My first mokoro beer run

An island somewhere in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

It was still pitch black out when the wake-up call came at 5 a.m. By this point, I’ve grown accustomed to early mornings in Africa and these pre-dawn starts are fine by me — as long as an afternoon nap is involved.

We set out on another wildlife walk as the sun slowly started to break across the horizon. As I’ve mentioned before, early morning and early evening are the best times to view wildlife; the less heat, the more animals out and eating.

Walking through thick bush, we followed OT along a charred trail. Some of the grasses had been burned overnight; the locals hoped that the fresh grass would attract additional animals to the region. We passed a nearby water hole where herds of wildebeest and zebra had come.

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But the highlight of the morning was the giraffes, which were everywhere. We spotted a herd of two-dozen galloping across the plains. A few minutes later, a family of 12, including several babies. All together, we pegged the number at over 60, more than our guide had ever seen.

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Back at the camp, we rested up and assessed our rations. Food was good; drinks not so much. Last night had put a serious dent in our beer supplies and we needed to restock. (Perhaps it was due to the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend? At least we could tell ourselves that.)

But how does one buy beer while on a remote island in the Okavango Delta? Precious, one of the polers, offered to give me a lift to a village that was about 45 minutes away. He pushed me in the hot afternoon sun on the empty waters. It was my first beer run in a mokoro.

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After landing on shore, we walked the final 10 minutes through a foot and mouth disease checkpoint and entered the village. It wasn’t the cleanest of places but the people waved and were friendly as Precious led me to the “liquor store.”

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The shopkeeper had exactly 36 beers for sale — not wanting to completely buy her out, we took back 24. She was quite happy. I’m not sure the same could be said of the village residents, who had only 12 beers to split for the evening.

The ride back was quiet; not a single other boat was spotted. We arrived back just as the others were loading into their mokoros for a late afternoon viewing of the hippo pool. Hippos are dangerous animals so we had to keep out distance but we enjoyed watching them chomp down on grass and surface with their massive bodies.

Newly purchased beers in hands, we witnessed another fantastic Botswana sunset. The colors were just something spectacular.

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Our guides and polers sang traditional songs as we sat around the campfire this evening drinking local beers — ones that had been fetched from a village. Forty-five minutes away. In a canoe.

You have got to love Africa.

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Walking with wildlife in the bush

An island somewhere in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

This morning, we packed for our two-night trip into the Okavango Delta with Delta Rain. We each brought a small daypack, sleeping bag and a 5-liter bottle of water. Also making the trip with me was a bottle of Harvey’s, an amazingly cheap South African whiskey.

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A little after 7 a.m., a large Mercedes truck came to our campsite. We loaded it with our personal belongings, the tents, sleeping mats, cooking utensils and all the food we would need for our trip. We jumped on board, and in the brisk morning cold, made the 1.5 hour drive to the launch point for our trip into the Delta.

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The Delta is one of the world’s largest inland water systems. Its headwaters start in Angola’s western highlands; these tributaries form the Kavango River in Namibia, which flow into Botswana’s Okavango. Each October, rains in Angola and Zambia flood 18,000 square kilometers of plains in the south, creating an ecosystem brimming with some of Southern Africa’s most diverse wildlife.

We would be making our way into the Delta by mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe made with 70-80 year-old sausage trees. The mokoros are driven by polers, who stand at the rear and propel the boats using long wooden poles. Kind of like Venice in Southern Africa.

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Our poler, Joyce, filled the mokoro with our gear and then made us these comfortable seats to recline in. The journey then began; lying back, eyes closed, lapping water against the boat, calling birds in the distance, reeds brushing by our legs. It was the most relaxed I’ve been the entire trip.

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We arrived at a deserted island and set up camp. Soliwe used an overturned mokoro as a table and prepared lunch. Meanwhile, some of our guides grabbed a shovel and dug the toilet. It would be an interesting 48 hours.

