Travel Blog: Hitchhiking the Trans-Kalahari and Other African Tales

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To clarify, I began hitchhiking the moment I landed in Johannesburg. At nearly the exact time of my flight arrival, my good friend, who arrived a few days earlier, was in an South African courthouse being sentence to 2 years in prison. My last vacation with this friend resulted a broken leg and trip to the emergency room. I was not totally surprised to learn of this set back, only that it happened so soon.

But let me start at the beginning. Shortly after my flight arrived, the airport train leaves me at a shanty town (although in retrospect it wasn’t all that shanty) about 1.5 miles from my guest house. The parking lot’s numerous guards and tall electrified spiked fence imply this is no place for a jet-lagged tourist to walk with his bags. The guards inform me that no taxis service this remote lot. My friend is no where to be found (see first paragraph). An hour later the next train arrives and I ask an Afrikaner for a ride. He obliges and says that I am lucky to not have wandered and to get a ride with a "white". He is an angry fellow, albeit helpful, and after he finishes shouting at his angry wife on the phone, we drive to my guest house.

I arrive at the guest house and my friends are just now returning from the courthouse. They had just missed me at the train station. My friend’s two-year prison sentence, for a trumped-up reckless driving charge, has been suspended. He pays a fine and has 10years(?) probation. He shares a story with me and a video of his experience.

One of the many oddities of a South African jail is that they confiscate your shoelaces. Only your shoelaces and nothing more. My friend gets to keep his iPhone and takes videos while all the other inmates are asleep. The jail video is eerily mistakable for the scene of a morgue. It is winter here, and the frigid bodies are all huddled together with blankets pulled overhead.

Our Johannesburg guesthouse is also a jail of sorts. Surrounded by an electrified fence and tall walls, I never step outside. But we take day trip here and there. We take an overnight trip to the stadium in Rustenberg where we watch Ghana vs US in the world cup.

At the stadium forty thousand vuvuzelas and a drunk crazed crowd create an unforgettable sound.

When the US loses I am saddened but privately relieved. Because I didn’t come to Africa to sit in bars or travel the country in search of overpriced stadium tickets. Now with the US out of the World Cup, we gather around our large road map of Africa. Our exciting pre-game huddle for our upcoming Safari across Botswana.

The following evening, we pick up our Land Rovers from Bushlore’s stunning garage. Of all the wonder I witnessed in Africa, the sight of this massive and well organized garage is one of my favorites. And our 90 minute vehicle orientation is now amongst my all time favorite lectures. Our truck is configured with a full kitchen, a refrigerator, several ladders, easy fold out tents on the roof, diamond plates on the hood, etc, etc -- and a winch! A mighty winch with a remote control so that you can seek protective cover in case the cable snaps. If the cable snaps the winch is transformed into the worlds most powerful deli slicer. But when it operates properly it is a lifesaver. Often when the Bushlore fellow feels his advice becomes overly complex, he waves his hand dismissively and says, "eh.... you have a winch.." The roads are treacherous where we are headed. In some of the marsh 25 miles can take 4hours to navigate.

That night we park the Land Rover Defender right in front of my room’s full glass door at our guest house. It will be our last night in Johannesburg. The excitement keeps me awake and each time my eyes open I see the Defender under various angles of the moonlight. I am in love with this beauty.

The next day our three vehicles (there are six of my friends on this trip) drive for Palapye in Botswana. The days journey is easy, but as dusk approaches Bushlore’s constant emphatic reminder of "NEVER DRIVE AT NIGHT -- WE HAVE ALL HIT SOMETHING" repeats in my mind. We pass Botswana’s last veterinary fence dangerously late in the evening, sealing our fate. We will have to drive at night since the camp is still two hours away.

