on the line with her walking stick when we went for nature walks. She wore a bright patterned skirt and had a kind face gently aged by the environment.
We slid among the reeds through a maze of small channels of brackish water. I was impressed that our guides knew these tiny waterways like the back of their hand – I instantly lost all sense of direction. After about an hour on the water, we entered a larger channel. I had heard voices as we left the densely vegetated channel and looked up to see a dozen villagers in the water. They had knives and sickles and were cutting away the encroaching plants to manage the channels. Earlier we had passed a section of burned grass and reeds. I asked Mox about it and he said if a hippo or elephant is blocking the channel, the only way to scare them away is by making a fire. Seeing villagers wading and swimming, working on the channels, made me think about how differently the environment is experienced between villagers and tourists.
We arrived at our island campsite by midday. The mokoros were pushed up onto the grass and we carried our supplies about 200 meters into a stand of large trees. The two tents that were rented to us were each supposed to be just enough space for two people. Joachim, Lena, and Matild erected one while Mox and I set up the other – they were giant. Definitely enough space to fit four people; we were annoyed we had rented two when one would have been enough. Lena suggested we all sleep in one together as a slumber party. Mox dug a “bushy bushy” – a hole to use as a toilet about 20m away from the tents. We were explained the rules of the camp: stay within 100m of the campsite, no bushy bushy at night, if you hear something don’t investigate and stay inside your tent, and hyenas eat left overs so clean up after dinner.
We took a siesta in one of the big tents through the heat of the day – Mox and the older woman did the same in the shade of one of the large trees. I woke up feeling like I was suffocating from the stale, hot breath that seemed to be trapped in the tent. I stumbled over everyone and out the door in hopes for fresh air but was quickly chased back in from the heat. Black flies followed me in and after a few minutes of fighting them off, I succumbed and tried to return to my nap.
The nature walk around the island began at 5 PM. We would be walking in single file following Mox around the island looking for wildlife and learning about the landscape. First, we passed a pile of bones from a giraffe that had been predated upon 3 years ago according to Mox. The skull was massive – I had not yet seen a living giraffe at this point. We saw lion and hyena tracks along the game paths we were following. A loud annoying bird started making a fuss in a tree nearby – bush chicken, Mox identified. As we breached a small hill we gasped as we saw a herd of 8 giraffes munching on acacia trees. Tall, elegant, and curious, they carefully watched us approach. They were bigger than I had imagined – sure I’ve seen giraffe in a zoo but in their natural environment with the landscape to help scale their size, it felt like a first. Their necks and legs were longer, pattern more vibrant, and gate more graceful than I expected. Birds clung to their bendy necks feasting on parasites. Their eyes were huge and gentle and tongues playful. They moved in tight herds with their young protected in the middle of the group. They ambled away after losing interest in us and we continued our walk.
We had passed many termite mounds and finally stopped at one that had grown to about 2 meters. Mox explained that after a heavy rain, adult termites will fly out of the mound to disperse. They fly towards the light of the moon until they become fatigued, then fall to the Earth. They leave a pheromone scent in the air as they land to hopefully attract female termites. Once grounded, they shed their wings and wait for a mate. Mox explained that the villagers catch the termites by shining a light a distance away from the mound to mimic the moon. When the termites land, they collect them and grind them into a paste to add to their food.
I had brought my mom’s old 35 mm camera to South Africa not knowing how much I would use it. I made it a goal on this trip to shoot more film. I took a few photography classes in high school – one as a general art class and the other as an independent study. I preferred shooting in black and white, likely because my subject was always my black and white horse. It had been years since I used the camera but I hoped I would remember some tricks for photographing animals on the move. I even brought along another lense to switch between and experiment with what I can do with the old camera.
Sun was setting as we rounded around a swamp. We heard the low gurgling before we saw the large male hippo’s eyes and snout just above the surface of the water. His warning calls grew more frequent and louder as we watched from the shore. I’m not sure how fast hippos can move and we were not very far away from the edge of the water, but Mox seemed calm and encouraged us to spend time watching the hippo. It was a male because it was alone, it would be alone until a female(s) hippo dispersed from her group to join him or if he overtook another pod. The gurgling began to be followed by more movement and soon after the hippo submerged then threw his head out of the water exposing his large lower teeth. The power that this animal had was amazing and intimidating. I was happy we had not come across one while we were in the boats. We left the hippo behind and walked into the dusk. We heard a lion in the distance, a long, low growl – likely not towards us. Baboons bounded within and among the trees. A herd of kudu spooked from us and fled towards safety. The air smelled like peat moss and reminded me of the gardening job I had as a teen to support my horses. The entire delta is formed from peat allowing the land to hold water. Even if it stopped raining, the Okavango River could still flow for awhile from the stored water seeping out. Sage also perfumed the air and it hung heavily below my nose. The sunset was stunning, one I’ll never forget.
We brought left over couscous from the dinner before to eat cold that night. We had also brought some tuna to add but forgot a can opener thus resorting to stabbing it with my knife. Joachim brought some of the millionaire shortbread he made – Mox was a bit disgusted at how sweet it was. Despite bringing what we thought was plenty of food, feeding four is different than feeding just yourself, and the group was left feeling hungry that night. We were also a bit low on water from underestimating the heat of the afternoon, but we figured we would be fine until the next day. We sat on buffalo skulls and stumps around the fire. I watched our guides cook their food and move quietly around the camp. I thought of them as the shepherds or protectors of the Okavango, a place that clearly held so much importance and meaning to their lives.
After the stifling nap I opted to sleep in the other tent and not participate in the slumber party. The tent stood about 10’ x 10’ x 8’. I sprawled out across the floor like a star fish and became lost in my thoughts. I wondered whether the film would turn out well and if the photographs looked cool, would someday they end up on a wall of somewhere I’d call home? Or will I always be moving? Maybe they would be gifts for other people with houses to call homes. Or maybe they would be stuck to a wall in my van.
Sometime during the night, I awoke to the sound of heavy footprints outside the tent and a loud grumbling. Suddenly I wondered if I was wise to sleep alone. But the 1mm of canvas from the tent somehow felt like protection from whatever was wandering around. It moved off and I drifted back to sleep dreaming about maps and photographs hanging on walls. I heard howling in the distance and awoke, or maybe that was part of my dreams as well.
I jolted awake to another sound of something moving outside the tent. When I looked out the screen, I saw Mox stoking the fire. It was just before sunrise, I crawled out of my tent to join him. He mentioned the hippo that came through camp the night before I could ask. Hyenas were also nearby in the early hours of the morning. I asked him how many nights he spends out in the delta at a time. He replied anywhere from 1 – 7 nights depending on the trip. Slowly others joined around the fire and we prepared for another nature walk, one that would take most of the day before we returned in the boats.
We opted for the long route to walk and headed out of the camp in single file. Almost immediately we passed another group of giraffes foraging. Again, they became aware of us instantly and the adults moved closer to the juveniles. We moved on to another network of marshes and saw a large pod of hippos – one male with about 15 females. They were piled on top of each other in the water staying cool from the rising heat. I could only see (at most) half of their bodies exposed from the water but was surprised at how massive they were and how deep the marsh must be to contain them. We walked along game trails with fresh hyena prints from the night before and saw kudu, warthog, and impala among the grasslands. Someone had guessed the prints were cat tracks but Mox pointed out the claw marks imprinted around the pawprint. If there are claws out its either canine or cheetah and there are only 2 back lobes of the print. No claws and three lobes behind the pad are lion or leopard.
When we were nearing the camp, I noticed a column of smoke rising up from the delta. I asked Mox and he suggested it may have been an encounter with a hippo, elephant, or crocodile that someone tried to scare away. In between wildlife sightings my brain entertained itself while I soaked in the landscape. Perhaps as a way to engage itself while I scanned the horizon between land and sky for animals. I thought about Chile and whether I had a shot at getting the scholarship. I thought about how much I wanted to continue this lifestyle or traveling, working, and exploring in new places. I thought about how much effort I put into living this way and how maybe this effort could pay off and maybe I would have a chance to work in Chile.
We returned to camp, packed up the tents, and loaded the boats. Joachim and I took a sip of water from the delta, it tasted surprisingly like nothing despite its brackish color. The journey back seemed to pass quickly and soon we were hauling the boats onto the shore beside the lean-to. Lena examined a trail of large bug bites up her leg in the shade and we finished the rest of our water. The truck to bring us back pulled up, we climbed in, and sped off back to Maun. Our day would just be beginning. That afternoon we planned to drive out of Maun and into the next park, Nxai Pan.
We rallied by eating some chocolate. Joachim and I headed into town to get fuel and some bananas, apples, and a can opener, and buy permits for park entry. Lena and Matild hung back and took advantage of the free wifi. All of the campsites in the major parks we reserved and paid for ahead of time, but the park entrance fees needed to be sorted locally. The woman at the municipality building looked skeptical when we told her our plan was to drive and camp at Kubu Island that night. Actually, the original plan was to sleep in Baine’s Baobab that night and Kubu Island the night after as it was farther from Maun, but somewhere along the planning process the dates got switched. She warned us against speeding and reminded us how far away it was. We thanked her and jogged back to the truck, permits in hand. We returned to the backpackers, picked up the rest of the troop, and headed East.
I drove the highway between Maun and Nxai Pan. We switched when we neared the crossroads for Kubu Island. This was where we saw our first elephant – walking along the side of the highway it spun around and shook it’s massive head as we drove by, causing us to squeal with excitement. Dusk was coming as we tried to find the dirt road to Kubu Island. We knew it came out a village but our GPS didn’t include the dirt roads and we lacked cell reception. I converted the GPS coordinates from decimal to degrees, minutes, seconds and tried that in the GPS – no luck. We saw a bar in the village and with some hope someone may be able to help, Joachim and I hopped out to ask. A group of young women joined our conversation with a man outside of the bar. Friendly at first, they crowded around me smiling. But then they started tugging at my clothes and hair, asking for the clothes I had on and money. Uncomfortable and a bit ashamed, I detoured back to the car while Joachim continued to talk to the man. We were directed to a faint dirt road heading South.
The faint road wove through the village and spat us out onto a large expanse of grasslands. “Kansas” – Joachim said with his head out the window. Though he’d never been there, I couldn’t help but agree with him, it did look like Kansas. Joachim prepared a cheese, cracker, and grape dinner on the frisbee he brought. Lena and Matild listened to French music in the front. The stars started to shine above and the truck sped across leaving a trail of dust behind. Soon though the road was choked in with vegetation. It degraded and Lena took over to drive the rough 4×4 road since she had the most experience. We got lost many times. Four hours later, getting later into night, still no Kubu Island. We had a deadline to reach the gate by 10 PM, another agriculture checkpoint we’d have to cross to enter the park. Though the roads were not loaded on my phone I could see our location and the painstakingly slow progress that we were making, crawling up and over the salt islands above the pan. I doubted we’d make it by 10 PM, and we didn’t. We rocked up around 11 PM, everyone was edgy, I felt responsible. I usually enjoy leading trips but at this point I felt like despite the encouragement for others to read and prepare for the trip, no one else had. And any mistake or mishap fell on my shoulders – like this one. We set up the tents quietly outside of the gate.
We slept until morning but the gate still wasn’t manned by 7 AM. I initiated a conversation that morning explaining my feelings and expectations for the trip. I encouraged that we work together as a team because otherwise it would be difficult to pull this off, so communication was crucial. We gave up on Kubu Island and started driving the long rough road back. Along the way, we stopped on the side of the rough rough and hiked down to one of the large salt pans. It was beautiful in its own desolate sort of way. Joachim pranced and explored in a long robe he had bought from Morocco, the whole scene was bizarre. He continued to wander out and we joked we’d leave him behind and claimed he had gotten lost in the pan. After licking the ground, he seemed satisfied that it tasked like salt, and rejoined the caravan. I drove the first half, Lena the second half, then Matild drove the next hour on paved road East to Nata to refuel. Here we had a decision to retrace our steps back West and into Nxai Pan for our reservation in Baines Baobab camp, or to skip it and continue North to Kasane to arrive a day early for Victoria Falls. The site was paid for and the salt pan was known for an amazing landscape and plethora of wildlife, so we decided to go back.