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Much of the afternoon was free to laze around camp. Some of the group went for a swim, others took naps and read. At 4 p.m., we all met back for our first guided wildlife walk.

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Up until now, all of my wildlife viewing has been from the safety of a vehicle. If for some reason an animal were to charge or attack, there was some level of protection. All of that gets thrown out the window when going on a wildlife walk. This afternoon’s took us through thick grasses, some of which were at chest-level. As we passed some grazing antelopes, there was a certain level of excitement and anticipation.

Then, our guide OT spotted some elephants off in the distance. “Let’s go after them,” we urged. He glanced at his watch. “Okay,” he said. “We go quick.” We walked fast but the sun was falling faster. As we turned back, the sky exploded in colors in an absolutely fantastic sunset.

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But soon our attention turned to more pressing matters — like getting back safely to camp. As darkness fell, we heard the grunting of grazing hippos, which are some of the most aggressive animals on the Delta. When one snorted dangerously closed to our trail, we stopped. “You must keep walking!” OT yelled back.

Back at the camp, we breathed a sigh of relief and sat down to a traditional Southern African meal. The bottle of whiskey was broken out and we spent most of the night talking around the campfire.

Hunting and gathering with the San

Maun, Botswana

It was nice waking up after the sun had risen this morning — not just for the extra sleep but also because it was quite cold. We gathered around the camp kitchen for a simple breakfast of toast and some instant coffee before the San people returned for a hunter-gatherer walk.

These Bushmen are fascinating people; they once roamed Namibia and Botswana in search of food and water. It is known that they made it as far as the Atlantic coast, where they collected salt to preserve their meats. The San — like Native Americans in the States and the Aborigines in Australia — have faced considerable challenges in clinging to their traditional culture. Many now have turned to alcohol and drugs; there is a real concern that numbers will dwindle and the people that once ruled this part of Africa will vanish.

In the fields just outside of our camp, we walked with this group of Bushmen, their faces wrinkled from age and years in the sun.

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They spotted and dug up many of the plants and roots long used by their community for every imaginable medical condition — from liver disorders to erectile dysfunction — and explained their use through a translator.

The Botswana government has recently outlawed the San from continuing to hunt wild animals so the elders only demonstrated how they used to kill with poison-tipped arrows and reused ostrich eggs as canteens. A small Bushmen fire was started the old fashioned way — rubbing two sticks together.

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We loaded up the truck and set out for Maun, about 300 kilometers east of Gweta. About an hour into the trip, someone realized that they might have forgotten their mobile phone at the camp. Thor turned us around and we headed back. Searching the huts, we realized it might be a good idea to call the phone — a ring came from back on the truck. It had been in the lockers the entire time.

Set back an hour and a half, we hit the road again for Maun, which has had a reputation as a Wild West town. Recently, however, with the growth of this country’s tourism industry, the town has lost much of its old character and now serves as a base for trips into the Okavango Delta.

We had some time to stock up on essentials at the supermarket and visit the Internet café at Riley’s Garage before setting up camp at Sitatunga. As a tent-raising novice, I’ve got to say — I’m actually not that bad at it!

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We had another hearty dinner and then headed over for some drinks at the buzzing bar. A few other overland trucks had arrived and everyone seemed to be gathering around the human water hole. One beer turned to many, making it a late night.

The Bushmen of Botswana

Ghanzi, Botswana

Of the few vehicles seen while driving through Namibia, one of the most common were these hardcore overland trucks ferrying travelers from one remote place to the next. This morning, after calling Budget to ask if they planned on picking up my car (they were supposed to do so last night), it was time to test one of these trucks out myself with an 8-day Nomad camping trip through Botswana to Victoria Falls. At the meeting point, there was only a couple from Germany waiting so we weren’t sure if we were in the right place.

Around 8 a.m., this gigantic retrofitted truck roars to the curb. Out jumped this lanky, but completely badass, South African guy wearing a bandana. “I’m Thor,” he said. “You ready to go?”

