The Ultimate Road Trip

with a nod to my adventurous wife who is ok with this sort of thing

the truck

Ultimate road trip necessities: a truck with dual gas tanks, multiple spares, and an attractive model.

We’re in the classic “middle of nowhere,” and the romance of the open road suddenly abandons us. Our love affair with the long mystical drive doesn't whimper or look back apologetically with its tail between its legs. No, it leaves with more of a loud bang. Our truck has a blowout. Yup, the quixotic adventure grinds to a halt and something akin to a happiness-tax audit abruptly sucks at my soul. Oh god, no, please bring back the African mystique, the adrenaline rush of the foreign, the wild lust for empty spaces. A flat? Really? That’s just so lumpy and gray and mundane and doesn’t fit the soundtrack at all.

This ultimate pan-African road trip has suffered a few notable hiccups—wrong turns, low gas tanks, interesting folks offering to “guard” our truck for an “optional” fee, and Michelle accidentally handing me a valium instead of an anti-malarial. Yeah, oops, nothing could possibly go wrong with that... But at least the latter part ended in an entertaining hacking noise and a noteworthy imitation of a bulimic (entirely amusing to a giggling Michelle, not me), followed by a notable reduction in back pain for which said valium was actually prescribed. Flat tires and car jacks on the other hand, have the distinct possibility of enhancing back trouble and of making anti-malarials seem sadly irrelevant when you can't get your truck to roll into the lush jungles as planned. Aurgh.

dunescape

In the middle of nowhere. Namib Desert, Namibia.

But today is a little different, and the Namibian soundtrack winds back up with a hopeful whir, because of all the miserable places to get a flat tire, just upwind of a lion is by far the most exciting. Yup, by far. Not satisfied with a mundane puncture, I have ripped off the tire’s sidewall in the company of elephants, lions, and bemused giraffes. It’s still just a flat mind you, but much more toothy and tusked and African. So I weigh various options and check behind the visor for hidden lion taming whips and four-legged stools. None. I start to open the door, something rustles in the nearby grass (cheetah?), and a voice-over by a whispering BBC announcer explains how electrifying this must be for the hero of our story. Ok, that last bit may have been in my head, or it could have been Michelle over on the passenger side of the truck; but regardless, the announcer is right. Rustling grass is invigorating, and with a surge of adrenaline, I freeze solid.

Flat tires are one of my super powers. I can conjure them anywhere and any time, and the more inconvenient the location/time/karma, then the more pronounced my powers will become. I can find any roofing nail that has ever been misplaced. Under my influence, sharp rocks, pointy sticks, giant thorns, surprisingly dangerous crabs, and desert heat (did you know tires can form blisters and explode?) have all devoured my steel-belted radials. In this case, the quality (ahem) of the dirt “road” is clearly to blame. Not that I’d prefer pavement. No, definitely not. The dirt keeps away the crowds, and thousands of miles of back-jarring washboard is one of the charms of a road trip in Africa. You can bounce and skitter and go and go and go across the desolate plains for an entire day without seeing another soul. Or a gas station. Or anything at all except warthogs and dusty road. It’s an amazing kind of solitude that makes for a fantastic spiritual journey, except maybe for the damn flats.

Big Teeth

Sometimes, in the right places, flat tires can be kind of toothy. Namibia.

Mom and baby

This cute little guy was all left feet. He kept getting stuck in the mud and needed a lot of encouragement from mom who would scoop him up and set him on his feet again.

watering hole

A watering hole in the desert, not too far from one of the world’s most exciting flat tires.

Right. Lions and rustling and flats. So I have lots (and lots and lots) of experience changing tires but almost always without the circling carnivores. Hmmm, deep breath. Ok. Ok. Just calmly leap out of the truck like superman, I tell myself. View it as an opportunity to set a personal best and break all Olympic records. Michelle helpfully rolls down the passenger window, looks both ways for oncoming predators and yells “Go!” like a panicked starting gun.

Fanged and taloned critters stare at me in shocked disbelief, but with five minutes of furious adrenaline-fueled lug-nut action, I’ve changed the tire, thrown it on top of the cab, and obliterated the damage deposit on our credit card. See, right there—you’ve put a microscopic ding on the running board, you idiot. Aurgh! Well, I reason with myself, eating the $600 deposit is better than being eaten by mom and three tawny cubs. They are very cute lion cubs, yes, but like all good environmentalists I have to draw the line at feeding the wildlife. It’s not good for them, and it’s not really their fault that I’d had the brilliant idea of renting a truck in Namibia. (“Come on Michelle, let’s do a road trip across Africa! What can go wrong?”)

Zebra

I told him a joke about this guy who rented a truck in Africa...

Giraffes

Giraffes and impalas at a watering hole.

