Several years ago, I made a 3-week trip to visit relatives in South Africa and Namibia. One of the truly memorable things that occurred during that trip (ah, so much more to write about...) was this encounter. I am working without notes here, so I may come back and edit this post when those are available.
My cousin and I drive from Palmwag (pronounced pah-lem-bach), through Sesfontein to the Skeleton Coast Camp. Not very many tourists choose this route, but then again, not many tourists are like my cousin. Her Toyota truck is outfitted with two demijohns of petrol, three extra tires on wheels, lots of tools, two sleeping bags, and even a bit of food. We have vague verbal directions, mostly based on time from one landmark to another. What more could you need? Most people fly in but once or twice a year the staff or someone crazy (like us) drives in. The guidebooks suggest a satellite phone and at least one other vehicle traveling with you if you insist on driving north of Sesfontein. These are however only details, and take all the adventure out of it!
The road is sometimes obvious, sometimes a mere suggestion, and sometimes completely non-existent. But somehow, my cousin manages to re-find the trail every time we lose it, and we bounce over rocks, slither over sand, slide down banks, follow dry riverbeds, and find our way inexorably towards the Camp. Fortunately our directions hold up and also fortunately, somewhere outside of Puros we find someone going our way. They lead us in, which is at least another hour (or two?) of driving. The entire trip of maybe 100 miles feels like a lifetime but really only lasts about 6 hours. (On the return trip, when we knew where we were going, we manage to average 18mph.)
Those of you who have stayed at the Camp know its stark beauty, and the wonderful, dedicated staff that make the experience so much richer. We are introduced to our two guides, Chris and Chris. Our Chris is dark-haired, full of mischievous sparkle, confident and so capable that I have no doubt we were in good hands. The other Chris seems to step out of a Hemingway story, with a big leather hat and a story to account for his missing hand, taken by a crocodile somewhere in the past. The morning after we arrive, we go on an all-day game drive with both Chrises.
There are 5 or 6 of us in each of the two vehicles. We bounce along the rocky, sandy roads, stopping here and there to see the wildlife. They look just as interested in us too. A young giraffe pokes his head up over the scrub. Fat healthy gemsbok (oryx) scramble up the hillsides. Birds everywhere, including a rare vulture that I've now forgotten the name of. Jackals, and antelope too, although not very many. We stop at a Himba village to see how these remarkable people manage to make a living herding cattle and goats in the desert. We have tea under an ancient ironwood tree. And, we find elephants. There are perhaps 10 - we spend maybe 20-30 minutes just watching them as they slowly browse the bush. This is a dream fulfilled, to see the famous desert elephants!
The rest of the trip, while exciting, can't top this. We stop for lunch in a dry river bed, and get stuck in the sand. We drive along the Horuseb river, have a flat tire, see impala and (for my cousin the desert dweller this is most exciting) running water in the open desert. Driving back to camp in the dim dusk, we look forward to dinner and bed.
Dinner is a grand sharing of adventures in many languages, and then we gather at the fire and drink too much sherry and whiskey, singing in German and Afrikaans, English and American. Listening to Chris recite Tom Waits lyrics in a Bob Dylan voice far into the night. Sparks from the fire fly up to the burning stars above. I stumble back to our tent and fall asleep thinking of the return drive, map-less but not lost, anticipating the wonders of tomorrow.