“Is this our bus?” I asked. “It’s a truck — not a bus,” he replied. “And her name is Marilyn.” So into Marilyn we climbed. There are rows of seats, large windows and a big ice chest. We chucked our bags into a block of lockers in the back and off we went.

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As we passed through the chaotic streets of Windhoek, introductions were made. There were 14 of us in the group, spanning ages, professions and nationalities. Nearly everyone was well traveled. Most of the group had been together since Cape Town, where they had left from 10 days prior.

Our first stop was a supermarket where Thor and Soliwe, our cook, hopped out to stock up. We walked around, changed money to Botswana pulas and turned down several vendors trying to sell us fake Oakley sunglasses. Once the food had been loaded on board, we filled up Marilyn with diesel and set out on the day’s 516 kilometer drive east across the border.

We stopped briefly at a rest area for lunch, which we all pitched in to help prepare and set up. “Have you washed your hands?” one of the Danish women asked me in almost accusatory manner. “Yes,” I replied. “Okay, it’s just because you’re new,” she said.

The drive was long and, even on the tar roads, not very comfortable. Our truck didn’t have the best shocks and even a small bump sent us flying around in our seats. Yet, finally not having to drive — or worry about directions, gas or breaking down — it’s actually quite comfortable watching the landscape race by. Many say that traveling overland by truck is the best (and only) way to see Africa. You truly experience Africa, they say, instead of simply flying over it from one place to the next. We’ll see if that turns out to be the case.

In the late afternoon, we departed Namibia through the Buitepos border crossing and entered Botswana at Mamanu, setting our watches ahead in the process. After some stressful land crossings in Asia, I’d not known what to expect here. But it was generally uneventful — except for the South Korean woman in our group whom the Botswanan officials almost wouldn’t let in because they thought she was from North Korea. Oops.

Looking out the window, the change in Botswana was almost immediate — villages lined the roads while cattle fearlessly wandered. Yet, looks can be deceiving. This country is actually the wealthiest in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to three of the world’s richest diamond mines and the government has smartly reinvested much of the proceeds in infrastructure, health-care and education. Experts now say that the mines will run dry within the next 5 years leaving Botswana’s future up in the air.

The country has focused on developing its tourism industry, employing a strategy of high income-low impact. For those without the interest or means of paying for fly-in safaris or $600 a night lodges, the options are limited, which was one of the reasons that I’d signed up for this trip with Nomad and was riding on Marilyn.

Nine hours after leaving Windhoek, we arrived in the small town of Ghanzi, where we were staying at Trail Blazers. The sun had already set as the tents were unloaded from the truck. I eyed them with apprehension as the camp manager strolled over. “We have huts available, five U.S. dollars,” she said. “I’ll take one,” I said without hesitation. Night one of my tented camping trip and I’d already taken an upgrade.

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While Suliwe cooked us dinner, we gathered around the campfire for a traditional Bushmen tribal dance. The Bushmen, or San, are indigenous to Botswana and have lived here for 30,000 years. The word San is said to have meant “wild people who can’t farm” — they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, who moved often in search of food and water.

Today, only about 55,000 San remain and 60% of them live in Botswana. Their singing, dancing and traditional dress offered a glimpse of what life was once like here in Africa.

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After an approving round of applause, the elder approached us. “Tobacco,” he said, making a smoking motion. A couple offered up a few cigarettes and the San lit up. It was a picture of contrasts. A 21st century Bushmen, trying desperately to adapt in a modern world.

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Considering the basic cooking facilities, dinner — mashed potatoes and beef chili — was delicious. Either that, or we were starving.

And, after a few beers and a long day on the road, it was time to retire to my Bushmen hut.

A Namibian adventure ends

Windhoek, Namibia

It was with a fair amount of excitement and trepidation that I set out this morning for my final drive in Namibia — a 5 hour haul back to Windhoek. I’ve spent over 30 hours behind the wheel in the last 8 days, showing not only the vastness of this country but also just how terrible its roads are. And this adventure in Namibia hasn’t just token its toll on me mentally.