We realized once we pulled into the park that we had no way of reducing the tire pressure to drive on the deep sandy roads. This added to the tension from the morning – I felt like I should have planned for this but at the same time was frustrated I felt alone in taking responsibility. We couldn’t do anything about the tires so we had to optimize how to drive successfully in the sand – which meant flooring it. Somehow the truck waded through the 17 kilometers of loose, deep sand, to the turnoff of our camp. I switched to drive here and we moved slowly through the reserve. Elephants dotted the horizon, they were everywhere. Zebras as well. Every turn we took, we spotted more and the cotton ball clouds in the sky and long, green grass waving in the wind made the scene seem like an illustration, like something out of a cartoon. The elephants bathed in the water pools, stuck up their trunks as if to wave hi, and made congo lines along the well beaten paths they made in their wanderings. The zebra looked like they were laughing when they weren’t eating and juxtaposed beautifully against the brightly colored landscape behind them. We saw giraffe and wildebeest as well as we made our way around the savannah, then down into the pan to get to our baobab where we would camp that night.
It was early afternoon when we arrived. Hungry, we cooked couscous and added hot curry vegetable mix, red pepper pesto, kidney beans, and hot sauce. We reorganized the car and I took an amazing bucket shower in the sun on the outside of camp. Despite the restriction to not drive past 7 PM, we thought we may have time to drive up to the game drive around a water hole before nightfall. With some more sketchy 4×4 sandy driving, we made it to the water hole. A massive elephant carcass sat in the center of it, skin still clung to some of the bones but the skull and tusks bleached white from the sun. Many zebras surrounded the watering hole and foals bounded about. The foals possessed character and every photo we took seemed to tell another story about the baby animal. We did a lap around the waterhole before making our way to return to camp, sooner than we would have liked.
As we set up camp that night, I set up my GoPro to capture the process it took each and every night. Two people on tent duty (usually Joachim and I), two people cooking (Lena and Matild). We were parked under a giant, beautiful baobab tree nearly 8 feet in diameter. For dinner we changed it up and ate pasta with pesto, some cheese, and tinned beef mince. It reminded me of spam and the one Thanksgiving I spent ice climbing in Ouray, Colorado where I nearly made my mother cry when I told her that’s what I ate on the holiday. We built a fire that eventually took but, in the meantime, heard crashing around the campsite, likely an elephant as we saw them at the other 2 camps earlier that day. Finally, the fire took, and we felt hopeful the animals would keep a healthy distance away. After dinner, I took some time to write in my notebook, Joachim tried to fix his camera shutter that was set off every time he advanced his film, and the French girls went to bed. I still felt the division in the group but accepted that perhaps that’s how it would be. We could enjoy the places and sights we were seeing even if it was different than I expected together.
That night I dreamt I was back in the real world, at a bar, on a date. I was barefoot and dirty with my hair tangled up. The guy didn’t seem impressed.
I loaded a new roll of black and white film in my camera, happy to have already exposed one roll. I had woken up around 3 Am to the sounds of another large animal roaming about. I had another dream but of the world I was in now. In my dream a lion was the source of the noise and it leapt onto one of our tents. When 6 AM came around, I climbed down from the tent and made some instant coffee. We agreed we wouldn’t get our day started until around 7 AM but I wake up naturally around 6 and would make this a routine throughout the rest of the trip. I enjoyed a bit of alone time during the twilight hour. I mixed some slightly sour yogurt with granola, a banana, and some peanut butter and woke up slowly sitting on the tailgate watching the sky change color.
Soon the crew was mobile and we were packed up and headed off. I drove across the salt pan, it appeared endless. Hartebeest galloped by – they look like demonic horses but are one of my favorite antelope. We arrived back at the game drive area around 9:30 AM and planned to do a large loop. We stopped often to watch and photograph zebra, warthog, gemsbok, vultures, and kori bustard. It sort of felt like Jurassic Park as we rolled through the reserve eyes scanning for movement. We took a wrong turn and ended up on a different loop but this loop brought us to an incredible scene of a giraffe fight. The giraffe would whip their necks in an arch and land their horns into the rump or chest of their opponent. The force would stun the other, cause it to stumble, before it would retaliate back with another blow. It appeared to be two males and other giraffes milled around nearby apparently unphased by the violence.
We planned to be back at the gate to the park by 11 AM to drive to Kasane, about 5 hours away. Despite getting lost we kept time and were rolling up to the gate to begin the highway drive to Nata. We stopped to check the tires and fluids in the car. Upon rounding the back, we noticed a drip from the exhaust pipe. It felt like oil and we shared a worried look. Had we broken the car already? I opened the tailgate for some water and an opened, half empty vegetable oil jug rolled out. The leak was in fact oil but not from the car. The laughter that ensued was a relief to us and with it the tension seemed to lift. We loaded the car with snacks – chocolate for the French, and apples, cheese and both sweet and savory crackers.
Driving down the highways, I couldn’t help but notice nearly every other car we passed was a Toyota Cruiser. I had read not to rent a Ford since there aren’t any Ford parts in Botswana if you broke down, but I didn’t think Toyota would be by far the most prevalent. The highway was lined with termite mounds and we had another bizarre wildlife crossing of a giraffe. We came to another checkpoint for movement of goods. Matild was driving and read the sign banning most food. She rolled down her window as the officer approached and said nervously, “We have yogurt and apples and some milk I think.” With a straight face the officer replied, “Are you offering me food?” Then waved us on ahead. We decided that in the future Matild would not be the one to do the talking at borders or checkpoints.
Northern Botswana was filled with farms and fields. I cracked the back window open as I realized we were all beginning to smell ripe despite 2/4 of us using the bucket showers the day before. Joachim agreed the shower felt great but the gap between the wooden fence and ground around the bucket sprinkler worried him thinking that something could reach under and grab his foot. We had a conversation in the back seat that ranged from how taxes work in the UK verses the USA, farming in Botswana, and what we wanted to be when we grew up. At first I shrugged it off saying I didn’t know and that I was still figuring it out. Then he asked what I wanted to be as a kid. I explained the story about the first cinema movie I went to see, The Lion King. Apparently I stood during the entire film, hands clenched on the seat ahead of me, and mouth gaped open watching the animals. I reflected on my childhood and said that if I could have chosen to be anything I’m sure I would’ve said I wanted to be an adventurer or an explorer. He then offered that perhaps that’s what I should be when I grow up then – an adventure scientist that explores new places.
The left side of my body burned in the sun as the sun set west. I watched as the animals changed from cows and livestock back to elephants and giraffe when we left the farmlands. I tend to get more emotional on roadtrips and when I’m traveling for a long period of time, almost as if my brain also takes a vacation from being structured and it delves into thoughts and ideas that it had been burying. Some of the thoughts made me smile, some made me tear up. I plugged in my earphones and got lost in my own world for the rest of the drive. We were basically driving a giant Z through Botswana, I was trying to soak in everything like a sponge.
We arrived in Kasane around 4:30 PM, we made good time. Our destination was the Thebe River Camp, a campsite along the Chobe River. Straight out of the car we booked it to the showers before even setting up camp. It seemed everyone was made aware of the smell in the car, not just me. Clean and fresh, we chose to treat ourselves to dinner at the restaurant in camp. It was a similar bar/restaurant as the backpackers in Maun, and there was wifi. Determined to not make the same mistake again, I planned to spend a lot of time that night researching drive times and downloading offline maps of the areas we would be visiting. I hung back for a bit though before heading down to the restaurant with the others. I took time to reorganize and clean the car and set up camp. For someone that enjoys alone time, I had been lacking it during the trip and was starting to feel worn down. Spending time poking around the truck reminded me of being in my van, I missed it. But the feeling felt nostalgic and homey. Eventually I finished, threw on a black sundress and went down to meet up with my friends.
I ordered a large “wonderwoman” pizza with spicy peppers, Joachim ordered a local dish of ox tail stew with a side of pap, Lena also ordered a pizza, and Matild a chicken burger. I sat barefoot, cross legged in my dress on top of the tall bar stool. It felt similar to my dream the night before. Clearly I was not ready to be thrown back in civilization after spending 10 months living in the desert – and this could hardly count as civilization, it was a bar at a campground and somehow I still felt the least classy. I sent some messages back home then used the wifi to plan for Victoria Falls the next day. But then instead of taking it on alone, offered to the others to choose what they wanted to do and share suggestions for how we would get there. We’d have to cross into Zimbabwe so ideally, we wouldn’t drive the truck over. We decided to try to catch a taxi the next morning outside of the camp to the border, then walk across, and find another taxi on the other side to drive the remaining 70 kilometers to the park. It was a bit looser of a plan than ideal but I decided we’d make it work and figure it out the next day. Tired from the day, we retired to our tents by 9:30 PM.
I found myself with a coffee in hand, again watching the sunrise from the tailgate of the truck. The night before had been humid and warm making it difficult to sleep. But the earliest part of the mornings are always the coolest and I enjoyed my perch watching the Chobe River, hoping to see a crocodile. My breakfast consisted of the same as the day before, some routine in the midst of the constant movement. I quietly packed my bag for Victoria Falls trying not to wake the others – 35 mm camera, rain jacket, water, apple, wallet, passport, phone, and sunscreen.
We waited for a taxi in front of the campground and within less than a minute one pulled up next to us. 50 Pula per person to get to the Kazungula Border of Zimbabwe, we climbed in. We were dropped off at the end of a dirt road with a few buildings rising out of the dust. Just like traveling between South Africa and Botswana, first we went through departures of Botswana and a few hundred meters away, into arrivals for Zimbabwe. It felt like a carnival stand – a box car propped up on a cinder block foundation with windows for the patrol to stamp people across. It was a friendly crossing, 350 Pula per person and a full-page visitor visa stamp in our passports. On cue, there was a taxi driver with a sideways fedora waiting at the border. I wondered if he had news that we were coming since the border was completely dead as the pandemic escalated. We bargained for a deal – to Vic Falls and back to the border before closing. Seventy-two kilometers for 100 Pula split between the four of us, assurance we would make it back before 6PM, sold! We followed him to his bright blue bubble car and I offered to take the front seat to be the recipient of his charismatic personality. In the next 45 minutes, I learned a ton from chatting with him.
He said that the water from the falls that rains down on visitors is good luck, it washes away all of the bad luck. He lived near Victoria Falls for 20 years, spoke French as well as English, had a couple of kids, and was building a new home just outside of town. He said the currency crashed a few years ago and now the currency in Victoria Falls was US dollars. I said I noticed a long line of tractor trailer trucks at the border and he said they’re all full of goods coming across from South Africa and Botswana. He said in recent history Zimbabwe pushed out the Europeans from the country and divided up the land among native residents leaving them to farm small plots. But the coming years were trying for farmers (drought) and they lacked the experience that the Europeans had for cultivating. The driver said he wished Zim had been more like South Africa and facilitate sharing knowledge and experience between groups of people. From my experiences and observations around South Africa though, it didn’t seem to have worked as well as this man had imagined it to. Segregation and poverty remain a critical issue, despite the productivity of South Africa from this so called exchange of knowledge. I wasn’t sold on it. The conversation moved on to mining in the country: cobalt, copper, and gold. There was gold in the rivers, cobalt and copper in the mountains. The minerals were exported to the Congo and imported as jewelry back into Zimbabwe. We spoke of the wildlife in Zimbabwe – lions, elephants, baboons – and the need for conservation within the country. He mentioned the Painted Dog Research Project and told me I should come work there when I’m done in the Kalahari. He emphasized the need for people with experience in the field to help Zim with conservation and preservation of land. Poachers, and rangers to find the poachers, were scattered across the country making some places dangerous to be in – especially where there’s a high density of wildlife like around rivers and mountains.
