When you road trip from the coasts of Southern Africa to the savannahs and deltas of Zimbabwe and Botswana, it’s hard not to contemplate where you fit in.

Before my two friends and I departed for southern Africa, I imagined stretching savannahs where thin grasses shimmied in waves of wind and enormous deserts where orange sand sifted in lolling dunes.  What I could not have imagined was the scent of rain as it hung in the jungle air nor the screech of fauna as it prowled through the starlit night as raucous as city sirens. And I certainly couldn’t have conjured the cold feeling of carnivore eyes lingering on my flesh—yet that of all became the sensation I would never forget.

Sara, Krista and I landed in Cape Town at the dawn of February. Back home, Canadians were grappling with elephant-coloured slush and car-devouring snowdrifts, yet South Africans were lounging on sun-bleached beaches and cocktail-strewn patios. My friends and I explored the vibrant city for a couple of days—moseying along the waterfront where sailboats the colour of alabaster bobbed in the staccato waves and peering into tide pools where sea urchins dwelled like curled hedgehogs—before rendezvousing with our tour group at a seaside restaurant.

Aboard the overland vehicle, with the author to the right.

The brochure had described the 24-day camping safari through the deserts of South Africa and Namibia and the jungles of Botswana and Zimbabwe as rough and rugged. Henceforth, I assumed our tour mates would be robust European hikers in their mid-thirties with wind-burned cheeks and bulging calf muscles, or American field biologists with trousers in every shade of khaki and David Attenborough’s autograph scrawled on a napkin.

Imagine my surprise when we discovered they were all 19-year-old Norwegians decked out in flouncy sundresses, strappy sandals and shimmery makeup, chatting with a burly, grinning South African who introduced himself as our guide, Charlie. I looked down at my saggy T-shirt and old cut-offs and frowned.

   

The morning we left Cape Town was grey and rainy; weather with the affectation of a wet newspaper. Charlie pulled up in front of our hostel in a monstrous truck/bus hybrid that looked as though it was fuelled by the insecurities of lesser vehicles and we donned our hoodies to ward off the drizzle as we loaded up our backpacks. After a brief stop at a supermarket, where we purchased water and food (we would restock our provisions only once in the upcoming three-and-a-half weeks), we hit the road.

The sky remained miserable as we drove out of the city, enveloping the iconic Table Mountain in a thick fog. But as we continued along the western coast, the cement-coloured clouds cracked open and viscous sunshine drenched the blacktop.

The coastline was spectacular, with craggy cliffs and frothing waves. At Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town we had our inaugural wildlife encounter via a natural colony of African Penguins. With its ancestry traceable to just one proverbial Adam and Eve nesting onsite in 1983, the colony has since expanded to more than 3,000 birds—all with roughly the same dimensions and grace as a rugby ball.

“They’re a lot smarter when it comes to real estate than their chilly cousins in Patagonia,” observed Sara, casting off her hoodie and basking in a sea-scented zephyr.

After we visited the penguins, Charlie turned inland and I became acquainted with the vast expanse of archaic nothingness that I would come to associate with northern South Africa and Namibia. The desert stretched outward in all directions, a taut quilt of ecru and sienna, of brush and dust. I felt disquietingly dwarfed, like an asteroid soaring through the infinite void or a spider creeping across a cathedral ceiling.

It led me to fancifully ponder whether in the grand scheme of everything—from the freest of radicals to the breadth of the universe—I would be categorized as small or medium-sized. Or perhaps that was just the February heat poaching the grey matter inside my skull.

Faraway hills were patterned with fairy circles: an arcane phenomenon wherein round patches of barren earth esoterically appear amid the low-lying flora. One hypothesized cause is sand termites, although somebody somewhere probably attributes them to aliens. As the truck cruised down the desolate two-lane highway we sang along to such inspirational jams as “The Circle of Life” from The Lion King soundtrack, “Africa” by Toto, and (less relevantly) “Down Under” by Men at Work.