My first car broke down; my second had a flat tire, lost two of its hub caps somewhere in Damaraland and is currently dragging something. Exactly what I’m still unsure.

As much as the car has given me trouble, it hasn’t detracted from what was, for me, an absolutely stunning country. Namibia has so much to offer — and I’m fairly certain that given time it will become a well-trafficked tourist destination. But for now, the poor infrastructure has deterred only the most hardened travelers from exploring it.

Indeed, it was these terrible roads, the ones that I’ve complained incessantly about, that have kept Namibia such a quiet and special place. There will be a day when coach buses full of Germans, Canadians, or even Americans, will pull up to the dunes of Sossusvlei. Or when the roads to Twyfelfontein or Etosha are smooth. And that will be the day Namibia changes.

Traveling alone has certainly added to the adventure. Nearly everyone I’ve met who learns that I’m by myself has raised an eyebrow. “Alone?” they ask. I’ll admit, it was a little crazy. But spending so much time alone has allowed me to clear my mind and reflect on what has been a whirlwind year. I’ve also met some amazing local Namibians; those who work at the lodges, serve me at the bar and fill up my car with gas. I’ve experienced their warmness, friendliness and positive attitude, regardless of how difficult life is or how little they have.

A few days ago, a Namibian farmer told me that she had just returned from Windhoek, where she had worked 6 days a week, 10 hours a day as a cashier at the Pick n’ Pay, a supermarket here. Her salary for the month? 650 Namibian dollars, or about $65USD. Her rent for a shared apartment in the capital city? 500 Namibian dollars. That left about $15USD per month for food, transportation and other living expenses.

This is the reality of life in Namibia. And learning this — really, hearing and experiencing it first hand — has given me a new perspective on my own life as well as an appreciation for how lucky we all are in the U.S.

Luckily, the drive back was incident free and the directions to my guesthouse, Terra Africa, were spot on. This is a small, quiet place west of the city center. My room overlooked the lush backyard garden and pool.

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“What do you want to do this afternoon?” Jackie, the friendly woman working the reception asked me while checking in. “Sit in my room,” I replied. She laughed. “No, seriously,” I said.

The rest of the day was spent hanging out, ordering a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, watching the BBC, doing laundry and catching up with e-mail. I’d wanted to get dinner in town but opted instead just to eat and drink a couple of beers at Terra Africa.

After popping my anti-malarial, it was time for bed. My overland camping trip to Victoria Falls, through Botswana, departs tomorrow morning.

Lions, giraffes, warthogs, oh my!

Etosha National Park, Namibia

“How are you?” I asked my waitress at breakfast this morning. It was 5:30 a.m. and still dark out. “Tired,” she replied.

“What time did you wake up?” She said 4 a.m. “We needed to prepare breakfast.” Considering that no one else was in the dining room, it made me feel a bit guilty about requesting such an early start. “Sorry,” I said. “I’ve got to get to the park.”

At least that was the plan.

I’d hoped to be at the gate at 6:15 a.m. right when it opened in order to secure a prime early-morning viewing spot. Turning onto the main road, an encouraging sign, there was only one car in front of me. Score!

As the minutes ticked by, the cars and buses started to pile up behind me. All of a sudden, a tap on my window. It was a bus driver. “You have a flat tire,” he curtly said. “Flat tire? What are you talking about?” I replied. “Your tire. In the back. It’s flat. Better get that fixed before going into the park.”

Opening my door, there was no way — not right now. But, sure enough, driver-side back tire. Completely dead. “You have got to be freaking kidding me,” I muttered to myself, pulling off onto the side of the road.

Why Toyota Yaris? Why do this to me now? One of the gate security guards must have seen the smoke coming out of my ears and offered to help. Meanwhile, I’d already started wondering if my brother’s helpful flat tire mantra (“Left loose, right tight”) might be reversed in a country where they drove on the opposite side of the street. No idea.

