#3 - Southern Circuit
Jeff Willner - 3 July 2001
(Sossusvlei, NAMIBIA) - Junglerunning is like a box
of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to find. Driving through
the south in a giant loop through; Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and
Zimbabwe was supposed to be a shakedown trial for the truck and the crew.
But on our arrival in Victoria Falls, we found that the Land Rover had
been delayed due to a late container ship. Foley Land Rover helped us
work out a solution. We would rent a Discovery for a week, drive to Namibia,
and from there take our Defender and continue the trip. "There may be
some unfinished bits and pieces on the truck", they warned, "the UK shop
worked frantically to finish all the customizations and load it on the
container and we expected to have it for a week in Vic Falls to do final
finish." I told them not to worry. They could do final finish at the
end of our southern circuit. I breezily assured them that all would be
Leaving town in the Disco, five of us packed in like
sardines, we wound past dry brush and small scrub trees running on a
decent paved road. In the countries south of Vic Falls the infrastructure
gets better and better and crescendos in a symphony of first-world amenities
in Cape Town (in the countries north of Vic Falls the roads crumble into
pot-holed, spine jarring endurance tests). Since this was a three-week
shakedown to test the truck and the team, a turn into civilization seemed
Three hours into the trip and we met our first obstacle.
Two large tour busses full of South African youths returning from Solipse
were stubbornly trying to load onto the ferry boat across the Zambezi.
Imagine a full size greyhound bus trying to mount a 45 degree steel ramp
onto a 20’ wide, timber decked barge. Axles we dragging, the rear bumper
ground into the dirt ramp, the barge tipped precariously under the weight
of the truck. "Go around, go through Zimbabwe", yelled a frustrated farmer
from his Toyota pick-up, "I’ve got to get home". The various tattoed,
pierced, and plugged pin heads ignored the distraction, they decided
to build a ramp onto the boat from brick scattered around. Whilst it
was undeniably interesting to watch the farmer try to jump the queue
and be blocked by a human shield of "awesome dudes", the protracted loading
of busses and double ferry trip ate up several hours. Finally arriving
at the border on the other side, we were confronted by the snaking line
of eighty dudes and dudettes all being processed painstakingly slow by
Botswana immigration. Entertainment was one thing but we had a convoy
to catch! I pretended to be tour guide and walked to the front of the
line with all our passports - the farmer watched us disbelievingly from
the back of the line as we pulled out of the border post. Never get on
the wrong side of the mob (that’s a good rule for New York too).
As the civil war in Angola has flared up over the
past two years, rebel raiders have occasionally rampaged across the Caprivi
Strip - a narrow band of Namibian territory extending over 200km east
between Angola and Botswana. Transiting from the Falls to Etosha game
park, the best route is through the Caprivi because it is home to a very
nice highway. But tourist use was off sharply due to a few rather unfortunate
car jackings and shootings. Funny thing that. To funnel tourists back
on the road toward Etosha and the rest of the Namibian spectacles, the
government inaugurated twice-daily military escorts at 9am and 3:30pm.
We had left in plenty of time to make the 3:30 convoy, but the solipse
twits threw us unrecoverably behind. Despite speeding at 150kph and running
a game park checkpoint, we arrived at the convoy checkpoint too late.
We had to spend a night in the bush and catch the next morning’s run.
Spying a sign for a bush camp we left the road and
rumbled through the winding sand track. So sorry, the camp was closed
said the caretaker. Sure? He considered for a moment, well we have no
food but I can open two huts and make a fire for you for $Namibian 700.
Too much, we’ll only pay $N300. Done! (Jeez, he agreed too quickly. I
could have done a lot better on that negotiation.) We were in the middle
of nowhere with the stars carpeted above us, shivering in the early evening
chill, with animal noises all around. It was a fine evening. Sitting
around a little fire on plastic chairs sharing a meager dinner of baked
beans, Pringles, beef jerky, and mango juice.