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That evening we camped amid tawny boulders and dined beneath a blushed and bruised South African sky. Nearby, dassies (rodents similar to guinea pigs) scuttled in the undergrowth. Charlie entertained us with anecdotes of his youth in the bush—dubious yarns of pilfering hairs from elephants’ tails—and then we crawled into our tents, exhausted from a day spent gazing out of windows.

Sara and Krista were asleep within minutes, but I struggled to fluff the rocks beneath my head and nestle comfortably in the rusty dirt. I don’t recall slipping into slumber, but I do remember what dragged me back out: a bladder that was yowling like a scorned cat.

Got to see the incredible wildlife, but also to help protect.

As I fumbled for my headlamp, I heard a sound from beyond the tent’s walls. It was a scratching or perhaps a shuffling—something larger than a rugby ball yet smaller than the breadth of the universe. I froze, sweating as quietly as I could, and the noise eventually ceased. With a quivering breath, I unzipped the tent and scanned the blackness for starlight glinting off of tooth or talon. But there was nothing. Timorously, I crept outside and selected a proximate swatch of dirt to water.

Suddenly, there came a roar not unlike that of a tyrannosaurus eating a Zamboni (or so I would imagine) and I almost fell over with my jammies around my ankles. The beast of Africa was upon me! I shut my eyes and braced for death—but it never came. The roar rose to a crescendo, then fell away softly; then rose, and fell. It gradually dawned on me that the beast of Africa was not in fact upon me but rather snoring blithely in an adjacent tent. Well.

I pulled up my jammies and returned to my sleeping bag, embarrassed by my paranoia yet placated by the notion that Charlie’s somnolent racket would likely ward off any real danger.

   

The next day, we crossed the border into Namibia and canoed down the Orange River (whose colour is better described as burnt mud) that marks the border with South Africa. The water was flanked by fecund shores and cliff faces; to the black-winged kites soaring overhead it must have looked like a feldgrau snake writhing in the desert grit.

Beyond the banks of the river there is very little water in this vast desert region known as the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, which encompasses both a Northern Cape corner of South Africa and southern Namibia.

Species here depend predominantly on the morning dew leftover from the nighttime fog. The park is famed for being an arid biodiversity hotspot due to its incredible abundance of life, and is a prime example of organisms having adapted to thrive in a harsh environment.

Making camp for the night.

From there we voyaged to Fish River Canyon—the largest canyon in Africa at 160 kilometres long, up to 27 kilometres wide and 550 metres deep. I wasn’t sure what I expected to accompany such an extraordinary geological wonder—perhaps a visitors centre or at least a turnstile—but instead there was merely a heat-dazed employee perched in a wooden booth, a dilapidated chain-link fence and a feeling that we had arrived at the edge of the world.

Sara, Krista and I stood with our toes as near to the brink as we dared, gaping in awe at the negative space and the variegated rock beyond. The distant russet stone seemed to mimic velvet, with plush creases and gentle folds. The wind hummed and sighed, exhausted from perpetually rushing through the canyon.

It was difficult to wrangle my brain around the magnitude of the proportions—the desert seemed to be repeatedly challenging me with scale. It almost felt like I was beholding a backdrop and if I reached out just far enough…

“Easy.” Sara grabbed my elbow and reeled me in.

We drove to our campsite in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, which at 202,200 hectares is one of the largest private reserves in southern Africa. It was first developed in 1984 with the amalgamation of livestock farms and wildlife sanctuaries. Now, it is financially sustained through low-impact tourism; only six tourist concessions operate within the park and guest beds are limited to one per 1,000 hectares. When the first of the animals appeared, they were so far away that I struggled to distinguish them from the flecks of disemboweled bugs on our windshield.

“Look, springbok!” thundered Charlie. He pointed at a large group of hopping specks. “See how they’re moving with that strange, straight-legged jump? That’s called pronging. And over there are my favourite: disco donkeys! Zebras are striped so that when they run as a herd it’s harder for a predator to tell the individual animals apart.”