One of the most interesting conversations from this drive involved instructions for fishing in the Zimbabwe River. Tiger fish are the best fish to catch, followed by catfish. Catfish, he told me with a thick round finger pointing my way, were as big as me. To catch one, you needed a large butcher hook – big enough for half a dog. Literally, bait for this catfish was a half of a dog. Ideally, the fish would swallow the bait and the hook would be lodged in the stomach. It would be too large to pull out of the water right away, so leave it for a few days until it tires. In a couple of days, return with a knife, spear it and haul it out of the river with a net. If you happen to catch a crocodile, this is bad, you must kill it if it swallows the hook. But you must not eat it because it’s bad. At this point I asked if it was bad, like bad meat. He replied it was bad spirits to eat a croc because the croc hunt the fisherman. He said recently a 9 year old boy was taken from the river by a crocodile, never to be seen again. Every year, people die from crocodile attacks along the river.
It was around noon when he dropped us off at the park. “Two hours?” he suggested to be back to pick us up. We laughed at that and requested the full day to roam around. He agreed to be back by 5 PM to bring us back to the border before it closed at 6 PM, but it actually closes at 7 PM he claimed. The park was expensive, $30 per person, but it was something we would only see once and wanted the full experience. Since we were on the Zimbabwe side, we would be looking across the gorge at the waterfall instead of being on top of it looking down. The depth at the top of the falls we read was a few meters deep, and at the bottom it ranged between 30 and 50 meters! We heard it long before we saw it, like thunder. The trail broke out of the trees and through the mist we saw white water charge downwards. We walked along the rim of the canyon mesmerized by the falls, stopping at each viewpoint to look across, then down, then at each other with big smiles. It was surreal, too much, too beautiful. It felt like a lost world, enveloped in mist and greener than any place I had ever seen. Moss clung to everything and reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. It had an edge of the world feel and I imagined what it would be like if it were less accessible – to do a backpacking trip along the rim of the canyon would be magnificent. The further we walked, the more we were soaked by the rain. It was strange to look up to blue sky and sun and be drenched with water at the same time. I tried to take a few photographs but soon decided to wrap my camera, passport, phone, and wallet in my rain jacket and bury it deep in my pack. We became drenched and our shoes squeaked and squished from the water building up inside. The trail ended at Devil’s Pool, an overlook at a narrow point of the gorge where you could see the falls, a whirlpool below, and Zambia on the other side of the river. I watched a double rainbow vanish in the mist below the cliff.
We wound our way around the gorge from Devil’s Pool to an overlook of the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It was the most peaceful connection between two countries that I had ever seen. People biked across with baskets of vegetables and goods either to buy or sell on the other side. Everyone looked happy, peaceful.
We wrung our clothes out in the sun and walked back along the falls. Back at the park I mused over the information I learned from a sign – sure I knew Vic Falls was one of the 7 wonders but I had forgotten so that was cool. Then I learned that the Northern lights were also one of the wonders which was neat that it wasn’t necessarily a physical landmark.
We walked from the park up into the town of Victoria Falls. The group was hungry, so we stopped at a grocery store and bought chili flavored biltong and cookies. The prices were difficult to convert as the exchange rate is about 200 Zim dollars to 1 US dollar. We walked around town eventually finding a sign for Comesa Market. We turned down the street towards it to find tents overflowing with fruits and a large warehouse packed with clothing, shoes, and electronics up to the ceiling. We walked through but were too overwhelmed by the size of the market to bargain and buy something. But at the back of one of the warehouses was a small room serving chips and boerewors and I wished we had waited to get food in a place like that. People from Zambia bring over goods to sell at this market and there is an equivalent on the other side of the border, even named the same thing. We had $70 and J thought it would be better to have Zim currency so he traded $20 worth. He came back with a wad of 2 and 5 Zim dollar bills – remember the currency exchange rate here. It was basically funny-money and even split between the four of us we knew we wouldn’t spend it (though each had $5 worth). He bought some strange melon shaped cucumbers and some weird bulbs to boil and eat with a future meal.
A small footpath linked the market to the main road of town. We followed it down and it brought us to a sign that read “Beer-bab Brewery,” a play on the baobab tree. We still had some time so we stopped into the patio style bar and ordered Zambezi beer. It was better than I expected, and cheap. We drank them around a tall, round pub table and watched the storm clouds build up over the falls. Thunder and cumulonimbus clouds brooded in the distance, it began to get windy, and soon locals were running back to their houses. The storm never fully hit but it did cut out a main power source. Walking through the town after, we stopped in a few shops and looked at the merchandise in dimly lit rooms. The credit card machines weren’t working with the power cut, and few things were worth only $5. A giraffe tapestry caught my eye – I love buying tapestries (or tissue as the French called it) from places I visit to decorate the van with them. I wished I had more cash to buy it.
By 4:35 PM we began to walk back down to the park to get picked up by our taxi driver. Just as we were beginning to wonder if he would in fact meet us there, we heard “Hello friends!” as a blue car flew by. He turned around and met us in the parking lot of a gas station, shuffling us in as a police man was telling us to use a different taxi – one of his friend’s. I was getting worried on time, it had taken us a solid 45 minutes to arrive to the falls from the border. We had run out of small bills and needed change. He didn’t have any on him but assured us his house was on the way to the border and we could stop there for the exchange. I watched the clock as we detoured to his house – the new house he was building. It was in a nice neighborhood for the area. The house didn’t have a roof but neither did most of the others around. He scurried inside and within 5 minutes was back with our change. One of his kids ran out to say Bonjour! to the French girls, then we were on our way again.
5:59 PM and the gates of the border appeared over the dash of the car. We piled out in hurry and bustled into immigration. Soggy passports were tossed on the counter to a small man with a large smile. He was amused at the damp state of ourselves and the passports, and the variety of where we were from. “Please come back again soon,” he said and stamped us out of Zim. To enter back into Botswana, we passed our first health checkpoint. A man in a mask and gloves rifled through our passports looking at the stamps and dates, but in the end only took our temperature and let us on our way. I was happy for Lena that she didn’t have a similar reaction to the yellow fever vaccine that I had – I had a fever for a few days about a week after the injection, around this time for her. If she had had a fever, would she have been stuck in Zim?
When we walked back to the Kazungula border gate on the Botswana side, a patrolwoman walked out. “Where is your car?” she pressed. We had hoped there would be some taxis hanging around the border as there had been that morning, nothing. We asked if we could walk and she sternly replied that we could not at this hour due to the wildlife in the area. A woman who I assume was her friend sat nearby listening in. She was a large woman with a brightly colored polka dot dress. She offered to give us a ride for a price, emphasizing that she was not a taxi service. Her lowest offer was 100 Pula. The three others spoke about it in French (Joachim knows French as well) then looked at me expecting input on what they had just said. I shrugged reminding them I don’t speak French. If it was 50 Pula to get here, surely a taxi would charge the same price to drive from Kasane to the border, and then another 50 Pula to return – so let’s just take the ride for 100 Pula, I reasoned. After some more deliberating, we finally all agreed and crammed into her Golf car. As we started to drive off, an Afrikaans song came on the radio that we knew from the research station and soon we were all dancing, including our driver. She dropped us off at the camp with a wave. We showered, laid out our wet clothes, changed into clean clothes, and headed down to the bar for wifi and news. The corona virus had spread, but Africa was still a safe place to be. We wondered if and when we would be able to go home, and how worried we should be.
I started to plan for our next stop, Chobe. I checked my math on converting lat/long coordinates, it was right – so our GPS system just didn’t have the roads in it to get to Kubu Island. We would be staying at another remote campsite in the next coming days, Savuti. I made a list of other things to do before entering Chobe park – fill the extra fuel tank, reduce the tire pressure to drive the sandy roads, check fluids in the car, buy some fresh produce and meat, and fill up all extra tanks and bottles with water.
I hung around camp after everyone went to bed. I thought about returning to the research station after the trip and was happy about it – I’m not ready to return to the real world like the others would be after our trip. The research station felt like home, desert life is easy. Working here provides easy access to incredible trip destinations like the ones I was exploring now. I realized I’ll only have two months left at the reserve when I returned back, better make it count.
6 AM: coffee, sunrise, river. Another few moments stolen away for alone time and to write in my notebook, about half full at this point. I wasn’t feeling great, it was probably the Doxy. We had been taking anti-malarial pills for 10 days now and it is not a very pleasant drug to be on. I felt weak and sluggish; I hoped an extra cup of coffee would help.
We had a scattered start to the day for a hunt for wifi. Lena’s application was due before we went into Chobe. I was confused why she hadn’t submitted it the night before when we had unlimited wifi at the bar but with nothing to do about it now, helped think of places where there might be access to some. We drove from the camp back to the border, nothing. From the border into Kasane, nothing. We then proposed that she drop us off along the street side shops in Kasane, drive back to the camp we had been at the night before to use their wifi, then pick us up to start our drive into Chobe. Wildly inefficient, but the best we could do now.
The shops along the streets in Kasane sold an interesting variety of items: grilled corn, copper jewelry, dehydrated fish (fish jerky?), bead jewelry, wooden carvings and bottle openers, baskets, and wooden bowls and utensils. I was thrilled to find the giraffe tapestry I had liked in Zimbabwe, but this time in a better color – bright yellow! It was only 100 Pula, I gently folded it up into my bag. It was beautiful. Matild also bought a tissue and Joachim bought some corn to grill that night. Lena came back after about an hour and we were back en route. We stopped at a market for meat and produce, and gave the car a tune up at the gas station next door. We dropped the tire pressure from 2.5 to 2.2, checked all the fluids, and even gave the windshield a wash. We filled the extra fuel jojo with 20L of diesel and secured it in the back. Joachim drove us out of town to Sudutu Gate, the entrance of Chobe National Park.
Since the reservations were in my name, I hopped out to get the campsites and entrance fees sorted. There was an issue with the itinerary I had printed and after a few rounds of trying different confirmation numbers and names, I finally got the permits. Joachim and I switched seats and I drove the twisty, sandy road to the Chobe River. We kept our eyes peeled for leopards or lions but did not see any. We breeched a hill to find the expanse of the Chobe River marshes below us. The road followed the river closely, sometimes a little too close. At one point it ended where the river overflowed onto to the road and began again on the other side. I wasn’t sure how deep it was but didn’t really have much of a choice. The tank crawled through the water, bogged down by the mud underneath, but made it out the other side. It had a snork feature on the side so I assumed it would be alright to be a little submerged, it was still scary though and my hands were white from gripping the wheel and stick. Along the river we saw 100s of elephants, maybe even 1000s! They were everywhere and there were tons of babies alongside the adults. Their trunks swung around violently in curiosity and their gate always looked a little panicked to try to keep up with the adults of the herd. Some herds were meandering in to the river, others were heading out – likely for different vegetation to eat. We found a straggler that must have been left behind by a group. I wasn’t sure if I should stop or reverse quickly as he came charging down the road. He looked a little ridiculous with one tusk, tail straight in the air, and feet sliding all over the mud as we tried to run down the road. I stopped the truck as he passed in front. He trumpeted at some impala, dispersing them in every direction, and carried on up the hill into denser vegetation, tail in the air like a flag.