Getting back on the road forces you to adjust your
rhythm. Up early and stumble to a hot/cool/freezing shower in whichever
nameless hostel/campground you happen to be in, apologize to the other
occupants of the dorm room for snoring like a banshee, eat a greasy English
Breakfast, fill up on diesel, and then drive off to see the most amazing
sights of your life. But even the spectacular can get old after awhile
and this was my third visit through the southern circuit. As we went
from one spectacular sight to another, I gave the tour guide spiel, "On
your left Etosha game park, one of the largest salt pans in the world
with massive concentrations of wild animals that cluster around watering
holes. To your right Cape Cross, a seal colony with hundreds of thousands
of sleeping, grunting, swimming, nursing seals, feeding off the fish
rich Benguela current that sweeps up southern Africa’s west coast. Ahead
is Swakopmund, a quaint town with architecture dating back to the German
colonization, wonderful bakeries and some of the world’s tallest sand
dunes - please keep your arms and legs tucked in while tobogganing down
the hills on your sand board at 80kph." Despite the routine, it was nice
to be back. Namibia offers the best value for money in Africa, spectacular
sights, animals, hospitality - it is one of my favorite countries.
Finally the big day. We arrived in Windhoek, the capital
city of Namibia on June 30th eager to take possession of the expedition
Land Rover. Delayed by two weeks in shipping, Foley Land Rover allowed
us to take it straight from the container, with the understanding that
they would do a final finish back in Zambia at the end of the two weeks.
Sure enough, there was a list of a dozen minor things right off, but
the next day when we left I was definitely not prepared to lose the gearbox
5 min down the road! Nursing the truck slowly back to the hostel on the
one gear that worked (3rd) I called long distance to Foley’s in Zambia.
"Paul, *&@#% and then with the thing and the other
thing and then it didn’t work. "Riiight, that sounds like the grub
screw has come loose in the gear lever housing. It’s rare, seldom ever
happens, amazing bad luck to have that right at the start of the trip.
Put it right and we’ll pick up the bill." Amazing. Accurate long distance
troubleshooting - another reason Foley is the best Land Rover shop in
competent Land Rover mechanics at any time can be a challenge, but in
Africa, on a Sunday, save that good luck for a lottery ticket. Fortunately
we were at a hostel with a large video library and there was a decent
Chinese restaurant that delivered - 5 movies later with our brains fried
we stumbled off to bed. "Dude!" "Sweet!" It took a day and a half, and
some fast talking to jump to the font of the queue at the best Land Rover
shop in Windhoek (there are a few things in life you should never scrimp
on, an excellent lawyer, an excellent accountant, and always go with
the Land Rover mechanic who is over 50 with all his fingers) but they
were finally able to recover the little transmission pin and lock-seal
it back into place.
By 6pm we were re-packed and being well behind schedule
decided to do a night drive into the desert. Shortly after dark I added
High Beam Lights to the list of things to be fixed. It is genetically
impossible for me to drive slowly and fortunately the passengers didn’t
mind. We slid and did four wheel drifts across the gravel roads, the
desert cold seeping into the cab making us shivery. Full moon. Scrub
trees stood leafless in the African winter night like white skeletons,
erased, suddenly, by our dust plume. Driving at night is a nervy exercise
in Africa, but doing it around narrow mountain passes with only low beams,
diving deeper and deeper into the barren desert, was a test of will -
the urge to stop at some safe haven is high, never mind the resort cost.
But we swept on till finally, after midnight, we arrived at the Sesriem
park gates. "Closed at Sunset" read the sign. That’s why we have the
roof tent and interior sleeping platform! We pitched camp on the dusty
shoulder of the park road, Devy, Jody, a nd Sally in the roof tent, Rob
inside the truck, and me on an air mattress and tarp on the desert floor.
Finally snug inside the bag, I figured I would have the most spectacular
view of the desert dawn - and I would have, except that I’d put my bag
directly underneath the only power line in a thousand kilometers. No
matter. Four hours later I had a spectacular (though bisected) view of
the sunrise washing the desert hills in pink and red.
through the park the next morning was awe inspiring. Dunes rising majestically,
hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet in the air, undulating in wind
shaped curves far into the horizon, dwarfing us in the truck. We scrambled
to the top of Sossusvlei, the largest sand dune in the world, and sat
to absorb the view. Rob nodded toward the sea of sand stretching into
the horizon and said quite thoughtfully, "I realize now that it would
be a real challenge to walk through a desert." Thinking that he had a
profound insight on distance, time, or the metaphysical aspect of combining
an urban existence with nature’s desolation, I turned to him, "What do
you mean?" He paused, "Lack of water", and then grinned. We tore off
the dune running straight down the dune face in a welter of sand, carving
huge arcs down the steep slope, German tourists climbing up exclaimed "Mein
Gott! Wunderbar!" Sometimes the best moments aren’t profound at
all, they’re just ridiculous fun.