If you can explain the evolutionary pressure that makes animals deliberately merge into traffic, you deserve a Nobel Prize. Upon seeing your vehicle, warthogs start confidently gallop to merging speed on the grassy road shoulder as they slightly angle towards your lane. Their beautiful mane flows in the wind. Our car horn quickly discourages them and they calmly correct their trajectory (they seem to know some road edict). The real danger are the excitable and unpredictable bucks (boks), and larger antelopes*. It is terrifying. We spend the next hour with gazes at various distances, constantly reminding each other of hazards over walkie-talkies. We have to choose between driving faster (to preserve day light) or slower --to limit collision damage. But it doesn’t matter -- we are soon driving at night. Within a few minutes we pass a vehicle with its hood smashed. The driver’s and passenger’s eyes are wide with terror and dramatically lit by our high beams. We can barely register this since our gaze immediately returns to the hazards ahead. It wasn’t until we stopped an hour later where we really pieced this scene together. Our brains were in survival mode and the stationary smashed car was quickly (sadly & embarrassingly) discarded because it wasn’t an immediate threat.

*(Side note: I had read that it was not possible to domesticate deer, with reindeer being the only noted exception. Deer are too timid and frightened. Try to fence or corral them and they will eventually kill themselves against the fence. During my drive in Namibia I watched a terrified Gemsboks hit a fence and do a violent back flip . I watched another try to cross the fence at an angle only to smash it’s head into a post at top speed. The collision appeared fatal.)

We finally arrive at camp Itahume in Palapye. It is in a rough neighborhood by the train tracks, but the camp itself is a hidden Overlander’s paradise. It has an excellent bar. We all go to bed after heavy drinking. Going to bed, however, requires an 7ft+ ascent up the ladders to our vehicle’s roof top tents. Not an easy feat even when sober.

We have 6 people in our group on 3 different anti-malarial meds. Most experience lucid nightmares. One of our friends awakes terrified and confused. He thrashes violently attacking his girlfriend who is in the tent with him. She suffers no injury but the tent is damaged. Another awakes panicked convinced his tent is filled with large black and red snakes. He isn’t calmed until he finds his flashlight. Yet another exits his tent so confused that he forgets his tent sits atop our tall vehicle. He falls 7ft directly on his back. He actually bounces. Remarkably no one is seriously injured but ice packs are required.

I sleep lightly among the jungle noises, the goats bells, and train horns.

(please refer to the addendum regarding the next two paragraphs)

Then I am are quickly awakened by my own screams. My scream cause others to scream. The chain reaction was ultimately started by a nearby man screaming desperately in Afrikaans or an unrecognizable bush language. The terror expressed in his scream is disturbing and sounds pleading. My heavily intoxicated tent mate rushes to leave the tent to investigate. This requiring me to at once counterbalance his weight so the poorly supported cantilevered platform doesn’t snap at the hinge.

Within a few seconds we hear a really loud bang! A gunshot perhaps, and the screaming instantaneously ceases. A security guard running towards the scene first passes our campsite. He sees my friend who is at the base of the tent ladder huddled with his head in hand. My friend is really, really, drunk! He can’t speak and slowly lifts his head with his hand. This posture gives the terrified security guard the impression that my friend has just killed someone and now has instant regret and shame. The type of feeling decent people would expect of a recent murderer. It is not clear what ends this stare-off between the security guard and my friend. Neither speak a word. The fate of the original screaming man is unclear as well.

The next morning we resume our drive to Chobe National Park in Northern Botswana, we arrive mid day and we drive along the Chobe River to our campsite. We are overwhelmed by the amount of hippos, water buffalo, giraffes, baboons, zebras, hundreds of different and colorful birds, etc, etc. But there are an unsettling number of elephants and giant crocodiles. The elephants present a serious problem. Their population has literally exploded (130,000 estimated in a county of 2 million people). Many of the saplings are trampled. They destroy an estimated 40% of the annual crops grown by subsistence farmers in the immediate region. They also destroy campsites, poking their trunks into your shower, tearing up plumbing, smashing through walls, etc. Camps require frequent relocation and rebuilding.

Worst of all they are aggressive. I debate my strategy if one charges at me. I’ve seen an elephant strike a 5 story tree with such force I would likely be shaken out. The other plan is dive into the water and swim. But if you make it to the water you will likely get uncivilized greeting from a hippo. And you probably wont get to the waters edge anyway because the crocodiles will lunge out of the water and kill you first! What to do!?! "Back away slowly", I am told.