I strained my eyes but couldn’t differentiate between the crouching speck that was a wild dog and the cantering speck that was a hyena. We pitched our tents between rocky outcrops, then clambered into a 4×4 and set out for a nocturnal game drive.

I hoped that nature would strut its stuff—what’s a safari without wildlife?—but the creatures must have been suffering stage fright because all we saw was a collection of posteriors leaping (or pronging) into the gaunt grasses, away from the gleam of our headlights. We returned to camp with empty memory cards and dejected frowns.

Fish River Canyon was irrefutably gobsmacking, and yet it may as well have been a ditch at the side of the interstate when compared to our next highlight: the Sossusvlei sand dune fields. When Charlie hollered at us to wake up, the moon was still beaming down upon our tents with round-faced delight.

I attempted to snooze in the truck but the uneven road caused us to bounce in our seats like oil droplets in a hot skillet. When we at last stumbled bleary-eyed from the vehicle we were beneath a periwinkle sky. Suddenly, my eyes widened in amazement. “Hey, this is my screen saver!”

“What are you—” Krista yawned, interrupting herself.

“This giant red sand hill! I’m sure it’s one of the stock photos that came with Microsoft Windows!”

Screen saver or not, we were gazing up at the famed Dune 45 in the Sossusvlei clay and salt pan, named for its location 45 kilometres down the road into Sossusvlei. Dune 45 has achieved notoriety through its inclusion in various movies, commercials and music videos, including The Cell starring Jennifer Lopez. A score of other dunes (not numbered one to 44, as one may presume) towered around us, warming from cool auburn to smoldering copper to fiery orange as the sun peeked over the horizon.

The spectacular savannah of Southern Africa.

Desert gales had swept away the sand from the flat land between the mounds, exposing cracked, grey clay that looked like the bones of the earth. Clawing upwards from the dusty terra were brittle acacia trees that resembled skeletal hands.

Although the sunshine had ignited one half of Dune 45, the other remained cast in shadow; the divide was a slightly meandering ridge trod with the footfalls of early morning hikers. We began to climb, our feet vanishing ankle-deep into the vermillion granules. By the time we reached the 80-metre summit half-an-hour later I was choking on the scorched air and the sweat on my brow was evaporating as rapidly as my skin could produce it. But it was wholly worthwhile as the view was absolutely staggering.

There were dunes as far as we could see, blazing vividly orange against the robin’s egg sky. Sara paused to meditate, inhaling the sublimity with her eyes closed, while Krista and I simply gawked like—well, like slack-jawed backpackers.

   

From Sossusvlei we sojourned through Swakopmund town to the Cape Cross fur seal colony, where between 80,000 and 100,000 animals lolled on the sand like swollen tongues—exceedingly stinky swollen tongues. Then we veered away from the Atlantic Coast and continued 50 kilometres inland to Brandberg Mountain.

As Charlie reclined in the shade with a beer or two (or six), we were led by a local guide along a dried riverbed to an innocuously jutting overhang adorned with a 2,000-year-old Bushman painting. The scene depicted humans and oryx in what was either a ritualistic dance or a hunting tableau. One particularly detailed figure has been famously dubbed The White Lady, even though “she” is believed to represent a medicine man.

Staring at the faded ochre and charcoal pigment I wondered whether the artist ever imagined their work being analyzed, contemplated, revered and Instagrammed two millennia later.

Our next stop was the world-renowned 22,270-square-kilometre Etosha National Park. The park’s most distinguishing topographical feature is the 5,000-square-kilometre salt pan, though the majority of the region is savannah woodland. Etosha is also home to hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles—and after two weeks of taunting us, they finally revealed themselves.