Hippos bobbed along the river and we saw one completely out of the water grazing. It was incredible to see how large and round they are. Their skin reflects the sun making them look like theyre made out of plastic. There were baby hippos as well and we enjoyed watching them slip into the riverside and disappear. Baboons and monkeys lined the road and were unphased by the vehicle. Giraffe hung safely in the trees and did not enter the river. We saw a monitor lizard slithering through the reeds and soon after the dorsal scales of a crocodile glide through the river. Sable antelope and impala grazed in the river next to water buffalo, seeminly unphased by the crocodiles. Warthog families trampled along rooting up grubs and plants.
We stopped half way to the Ihaha campsite to have lunch at a designated picnic area. Unsure why we were allowed out of the car here and nowhere else (no fences or barriers), we felt strange to be sitting at a stone table nearby to where we were seeing all of the wildlife. Lunch consisted of cheese crackers, the weird cucumber J bought from Zimbabwe, fruit juice, chili sauce, and econo cake. The econo cake was something J bought in Victoria Falls. We’re pretty sure it’s short for “economic cake” – it appears to be a mix of a bunch of different cake batters and is incredibly dense. It was also incredibly cheap.
We switched drivers and continued the riverside drive to Ihaha Camp. When we arrived, the camp was desolate. The camp entrance station was empty, but open. Was it off season or corona? Campsite 3 was under a large tree nearby the river where we could see the marshes, water buffalo, and elephants in the distance. A hornbill lived in the tree above our camp. After a full day in the car together we split like an atomic bomb when we parked. Lena and Matild worked on washing their clothes, Joachim took a nap against the car, and I laid across table in cooking area to write and listen to music. After a bit, I asked J if he wanted to collect firewood. He agreed and asked how I was doing. I likened the situation to wrangling a herd of cats with a water noodle. I felt like him and I traveled well together, and Matild and Lena did with each other, but with the four of us together it was difficult. I was also realizing this was a different sort of trip than they were used to and I was not used to the demands and concerns of a group of 4. He gave me a big hug and slap on the back telling me even though some things weren’t going as planned, he was still stoked to be on the trip. We looked up from our walk to see a herd of elephants roaming towards camp. It felt like weight was lifted off my shoulders to share my thoughts with him and to now see the elephants so close to camp, my stress and concern seemed to dissipate. I was here, now, in such a magical place with these beautiful beasts. As we walked back, we took a closer look at the elephant prints. I wondered if each pattern within the print was unique to the individual, like a fingerprint. What if you could scan an elephant print on your phone and track individuals based on the pattern? The patterns were beautiful and must be unique.
We found some firewood at abandoned campsites nearby and dragged it back. We started a fire on the grill to cook up the brontosaurus sized steak and Italian sausage. Lena and Matild cooked rice for stuffed peppers and we had a feast. The steaks seemed a bit undercooked with some bloody red bits in the middle but Joachim and I figured after eating the food at the project, our stomach was strong enough to handle it and it tasted really good. But it wasn’t lost on me that Botswana had an issue with foot and mouth disease carried by cattle in the region. We finished our dinner, cleaned up, and headed up into the tents to sleep. Joachim and I listened to a Tales of Terror by the Dritbag Diaries before passing out. I had listened to all of them a few times already and knew the jump scares – perfectly timed I jumped up in the tent at the climax of one of the stories sending him jolting. We laughed until we slept.
The elephants moved in closer to camp once the lights and fire were out. The wind kicked up as well. Thunderstorms brewed on the horizon and lightning lit up the sky. I’m not sure if I’ll ever hear the combination again, but the sound of elephants trumpeting and wind licking the leaves of the trees around us lulled me to sleep.
Around 5 AM I heard the sound Mox had identified back in the delta as lions growling. I opened my eyes to see the sky lighting up pink and orange. Earlier than usual but guided by the sun, I crawled down from the tent. The crocodiles took a sunrise patrol along the river, their scales shimmering in the dawn glow. I made some coffee and perched on a log next to the river with a notebook and pen in hand. I wrapped myself up in my favorite flannel and leaned into my knees. I bring it everywhere, my flannel of a conglomeration of colors printed on fabric that is now perfectly broken in. When I wear it, it feels like a hug. I gave myself a quick assessment and realized my hair was becoming more unruly and tangled, I should really brush it maybe even cut it. The humidity of the river made it twist and swirl unlike the state it is in the desert. I’d been braiding it back away from my face for the duration of my time in South Africa. Now it was long enough to tie in a knot, yes a literal knot to keep it contained.
I rejoined the others waking up around camp. More coffee, a bowl of yogurt with banana, peanut butter, and granola. We would be driving to Savuti today. As we left camp I retired to the back seat and became lost in my music watching the world fly by out the window.
We bumped along the sandy road leading away from the river. Something appeared to block the road ahead. As we became closer, we saw it twitch and then closer, a tail flick. Much of its body was in the shrubs but we soon identified the object as an elephant leg and tail. We stopped the car wondering if it was an injured elephant. But almost immediately the yearling rolled and stood upright, annoyed we had woken it from its nap. It shook its massive head at us and stamped. Lena threw the car into reverse to give the animal space. It very much took advantage of our wariness and continued to play in the road. After what felt like ages of the elephant wandering in the road and bluff charging us, he/she moved off and we carefully crept by.
We emerged from the jungle and hit the paved road heading West to Ngoma Gate. We wouldn’t be crossing the border here today into Namibia but turning South once we hit it to make our way to Savuti. Small villages broke up the green landscape. Most consisted of huts but the living conditions looked happy and clean. In one village I noticed a large white Toyota Hilux with “Research Vehicle” written in large red letters on the side of the door. I saw a European child playing with an African child. I wondered what the research was and imagined a family on the move visiting the villages.
After the villages, the paved road ended abruptly at a red, loose sand road. We wondered if we had missed a turn off. Faintly, a sign for Savuti pointed straight. The truck was shifted into 4-High and we slipped into the sand. It was a one lane road with two deep ruts and a mound of loose sand in the middle. The truck swam through it. Throughout this trip, I would learn driving through sand is a bit like snow in that you really can’t steer, rather just keep turning the wheel to keep traction and torque. With sand though, if you lose speed you’ll bury yourself. Where I guess with snow the danger is more sliding off the road from going too fast. We continued on up a steep hill that looked impassable. Once at the top, the road (if you can call it that) opened up wider and there were multiple tracks. A highway in the sand let’s say. We bounced between tracks based on what looked like the most packed down sand. We crested a hill, what we found ahead seemed almost impossible. The land dipped down into a trough then climbed a very steep sandy hill. Lena was at the wheel at this point and exclaimed “why me?!” as she gained speed down the hill. The truck twisted and slid as we came down the dune. At the bottom of the hill was a sign that read “Gear Down to Two. Foot to the Floor.” She followed the advice and the engine screamed as it dug itself a trench up the hill. I cringed as I watched the RPMs reach 3 then 4, and towards the top nearly 5 x 1000 rpms. Just at the top of the dune another sign “Breath, you’ve made it.”
We continued on this highway and eventually saw another car. A local guide was driving 4 elderly European tourists in an SUV. Then waved us over and told us at the split to take the right option following signs to Linguti (another camp) instead of the left due to the waterhole. We thanked them for the advice and carried on. We detoured around a few large waterholes that luckily already had an alternative road beat down. As we rounded the curve of the waterhole, an army truck approached with a group of men in the back. We pulled off to let them through – “Anti-poaching police” read the side of the tank. They told us it was a dangerous area and to stay in the vehicle. We wondered if the warning was for animals or humans or both. We came to the T junction and looked left. The waterhole wasn’t very large, maybe 2 vehicles long. J and I went out to investigate. We kicked off our shoes and waded in – it was deep. Up to our thighs in some spots and our legs sunk and stuck into the black mud. It was too risky to try to cross. After letting the mud dry and peeling it off, we climbed back in the car and decided to take the advice and go right. Soon though the engine was screaming again in 1st gear as we tried to fight through the deep sand. It felt like the sand wanted to consume the vehicle and I was amazed the little SUV had gone this way. I watched the gages in the truck and finally requested we stop for a quick talk. Was it worth it to push the car and potentially get stranded out here? We saw two vehicles the whole day and only one would’ve been able to tow us (army tank). There was another way, I gestured to the map, that we could take to Savuti. It would mean backtracking to the place we saw the poaching police, but maybe it wasn’t as deep of sand. The track we were on at the moment was the long way around to avoid the deep waterhole and added an extra 100 kilometers to the trip. We agreed to turn around. We found the alternative track to Savuti, it looked like a better road. Twenty kilometers to the Ghoha border of the park and we made good time. We switched drivers and drove the last 40 kilometers into the park towards our campsite.
Again in the backseat, I sat attentive looking for wildlife. There! I pointed as we flew past a bush that I thought I saw something under. We reversed to find a lion lying in the shade. A bit too far away, we used the binoculars to take a closer look. He had a thick male and mouth was open panting in the heat. Our first lion! We moved on and were soon weaving our way around many small waterholes. At some points there wasn’t another option but to go through. And one, which we deemed later as the Titanic waterhole, was so deep that water came up and over the hood of the car. It’s funny how when something that could potentially be really really bad, no one makes a sound. We silently watched with wide eyes as the nose disappeared into the black water, the wave of what looked like chocolate milk washing up and over the windshield leaving us in the dark, the sound of the engine sputter and tires spin against the mud, and finally the reemergence back into daylight. Through it all silence, then a joint sigh and eruption of shrieks.
The entrance to Savuti camp was also controlled by the military. Two rangers checked our documents and passports and ushered us through the gate. In the camp, there was a small shop for cold drinks, and an ablution (showers and bathroom). We ate left over rice with beans and olives for lunch and took a nap until 4 PM. I woke up with bird shit on my shirt and glared at a hornbill who I assumed was the culprit.
I offered to drive for a sunset game drive. We stopped in at the shop for a cold coke on the way out. The manager of the camp asked where we were from and what we do. We rattled off our countries and offered the explanation that we were all biologists. He suggested a loop for us to take around the South end of the reserve across some marshes and through grasslands. We made our way South to Leopard Rock which, as you can guess, was known for leopard sightings. We lapped the large rocky outcrop. Trees clung to the rocks and I could imagine that if I were a leopard, I would for sure hang out there. From the rock, we drove Southeast through the pans. Zebra were everywhere, basking in the late afternoon sun and grazing. Between herds of zebra were groups of elephants, not as large as the river herds, but still loads. We saw ostrich, giraffe, and lots of different marsh birds. In between wildlife sightings I got a lot of practice for 4×4 driving through mud and potholes – it must have rained recently. At times though the savannah would open up ahead and I could shift the truck into 3rd for a nice cruise. The tall grass whispered against the side of the truck, the motor hummed contently, and Moby played over the stereo. The late afternoon sun and remnant moisture struck a rainbow across the sky. The savannah was glowing.
We returned to camp around 7 PM and indulged on couscous, peas, and cheese. We realized the fridge had broken, likely during the Titanic event. Yogurt, cheese, warm beers, goat cheese, apples and bananas, all now had an earlier expiration date than we planned for. Elephants moved into the camp as darkness encroached. They loudly crashed through the trees and I’m pretty sure we heard one fart.
The bugs here were nearly unbearable to hang around outside for long. We cleaned up after dinner and headed to bed around 8 PM. My 3-season sleeping bag did not help the situation and despite having a cold shower, I was quickly sweating profusely in the tent. I returned to the tailgate after spraying some more bug-spray on. I wrote a letter I had been writing in my head from the start of the trip, I wasn’t sure if I would send it, but the words poured out. My heart felt lighter. I closed my notebook, closed my eyes, and leaned back against the truck listening to the elephants speak to each other.