The first page of the Bible reads "And let (man) have dominion over all the earth... and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth". African animals seem to not know of this passage. I am armed with a Tazer and a machete. I don’t feel very dominant.

We are constantly warned to not leave our vehicle and then to not leave our campsite by the park ranger. Somehow, magically, the animals understand the implied property lines of the small campsite at the river’s edge. Again with the "Don’t Leave" ! I am imprisoned yet again! I am anxious and restless! I disobey the warnings and walk a mere 50 feet from our campsite to collect firewood.

An elephants foot is a marvel of biological engineering. The foot circumference can be over 4ft and they literally tip toe on fatty and connective tissue. This makes an ambling elephant perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) silent. I didn’t fully appreciate this until my friends give a desperate whisper from the campsite. Since I am collecting firewood my attention is focused down. My broad rimed hat prevents me from noticing that I am walking right into an elephant’s path. I look up. The elephant’s hips and shoulder square towards mine. Its ears are fully swept open. Its head is tilted back and each large eye looks down the barrel of its tusk. I feel like the firing squad has already shouted "READY!,AIM!" and is about to shout "FIRE!" .... I back away slowly and then remain at the campsite, never again to repeat this mistake.

At night we sleep lightly. We keep one side of our tent fully open so we can lie on our backs to look up at the stars and occasional meteor. Then we quickly roll on to our stomach and investigate sudden noises with our lights. Jackals and wilddogs laugh and howl all night. It’s like sleeping in a "house of horrors" my friend jokes. Badgers walk in and out of the campsite collecting the occasional springhare (an over-sized rabbit). Honey badgers walk with the same arrogant confidence displayed by new body builders at a gym. They suffer from what the fitness world calls "invisible lat syndrome" and project muscle mass that doesn’t seem to be there. But their ferocity is sure. Nothing -- not even lions -- attack a honey badger!

We spend the following week with similar experiences. During the day I pretend I am a 19th century naturalist. I have brought along a microscope -- a low grade toy really. The microscope is monocular with a cylindrical insect chamber, but it really looks like a marijuana bong! The rangers stare at me in a disapproving way. I inspect insect larva stained with our iodine tablets. I extract water samples from the delta using a long pole to ensure the crocodiles don’t ambush me. And worst of all, I embarrass the group with my butterfly net as I effeminately prance the campsite in pursuit of winged insects.

During the day we slowly drive through the vast African Savannah. The grass is tall everywhere except for the two wheel channels formed by vehicles. Occasionally we check our radiator for grass-seed build-up to ensure it hasn’t clogged the cooling fins. The sound of the golden tall grass as it is folded in front of our truck is soothing. The relaxation only interrupted when a guinea hens occasionally leaps into one of the tracks. When this happens the guinea hens are too panicked to fly. Blocked by a tall wall of grass on both sides, they just keep running at top speed in a straight line, their head pumping back and forth like a lateral piston. It is physical comedy. The hens give a frequent single-eyed glance over alternating shoulders. "Yep! I’m still here", I repeatedly tell the road fowl. Only at the last moment do they remember they can escape death by flapping their wings.

The group gets along well. I have an annoying tendency to preempt conflicts which often proves unnecessary. I stop doing this and the group does just fine. But we are at a crossroad. One group wants to head south to Port Elizabeth. Another group wants to return east to Jo’berg and then fly to Capetown. And I want to head West to Namibia. I want to see Windhoek, the former German colony and capital of Namibia. I want to see Walvis Bay, the Dead Pans of Sossusvlei, and the worlds largest sand dunes. I read of Namibia’s chameleons that turn pink before your eyes, neon striped geckos, the world’s fastest beetles, and consequently the world’s fastest lizards.** And it is a truly abandoned country. There is no pollution or humidity to form clouds, making it one of the greatest stargazing spot in the southern hemisphere.

** (Side note: The lizards have two bladders, one for water and one for urine. If you want to catch one, throw your hat in the air to simulate a bird of prey and get them as they dig into the dune. But don’t even try to run after them. As for the beetles, their wings have fused. They can’t fly but they can collect fog water by doing a headstand at the crest of the dunes. The water condensing on their former wings runs down to their mouth.)