Poufy ostriches akin to overturned feather dusters jogged alongside the dirt road, their young chicks waddling frantically to keep up. Sleek springbok grazed and reposed in enormous herds, always prepared to scatter like spilled beads should a predator pounce from the bushes. Blue wildebeest stamped in the dust with scraggly hair and knobby knees as though they were whiny adolescents, while “disco donkeys” reminded me of jailhouse prisoners in striped black-and-white jumpsuits. 

“I think you need to get out of the sun,” advised Krista when I shared my interpretations.

On one game drive, we caught sight of a male lion lapping from a watering hole. It walked with graceful deliberation, as though it was aware of the fact that it was king of the jungle (or in this case savannah). Etosha lions from Namibia are frequently introduced to the various parks in South Africa because they don’t carry FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), a disease that threatens the majority of the African lion population.

Although I was exhilarated by the lion my favourite were the giraffes, who we spied nibbling flat the tops of acacia trees throughout the park as well as frequenting the watering hole. They approached with unparalleled patience, drifting forward while constantly scanning for predators. Unlike the skittish springbok, they did not bolt at every rustle but rather maintained a calm vigilance—ensuring their safety before adopting the odd, vulnerable, splay-legged stance required for them to drink.

One night we were staking out the watering hole at sunset, admiring the corals and lavenders reflecting on the static pool as the foreground faded to black, when all of a sudden the silhouette of an aggregation of giraffes appeared, mirrored on the water amid the celestial palette; yet the actual creatures remained concealed by shadow.

It was a whimsical visual that inspiritingly awakened the fine hairs on the napes of our necks. Interestingly, our necks boast the same number of vertebrae as the necks of the giraffes—seven—although theirs can stretch up to 28 centimeters in length.

As we departed Etosha, we exchanged the crackling heat of the sunbaked plains for the swampy humidity of the Caprivi region, a 450-kilometer protruding but narrow strip of Namibian territory flanked by Botswana, Angola and Zambia. The ambrosia swelled from brushy sprigs to bedraggled lushness; everything was almost glowingly verdant against the soot-hued clouds. Most excitingly, our new campsite had a tiki bar!

The author (right) and friends: stopping to admire awe-inspiring landscapes.

Sara, Krista and I hastily assembled our tent, and then raced to wash away the sensation of desert dust with a cocktail or two (or six). It wasn’t long before the sky broke open and the deluge began; but we ignored the storm, instead gyrating to Afro-pop on the dance floor and the tabletops—and in my case the bar itself!

It was still pouring when we navigated through the wet, slapping leaves and the squishy, sucking mud to our tent, and I was looking forward to snuggling into a pair of dry pajamas. Alas, that was not our fate. When we arrived we realized with horror that we had neglected to put up the rain cover.

Our backpacks with all of our belongings were now submerged within an Etosha-style watering hole! Dismayed, we had no choice but to seek refuge inside the truck, which—despite its tenacious form—was in fact leaking. It was a direly unpleasant night.

Upon daylight examination we discovered that the majority of Krista’s things had been spared and half of what Sara owned was salvageable. But all of my possessions were drenched. And even though Sara and Krista still had a few dry articles they were not in any position to lend out. I shivered woefully in my wet trousers, squeezing rainwater out of each of my sock balls.

“I have a couple of T-shirts you can borrow,” piped up one of our tour mates.

“And I have some slacks,” offered another. She called to the rest of the girls in Norwegian. “What do you need? We brought loads of extra stuff!”

To my incredulousness, they breezily assembled a temporary wardrobe for me. It was significantly more panache than I was accustomed to, but it wasn’t reeking of jungle either and that was all that mattered. I thanked them profusely.

We were on the move again that day (as usual) and I didn’t have the opportunity to hang my sodden garments to dry. Terrified they would transform into penicillin if left in my backpack, I employed the only method I could think of to ensure their aeration.

And this was how it came to pass that we drove down the highway with every wearable I owned—pants and shorts, tees and hoodies, even bras and underwear—flapping out the truck windows. I can’t help but wonder whether anyone driving behind us had their windshield suddenly and mystifyingly struck with a sock gone rogue.

