I can’t say I enjoyed the 34 hours and three flights it took me to get from San Francisco to Cape Town, but a few inspiring moments eclipsed the standard indignities and discomforts of air travel: a break in the clouds suddenly revealing the rolling farmland outside London, the white cliffs of England’s southern coast catching the day’s last light, the rising sun’s glittering reflection on the lakes of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
In 2011 I visited southern Africa and liked Namibia and South Africa so much that I wanted to return to see Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, too. Solo travel in southern Africa can be expensive and logistically problematic, so for this trip I chose to spend most of my time on overland tours that combine transportation, food, and lodging. It’s a relatively cheap way to see a lot of places, but you sacrifice flexibility, and there’s always a chance of getting stuck with people you don’t like.
Before my first tour started I had a full day in Cape Town. I’d planned to head up to Table Mountain for sunset, but the weather turned ugly and forced me back inside. Still jetlagged, I fell asleep early, and before 6am the next morning I was shouldering my backpack in the pre-dawn dark and walking down an almost-deserted Long Street to the Nomad Tours office.
I couldn’t help but second-guess myself. Was it really a good idea to hop on a truck with a bunch of strangers and spend three weeks driving from Cape Town to Victoria Falls? Forced camaraderie is typically a struggle for me. And I wouldn’t even be able to retreat to a hotel room. Mostly we’d be sleeping in tents and eating every meal together. “Remember it’s an adventure, not a holiday,” warned the Nomad web site.
Gradually the other people in my group straggled in – a mix of ages and nationalities. There would be 21 of us in total, including 17 other passengers, a guide, a driver, and a trainee. My first impressions were mostly positive. Everyone seemed pretty nice. One member of our group, unfortunately, failed to show up. The tour company called his hotel and we waited as long as we could, but eventually we had to leave without him.
Just outside of Cape Town we stopped for a last look at Table Mountain.
Before getting back on the highway we went to a shopping center to stock up on supplies, and while we were there our missing group member appeared. Stephen, a pale Irish kid with scraggly whiskers, laughed as he told his story, which involved a late night of drinking, a dangerous decision to hitchhike home from the bar, a lucky break when a cop picked him up and delivered him to his hotel, an alarm that didn’t go off, a scramble when he finally woke up, and a quick Uber ride to catch us. “Who’s this little hooligan we’re stuck with?” I thought.
By that time I’d met Abhi and Jessie, the two other Americans on the tour. Abhi, born and raised in India, now lives in Kansas City – my hometown – where he started a healthcare company. Jessie’s story mirrored my own. About two years ago she quit her job with a big Internet company (in her case Google, where she’d been working for 12 years), got rid of most of her stuff, and went out to see more of the world.
On our first night we camped in Citrusdal and had a traditional South African braai (barbeque) for dinner. The next day we drove to Vioolsdrift, near the border, and camped alongside the Orange River. At sunset I found Abhi on a dock at the river’s edge. “Look at all those bards,” he said with a thick Indian accent.
“Bards?” I asked, confused. Were there minstrels playing lutes nearby?
“Bards,” he repeated, pointing to some nearby bushes.
Many long seconds passed as the rusty wheels in my mind struggled to turn. Ah, birds! If I needed a good reminder that I have a poor ear for accents, that did the job.
The next morning we crossed into Namibia. At the border station we were called together by our guide Gareth, a South African in his early 20s. “Guys,” he said. “I have some bad news. I’m not going to be able to continue with you.” There was some problem with his passport, a bureaucratic mix-up that was apparently not his fault. Crap, I thought, I was sorry to see Gareth go. He was low-key and quiet, and speaking in front of our whole group made him visibly uncomfortable, but he seemed like a good guy.
Our driver, a 27-year-old South African former rugby player with the nickname “Tenk,” took over as our guide. Tenk also seemed like a good guy, but in every other way he was Gareth’s opposite: a big outgoing personality who soaked up attention and turned every moment in front of the group into a dramatic performance. At the end of a quick stop to explain some bit of animal behavior or natural history, Tenk would inevitably rise up and shout in his South African accent, “EE-sent that EEEEEN-TER-ES-TING!” Under other circumstances losing Gareth could have caused problems, but Tenk took the reins seamlessly.
That afternoon we arrived at Fish River Canyon, one of the biggest gorges in the world. A minor windstorm reduced our visibility and made it dicey to get too close to the canyon’s edge.
The next day we drove to Sossusvlei, my favorite of all the places I’d seen on my previous visit to Namibia. Sossusvlei has some of the tallest and most spectacular sand dunes in the world. Like many other tour groups, we woke up early to climb Dune 45 and watch the sun rise.
Tucked inside the Sossusvlei dunes is Dead Vlei, where the eerie husks of dead Acacia (Camel Thorn) trees rise up from a sun-baked mud flat. The whole area is otherworldly.
A windstorm picked up as we left the dunes, and back at our campsite we found most of our tents blown over and filled with sand. Nothing was permanently damaged, but the relentless wind made it a chaotic scramble to extricate our gear and break down the tents. Coated in sand but undaunted, most of our group broke out laughing once we’d finished loading everything back on the truck. It was a great sign. Nobody lost their sense of humor in the face of a little adversity.
By this point I was also realizing that my first impression of Stephen, the Irish kid I’d dismissed as a hooligan, was way off. He made references that demonstrated knowledge of U.S. history far beyond most Americans, he had a great sense of humor, and he was studying chemistry and biology with the idea of possibly getting a Master’s and going into research. “Stephen, I’m starting to think you might actually be smart,” I told him.
Another tour member – Martin – was emerging as an especially entertaining character. A suave Argentinean accountant and teacher in his late 20s, Martin smiled constantly and made new friends everywhere we went. His limited English seemed to be no obstacle at all. “Ees good, yeah?” Martin would say when we came across something interesting. You couldn’t help but agree, which would prompt him to add a drawn-out “Niiiiice!” followed by a jovial laugh.
Tenk, thriving in his role as our leader, particularly enjoyed bantering with Martin, which resulted in some Spanish words finding their way into our group’s vocabulary. “Familia!” Tenk began yelling to call us together. “Vamos!”
Spectacular landscapes and a solid group – our journey to Victoria Falls was off to a promising start.