- Thom Jones, "I Need a Man to Love Me"
I'm sitting in the shade of a bungalow just above the banks of the Orange River, in Namibia. I've just survived being swept down a fair portion of said river, in the process of which misadventure I nearly lost both a fiberglass canoe, and a very nice German gal named Astrid. Astrid, along with her friend Sabine, made what turned out to be the significant strategic miscalculation of pairing off with me and Mark for today's canoe trip. (They were having a bit of trouble paddling a straight line, and we swapped partners mid-stream.) Before long, Astrid and I were in the (swift-flowing) drink, the canoe was headed back to South Africa, and our intrepid and estimable tour guides Paul and Jo were flinging themselves into an inspired resucue effort. But more on this in a minute.
8AM Sunday and we met up at Nomad and piled into "Jimi". We were slated to be in "Sid" (all the trucks "It's not a bus! Don't call it a bus!" are named after dead rock stars), but this is Africa and a last minute logistical snafu obtained. Initial impressions are that this is a really great group of folks 5 Germans, 4 English, 4 Spaniards, 3 Irish, 5 Yanks, 1 Canadian, 1 Aussie and this sense would be well borne up in the next few days. We all make our first food stop at a grocery mecca just outside of town. Paul sticks his head in the cab: "Okay, who's the ultra-vegetarian? You're coming shopping with us." I leave them with a broad mandate in the produce section, grab some trail mix, and then we're all back bopping down the road with good, loud music filling the vehicle.
Soon we're heading into the mountains, and soon after make a roadside lunch stop. Mark wanders down to the nearby river, beginning what's to become of his regular practice of looking for (and generally finding) very interesting insects, snakes, and other forms of Mark-friendly wildlife. Paul and Jo inaugurate their admirable, if embarrassing, habit of constantly fretting about me getting enough to eat by pressing an entire bag of apples into my possession. (Since then, I've been trying to convince them that I'm an extremely happy guy with a bag of apples in hand; but they keep cooking up a storm on my behalf and that of the other two veg-heads onboard.)
Back on the road, the terrain is pretty, but not arresting amber grain, rocky foothills, scrub grass and bushes, mountains in the (decreasing) distance, the odd lake. Kind of Nevada-ish. There's a bit of reading and napping, but the main activity on the truck is interacting which suits me down to the ground. I always like talking to fer'ners in general; moreover, I find I'm liking virtually everyone here quite a lot. (Hopefully, more on them as individuals soon.)
Things are getting positively American SW (say, northern New Mexico) by the time Paul pulls us onto a dirt road, and takes us up into the mountains proper and rough stuff it is. After another hour or so both Paul and Jimi far exceeding our expectations of their capabilities, we arrive at the camp site which is, erm remote. (And also quite lovely.) We hump gear off of Jimi and and set up camp.
After setup, and a camp primer from Alan, our host (bush hat, walrus moustache, military (and farming) background, all natch), several folks such as Rachel, Irish chemist, and Andrea, German photography buff get busy hiking. Mark and I set out together, eventually hooking up with several other folks on top of the highest local hunk of rock. But the weather is slithering in fast, thick, and stealthy; soon it's raining, and rocks are getting slick. We make it to ground not any later than we care to. [bonus random hike dialogue]
From here on out, it's basically my first ever camping experience (well, since age 10). How to ease into it? How about in the remote mountains of South Africa, camping on sand, with no electricity, very limited water, chemical toilets, in the freezing rain and dark? Sure! First camp shower! First tent, and rainfly, pitching! First camp kitchen cleanup! It's all cake from here on out, my friends! (45 days of cake, as another incredulous person pointed out.)
We have dinner in the main clearing (where I hope, fruitlessly as it turns out, that people will get all the gawking at the vegan freak out of their systems), then stand around the fire (in actuality, my thin-blooded Californian toes are basically IN the fire) drinking Rooibos tea (an SA tradition that I missed out on in Cape Town). Then we're up at 5:30AM (yes, I typed that carefully). I actually feel quite grand when I nose out of the tent, where the rain has stopped, and run into Rachel, who's our neighbor.
M: And how is the joint Irish-Canadian-Aussie Drinking Contingent feeling this morning?
