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Focus on Africa: The Explorers Club


© St. Petersburg Times

I sat quietly, dwarfed by it all.

Namibia, a relatively calm country that shares sometimes turbulent borders on the north with Angola and on the south with South Africa, is mostly desert speckled with massive canyons. It boasts large herds of animals living in some of the best national parks in all of Africa. Though home to hundreds of African tribes, Namibia is a sparsely populated, empty country.

For a month, my brother and I rode a massive overland safari truck, captivated by the life we passed. Our group consisted of Europeans and North Americans; African tourists were conspicuously absent because of the comparatively horrific cost. The truck roared through ancient villages and across the Namib Desert, considered among Earth's oldest.

Namibia introduced itself to me via a brief border stop from adjoining South Africa. The beautiful paved highways streamlining South Africa abruptly ended in flat gravel roads linking Namibia's infrequent villages. Only two major highways run north and south, both unpaved and raw.

We crossed the border and began weeks driving along the dusty, dry roads. Our first campsite was at an oasis on the Orange River. Across the swirling water, bright yellow South African border patrol trucks buzzed on ceaseless missions to protect its frontier. Several local men fished from the river's muddy banks, using only a stick and a line to catch fish. Everywhere echoed the sound of laughter.

The longer I traveled in Africa, the more commonplace gentle laughter became. People living in small huts with few material possessions would often laugh and laugh with their friends and families. Whether they laughed because of their plight or in spite of it, I never knew. Their poverty was incomprehensible to my Western standards, yet their friendliness and hospitality put our typical behavior to shame.

As our truck rumbled past the small, dusty villages, people would emerge from their huts and from the bushes to wave. Everyone strolling down the road who had a free hand waved and smiled at our passing truck. I always eagerly waved back, relishing the warmth and kindness of the simple gesture.

Our truck rolled north to Ai-Ais Hot Springs, a surreal oasis in the midst of an arid, dusty landscape. At Ai-Ais, turquoise swimming pools filled with warm water reflected the treeless mountains on all sides. Baboons scurried through the high weeds, calling lightheartedly to each other as tourists prepared their evening meals in damp swimsuits.

The next morning brought paradise for any veteran weary of the exploited Grand Canyon. Fish River Canyon beckoned, the second-largest canyon in the world, placing only behind Arizona's pride and joy -- but without designated scenic viewpoints, pavement, prepared trails, parking lots, vendors or other people.

We scrambled down the sides of Fish River Canyon on a steep, craggy path no lawyer back home would have okayed. Everything was untamed and raw. We walked to the bottom of the canyon, encircled by brilliant orange rocks and bright blue sky. We found ourselves standing before a quiet pond, but no one ventured near for fear of catching dreaded bilharzia from contaminated still water.

Each day the desert stretched out before us. The arid, dusty air clogged our throats and blurred the desolate landscape. Each night, I would stretch my cramped legs as I clambered out of the truck and began the constant battle with the desert. Our food was always peppered with crunchy bits of sand, and whenever I would shake my hair, sand would scatter about.

After several dusty weeks on the road, we reached the ultimate sand box: The bright orange Namibian sand dunes.

Early that morning, our tired group crawled from sleeping bags and back on to the truck while millions of stars still sparkled. We sleepily rolled the plastic windows up on the sides of the truck, against the bitterly cold wind. The headlights picked up the silhouettes of venerable acacia thorn trees and an occasional frightened animal as we sailed through the night. Frost coated the orange sand.

The truck stopped and I began walking toward one of the massive dunes outlined against the sky, which faded into lavender and pink. The dunes now glowed bright orange on the sunny side but remained black in the shadows. Birds began chirping and the frost melted into the sand.

These were unlike any sand dunes I had ever seen. Shifting and changing, their sheer magnitude astounded me. We climbed several dunes, sweating and laughing our way up the soft ridges. Hours passed and we seemed to make no progress as we trudged one step forward and slid half a step back. The backdrop looked surreal, with the swirls of color and shades of orange stretching to the horizon on all sides.

The wind was cold, despite the desert environment, and my face burned from the stinging sand. When we reached the top of the dune, we danced and snapped ridiculous photos of ourselves decked in our modern gear against the timeless landscape.

We tumbled and somersaulted down the mighty sand mountains. We did flips off the ridges and slid down face-first on our bellies.

I returned to our campsite that night with sand clogging my ears and weighing my pockets. We spent the night playing cards and crunching on sandy spaghetti as a sandstorm wrecked the other tents and washed the desert clean.

Our next stop led us to the Africa of endless wildlife documentaries, contained inside a massive game park. Springboks jumped across the savanna. Skittish giraffes drank at murky water holes, hunkering down in awkward splits. Wildebeests filed down dusty paths, the African sun setting in a burst of orange and red behind them.

At Etosha National Park in northern Namibia, the people are sealed in a barb-wired cage each sunset and are released again each sunrise. Our truck rolled across the animal-filled park to our cage, where we tied our mosquito nets up to the perimeter fence under a full moon.

We walked to the water hole where the animals could come watch the people at night, as we waited in our cage for them to appear. Dusty elephants rumbled across the savanna to drink, rippling the still pool with each massive step. Rhinos lumbered out of the brush and snorted as they drank, keeping a wary eye on the elephants. Lions grunted in the darkness, waiting their turn for a drink.

That evening, under the full moon, frenzied jackals ran back and forth. They slid under the barbed wire and happily robbed tents and campsites, screeching to each other. I watched as they ransacked the tents. My brother jolted awake just as one darted off with the sack for his sleeping bag. In the morning, several hundred yards away we found one of his sandals, abandoned after the jackals had munched the plastic straps apart.

We spent the next day driving slowly through the game park. Ostriches flirted with their fluffy feathery gowns. Baby elephants yelped weak trumpets as they splashed in the muddy water. Gemsbok stood stoically in the shadows, ignoring the truck full of clicking cameras nearby.

The African sun beat down on the desert floor, sapping up all water except for the water holes and bleaching the scenery behind a dusty veil. Gennifre Hartman is a freelance writer living in Murray, Utah.

Originally published April 20, 1997

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