Our destination was the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which recently had the honour of being declared the 1,000th UNESCO World Heritage site. The delta encompasses more than two million hectares of swampland and seasonally flooded grasslands. Water runs into the wetlands via the Okavango River from the African highlands during and after the annual rainfall.

The wildlife of the Delta.

One feature that makes the Okavango unique is that unlike other delta systems it does not then drain into a sea or an ocean; instead, the vast majority of the water is consumed by plants or evaporated into the air. Another defining characteristic of the Okavango is that because its flooding comes from the river it is actually at its wettest during Botswana’s dry season.

The biological clocks of the delta’s flora and fauna have adapted to this “new” wet season. The myriad of delta wildlife here includes the Big Five (you know, the list coined by game hunters that refers to the most difficult and dangerous animals to nab on foot: lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant and rhino).

At the entrance of the delta we picked up a few local guides as well as swapped our truck for a more all-terrain vehicle that looked as though it could climb trees (or at least plow them down). Then we proceeded not so much to drive into the Okavango but bounce across, crunch over and plunge through it.

We splashed into murky rivers, the gamboge-coloured water spraying outward from the wheels in enormous fans. Sara, Krista and I clambered out the sunroof and rode for a short while on top of the vehicle—until Sara failed to duck swiftly enough when we approached a low-hanging thorn tree branch and acquired a new piercing in her ear. Fortunately, Krista was quick with the tweezers and rubbing alcohol.

Upon reaching the water’s edge we boarded mekoros: traditional dugout canoes. With the local guides using poles to push us along (similar to Venetian gondoliers) we explored the marsh. Lavender lilies with spiky petals resembled enormous snowflakes bobbing gently, with the ripples created by our movement. Miniscule frogs no larger than the tip of our pinky fingers clung to the yellow grasses, while unseen insects whirred and buzzed.

What at first appeared to be sinking logs were in fact crocodiles eyeing us from the shallows. While crocs do not pose as great a threat as some other animals, people have been known to lose limbs. Far more intimidating were the hippos that watched us suspiciously, wholly submerged, save for the bumps of their heads and nostrils, their ears like twist-tied bread-bag ends flicking to keep the flies away. Notoriously ill-tempered, hippos are the most lethal mammals in Africa, killing about 500 people annually.

Suddenly, just as I was thinking all this, I heard the screams of a troop of baboons capering along a fallen tree. Baboons are “opportunivores” and will eat anything from farmers’ crops and fruit to bark and grass, to young antelope and sheep. Highly intelligent, their troops can include hundreds of animals that are governed by an incredibly sophisticated and little understood hierarchy.

Males and females each have their own scale of dominance, with the males’ determined by physical competition and the females’ determined matrilineally. Individual males outrank individual females.

One of our guides explained that even though they are very clever, people generally prefer working with chimps as baboons are known to be vicious. I noted their gigantic fangs and shuddered. Just then one of the animals hopped onto a fallen tree, balanced on its hind legs and popped its hip with its hand on its waist like a voguing supermodel. Everybody burst out laughing.

“He has done this before—he knew he would get that reaction,” said the guide. “We are lucky he didn’t pee on us!”

There was a foreboding rumble in the distance and moments later the rain began to fall from the silvery sky like millions of strings. By the time we returned to camp I found myself soaked to the skin for the second time in a week.

   

After two days of exploring the delta (and two nights of listening to roars and grumbles that were definitely not Charlie’s), we continued road tripping east to Botswana’s Chobe National Park. The Chobe River and its surrounding floodplains make for a rich ecosystem that is home to an abundance of wildlife, including a herd of 70,000 African elephants—the highest concentration of elephants on Earth.

It was therefore no surprise that these, the planet’s largest land mammal, suddenly took center stage. Or to the center of the highway, as in one case when we were suddenly cut off by an elephant sauntering out in front of the truck.