I’m not much use when it comes to cars but was able to pull out the spare as well as the set of tools. “Where’s the jack?” the security guard asked me. That was a good question. Where was the jack? Fifteen minutes later, having thoroughly torn apart the car and cursed to myself multiple times, there was no jack.

You have got to be kidding me, Budget.

“I’ll call my friend,” the guard said. “Please, call your friend, let’s just get this fixed,” I replied. Shortly thereafter, my car savior arrived with some random jack that he had been able to locate. It was not the right size nor did it fit well under the car but by this point I’d just stepped back and assumed the role of ardent cheerleader.

Cars goes up. Wheel comes off. New wheel pops on. Car returns to ground. $40 Namibian dollars comes out of my wallet and I’m in the park by 7 a.m.

Not a terrible setback but a frustrating one no less. It certainly could have been worse — perhaps a flat, and no jack, while driving through Etosha, with wildlife and signs that warn: “STAY IN VEHICLE AT ALL TIMES.”

The park was nothing short of amazing. Nearly everywhere you turned their were animals. Zebras trekking by the hundreds to the water hole. Springbok grazing with giraffes meandering in the distance. Warthogs snorting and stuffing their faces with grass. The sheer number was matched only by the diversity of wildlife.

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Seeing animals in the wild was thrilling. There was something about witnessing them in their natural environment — one with no fences or feeding times — that offered a real connection.

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Perhaps the best spot of the day was a pride of lions. They were easy to locate given the safari traffic jam on the gravel roads. Still, from a distance, one got a sense of their size and strength. A half dozen cubs played around while three males lazed away the warm morning. Off in the distance, wildebeest, zebra and springbok nervously focused their attention in our direction.

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It was starting to get hot and the animals were hibernating for the afternoon, so after lunch at Halali, a rest area in the park, it was back to the camp to chill out.

Here’s to hoping the Toyota makes it to Windhoek tomorrow with no spare tire.

The “Great White Place”

Etosha National Park, Namibia

After breakfast, the Land Rover transported me back to the farmhouse where the Yaris was waiting for me. One of the enterprising Namibians had given it a wash and was patiently awaiting my arrival. “It looks nice,” I said, giving him a $10 Namibian dollar note. “It should stay clean for at least the next 2 minutes.”

Even that might have been a push. Once back on the wretched gravel roads, the dust kicked up and caked the car in a thick layer. My drive this morning was supposed to take 5 hours; more importantly, according to my map, nearly half of it would take place on tar roads.

Oh, tar roads, how I’ve missed thee. You are so smooth. You allow me to drive above 60 kilometers per hour. You do not overheat my car nor violently throw me into the shoulder. Your rocks do not crack my windshield; your hills do not bottom out my vehicle; your lack of dust allows me to open my windows and breathe the fresh air.

Who would have thought it was possible to develop such a longing for a paved surface? Try a week in Namibia in a hatchback.

My final destination in this country was Etosha National Park, the “Great White Place” that takes its name from the vast white and greenish Etosha Pan. The park is one of the foremost wildlife destinations — not just in this country, but in all of Southern Africa.

For the first time this trip, my arrival was actually earlier than estimated (Bless you, Tar). I’m staying at Andersson’s Camp, a lodge just outside of the park’s gate that opened last year. Sustainability is the name of the game here — 80% of the building materials were from recycled sources. My favorite part of the place was my private outdoor shower, which was about as close to nature as one could get.

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The entire camp was surrounded by an electric fence, which was both comforting and unnerving at the same time. On my bedside sat an air horn. “For an emergency,” the manager stated.

I’d not expected much going into the park at 1 p.m. — the sun was blazing and most of the wildlife would be hiding in the shade — but given my limited time here, thought I’d give it a try anyway.

