We had been casually dreaming about this trip for months and then actively planning our route for weeks but it was only on the eve of departure, as various gear items and supplies piled up around the house awaiting to be loaded into the 4×4, that we fully realized what was happening: we were about to hit the road to nowhere.
Ambitious but quite doable, our goal was to head north from Cape Town along the South African west coast, cross the Namibian border at the Orange River and continue half the height of the country into the Namib Desert, in a short burst of 2 or 3 full-day drives that would place us early at the heart of our target area – and leave the rest to improvisation. We would thus avoid the malaria-infected northern regions of Namibia and stay in arid climate, but there also lay the rub: it would be hot. As in very hot. This, after all, was the African summer.
I could hardly say we left empty-handed or unprepared. Our camping trip was going to be one of relative luxury, thanks to the help and generosity of many. I will of course thank our sponsors later. But at 7:00 AM on the 10th of January when we finally drove up Sun Valley Avenue at the wheel of a fully packed V8 Turbo Diesel Toyota Landcruiser, Marie and I felt like the world was ours to conquer.
The two tanks were full, 90L for the main and 120L for the auxiliary, giving us a theoretical range of over 1500 km. We were not planning to drive around all the time with a full reserve but South African fuel prices had just gone down and we figured we might as well fill up on cheap diesel rather than pay more once in Namibia.
Behind us in the trunk – next to a large cooler, 2 plastic crates with imperishable food, cooking utensils, a gas lantern and a stove, camping chairs, a dome tent, charcoal, pillows, sleeping bags, an inflatable mattress and many smaller absolutely necessary items – was… a fridge. Almost the size of the one that saw me through my 3 years of college student residence, the little beauty was plugged into our cigarette lighter and set for a radical 3°C. It had been lent by our no. 2 sponsors Jay and Guy and was filled with frozen meat, vegetables, butter and many other goodies we didn’t rely on the cooler’s ice to keep fresh.
On the backseat, wedged between a suitcase-full of clothes and my camera bag, was a case of wine. And I mean a case: 12 bottles – 3 of Prosecco and the balance a mixture of red and white, offered by Marie’s parents to quench our spiritual thirst and turn simple meals into feasts. “But you’re going for 14 days!” they’d exclaimed as we stood astonished, worried we would run out. We didn’t of course, and indeed feasted every night thanks to Marie’s fantastic cooking as much as to the wine. As we drove out of Cape Town and settled on the N7 for our long journey north, I still couldn’t believe what traveled with us and kept laughing silently at our luck – and abundance.
Marie had never really gone camping before and free of any prejudice or preconceived ideas (outside of Karen Blixen and Hemingway,) she packed half the house along in an attempt to recreate on the road the familiar setting of a friendly kitchen. We had a folding table (thanks Andy and Jonathan) and another small wooden one, a paper towel dispenser, real wine glasses, a cast iron pan and pot, a cutting board, glass candle protectors, multiple dishes, cloth napkins, serious knives, a glass vinaigrette bottle, salt and pepper cracker, and a clamping braai grid… To this I added a cute blue metal-finish thermos and my Swiss Army knife. I know my priorities.
For the road, we had packed and kept handy a pink bag containing biltong, fruit bars, marshmallows, white chocolate, sausage and other heart-lifters. There was a very small second fridge between the front seats, allowing for a bottle of Prosecco to chill for the evening meal along with some juice or beer for lunch. The bird book was at the passenger’s feet and the binoculars in the glove compartment. Our maps were folded to the day’s drive.
The two of us carried 3 cameras and a total of 46 Gb. of memory cards. My Christmas present, the new Canon G10, came to complete the line up and assist when Abetoo, my DSLR, became too bulky (with a tight pouch that fits on my waist, I can take the G10 and its 15 MP just about anywhere, while still shooting RAW images. It’s remarkably lightweight and sturdy at the same time and I have already grown very fond of it. It will accompany me on trail runs and/or urban expeditions where a large camera would be too obtrusive and jut basically works superbly as a passe-partout).
For the first two hours of driving to Porterville the scenery was familiar as we had gone there last year trying to get me airborne. Marie had in the past ventured on her own as far north as Springbok, last decent-sized town before the border, about 600 km from Cape Town. After that, we were in virgin territory.
When the main tank approached half, we switched the auxiliary pump on to transfer diesel between tanks and start emptying the reserve, which would eventually remain empty for the rest of our trip, making us much lighter. But despite extensive fiddling, the pump never started pumping. We had to come to terms with our fate: we would most likely carry 120L of unusable diesel around with us for over 3000 km…
The landscape had long turned arid and the heat risen slowly when we reached the end of our day and approached the Orange River marking the border between South Africa and Namibia. Suddenly, the dry and dusty mountains were streaked with a line of lush vegetation and green erupted into the picture with an odd boldness.