Charlie leaned on his horn and cursed. “He’s all over the road!” As pachyderms meandered through the surrounding foliage and occasionally peeked out at the highway we crossed into Zimbabwe and made for Victoria Falls (also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya).

Having grown up in proximity to Niagara Falls in Canada, I was expecting garish tourism and was pleasantly surprised. To see the falls themselves, Sara, Krista and I meandered along a motley sunlit path that snaked through the mossy trees, occasionally opening out to a modest viewing platform. Eventually the forest vanished, and we found ourselves cloaked in mist on top of slick rocks, able to precariously wander to the very edge of the approximately 100-meter drop—a diminutive sign understatedly reminding us to watch our step.

Despite being neither the tallest nor widest, Victoria Falls is considered to be the largest waterfall on the planet due to the sheer volume of passing water. Opulent greenery spilled down the rock gorge on either side of the rushing froth that divides Zimbabwe from Zambia.

A glittering cloud concealed the cascade’s impact and a perpetual rainbow arched over the iconic Zambezi River. Renowned as an extreme sports hotspot, we spent one full day spiking our adrenaline levels—some of our tour mates by partaking in a canyon swing, my friends and I by whitewater rafting. But that adventure wasn’t nearly as rattling as what transpired when we disregarded the rules by venturing into the screeching African night.

Breathtaking Victoria Falls.

Having grown somewhat weary of our tent over the preceding 20 days (and having developed an infestation of sand fleas in my sleeping bag), I was ecstatic to sleep at a hostel in a clean fluffy bed. But my elation was abruptly aborted when Krista and I flung back our blankets to discover hundreds of ants parading all over the fresh sheets. As the hostel staff was already in repose we marched to Charlie’s room and pounded on the door, pouting in our pajamas.

He offered us the two spare beds in his room as well as some of the beer he was enjoying. We passed the evening by listening to his enchanting stories, our desire to likewise boast daring tales of bush exploration growing exponentially.

When we shared this sentiment his eyes shone like the rainbow over the river. “Care for a walk, ladies?”

It must be noted that when we arrived at the hostel we were instructed in no uncertain terms to “never ever leave the compound,” as the beasts prowling beyond the iron fence were not conducive to supple, tasty morsels such as ourselves. For this reason Charlie held one finger over his lips as he unwound the clinking chain and pushed back the enormous gate before leading us into the unbridled wilds.

Krista and I clutched each other’s moistening palms as we scanned the darkness for things that go chomp in the night. As we tiptoed after Charlie onto the dirt road toward tangled jungle, I thought anxiously of the hippos and the baboons and of all the Big Five.

Suddenly, that first night in the desert when I had been too frightened to go to the bathroom seemed utterly ridiculous—surely the dassies hadn’t been about to shred me to strips and nibble on my necessaries after all? Now I imagined the crushing feet of charging elephants and the snapping chops of camouflaged crocodiles.

“Hey, are those eyes?”

We froze. My heart ricocheted against my ribcage like a pinball.

“Where?” demanded Charlie.

“Over there—those glowing yellow ones.” Krista’s finger, pallid in the starlight, trembled as she pointed. “There’s another pair. And there!”

Sure enough, something—or rather a pride of somethings—was staring at us from the shadows. Charlie took a couple of steps forward to investigate, then waved frantically for us to retreat. “Go-go-go-go-go!”

We whirled around and bolted, nearly losing our flip-flops as we pronged toward the hostel. Krista and I skidded into the compound on our heels and Charlie slammed the gate, his eyes gigantic and his skin glimmering with sweat.

“What,” panted Krista, “was that?!”

“Nothing, that was absolutely nothing!” he sputtered and grinned unconvincingly. “And unless you want to be sleeping on an anthill you won’t tell anyone!”

The next morning I sauntered into the courtyard to discover a few of our tour mates gathered on the road examining something. I jogged over and asked what everybody was looking at.

“Lion prints,” explained one of the Norwegian girls. “You can see them here in the dirt.” I was suddenly overwhelmed by the pressing need to sit down.