Essentially, Etosha is a self-drive park meaning you pay at the gate and then cruise around. The one rule, stay in your car at all times. One minute through the gate it became clear why: there were animals everywhere. They grazed on the plains, walked around on the road and drank from the water holes, of which there were dozens sign-posted throughout the park.

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Despite the time of day, the water holes were buzzing with red hartebeest, gemsbok, springbok and this awesome wildebeest.

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But by far, the Burchell’s zebra had the best representation. Everywhere you turned, there were dozens of them — young, old, big, small — slurping down water while carefully watching the horizon for predators.

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There were so many that they even ended up in my side-view mirror. Excuse me, Zebra, could you please get out of my way? I’m trying to back up out of this parking space. Geez.

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Back at the camp, it was completely dead. One of the manager’s kids ran around screaming with his toy truck. How peaceful. “Is there anyone else staying here?” I asked her. “Not right now, it’s all yours,” she replied.

Dinner overlooked the camp’s own water hole. About midway through my stuffed chicken entrée, a tremendous male lion meandered down for a drink, making for an entertaining meal.

On the way back to my tent, the roars of lions could be heard in the not so far distance. This was life in the bush. And after brushing my teeth and double-checking the location of the emergency air horn, it was time for bed.

The desert elephants of Damaraland

Damaraland, Namibia

By this point, I’ve gotten used to pre-dawn wake-up calls. Most of the activity in Africa happens before 11 a.m. when the repressing heat forces all life into the shade. So, I’d actually already started getting ready when the guide stopped by my tent at 5:30 a.m.

We had a solid breakfast and then loaded into the Land Rover. In addition to me, there was a honeymooning couple from France and another solo traveler. The goal of this morning’s game drive was to track down the elusive desert elephant, an animal that has adapted to live and survive in these harsh conditions.

Finding the herd could prove fruitless, our guide explained, since these elephants don’t follow a predictable route. But we could look for clues — namely tracks and poop — and hopefully have success.

In the early morning, outside of the sun, the temperature plummeted. We bundled up with the provided fleece blankets. The breaking light across the horizon playfully illuminated the mountainous backdrop as a flock of ostriches raced across the Great Plains.

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By 10 a.m., we had found plenty of poop and loads of tracks but had yet to find our elephants. Time was running out, our guide said, as the sun began baking the Earth and the mercury started climbing. Once it got too hot, the elephants would hide in the shade. “We won’t see them,” he said.

So, onward we went. And suddenly, a sign. Lots of poop. We were onto something and the Land Rover sped off down a dry river bed. It felt like we were going around in circles as the repetitive landscape rolled by. Then, in a clearing up ahead, we saw them.

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It was a herd of about a dozen, including several babies. The truck pulled within 10 feet as we watched them gorge themselves on trees, fruits, anything within trunk’s reach.

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With our elephant fix filled, we returned to the lodge for lunch. After, it was back out for a taste of the strong cultural offerings of Damaraland, which is named for the Damara people that inhabit it.

The most important site to visit is Twyfelfontein, one of the most extensive galleries of rock art in Africa. Bushmen carved the petroglyphs into the sandstone about 6,000 years ago. Despite their age, they are in remarkably good condition today — in fact, this is Namibia’s first, and only, UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The mid-afternoon heat was intolerable so we only spent about an hour walking among the carvings. On our way back, we stopped at the nearby Organ Pipes, the rock face of a river that resembles the musical instrument.

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Once back at camp, there was time to lounge at the pool for a couple of hours. A big group of German tourists invaded just before dinner. Still, the food was gourmet and the wine flowed freely.

Namibian farmer: “Let me drive”

Damaraland, Namibia

Given my driving experience here, this morning’s 7-hour trip to Damaraland, in the remote northwest region of Namibia, was not one I’d been looking forward to. There wasn’t much to do though besides take it slow, keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

On a salt road, the drive took me along the Skeleton Coast, so named because of its treacherous history — fog, coupled with rocky and sandy coastal shallows, has resulted in dozens of ships washing ashore. Today, they provide a solemn and picturesque reminder of the danger.