Since I have to go south anyway, I join the southbound group. We spend the night at a private campground in Ghanzi, Botswana. The next morning I will have to decide if I will hitchhike or continue with my friends.

That night we eat at the campsite bar. My friends have eland (an antelope and an excellent, choice) and I eat warthog. Warthog is a little tough, doesn’t taste much like pork, and gives me diareah. During dinner we are greeted by a small dog named "Scruffy". Even Guinness would agree that Scruffy is the world’s happiest dog. His happy look and wagging body borders on insanity. The owner of the campsite confesses that he has to kill many Ferrel dogs as they cause problems for the game and livestock. But when he looked down at the barrel of his rifle and saw Scruffy’s permanent smile, he just didn’t have the heart to shoot. Survival of the cutest -- the jungle’s law can be fickle.

We continue talking to our host as he explains that local fencing is causing a dramatic rise in the large cat population (lions, leopards, and cheetahs). Where only one cheetah cub used to make it to maturity now all six in the litter do. On the domestic side of the fence, the cheetahs can just pick-off a fat lamb. On the wild side of the fence, the lions have learned to chase ostriches into the fence. The ostriches then bounce off and fall on their butt. Its too easy and I am sure a great laugh for the lions. Even I could hunt this way.***

***(Last side note I swear: Regarding ostriches, they attack with a one legged kick then claw. One Afrikaner recounts a tale of seeing them kick and claw through corrugated aluminum, and also through a man’s chest and stomach. Should you ever be attacked just lie on your back and they will just be able to step on you. You may want to get a second source on this last statement.)

I sleep poorly that night questioning the sanity of my recent decision -- earlier in the evening I finally decided to HITCHHIKE over 500km across the border to Windhoek. I am worried because my passport is fully stamped and there is no room for another entry stamp. I worry because the roads are deserted. I worry that I may get robbed... or worse.

Nevertheless, the local campsite owner tells me that I should be fine. Most people hitchhike in Namibia, even the guide book tells me there are no buses from Botswana to Namibia. You have to hitchhike/drive or fly. With that in mind, my pals drive me 20km south to an unmarked intersection of the vast Kalahari desert highway. I say good bye and dictate my last wishes into the video camera.

Botswana and Namibia are the least populated countries on earth. They are each around the size of Texas and have a population roughly 3 times that of Tucson. I am concerned that I will not make it to my destination by night fall due to lack of traffic. One man warns me that at night I will not be able to build a fire and "the wild dogs will drag you into the bush". I hope he is joking.

It has been an hour and no car has taken me. Is it my look ? I have combat boots, a burlap hat with "lots of character", an explorer’s mustache, parachute style pants, sunglasses, a tight t-shirt, an occasional cigarillo, and a chain wallet. Worst of all, my machete handle is protruding from my bag. Who in their right mind would pick me up!

Soon a bushwoman (properly the Kalahari-San) comes out of the Savannah. Where is she walking from !? The bush appears endless. She is dressed in many layers of dark colors. Her skin is waxy, smooth, and iridescent. I have been told they do not shower and this isn’t by choice. This is the driest place on earth. They find water to drink at the animal watering holes. She doesn’t smell (I’m guessing because she doesn’t sweat) she looks cleaner than I do. She has no discernible possessions.

The bushwoman begins waving down rides with no regards to the fact that I was here first. She is frustrated that no one picks us up. She stares at me disapprovingly, implying it is my fault. Me and my silly adventurer appearance.

Soon a pickup stops with enough room for me and the bush woman in the pickup bed. Based on the smell, I think their last passengers may have been goats. I throw on my backpack and run towards the vehicle. Thorns stick sharply into my back. I had left my backpack carelessly against a type of cactus. Even with my backpack removed, the thorny burrs are now all over my back in unreachable places. So here I am lying in the bed of a pickup, unable to pick the burrs and thorns from my back, with an unsympathetic bushwoman as my only company.

The ride is short. I will eventually need to take 2 more vehicles just to get to the border.

Another long wait in the sun.

There are trees a short distance from the road. But I am afraid that I will be missed if I don’t stand right by the road. And if bush people show up again, they will jump my place in line.

I decide to read a book and dry my laundry at the road side.