   

Departing Victoria Falls, we sojourned to Zimbabwe’s Matobo National Park where—despite my having had quite enough of tramping after ferocious mammals—we tracked rhinos on foot. Matobo is also a UNESCO World Heritage site that houses an intensive protective zone where white and black rhinos are bred to replenish diminishing populations.

Rhinos are endangered because of the erroneous belief (prevalent in Asia) that their horns are a cure for cancer and an aphrodisiac; they can retail for upwards of $250,000 on the black market. With poverty rampant in Zimbabwe and surrounding nations it is unsurprising that poachers are willing to risk being shot by park protection officers to provide for their families.

Although according to the WWF approximately 20,000 white rhinos exist in the African wild there are estimated to be only about 4,800 black rhinos. While there are subtle differences between the two types—both are in fact grey in colour—it’s hypothesized that white rhinos acquired their moniker via an incorrect translation of wijd, the Dutch word for wide, which was a reference to their wide-set jaw, and that black rhinos were simply named in relation to that.

We set off in a 4×4, our eyes peeled for the creatures that resembled overturned refrigerators. Just then our guide spotted two—a mother and her calf!—and we leaped from the jeep to pursue them through the trees. I couldn’t help but hum the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies as we raced after them, vaguely wondering why a 5,000-lb creature was running away from a group of let’s say svelte young women.

The mother must’ve had the same thought because she suddenly halted and glared at us, her calf tucked to her flank. We likewise stopped, and my heart nearly exploded for the second time in as many days. The rhino eventually decided we were not a threat, and after a disapproving snort trundled off into the woodland.

From there, we languidly cruised back into South Africa and ended our camping safari in Johannesburg. It had been an intense and fascinating month; my mind reeled with the notion that regardless of how many Discovery Channel documentaries I’d watched, southern Africa had vastly surpassed all my expectations in both scenery and fauna. 

Trekking up the famed sand dune.

The open natural landscapes invoked a sense of connection with those who had walked the deserts and grasslands thousands of years before me—like those who had painted the White Lady on Brandberg Mountain I wondered if any of my direct ancestors had also admired the vivid purples of the Okavango’s water lilies contrasted against a smoke-coloured sky, or silhouetted giraffes mirrored in one of Etosha’s watering holes.

Of course, I’ll never know. But if there is ever a cave painting unearthed that depicts the plight of a small-bladdered individual braving the shrieking African night, I will celebrate on the hunch of having traced my heritage. ***

 

HOW TO DO AN AFRICAN CAMPING SAFARI

Classic Overlanding

The roots of commercial overland camping trips can be traced to 1960s’ London, when intrepid travellers (and perhaps company founders looking for an alternative to settling down!) ventured east across Europe, the Middle East and Asia to Kathmandu or beyond, or through Europe and Africa south to Cape Town. Using modified second-hand British army trucks, journeys lasted anywhere from a few weeks to almost 12 months.

The trucks would carry all the necessary camping equipment as well as tools and spare parts and up to 24 passengers, all of whom were required to assist with food preparation, shopping, cooking and chores along the way. It was an alternative to backpacking, with fewer risks and difficulties but not much greater comfort. Many of the companies were based in the United Kingdom, with passengers drawn from that country as well as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and northern Europe.

Political issues meant that routes were forever changing, with companies having to avoid hotspots like India-Pakistan one minute, or Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) the next. Sometimes, the companies got caught up in the drama themselves: in the 1980s an element of the African National Congress created a genuine overland company called Africa Hinterland as a cover to smuggle weapons into apartheid-era South Africa. The company operated for many years without any of the passengers realizing what was hidden in secret compartments beneath the trucks’ floors!

Commercial overlanding strongly continues today. The old army trucks have been replaced by multi-wheel-drive Mercedes and similar vehicles, all equipped with GPS, battery rechargers, small refrigerators and other useful amenities. Passengers are often still required to assist with camp chores, though some companies provide crews of three or more to handle all the work, leaving travellers free to relax, send emails or write in journals.