We began packing up just after 5 AM – we wanted to do a sunrise game drive and planned to cross the border into Namibia via Ngoma Gate, drive the Caprivi Strip, and sleep somewhere on the way to Etosha. I drove down to Leopard Rock and once parked, climbed out the window to look over the rooftop at the savannah lighting up. Red faded to orange to yellow and I could see shapes of antelope, likely impala, around the waterhole. There was a large rock outcrop nearby, similar to leopard rock, that allowed hiking and contained ancient rock art. We looped around the savannah to the hill. The trail looked like dense vegetation and I wondered how we were allowed to hike here compared to anywhere else. Surely animals would also enjoy a place like this. The hiking trail faded away as the rock uplifted from the Earth and we began to scramble. It was easy and fun to crawl around on the rocks and pick our own ways to the top. When I topped out, I gasped at the flocks of foxglove that covered the top. In full bloom, the stems swayed in the morning light. The view from the top of the hill was stunning – large stretches of savannah in every direction and rain clouds way off on the horizon. Joachim and I found our own rock perches jutting out past the hill. We saw the Savuti channel that drains into the Okavango River when the rains are heavy. It was dry now and crisscrossed with game trails. We took our time taking it all in and being outside of the car. Eventually we began the descent and found the rock art – an elephant, giraffe, antelope, and the river drawn stacked on top of each with lines overlapping. I had never seen rock art as abstract as this one. We returned to the car and I drove down and across the channel, into tunnels through the vegetation towards the marshes. Near Harvey Pan there was supposedly a pride of lions.
We drove around the marshes as it began to rain. We all considered what this would mean for the waterholes we had to drive through from the day before, including Titanic. We drove through most of the morning with a goal to be at the Ghoha border by 11 AM. As the rains became heavy we turned away from the marshes, no lions. I drove North out of the park weaving around the potholes as much as I could. But one was especially deceptive and upon driving through it the truck bottomed out. I heard an ooof behind me then Lena’s confused mix of laughing and moaning. Matild had been looking out the window in the seat behind me and when the truck struck the bottom of the hole, her body flung forward, smashing her face into the driver’s seat and ultimately breaking her glasses in half. She was alright and the damage would be able to be fixed with some tape. After assessing the situation she began a deep, bellowing laugh that we all joined in on.
When we pulled up to the park exit (it was actually running this time) the man walked out shaking his head and pointing to the front of the car. The front place was missing. It appeared we had lost it at some point driving through the park, whether it was during Titanic, bushwhacking across the savannah, or bottoming out on the last big waterhole. It had only been zip-tied on so we weren’t surprise we had lost it. Joachim wanted to drive next section claiming he only drove the boring tarred roads and not the “fun” roads. I reminded him of the donkey incident and just asked that he pay attention and feel out the sand since it was totally different than the tar. It felt much faster driving back down the alternative road we had chosen and down and through the terrifying sandy dunes. Quickly we were at the Ngoma bridge border crossing for Namibia. The border crossing was relatively smooth after filling out surveillance forms for coronavirus, paying the fee for our car to cross, and requesting 10 day visitor visas for the country. The maximum days on a visitor visa for Namibia is 30 days and we realized later it would have been a better idea to request for the maximum stay. Everyone working at the border station wore masks and it felt like they wanted us to leave as soon as we stepped inside.
I realized I had built in an extra day in case we had issues so we now had two days to break up the long drive to Etosha. We aimed for a town called Rundu that had a backpackers/hostel we found in J’s Namibia & Botswana book. This book took a beating on this trip and was thoroughly thumbed through to find our destinations and places to sleep. By the end of the trip it was creased, torn, waterlogged, and well loved.
At a petrol station we refueled on diesel and fruit juice and increased the tire pressure back to 2.5 for the tar roads. I offered to drive the Caprivi Strip and though it was midday, soon I found all of the passengers asleep. I turned on my music over the stereo and went on autopilot to drive the strip. The road went through amazing, lush floodplains that would eventually feed the Okavango River. Thunderstorms seemed to surround us and the air smelled thick from all of the vegetation. The road ahead reflected the sun so much that it appeared to vanish as if the road dropped out into the nothingness of the blue sky with puffy white clouds. “Elephant! 70 kph” caution signs lined the road but I didn’t see any. Soon the thunderstorm engulfed us and as it grew louder, the others awoke and my driving slowed. The road flooded and I could barely see a few meters ahead of me. The truck was a tank though so I wasn’t worried about hydroplaning. Rain came down in buckets with little break in between the thrashing from the storm. Eventually we popped out the other side and drove down into the town of Rundu. I looked back at the black storm clouds and thought they looked like the underside of a barrel wave. There must have been a pressure system to curve the clouds in that way across the strip. Rundu, and the entire Caprivi Strip, is right at border of Namibia and Angola. I noticed this area seemed to be struggling with poverty more than any other place we drove through. The housing structures were weak and covered in tarps, kids herded cattle in the rain, and fires were burning everywhere to cook and for warmth from the downpour. Villagers were selling dried corn on the side of the road, I wanted to help and buy some but there was a stand every quarter kilometer – how could I chose who to help and who not to? I drove on feeling guilty that there was a well maintained paved road that tourists like me could drive down while the local communities struggled. I saw missionaries escorting people into small brick buildings and wondered what the life was like here.
Rundu was bustling at 6 PM – bars and shops were open and it looked like every member of the city was out walking around. We would be staying at the Sarasunga River Safari that night. Romeo greeted us at reception and after taking my card to pay for the campsite gave us a tour of the place. His mannerisms on the tour were completely different than the first impression we perceived in the reception area. He explained it was only his second day and that he had grown up along the Caprivi Strip where we drove. He talked to us like a friend and provided Matild with tape to repair her glasses, laughing at her as hard as we did. At the end of the tour, we thanked him and chose our campsite. We set up in the rain, everything was wet. I passed on dinner and crawled into the tent to pass out. It rained all night.
I took a cold shower to wake up around 6 AM. Instant coffee smelled oddly good and I went to work cleaning out the back of the truck, especially the broken fridge. A few beer bottles had broken in whenever the bump we hit broke the fridge, and the mix of beer, goat cheese juice, and fermented apples quickly overrode the smell of the coffee. We discussed the logistics of the trip and used the campground wifi to update ourselves on news of the virus. Borders were starting to close and our countries urged us to make arrangements to return home, but nothing too serious yet.
We passed back through town and filled up the tank before making our way down to Tsumeb, the city just outside of Etosha. I noticed around the town of Rundu, instead of stands selling cracked/dried corn, they were selling whole sides of cows. I wondered how strong your stomach would have to be to be able to eat the meat after it had sat outside in the heat and sun all day, exposed to whatever insects were flying about.
We pulled up to another checkpoint just outside of Rundu. Perhaps it was because we were so close to the Angola border, but I couldn’t help but feel intimidated by the officers in military uniforms. He motioned for us to turn off the car and roll down the window. Joachim was driving and greeted the officer friendly. “No front plate?” he barked. Joachim explained we lost it somewhere in Chobe Naitonal Park and it was probably at the bottom of a pothole. “You cannot drive in Namibia without a front plate,” he said and told us we needed to go to the police station to sort it out. We explained the car was a rental from South Africa and that we were heading there now to make it across the border before it closed, a slight exaggeration from the truth as we were still planning on visiting Etosha. Another officer walked up and offered to just give us a fine. Unsure if we would be able to get out of it, we were submissive to whatever the fine or punishment was. “Can we just write the plate number on a piece of paper and fasten it to the front?” Joachim asked. The officer nearly spit out his coffee as he exclaimed, “This isn’t Angola!” He asked where we were from, told me his brother had married an American and was living in the US now, and if I was looking to get married as he could be an option. They told us we’d probably get stopped quite a few times in Namibia but did not give us fine and sent us on our way. We pulled over to recollect and switch drivers. I pointed to a car that drove past us, just coming from the checkpoint behind us. It appeared to have breezed through without having a front or back license plate.
Roadside stands now sold wooden carvings and slabs of meat. I found it interesting to watch how the products changed from beads, tapestries, and fish in Botswana to wood, corn, and beef here in Namibia. Scattered throughout the villages were spikets for water with jojos lined up and locals carrying them to and from for drinking water.
We arrived in Tsumeb in the afternoon, it was the biggest town outside of Etosha. We had hoped to stay at Mousebird Backpackers but upon pulling up to the address, the hostel looked shut down. Joachim roamed around the fence to the gate and returned a few minutes later explaining that they had closed due to corona. We were shocked to hear things were getting closed down even out here, from the last we heard Namibia hadn’t been hit by the virus yet. The owner had recommended Dros Resort on the outskirts of town where the camping was cheap. We drove back through the colorful city – curbs and fire hydrants were painted with bright colors.
We pulled through the gates of a very fancy resort, that was completely desolate. The sprinklers were still running to make the grass green, the lawn was perfectly manicured, and the pool fountain cycled crystal clear water. Each campsite had a braii pit, charging station, trash can, and wifi was offered throughout the resort. There was a laundromat and huge inground swimming pool, a duck pond, and a bar/restaurant that looked way too fancy for us to be allowed in to. We received our updates on the world, we grew quiet. France was closing their borders, flights out of Africa were being canceled, land and sea borders were being closed. Somehow in the last 24 hours, the world went to chaos. And here we were, in the middle of an apocalyptic town 1000s of kilometers from where we called home or were safe, reading about it as if it were part of a fantasy world that we no longer belonged to.
There were embassies in Windhoek to take the French girls, and Joachim could talk with the Belgian embassy to see if his flight would still leave at the end of March. My case was different as I was hoping to return to South Africa, not America, so the US embassy couldn’t really help me. At this point, 2/3 land borders from Namibia into South Africa were closed with an unknown future if the rest would follow. At this point, the main borders were still open for the movement of goods, I counted on those to continue to stay open for a few more days. Since we were so close to Etosha from Tsumeb, we decided to drive through the park and stay a night, then assess where the world was at the next morning.
With unlimited wifi at the camp, I called home. I had suddenly felt very much on my own to figure this out and was yearning for the comforts of a familiar voice. I video messaged some friends to say hi – for the first time in 10 months. I decided to send the letter I had drafted on the tailgate of the truck in Savuti. I’m not sure why I felt the need to reach out, perhaps everyone around the world was feeling the same way during this time.
Joachim and Matild went for a walk through Tsumeb, Lena worked on submitting her Masters application, and I went to the closest convenience store to buy bananas, meat to braii, and some beer. We grilled the meat with the small seed things that Joachim had bought in Victoria Falls – they had the consistency of potatoes but were quite bland. We listened to another Tales of Terror around the fire, brought in the wet clothes we were hanging out to dry, and headed to bed around 11 PM.
I woke up scratching around 4 AM. I swatted and smacked at the itchy pricks and thought surely I had gotten the rogue mosquitoes that had somehow found their way inside the tent. I could hear Joachim scratching his arms and legs next to me too. I couldn’t take it anymore and switched on my headlamp – hundreds or them swarming inside the tent. I scanned the doors and windows and found Joachim’s window had been unzipped. Our carbon dioxide from each exhale must have funneled them into the tent for a feast on our bloods. He awoke as well and infuriated at the tiny pests we left the tent. He hopped into the car to back to sleep. I asked if he wanted to go for a swim in the pool instead. I was hot and sticky and incredibly itchy from the night of bites.
We swam for about an hour in the twilight hours of the night. The water was cold and felt like ice against the bites. We swam back and forth in the deep end. It felt good to swim, I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in deep enough water to actually swim. Once the cold water started to chill our body temperatures, we hopped out and I took a hot shower.