Each time I see a vehicle in the distance, I re-pack my clothes and books. I waive, sometimes desperately, only to be passed. A dust cloud adds further insult. The dust-cloud takes minutes to settle and forces you to ponder your last rejection. I then unpack my wet clothes and books and the cycle repeats for over an hour.

I am picked up by a truck driver hauling a trailer of new cars. Truck drivers are the same the world over -- lonely and talkative. I am not sure the last time this black man (I mention race in this story repeatedly because the racial tension in this region is high) had any company. He shares crackpot ideas with me. His voice is entertaining, Like a Rastafarian Scotsman. He screams whenever he says the word "WHY!?!" and his voice exhibits inappropriate levels of enthusiasm throughout a sentence. He often says "Eh!" and I am not sure if that is an expression of confirmation, or an expression of confusion. He explains about being hijacked, about his bouts with malaria. He explains his joy that the South African police (his home country) are finally just gunning down criminals in the street. I have heard this before and that it seems to be working. He hopes that the Mexicans and Brazilians are paying attention. "I hope soon they will start shooting the people in the favela", he says. I reply with an "Eh!".

The truck driver is not heading directly to the border which baffles me. My large map shows only one road, but people keep turning off! To God knows where! I will need one more ride to get to the border, but I am recently spoiled by the comfort of my last ride.

It is really awkward to turn down a ride when you are hitchhiking. Vehicles slow down but I change my mind last minute. I pretend I am just brushing my hair or act like I am stretching. With the quickly approaching cars you have only a second or two to analyze the vehicle. Some vehicles seem too full, too dilapidated, or the people themselves look menacing. Regardless of my reason, it must be insulting to the vehicles kind enough to slow down.

Within an hour I catch one more ride all the way to the border. Another truck driver, he will remain at the border for 6 hours as they inspect his cargo.

I walk two kilometers to cross the border. I convince the Namibia clerk to stamp the amendments page in my passport. All my entry/exit pages are full. She does so reluctantly and chastises me to "Get a new passport!" I made it! I am in Namibia! The only problem is that there is nothing here except the border post. My destination city is over 300km away, and this is one of the quietest borders in the world.

A rhino beetle is the first Namibian citizen to greet me as I walk the highway. I look closer. It is dead. As I inspect this road kill a vehicle stops behind me. A beautiful new Toyata Hilux and the driver asks me if I want a ride. He is going all the way to Windhoek! I am thrilled, overjoyed!

We speak for the next several hours. The driver has just returned from New York where he presented Namibia’s continental shelf proposal to the United Nations. He has wonderful things to say about his treatment in New York. We exchange stories. He tells me he grew up as the 13th of 30 children (his father had 8 wives). He speaks of living as a subsistence farmer, about the 4 year drought that almost killed them all, about his near death experiences with Malaria. "Oh, the headaches man!", he says with a haunted look in his eye. He is great company.

I am dropped off at the center of Windhoek. It turns out that I am only 1 km from my guest house, but no taxi’s will take me. My map is small and difficult to read. The guest house is on a unknown side road. Frustrated, I exclaim, "Shit, I will just walk". Then a woman says "No, they will rob you", and then another woman pokes her head from behind a column and says "maybe they will KILL you!". Then comes stories of first hand accounts with the local muggers. Even the taxi drivers are untrustworthy.

With that I call my guest house for me and they arrange a taxi. You can not imagine the frustration to wait over an hour so a car to drive you the length of a 10 minute walk. At my guest house they explain it is the same all over Africa. You can walk during the day but only if empty handed. Walking during the day with a bag is risky. But at night, any bag makes you a guaranteed target. Windhoek (Namibia’s tiny capital) has 40% unemployment. All the stores and supermarkets close at dusk. It is eerie.

When I arrive at my guesthouse I am greeted by dozens of people from all over the world. Many people are in Africa for there PhD studies, or to do volunteer work. All have interesting stories and tell of the beautiful places I should visit in Namibia.

I will try to write about my time in Namibia before I leave the country.

Addendum:According to my good friend the group later concluded that the screams were actually from the couple traveling in our group during a malaria-medication induced hallucination.

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