Cape Town to Johannesburg via Victoria Falls

With an abundance of spectacular scenery, the chance to see Africa’s Big Five and enough adrenaline on tap to sate even the most addicted junky, this safari route—which traverses South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe—still rates among the most popular of overland journeys and is just about as good as it gets when it comes to southern Africa.

Getting There

Many international airlines have flights to both Cape Town and Johannesburg, with direct nonstop service available from the United States, Europe, the Middle East and even Asia and Australia.

Documentation: Canadian passport holders do not currently require a visa to enter South Africa, Namibia or Botswana for tourist stays of 90 days or less. Tourist visas are necessary for Zimbabwe. As requirements can change with little notice all travellers are advised to double-check with the relevant embassy prior to departure. If not Canadian, begin your research about visa requirements with your own national government website.

Health: In addition to the normal travel vaccinations, it is generally recommended that anyone venturing off-the-beaten path in southern Africa have hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid inoculations, and consider the one for rabies. Malaria is common in the Okavango Delta, Caprivi and elsewhere, and precautions must be taken. All four countries require proof of yellow fever vaccination if coming from a country where it occurs. Consult your doctor or a travel health clinic as early as possible before departure; if in Canada, you can start here.

Getting Around: It takes a minimum of three to four weeks to cover this route whether as part of a tour group or independently. If interested in travelling independently, while it is generally easy to rent a car and self-drive in South Africa and Namibia, ensure that rental companies permit you to take the car out of the country. In addition, while many of southern Africa’s roads are paved and in good condition, game drives and trips to some of the more remote sights are often on dirt tracks.

It may be necessary to hire a driver with a 4×4 vehicle who has previous off-road experience. While public transport is available between major centres in the region, it’s much more difficult for independent travellers to reach the more out-of-the-way spots that feature on most wish lists. However, many small safari operators offer short trips into parks or to key places from the nearest town, and South Africa offers the excellent Baz Bus hop-on/hop-off backpacker network (www.bazbus.com).

Accommodation: Southern Africa has some of the most luxurious wilderness lodges and tented safari camps in the world, often with gourmet cuisine and superb wines. If camping is more your style, campsites range from having hot showers to bars to Internet access and occasionally swimming pools, to bush camping with little or absolutely no facilities, except for a ceiling of endless stars and the privacy of the nearest bush.

Currency: Each of the four countries has their own currency, though U.S. dollars and South African rand are also widely accepted. ATMs are available and credit cards accepted in most cities and tourist centres, with the exception of Zimbabwe.

Language: English is widely spoken throughout southern Africa.

When To Go: As southern Africa ranges from rugged coastline to high plateaus and mountaintops, arid desert to humid jungle and practically everything in between, it’s impossible to find a time when the weather is perfect everywhere.

In general, southern hemisphere winters (June to August) feature cool nights (downright cold in the desert, when temperatures frequently dip below freezing) and scorching summer highs that can top 40°C. The rainy season varies considerably from place to place, as does the rainfall itself, which can run the gamut from short late-day showers to tropical downpours that last for hours. All things considered, there really is no bad time of the year to visit southern Africa.

What To Do: Apart from the obvious game drives, walks, canoeing and sightseeing, there are enough adventure activities along route to bankrupt a Gates! Abseiling down Table Mountain or shark diving off Cape Town; skydiving, quad-biking or sandboarding in Namibia; whitewater rafting, bungee-jumping or walking with lions in Zimbabwe. And that’s just a sketch.

Things To Look For: If booking a safari or an overland trip always check the fine print. Budget operators may be cheaper, but by the time you factor in even the most basic (on top of the most necessary) of extras—like entrance fees to a national park or game drive, or exorbitant contributions to a food kitty—they can be more expensive than other fully inclusive options. Ask questions before you book and remember it’s buyer beware.

  • By Simon Vaughan, Outpost Senior Editor

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