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Driving northeast along C35, the landscape began to change and the Brandberg, the tallest peak in Namibia (2,573 meters), came into view. A rest area provided a solid vantage point. Walking back to my tiny car, nestled among hardcore 4x4s with external gas tanks and multiple spare tires, made me think to myself: was I crazy or just plain stupid driving out here in my Toyota hatchback?

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Onward we went. And at every turn, over every hill, was another stark, yet beautiful, scene.

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The drive was going well. Too well. Luckily, the dry bed of the Huab River, with its thick sand and rocky sediment, now presented itself to me. There was little doubt in my mind that I’d be able to successfully get across it. But, what were my options here except to put the car in low and floor it?

It didn’t work. Yet suddenly, as if by magic, local Namibian farmers who had witnessed the spectacle appeared. They surrounded my car. “We can help,” they said. My iPod went into the glove compartment.

I got out and assessed the situation. Indeed, I was stuck. And alone. “Okay, you push,” I told the middle-aged man and handful of kids who had offered assistance. They pushed, I slammed on the gas and slowly reversed out of the ditch. Now what?

The man comes up to me. “Let me drive,” he says. It actually took me a second to come to my senses. “How about you just tell me where to go,” I replied. He gestured to the left. I got back in the car, made a quick prayer to the Toyota Gods and hit the gas, somehow managing to make it across.

On the other side, I got out and gave all the kids a pack of Oreos I’d bought at a gas station in Uis. They wolfed them down. The man was happy with a $5 Namibian dollar coin. And I was on my way.

A couple of days ago, my travel agent in London e-mailed to tell me that the lodge I’d been booked at, Doro Nawas, was full and I’d been upgraded to Damaraland Camp. It was 30 minutes further away but was one of the top rated lodges in the country and would be worth it, she said.

Close to 2 p.m., the farmhouse where I’d be met at came into view. Damaraland Camp is so remote and isolated that it’s only accessible by Land Rover; as we made our way through villages along a bumpy path, my little Yaris drifted off into the distance. The camp manager met me with a drink and cold towel before showing me to my spectacular tent.

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Walking around the camp afterward, it felt largely deserted. There were only three guests, the manager told me, myself included. Wow.

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Walking back to my tent after a delicious dinner, the night sky was brilliant. I’ve never seen stars like that before.

Nor have I ever felt farther from home.

Regretting not packing lederhosen

Swakopmund, Namibia

Arriving so late last night prevented me from truly appreciating the fantastic place that I’m staying at here in Swakop. Villa Margherita is a trendy new guesthouse in the center of town. My “room” overlooking the courtyard is more like an apartment — complete with a sitting area, it’s the most spacious I’ve had in Africa.

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After breakfast in the swanky dining room, my game plan was to spend a couple of hours walking around Swakopmund, a town that feels like it belongs more on the Baltic coast than in Southern Africa. The architecture here reminded me of Bavaria, as did the beer houses and delis hawking German delicacies, all of which made me sad that my lederhosen were back in Chapel Hill.

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It was time to test out my new ride — a tiny Toyota Yaris that was even less suitable for the gravel roads than my last car. The drive back to Walvis Bay, which I’d done in the dark last night, was stunning; it is here that the desert meets the sea. Walvis Bay’s lagoon is an important wetland for migratory birds in this part of the world, including one of the largest flocks of flamingos.

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Swakop has recently reinvented itself as the adventure-sports capital of Namibia; one of the most popular activities is desert quad-biking. Two hours of extreme biking with Desert Explorer through the dunes gave me my fix. The best part was flooring the bikes along the sides of the dunes — our guide said it was “taking them on a rollercoaster.” Sounds about right.

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Dinner was, appropriately enough, at the Brahaus, a German joint that served up a legit schnitzel and a couple tasty pints of local Hansa beer.