I had felt like we already had been awake for most of a day when Lena and Matild joined us for breakfast. We had cooked the fermenting apples that went off in the broken fridge and mixed them with oats and raisins. We packed up, refueled again at a station and checked over the car, filled the jojos with water, and checked out Tsumeb. We parked the car alongside the main road in town but didn’t feel great about leaving it and nearly offered to hang back with it. But the main stretch of road was short and we would be able to see the car the whole time. We checked out a few shops – Matild bought post cards, Lena bought an olive green dress that matched her eyes, Joachim checked out the mineral museum, and after asking around for film I was given a few rolls of expired color film for free.
Joachim and I passed out on the way to Etosha from Tsumeb after a restless night of sleep and incredibly early morning. I woke up as we entered the main gate. Lena and Matild went in to sort of our reservations at Halili and returned looking uncomfortable. The reception hadn’t been friendly, perhaps because we were American/European where the virus had escalated already? Maybe we were considered a threat for the pandemic. We drove through grasslands along the giant salt pan on the way to Halili Rest. The pan had some water in it and it was impossible to determine where the water ended and the sky began. We passed red hartebeest, zebra, giraffe, and springbok. The grasslands were dotted with yellow and pink flowers. As we turned down the road to Halili, dark storm clouds opened up and it began to rain heavily.
We ate a lunch of couscous, curry, olives, crackers, and hot sauce under a lean-to near our campsite as the rain came down. We noticed how empty the campground was – nearly a hundred sites and only about 5 other cars by midday. We purchased some wifi from reception and learned that the pandemic had escalated. People were leaving the project where we were working early in fear of the pandemic striking South Africa and being stuck for longer than their commitment. Flights to Europe were being detoured to avoid landing in some African countries. The rental car company emailed me to say that they heard the South African border was closing the next day and if we didn’t make it, we would be stuck in Namibia until the 11th of April. I could not find a source confirming this claim. We debated about what to do – should we scrap our plans to explore the Skeleton Coast and Spitzkope? Was the world overreacting or were we so far removed on our trip to notice the severity of what was happening?
That evening we walked to the waterhole nearby camp. The two pools reflected the reds and blues of the setting sky. We listened to the birds and watched the bushes for movement. We all agreed we didn’t want to cut the trip early, but the responsible decision (not only for the pandemic or work, but for taking care of ourselves as well) would be to call off the rest of the adventures. It made me sad. I always find that my life feels more full when I’m traveling on the road and the little bit I had already seen of Namibia was gorgeous. I wanted to see the sea. I wanted to climb to the top of Spitzkope, the Matterhorn of Namibia. I wanted to continue to live out of the truck like I were in the van. I wanted to visit the desolate desert of Sossuvlie and see the feral horses of Namibia. But I am also wanted everyone to be safe and be able to return home to their families if that was an option, as well as to give my family peace of mind that I had made it back to the research station and wasn’t stranded in Namibia.
We returned to camp and brought out the bottle of vodka we had been carrying along with us – it felt like the right night to culminate our shenanigans before reentering into the real world. We played cards around the camp table sipping vodka and sprite. We had bought weird dried worms in Botswana and each ate one, they were gross. We laughed into the night.
Having made our decision, we packed up quickly the next morning and headed West through the rest of Etosha towards the exit. As a final surprise to our adventure, we spotted a rhinoceros walking down the road as we left. It was giant, truly amazing.
We stopped at the small village before the exit gate. We bought more airtime to try to get ahold of the rental car company to understand whether we were accountable for paying for the vehicle past the expected return date if in fact the borders had closed. They offered to rent it to us for half price for any day after the return date, but no more miles than agreed upon could be added to the car. Quickly we realized if the lockdown persisted, we would be paying a ton of money if we were stuck with the car. We planned to book it to Windhoek, get the girls sorted to get back to France, and gun it to the border. When we reached the exit gate, we were turned back to pay for the entrance fee back at the village we had just come from. Apparently it was overlooked when we checked in to the park the day before. After a rendezvous back and forth, an hour had passed and we were finally out of the park and on our way to Windhoek. We saw baboons along the side of the road, tons of them. A fun discussion sparked when Lena asked if there was one person in KMP to infect who would we want to be in quarantine with. I did not have a crush on anyone at the moment so didn’t really know who to choose.
It was a four hour drive to the city and the embassies closed around 4 PM. We would not make it in time to drop off the girls so began to plan to spend the night in the city. Driving through the city was confusing and the car seemed to suddenly struggle. It couldn’t get up to speed as quickly as the city cars and the turning radius was way bigger than what was needed in the city streets. We hoped to stay at the Cardboard Box backpackers but after I rang the gate, a young man came out and explained to me that the hostel had been closed for years. He recommended Chameleon Backpackers closer to the center of the city. They still had room for us and showed us the parkinglot space that we would be able to set up the tent. We weren’t thrilled with it but realized we were in the city and not much else could be done.
We took advantage of the large kitchen and cooked up some pasta with pesto, canned tomato and onion, and tuna. At this point we were trying to get through all of the tins. We took an hour or so to ourselves to sort out our next moves. Honestly, my issues were the least stressful – I just needed to make it back across the SA border, I’d figure out getting back to the US in a few months. The French called home to their panicked families and Joachim tried to figure out if his flight out of Joburg would still be happening on March 30th. I pulled out my map (previously hanging in my bedroom) and made a list of the borders from Namibia to South Africa: Alexander Bay (closed), Noordoewer/Vioolsdrif (open), Sendelingsdrift (closed), Velloordrif/Onseepkans (closed), Nakop (open), Rienfontein (closed), and Mata Mata (closed). The drive from Windhoek to Noordower was 7 hours, the border was open 24/7. From the border, it was 2.5 hours to Alexander Bay – we could still visit the sea once we crossed back in to South Africa. And from Alexander Bay to Van Zylsrus (nearest town to the research station), it was 8.5 hours.
We rejoined around the table with a Tafel lemon beer we bought from the bar. We were tempted to push it and still drive to Spitzkope (3 hours away) and maybe even the coast. Could it really get much worse in just a couple of days? But it could, and it had. I struggled the most with this decision. I thought if it did get bad, I could do WWOOFing or Workaway in Namibia until the borders were open. But I had a responsibility to the project and I loved my job, I didn’t want to let anyone down. If I made a mistake and put off crossing the border until it was no longer possible, that would have fallen on my shoulders. It was the right decision to drive South, despite the draw to continue to explore Namibia.
It began to rain heavily and we moved onto a couch in a covered area. Lena called her mom who works in a hospital and quickly felt the urgency to return to France. I headed off the organize the car and start packing. A glass of whiskey in hand, that I was saving for the coast, I set to work sorting out everyone’s stuff. I called my mom and explained the plan. As I was wrapping up our conversation, the others joined. Lena pulled out her bag and sorted through her things. She gave me her UV torch we would always use to look for scorpions while we camped. The goodbyes felt imminent and strange, it wasn’t supposed to be that time yet.
We took advantage of the free breakfast: sandwiches with cheese, yogurt, and juice. While I had been packing the car the night prior, Lena and Matild met another French woman who needed a ride to the South African embassy that morning. We needed to stop there anyway to see if there were any updates on the border crossings. We crammed into the car, quite tight with 5 people now. The first stop was the French embassy. We said a tearful goodbye to Lena and Matild. Our new friend offered to take some photos though we all cringed at the thought of how puffy our eyes would be. We said see you soon, instead of goodbye.
The borders were still open, and likely would be for the next couple of days – Joachim reported. I hung back to watch the car as he and the older woman went in. She thanked us for the ride and went on to sort out her travels. Joachim and I granted ourselves a bit of time to explore Windhoek, if the borders were not closing today or likely tomorrow after all. It took a lot of will power not to abandon responsibilities and jet off towards Sptizkope and the coast.
We searched for a shop called the House of Gems. Throughout the trip, a plan had developed to pierce our ears after the end of this adventure – to remember the trip and the friendship we had built throughout it. We would each pierce one ear, and split a pair of earrings we would buy somewhere along the way. A gem from Namibia would be a pretty cool earring and reminder from the trip. We soon found though that the House of Gems had been shut down for years.
Driving around Windhoek was stressful was such a massive truck; we looked for a safe place to park. There was an underground parkinglot below the mall in the city center. After a few laps around the mall, we finally found the entrance, grabbed the ticket at the kiosk, and drove straight. A banging on the roof screeched us to a stop. Joachim had driven under the hanging maximum clearance bars that warned of a low ceiling ahead. A few parkinglot attendants raced over and helped me hold up the bars as he reversed back through. This deed wasn’t to go unnoticed and we were asked for some rand or Namibian dollars. They said they were hungry, we provided them with the tip they requested. We walked through the mall and then out into the street shops – there were a few jewelry stores. What people must have thought of us studying gemstone earrings must have been entertaining. We probably looked like a couple walking into each of these stores, they wouldn’t realize we becoming pals by wrestling and arguing like siblings. We stopped into three different shops and learned about the gems from the region. Topaz (bright blue) and tourmaline (green) were both mined from Namibia. There was also tanzanite (a darker blue) and aquamarine (paler blue). Joachim said the topaz gem were the closest match to my eyes and they were my favorite. We considered it over lunch at a chain called Wimpy’s – we ordered a burger and coke each and split a pitcher of a super sweet strawberry lemonade smoothie. We decided and returned to the shop with the topaz gems and bought the earrings for N900, about $40. When the woman at the counter noticed neither of our ears were pierced, we lied and said a friend really wanted to do it for us. In reality we would be doing it to each other not having a clue how to correctly. She recommended making sure we have the temporary earrings made to put in while the hole healed, so we bought those as well for N190. The items were purchased, now the deed had to be done.
On our way back to the car, we bought some cake at Mug n Bean and stocked up on fruit juice, bananas and crisps. When we tried to drive out of the parkinglot, the kiosk requested a separate ticket, one that had been paid inside of the mall. I watched the cars start to line up behind Joachim as I raced with the entrance ticket in hand back in to the store to pay for the parking. It didn’t take too long before I was running back into the car with the exit ticket. The driving continued to be stressful getting out of the city, I was happy I wasn’t the driver. As the highway opened up we rapped along with Mackelemore songs. We had half a tank of diesel, probably enough to get us to Keetmanshoop halfway to the border.
The fuel efficiency didn’t quite match what we calculated and we ended up stopping earlier for fuel. Joachim sent me on a mission to find some biltong with N100. I came back 15 minutes later with a paper bag full of undercooked meat – it was different than what we had been eating. It sort of tasted like undercooked bacon, we decided to save it for dinner for a time we could cook it. I hopped in the driver’s seat and we continued South to Keetmanshoop. There isn’t much going on in Keetmanshoop except that it is right in the middle of nowhere and a popular place to refuel before heading West to Sossuslvie, North to Windhoek, or East to the Kgalagadi. We would have headed East if the Mata Mata border into the Kgalagadi were open. We drove into town just as the sun was setting. Hoping for wifi to check on the borders, we went in to the only thing that appeared open, KFC. Joachim expressed his hunger and ordered the chicken bucket. I realized I had never actually had KFC, or remembered at least. It wasn’t as good as either of us had hoped and much of the bucket was left full. The wifi didn’t end up working, mission failed. As we went to leave, I accidentally triggered the car alarm in the truck, terrifying ourselves and everyone else on the road. We were both exasperated by the time we figured out how to turn it off.