I’d had big dreams of starting on the Skeleton Coast and working our way across the continent to Zanzibar (yes, I know it’s an island). It would be epic. Just me, my wife, the unparalleled wildlife and camping on the side of the road wherever the stars look nice. Yeah. I could see it in my mind, like a glossy brochure for susceptible fools. “The ultimate road trip! Solitude, culture, camping, ADVENTURE!” Ooh, ooh, yes, that’s me! Let’s do another trip to the continent that had previously introduced me to Somali-style gun battles and the virtues of sleeping under a mattress rather than on a mattress.

Tropic of Capricorn

On the road to nowhere and loving it.

Well, have I ever told you about Michelle’s definition of an adventure? At this point in the trip she reminds me: it’s not an adventure until you say at least once “What the hell am I doing here?” Hmm. Then it’s official, because I’m pretty sure this was my third “What the f@%&...” in under five minutes.

My road trip dreams had long since been squished into a more manageable package. We would, most emphatically, not be making it out of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts. But come on, this is awesome right? Who the heck does a road trip in Namibia anyway? Well, to be honest, it’s mostly the friendly Germans who always seem to show up in the oddest places; but then I’d seen an adventurous German in Greenland too, so maybe that doesn’t count (who the heck does a road trip in Greenland?). At any rate, this is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen, and unlike prior experiences in Tanzania, Zanzibar, and Nairobbery (aka Nairobi), nobody has tried to shoot me or rob me or spit on me. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone, but Namibia is reeeally nice. No need to travel further. And that’s all I’m going to say on that topic, because it’s my secret destination now. You just stay home, ok?

giraffe portrait

Conversations with a giraffe.

Rhinocerous

I’m alone in a rainstorm, I’m very rare, and I’m almost gone.

I’m more of a hiker than a driver, and I’d rather bike than motor, but lion country really isn’t the best place for high-minded fitness-freak arrogance. So here we are, dropping the attitude and motoring across wide swaths of Africa and thoroughly appreciating the tooth-resistant steel shell of our Nissan. Besides repelling the standard lion, hippo and elephant hazards, the truck’s cab also discourages meddling baboons who go to surprising lengths to score food. (Hah! Nice try Ms. Baboon. Showing me that cute baby will not make me forget that daddy baboon is behind me reaching for the door handle.)

shipwreck

Skeleton Coast shipwreck. The desert dunes don’t end at the coast. They continue underwater shifting constantly and trapping unsuspecting boats.

And camping in the truck’s bed puts us at least a few feet above the puff adders and the black mambas. That has to be a good thing, right? Ironically, we spend a pleasant evening chatting with a local who shivers at the very thought of camping back in the US. “You’ve camped in Alaska?” she says in disbelief. “That’s crazy! Weren’t you scared of being eaten by grizzlies?” But she shrugs off the nearby lions, vipers, hyenas, and leopards, all of which roam her property. Those are manageable.

Leaving the dense wildlife of the high plains, we drive the fabled Skeleton Coast, marveling at the vast foggy flatness dotted with the occasional rotting frames of shipwrecks that give the region its name. There’s not much to see, but nobody lives here and somehow that makes the barren land beautiful. Although aiming for a camp in the mountains that night, the surprising appeal of these coastal plains slows us down. No rush. There’s an artistic soul behind empty spaces, like meaningful pauses in a sentence or long rests in music. It’s relaxing. It’s a road trip.

red and orange desert

Soulful emptiness in the Namib Desert.

red and orange desert

Vortex in the sand.

mirage

An intense floating mirage over the Etosha Pan, an ancient dry lake bed with parched grass in the foreground. Empty flats can be surprisingly beautiful.

mountains

One of the many gorgeous mountains rising out of the desert. This is an exceptionally nice place to camp.

mountains

Arch and mountains in Namibia.

Some of Namibia is muddy jungle, much is mountains, most is desert, and huge swaths are the phantasmagoric thousand-foot high dune fields that people only wish they could find in the Sahara. The first European visitors called it “The Gates to Hell” (well, duh, they kept shipwrecking on the coast). The local San Bushmen call it “The Land God Made in Anger.” We call it a blisteringly hot paradise. Vast, vast stretches of wonderful wilderness with empty drives, long hikes, orange- and red-colored dunes, two flavors of zebras, and some very hot looking gemsbok.

Michelle says, “I think I saw a gemsbok.” I say smugly, “No way, they couldn’t possibly survive in these dunes.” Ten minutes later after spotting a herd of thirty, she very nicely doesn’t make me eat my words, and I buy her a small stuffed-toy version of the giant antelope as an act of penance.

Monkey Gland Sauce Chips

Roaaars with flavour.