With over 700 km weighing down on our lower backs, we arrived at the border and looked for procedural clues. A few cars were stopped in the main lane, empty. We parked behind them to get out and stretch, eventually greeted by an official who instructed us to leave the car right there and proceed to doors 1, 2 and 4, the Immigration, Customs and Police services respectively. We showed passports, ID’s, declared nothing and explained that no, we didn’t have a letter of authorization from the vehicle owner, in our case a generous dad. But we had registration papers and got through even after Marie joked “I hope my dad trusts me with it” and was awarded a laconic “But I, (accent on the I) might not trust you, Ms.” by a suspicious but bored officer.
We had cleared SA immigration and customs, and left relative civilization behind. We drove 100 meters and arrived at another control. The Namibian side, which effectively acted as gateway to the bridge, appeared quiet. Fortified by our previous experience in the field of African Border Posts, we parked next to another car and walked in. A single official sitting behind a high counter growled towards a set of forms to be filled. There was nothing to write with. I considered using my blood as ink but decided it would be a health hazard and went back to the car to fetch pens. Another uniformed officer standing outside seemed annoyed that I ostensibly locked the car back behind me. We presented our passports, paid the border crossing fees and exited as proudly as we could.
About to board our vehicle and head out, we were approached my yet another official, who could have been a police officer, or not. He looked through the Toyota’s windows and asked if we had anything to declare. The mention of wine got him thinking. He asked how much. We had to tell him. Then we had to show him. 12 bottles? I could almost see the wheels spinning slowly in his head and hear the cash register bells. K-tching!
He hesitated, trying to decide how to best pluck us. He had good eyes because he must have seen the Canadian passport between the seats and asked which one was the Canadian, aka the pigeon (that’s a French expression.) “You? All right, please come with me, I’d like to show you something.” Here we go, I thought. I followed him to a small room where he got out an old photocopied page of some Law Article. “First,” he explained in an official tone, “you do not have the ZAR sticker. We used to give a fine for this.” He pointed to the circled relevant Article of Law. “Second, you should have declared the wine. Over two bottles, you must pay duty.” Marie had walked in after me and was following the lecture. So, one of us said with a smile, “What must we do now? We are happy to pay the duty, and we’ll get the sticker. Can we buy it from you?”
I swallowed hard not to smile. That sheet, in front of me, was the wall of shame, the list of all the losers who had walked through this door before us.
There was a long pause, followed by some muttering about the guys, or them, not being there right now for the duty, and how he would try to attempt to see and evaluate what he could possibly maybe do. But he didn’t go anywhere. Instead, casually, almost smoothly, he whipped out another sheet and explained as he was showing us a list of names, signatures and amounts written by hand, that this was a donation form for their soccer team.
I swallowed hard not to smile. That sheet, in front of me, was the wall of shame, the list of all the losers who had walked through this door before us. I glanced at the amounts, found that $N100 was an average, and since I happened to have it in my pocket, picked up a pencil - graciously provided this time - and filled in my line on said wall. There was no shame. I was happy to play the game and get away with a simple $10 bribe rather than a lengthy pain in the butt about wine and duty.
He pocketed the money, and when asked whether he was part of the team and if they would win, he said yes, and yes. We all headed outside where he looked around unconvinced and admitted not to see the proper duty authorities. Then he just let us go.
We got in the car and exchanged a glance. Marie was furious. I was just glad to be done. I’d gone through the same rituals in Peru where one carried carefully calculated amounts of money in a special wallet in case of official trouble. In Mexico, a friend used to keep a pile of Playboy magazines in her car to bribe Traffic Officers. In Vietnam, the authorities invented a landing fee when we arrived on our first cruise, and since there was no precedent and they realized how important this was for us, they simply doubled the price every time we came back. In Panama, I unsuccessfully tried to buy my way out of a difficult situation. It turned out I had bid much too low. But of all these, the donation to the soccer team will remain my favourite. It’s inventive and almost funny, in a sick way. It’s robbery with style. It’s a poetic crime even if the crook will probably never know that he has a sense of humour.
We crossed the bridge and changed countries. The Orange River might not look like much but it is the largest river in South Africa. A few more kilometres on a dirt road and we arrived at the campsite, nested right against the northern bank of the oddly greenish river. We bought ice, pitched our tent, set up the field kitchen and Marie, overwhelmed by so much novelty and a bribe she still hadn’t swallowed, cooked our first delicious dinner accompanied by perfectly chilled Prosecco.
Later, as the sun had dipped downstream below the horizon and a fish eagle glided by, we watched bright stars fill their sky and the moon rose slowly to greet us on our first leg of the journey. We had left the comforting real world behind and resolutely stepped into the unknown. We were committed. My heart began to beat slightly faster. There is a thin line between the safety of ordinary times and what lies beyond, and crossing it has always been a rush. Here we are, I thought. Nowhere. At last.