I drove to the police station next to ask if they had news of the borders. When we walked in and first noticed the inhabited jail cells behind the counter. A young man stood with his arms slung out of the barred door. The policewoman said there would be wifi at the hotel nearby and that she hadn’t heard any news of the borders. As we drove away, I stalled the car at an intersection. We, well I, was bonking – the point of mental exhaustion where you start to make silly mistakes. Joachim watched the car, eating his KFC chicken, while I went into the hotel. The wifi worked and the Noordoewer border was still open, it was only a few hours away. We felt uneasy in town, it didn’t feel safe. Joachim expressed his concern when I wasn’t back from the hotel right away. He assured me he knew I was capable of doing things on my own here but was worried anyway. I drove out of town to Grunua where we eventually topped off the tank and switched drivers. It was an hour from the border but the time dragged on as Joachim said the tendrils of sleep were still pulling him back into his slumber. Too tired myself to drive, I fought to stay awake and engage him in conversation to make it there.
At 1 AM, we managed to make it to the bridge without falling asleep. Parking the car, we gathered our passports and documentation to reenter South Africa. Departures was easy, as we had now learned from all of the border crossings. As long as we weren’t transporting meat they didn’t care, they didn’t even seem to be bothered we were missing the front license plate. At the immigration office, we slid our passports through the notch in the window. Thirty seconds later, she pushed my passport back. “I’m going to have to refuse your reentry into South Africa,” she said following up with a summary of the letter the president of SA had delivered earlier that day prohibiting anyone with an American passport (among others) into the country. She told me I would have to stay in Namibia for 30 days. I explained I had been living in South Africa for the past 10 months, that I hadn’t even been to the US since last May and definitely not during the virus outbreak. I explained the countries I had been to on holiday and that I had been tested at the border. She continued to reference the letter, I knew it must be difficult to receive mandates from an authority, such as the president of the country, but also hoped to show her the reasoning in my request to be let back. I pushed, not too hard but hard. She dismissed us to a corner of the room while she spoke with her colleague about it. Joachim said he wouldn’t leave me behind if his passport was processed, but he had to in order to return the car and catch his flight.
I tried to work out what my next steps would be. I was in no man’s land between Namibia and South Africa. Would Namibia take me back if I was refused to be let into SA? Where would I spend the night and how would I get there in the middle of the night? Maybe they would let me stay at the border until daylight, even a holding cell would do for just a night. As my mind laid out the options and potential pathways, I heard a loud stamp. Half expecting it to be some horrible mark on my passport declining me from entry to any other country, we returned to the window to find she had approved it. “OK to go,” she said flatly. Joachim and I nearly tripped over each other thanking her and stumbling out of the door. “Have a good… morning?” Joachim said awkwardly causing us to lose ourselves to laughter outside of the room. As we drove away we passed through another checkpoint to check our passports (Joachim wished a slightly less good morning to these officers), then saw the gate to enter the country. We accidentally drove through a final checkpoint where we were to hand in our vehicle reentry. We reversed back in, gave the lady our document, and rolled away as Joachim exclaimed, “Have a good morning!” Third time is the charm.
It was 1:30 AM, we were in South Africa. The sea was another hour and change drive away. Awoken from the adrenaline of the roller coaster ride of emotions we had just been on we headed towards the sea with excited chatter. We drove in to Springbok and hoped to find a shop open for eggs to cook up with our weird biltong the next morning – no luck. Sick looking dogs patrolled the streets, either sick or hungry. Everything was closed and the town was dark. We planned to sleep somewhere halfway between Springbok and the sea. We found a pulloff 10 kilometers out of town – it was a rest/picnic area. But as I stepped outside of the car to take a look around, I found a pile of bloody bones, a rib cage of something, broken beer bottles, and trash scattered across the parking area. It looked like a place where people congregated. My brain was too tired to be brave, I was scared. We had seen cars pulled off on the side of the road with missing windshields and broken tires, and one looked like someone was sleeping inside. Sure it was 2:30 in the morning and everyone was probably asleep. But what if they weren’t and we looked like an easy target with a truck full of gear. I listened to my gut, apologized to Joachim, and we drove on.
Finally, around 3 AM it felt like we were far enough away out of town. I saw a dirt road splitting off the tar going North into the park we would eventually be visiting, Ai Ai Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. We drove down a ways, looped in a big circle to shine the headlights to see if we saw any houses, then parked the car. We didn’t get out of the car but locked the doors and tried to settle in for a few hours of sleep. Joachim crawled into the back to lie down and I reclined the passenger seat. We put on a few extra layers, it was cold and our sleeping bags were folded up in the tent. I pulled the hood of my melly over my face to avoid watching out the windows, expecting to see someone approach the car. I woke up multiple times throughout the night thinking I heard a noise and dreaming that someone vandalized the car. It was so cold.
We woke up shivering, amazed it had dropped so low throughout the night. We had only slept a couple of hours but now that we were awake and freezing, we decided to continue the drive to the sea. J began to drive, then pulled over and asked if I could instead. An hour later, we rounded a hill and saw the sea. The air turned salty. We parked at the beach, climbed up on top of the truck, and ate the cake we had bought in Windhoek. I got a slice of strawberry chocolate cake and he got some sort of cheesecake. Cake by the ocean, it was perfect.
We had hoped that night we could camp on the beach somewhere but were surprised that the beach area was owned by mines. They mined for diamonds along the coast and we passed many signs warning against buying a diamond on the black market. We sent some messages home and for me, to my supervisors in the states and at the project, telling them we made it across the border… but that we were not heading back yet. Now that we made it safely into South Africa, we had plans to enjoy a few more days of vacation before I headed back to work and Joachim went on the Joburg to fly home. We thought about buying a fish to cook up, but since we weren’t sure where we would be staying that night decided against it. With the hope that the next town North, Alexander Bay, may have some camping accommodations, we drove North. The highway stretched out through the sand dunes, sea on the left and mountains off in the distance on the right. It was the straightest road I have ever seen and the truck zoomed down it. Red fog rolled in off the ocean – red perhaps from the sand that had been blown out, I’m not sure. It was eerie to see long stretches of fenced off beaches. We were about a kilometer from the ocean with the no man’s land between us. When we arrived to Alexander Bay, we found it was also dead and didn’t feel friendly. We lapped the town and after realizing there wasn’t a campground anywhere, parked to make a back-up plan.
We could skip camping on the coast and head straight into Richtersveld Park. It would still be another couple of hours of driving, but then we would have a few days to explore. J slept as I drove the paved, then dirt roads East into the park. But driving the rough roads and navigating with the map proved too overwhelming. And I had just seen a double bus come careening down a hill sliding sideways in the sand. I swear I made eye contact with the driver of the bus and he recovered the wheel and barely missed us. I woke up Joachim to ask for help. The washboard roads were rough on the truck but I found that going faster was actually better for minimizing the bumps. The further we drove into the desert, the more I began to feel like we were losing reality. It was Mars. Jagged, red, rocky hills and mountains lined the horizon. Remnants of them that had been blown to sand created a network of dunes, some that even ran into the road. We climbed up hills and dropped down into valleys. We had followed the Orange River for awhile but soon were led off into what seemed like an endless void of sand. Eventually, we saw the road dissected a mountain range and two large hills protruded out on each side of the lane. It was a dramatic gateway into the park.
After looking at the maps and sharing our thoughts on the extraterrestrial landscape, we decided to stay for 2 nights. The first would be at a campsite called De Coop which was nestled along the Orange River and the next up in the mountains at Kokerboomkloof. I decided that since I had brought us all the way out here, I wanted to finish the drive to the first campsite. 4×4 was necessary and we soon understood why. We drove along rough, rocky roads, up and over steep mountain passes where the road dropped away on either side and each boulder the truck crawled over felt like it was just high enough to tip over the vehicle. The roads were single tracked and my stomach flipped at the thought of running in to another car where one of us, preferably not me, would have to reverse. As we made our way to the river, we passed through a large open valley. We stopped in the middle of and I climbed on top of the truck to take in the whole view. We both shot some film but I’m sure the photos will not due the justice of how desolate and lonely the area was. The track turned away from the bigger mountains and dropped into a gorge. Soon the road became muddy and slick, potholes with unknown depths taunted us, but the truck roared it’s way through all of the obstacles. We actually found a few other groups of people much to our surprise.
Before even setting up the tents, we swam in the river. Namibia was on the other side of the Orange River so of course the first thing we did was swim back across to the country we almost got stuck in. We sat in the river, necks just above water and cooled off from the impressive heat. There was a small section of rapids downstream and, after some convincing, I followed Joachim down them floating on my back. We had to go feet first to diverge around underwater boulders (I stubbed my toe many times) but the water was quick and rapids gentle enough to have time to laugh and shout our way down. It was a section of maybe half a kilometer. There were a few eddies that looked like they could want to hang on to you, but eventually we were spat out the other side into a slow, swirling section of the river. We grabbed a rock and crawled on top of it. “Think there are crocodiles here?” J asked. I shrugged and said hope not. We basked in the sun and eventually pulled ourselves out of the water to cook and set up camp.
Two skinny, stray dogs hung around our truck. Pets were prohibtted so we weren’t sure where these guys came from. It would have been a long walk from the nearest town, maybe they fell in the river? Or maybe somehow did in fact bring along their pet companions. I left Joachim to his music and cooking and wandered off down the river. I had forgotten how much I enjoy being by water, whether it’s the sea or a river or stream. I leaned back against a rock to write and watched to sun fade behind an impressive mountain. I decided I wanted to climb it the next morning.
Once back to camp, Joachim seemed worried and mentioned that I had been gone awhile. We had spent the last 48 hours literally within an arm’s length away. I’m not sure if it was lonliness and being used to being around me, or if the stray dogs were creeping him out. He had cooked up the biltong with some couscous, beans, and hot sauce. I told him about my plans to climb the mountain above camp, he agreed, and I set the alarm for 5 AM.
I snoozed the alarm. Twice. My body begged for rest. I managed to convince it to move around 7 AM. We had a hearty breakfast of eggs, beans, and cooked biltong with some of the leftover couscous from the night before. Hot sauce of course was added to the top.
We started hiking around 9 AM with the goal of making it as far as we wanted (or could), but allowed ourselves to turn back if the terrain couldn’t be navigated or the temperature got too high. The mountain looked like an enormous pile of scree, it looked loose and tricky to navigate in the daylight. Already the sun was beating down and it felt like radiation was coming off from our bodies as they heated up.
We followed the ridge up, working our way up gullies of larger rock, and scrambling along the knife edge fins. At times we would break to sip on our water, trying not to take too much, and catch our breath. We were getting worked. Joachim would chat away (picture a mix of an English and Belgian accent) until the elevation and effort took his breathe away. Breaks were used to take photographs and continue conversations that intermittently halted when we couldn’t breathe. As we climbed, we breached one false summit after the next. The ridge was so steep, every bulge looked like the top with nothing but sky behind it. Eventually though, while taking a break on a large chunk of stone shaded by the sun, I saw cairns at the next bulge. Another 15 minutes of scrambling later and we were standing on the summit. To the West stretched out the Orange River, braiding itself between the dunes of Namibia on the North and South Africa on the South. I thought about how amazing it would be to packraft the Orange River – the entire thing from the source at the Drakensburg Mountains in Lesotho all the way out to sea at the sketchy town of Alexander Bay.
The mountains layered and stacked on top of each other in the distance. Almost like how the Cascade mountains fade in purple with each layer beyond, but these were layers of red. I saw an incredibly sharp protrusion of a peak way off in the distance West. I used the binoculars to take a closer look and marveled at the thought of climbing it. Every direction looked different, from the river, to the desolate sand valleys, to the rigid peaks of the mountain range, to the dunes of Namibia. We relaxed at the summit until it felt like our bodies would bake from the sun. We decided to return to the river via a different route and descended down the Northeast side. The scree was loose and soon my legs trembled beneath me – I’ve always had a tougher time going down than up. From the scree slopes we continued down gullies that required some downclimbing and stemming around dry falls that felt like canyoneering. It would be amazing to see the place when the rains fell.