No, no, I did not buy a stuffed toy in the middle of the Namib Desert; it was in Johannesburg much later. Don’t be silly. There are no tourist shops in the middle of the Kalahari or the Namib or the Naukluft Mountains. Thank god. It’s so refreshing to get away from that. This is a tire-demolishing, dusty, and distinctly uncivilized road trip. There’s not a glossy brochure or a hotel in sight. Self-sufficiency is key. Souvenir shot glasses are not.

Of course, it isn’t total isolation, because we are on a washboard “road” after all. So like all remote but not-quite abandoned corners of the globe, Orange Fanta and good beers are still available. Seriously, how did Fanta colonize a desert like this? Bizarre, but useful. Cold drinks are essential, as are apparently “Monkey Gland Potato Chips.” No really. They’re thirty clicks south of the Tropic of Capricorn and in the corner of the ramshackle shop, right next to the questionable bread which is looking a little shriveled in this ridiculous heat.

Even the Afrikaners get a touch excited when the thermometer pushes past the magic number 40 by 8:00 am. That’s 40 Celsius which is 104 Fahrenheit, but nobody in Namibia knows those antiquated American units, and it takes me the better part of a searing hot hike to master the conversion in my head. Whoa. No wonder the locals batten down the hatches in the middle of the day. Shocked at our late-morning hiking hubris, we take cover under a small 500-year-old lifeless acacia tree that is partially buried under the dunes that stretch away forever and ever and ever in all directions. The smooth sand-blasted tree limbs fit perfectly with the distant mirage and with our lonely vulture-bait footprints that stagger into the desert. Uh oh, we aren’t “living the life” anymore. We’re living a death scene cliché.

gemsbok

One of our many new gemsbok friends.

Orange and red sand permeates everything—shoes, ears, dreams. Scanning the dunes from the dead tree’s paltry shade, we see inflamed carrot colors bubble and pop out of the sand unrealistically. The hues are almost as intense as the millions of little fleas that apparently belong to the nearby gemsbok who casts us the evil eye because we are under his dead acacia tree. With a preternaturally calm kiss on my forehead, Michelle takes control of the situation and firmly insists we move our melting cheese and warm beer lunch elsewhere and leave the flea tree to its rightful owner. Eyeing the beer, I reluctantly agree we should hike onwards.

But wait, wait. Have you ever had a warm beer in a red hot desert? Oh god, it is so thirst-quenchingly good, even when you are being devoured by gemsbok vermin. And sticking a toe out of the shade, I discover that the sand is like 5000 degrees C or F or K or something. So shouldn’t we drink first, and hike second? Wait, you say that’s not a beer? It's Fanta? I’m hallucinating in the heat? Damn... We share the Fanta while on the move, and I’ll admit it is very, very good.

dance of the dead trees

Dance of the Dead Trees. Five-hundred-year-old trees surrounded by dunes in the middle of the Namib Desert.

waves in the sand

Waves in the sand. At sunrise, the red sands of the Namib Desert light up like the world is on fire. It’s quite something to see.

Wow, this place is beautiful, wild and stunning, lonely and inaccessible, and I’m glad to have such good company on the long, long empty stretches. If you are going to do the ultimate road trip in Africa, it pays to bring along a good conversationalist and someone who takes control in a flea crisis. Did I mention that Namibia eats cars and not just tires? Well it does, so it helps if your companion also thinks two-foot deep washboard is fun and that sighting a sheared-off rear axle is of no more concern than that charging elephant on the left. (Oooooh no, oh crap...)

For this kind of trip, your companion—aka a very understanding wife—should enjoy kickboxing zebras (oops), killer bees (double oops), and wading through random romantic oases with aromatic fig trees, gorgeous waterfalls, and leptospirosis (umm, oops again). She should have your back while you swap out tires. She should stare down malaria and think warthogs are kind of cute. It definitely helps if she thinks crippling heat and vast desolation and desert camping and monkey gland products (wtf) are all good ideas—maybe not brilliant ideas, but adventurous ideas at least. Yup, it’s good to be on an adventure again with my sweetheart.

Oh god, seriously babe? You tore which tendon on the dunes? Is that like getting a flat?

Zebra disagreement

Two zebras disagree about something or another, possibly whether or not we owe the rental agency $600 for that microsopic ding on the running board. (Stupid, lousy grumble, grumble, car rental policy, grumble, most dangerous place to drive on earth outside of a war zone, grumble, really, look it up.)

Lion

Hungry for a good tire-changing. Namibia.

                    
                    

Acknowledgments: With much love to my adventurous wife who for five more days trekked across, climbed, and explored enormous desert dunes and mountains with no complaints. Not many of us could do that with a torn hip tendon. Happy Birthday, and here's to many more adventures.

the truck