Hot, sunburnt, and thirsty we returned to the car about 3 and a half hours after we had departed. We chugged some juice and water from the truck and decided before cooling off in the river, we should add the extra diesel we had been lugging around to the tank. We assumed it would be a messy job and were correct. Without a funnel, we resorted to cutting a water bottle in half to drain the fuel into the tank. It worked but a slow trickle ran down J’s arm and onto my leg. It was done though and we bounded into the river after. We saw some big fish this time that sort of creeped me out with how close they got. I accidentally discovered a deep spot (above my head) with thick seaweed and panicked wondering what lived down there as I tried to untangle myself and swim out. Joachim floated the rapids again, and we hung around the rock at the end.
We packed up in the heat around 2 PM to head off to the next campsite. J offered to drive back through the scary mud and though I thought for sure we could get stuck while I clung to the handle above the door as we lurched through it, we made it. We navigated around Mars, up and over craters and around space rocks, until we hit Desolation Valley (this is actually what it was called). A vast expanse of white sand lined with the perfect triangle peaks. Dark streaks scarred the mountains; at first we thought they were from clouds shading portions of the mountain but they never moved, they were etched into the peaks – some sort of mineral deposit. We crossed the lonely world of the valley and saw the road rise up the other side and twist behind some rock outcrops. The sand was hard packed here and we took advantage of it and picked up speed. I guess it also felt like Fury Road, especially because I was new to driving manual and felt powerful controlling the rig working through the gears. We wound our way to the top of the hill and took a few moments to take in the valley below. We noticed how small the truck now looked in this landscape, it’s all relative.
We dropped back down towards the river and craned our necks at an absurd rock formation. It looked like an egg balanced on top of slabs of sandstone. It reminded of Vedauwoo and the potatoe chip rock formation perched at the top of the odd jumble of rocks. We were thrilled when we rounded the corner and found our second campsite – we would for sure be scrambling to the top. It was first come, first serve with only one other party of two – an older couple living in Cape Town who were originally from the UK. We shared gossip and news about the virus until the woman claimed the whole thing was a conspiracy. We chose a campsite far away from the couple next to a giant slab of rock. Joachim was busy unpacking the car chatting away as I kicked off my sandals and starting padding up the rock, tongue hanging out nearly drooling over the perfect slab. “And you’re off,” I heard him say under his breath as he kicked off his shoes as well and began to follow me up. It was high and the heat of the day made the rock hot, I left sweaty hand and foot prints behind. I heard some cursing, but eventually J made it to the top with a smile that matched mine. We pointed across the flats to the jumble of rocks and discussed ways to the top.
After coming back down, we sat on the tailgate as afternoon turned to evening. Despite all the time we spent together we chatted for hours talking about everything from American myths, horror stories, showering with plants (highly recommend), and so on going off tangents. I assured him I wouldn’t get lost as he had apparently thought I did the night before and ventured off to a rock to write in my notebook. Before I left, he asked if it was a snake or bird day. Throughout the trip, I explained my appetite for the day can range from a bird where I snack all day to a snake where I try to fit everything possible into my stomach. This was important for knowing how much to cook each meal. “Snake today,” I replied. The sun set behind the egg and light faded from Mars.
He was building a fire when I got back so I offered to cook dinner. I cooked couscous, peas, with a tin of curry, and of course hot sauce. But in his bowl I placed one of the weird dried worms – they were big so I assumed he’d find it quickly. He did which resulted in a shoving match next to the fire. After, we laid with our legs up against the slab, back on the ground, and watched the stars. “There are 16 species of scorpions here,” he said looking around the fire.
We woke at 7 AM – I made coffee, he made tea. We contemplated how urgently we needed to return to reception. There was none in the park and there was the possibility that we would be asked to do a rescue mission and ferry other people from the project who had been on vacation as well but were stuck in Upington. If we needed to drive them back, we actually had an extra day of holiday. Before we dropped off Earth, we were told that if we were transporting them, it would be on Monday. Originally, we had planned to be back at the project on Sunday, which would have been this day. This put us in the predicament of whether we needed to hurry to drive the 10+ hours back that day, or if we had another night to spend and thus another day in the park.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the egg rock. “Maybe there’s reception up there,” I offered, knowing full well there wouldn’t be. J threw a punch into my shoulder with a smile and started packing his bag. It was the perfect morning temperature, cool with a warm breeze from the rising sun. I tossed water, my phone, and camera into my pack and we set off at a quick pace across the flats. We waved to the conspiracy couple and marched to the base of the gully we had spotted the evening before. It was broken and loose, full of spider webs and spiky bushes, but we made quick work of it and stood eying the next objective. Across a slope of broken boulders was a giant slab, maybe 40 meters tall with a large flake system cutting up the center of it. We hopped across the boulders and to the base. My heart skipped, the flake was perfect. Maybe a bit steep for a scramble but not quite vertical enough to feel unsafe. I stepped up onto it and worked the flake until it choked, then stepped out onto the slab running my left hand under the flake and using my right to pad up the textured face. I felt like animalistic, like some kind of monkey or gargoyle or something, as I raced my shadow up. The moves didn’t have to be dynamic, but they were more fun that way. I kept J in sight as he raced up behind me. At the top of the flake was a perpendicular slab, then a dome with another massive boulder stacked on top that created a perfect undercling to use to walk along the slope of the top of the dome. I waited for J around the corner, eventually he popped over and said he had to belly crawl through the undercling portion. We were now up near the egg and worked our way around boulders the size of houses that were shedding off layers of rock. We summited after squeezing up and through a chimney, the last obstacle. From the top we could see the Orange River, Mount Terror past the Valley of Desolation, and the layers upon layers of mountains beyond. There wasn’t any reception up there, I didn’t even have to check.
Reality that the trip was ending pulled us back down off the rock. We had done the entire climb quicker than we expected, so we didn’t feel too guilty for making time for it – and it was totally worth it. The car had already been packed prior to our decision so we threw our bags in, I hopped behind the wheel, and we headed back down towards the valley. We retraced the roads we had taken the day before for about an hour, then turned South towards the exit of the park. With new terrain to navigate, I couldn’t help but think the roads were somehow more dodgy on this side of the park. We crawled across large rocks and over passes. J would entertain me with chatter about anything and everything, but I could tell when he was nervous with the driving when he’d fall silent – then once the danger was over, struck up the conversation again. I was still feeling out how much the truck could do in each gear, it was stressful learning how much power it could lose going up steep hills. I misjudged one of the especially rough hills and thought we could make it up in second gear. The tires started to kick up dust, the engine slowed and sputtered, and after we bumped over a rock the size of a microwave, the truck stalled. Out the windshield I could only see sky, and the road twisted behind us with the edge vanishing over a cliff. I began to sweat profusely with nerves – I really didn’t want to kill us as I pictured the truck rolling backwards off the mountain. I pulled the parking brake up and restarted the car. I asked J to control the parking brake and let it go once the gears engaged in 1st gear – sure I could have done this on my own but for some reason felt like my left hand needed to be on the stick even after shifting it into first. I slammed the gas down and let the clutch out. The truck swayed back before starting to fight forward against the parking brake, J let it down, we kicked up some more rocks, and made it to the top. Luckily, that was the worst pass, though the remaining 50 kilometers of road was still rough and it was a slow drive. But the scenery was amazing. Trees that I had never seen before grew out of the Earth in strange formations. One was called a “half man” tree because it looked like a body hunched against the trunk of the tree. Another was a bastard something that looked like a bunch of aloe plants were stuck on the top of a palm tree. Succulent plants were scattered across the rocks.
We finally dropped down the last descent towards the park gates. We decided to drive the extra 30 kilometers back to the park office (the park is a loop) for reception and to refuel – the extra diesel we had brought barely made us back. I felt my shoulders tighten and lift with stress when my phone registered 32 new text messages. Joachim saw my reaction and said he would go and buy me a snack in the shop while I sorted out my life. But it turned out, none of the messages were bad or telling us we needed (or should have been) back at the project. The rescue mission was on, so we actually had an extra night to spend on the coast. We could spend a night at the sea after all.
I said I wanted to undo what I did and drive the sketchy, sandy roads all the way back to Alexander Bay. With new found confidence I navigated the roads – Joachim said he felt like he was in the Dakar Rally. He eventually was lulled to sleep by the ruts, sways, and bumps. I drove through Alexander Bay, back to Port Nolloth before waking him up. We hoped to get some fish and beer for the last night, but the town was completely shut down. The corona virus had effectively closed all shops along the main stretch. It was also Sunday which meant the shops would have been closed at 6 PM anyway. We found a caravan campground in a bay just South of town, McDougalls Bay. It was full of people, surprisingly. The camp was fenced, even from the sea, and it seemed very family oriented – we felt incredibly out of place.
We both severely needed a shower after all the sweating and swimming we did in the park. I went first – the lights in the bathroom didn’t work and I wasn’t sure if I felt cleaner after taking the shower. I took my turn to watch the car and waited for J to shower and come back so we could explore the beach. I watched people run along the shore and kids play in the water. My legs began to swing widely as I sat on the tailgate, antsy to play in the sand and water and impatient for J to return. Finally he did and we bounded into the ocean, it was cold. We walked North back up towards Port Nolloth as the sun was setting. We waded out and examined intertidal pools – we found tiny dark red starfish, small man o war (or something similar) jelly fish washed up on the beach, orange anemones, mussels, and snails. We lapped the beach and headed back to camp as the sun was setting.
The camp had a power source and we thrashed together the jojos to build a stand for a power cord to run up into the tent. With his computer plugged in, we watched a film. We had wanted to sort through all of the photos from the trip, but my harddrive wasn’t compatible with his laptop. When the film was over I listened to sea until it put me to sleep.
I woke up early for coffee by the sea. My hair had corkscrewed from the salty air. I left the fenced area and sat on some rocks watching the morning grey fade. It was cold and gloomy, but felt homey like PNW seaside mornings.
We packed up and checked out, happy to distance ourselves from the weird caravan camp and strange town of Port Nolloth. The drive to Upington was long and rather uneventful. Joachim drove most of it as I drove the bulk of the day before. We passed through the barren lands below the Orange River, then met up with it again just before entering Upington. We picked up our friends from Cape Town to return to the project, did some grocery shopping that I tried to avoid but was told by J that if I didn’t buy myself some fruit he would do it, and ate some lunch at Mug n Bean. We realized we had skipped dinner the night before for movie night and quickly consumed the small portion of food. We drove to the edge of Upington, then switched for me to drive the last two and half hours along the dirt roads back into the Kalahari.
The project seemed quiet, quite a few people had left to return home for the pandemic. We were put into quarantine and given masks to wear for a week. The car was cleaned, my gear was unpacked, his was repacked, and we prepared for our goodbye.
I stabbed his ear, he stabbed mine – twice because the first hole was sideways. Now we could share the gemstone earrings. I injected a transponder into his leg – it’s a molerat thing. We shared some beers, then some gin, looked through the photos and proposed another roadtrip soon. Maybe we could try Namibia again, in June, to see what we had missed? See you soon, not goodbye.
Back at the KMP
As usual, it’s been an adjustment period to be back at the research station after spending some time wandering. I’m not moving anymore, am quite sleep deprived, and of course am missing the road – even the rough roads I thought I’d kill us on. With each trip, I find out a little more about myself and this one was no different. I’m fortunate to have the opportunities to create this lifestyle.
For me, home is the KMP and though I only have 2 months left here, it feels like where I belong to weather out the chaos of the world. With all of the unknowns happening right now, I feel like there’s no better place for me to be. While it can feel far away and removed from the real world, it’s been my world for the last 10 months and I’ll make the last 2 months count.