R: Wrecked. We finished the bar. We've only been in bed two hours.
Breakfast, then back on the road well before 7, where seats have been happily scrambled. I end up next to Francesca, a newly-minted lawyer from Manchester. [Lamentably, she's having major itinerary difficulties (which I won't belabor), and ends up leaving the tour later this day.] She also paints, and we discuss art. (She likes Kadinski.) Back out in the desert (and desertification of the terrain is ongoing), we stop on our inagural desert-side pissbreak. There are no concealing natural features here. At all. "Boys to the front of the truck, girls to the back," bellows Paul. Mark wanders off and finds an African locust.
Later, we stop for a road-side lunch. The Spaniards still have no English, and Alexander (the flamboyant German and third veg-head) begins translating, as well as teaching some Spanish to some of the Germans. He also catches me speaking German, and declares me a now-former member of the Yank, or perhaps English-speaking, camp. I drag a camp chair off a few paces to share the view with an apple. (The apples alone are justifying my 24/7 knife-wearing practice.) Mark finds additional, even better, locusts. (This one posed for me, showing off his underbelly. My camera's macro mode, as you can well make out for yourself, rocks.)
We next find civilization in a little Afrikaner berg called Springbok. Those culturally-compelled to do so lay in supplies for tonight (by clearing out the local package store), and we wait happily around for Paul and Jo to gas up Jimi. It's a long day of driving, but we cross the frontier without incident (Paul: "No photos, no jail."), and ultimately reach our new camp site, which is a river expeditions affair and may as well be a five-star resort in comparison to last night. (Power, water, soft grass, hot showers, clean toilets yay!) We're right on the river, so I bust out the monopod and try it out with one or two entirely decent attempts in the fading light.
Then, naturlich, the drinking starts. I wrestle for a bit with a faint sadness that I no longer have access to this happy place before breaking down and making a happy exception, sucking down a couple of tasty Windhoeks before dinner. Over dinner, I have a great and lively conversation with Mick (the Irishman), Doug (the Canadian), and Aaron (the Aussie) about sports, 9/11, George Bush, socialized medicine, and the unbelievably freaking great deal all the former British colonies (oh except for just one particular former colony) get in regard to seamless work permits to go and work in any Commonwealth country for a year. Outside the pavilion, the Southern Hemisphere's starry dome blazes down in complete unfamiliarity, leaving one feeling as if on a whole different planet.
The morning is completely glorious, and most everyone is up before Paul's indicated liberal wakeup time of 8am. I get in a little morning stretching and calisthenics in a sunny patch of grass, not recalling when I've felt better. After breakfast, we don life jackets, pile onto an open truck, and race back up the road beside the river almost all the way back to the SA border. There we pile into fiberglass canoes, and get busy paddling (when not simply floating) back to camp. A pretty spectacular cliff face borders the river, and the whole scene is lovely but a consensus decision was taken that nothing we might shoot here would make up for leaving a camera at the bottom of the river, and not having it next week for, say, Chobe National Park (where they have, for starters, 4500 elephants).
Anyway, long afore-foreshadowed story short, Astrid and I basically missed a turn we were meant to go left around a large reed island, and before we realized it, a swift current had drug us to the right. In attempting to bring us around and fight back around the point, we caught the current broadside and capsized with authority. Everyone but Paul and Jo (who are simultaneously completely bad, and complete sweethearts, by the way more on this later) had already rounded the island. They swung into action, fought the current, shouted instructions to us, and performed a docking maneuver with the thick reeds on the island. Abandoning the boat, our oars, and my watter bottle, Astrid and I made our way to them, where they then hauled us over their gunwhale, and then paddled like Olympians to get us to the shore. There, we dragged their boat up the rocks, listened to them cursing the (real) river guide for not coming back to retrieve us, and shared some more apples. Then the three of us made our way through the brambles to the road, and got ready to [abandon the boats; "that's their problem" and] hike it back. As it turned out, the group had recovered our boat (Guide: "Found the canoe, no canoers. This had us a little worried") and pulled over. After a quick float on our backs down to the group, Astrid and I were able to remount our vehicle and continue as normal.
I felt a little chagrined at my failure of seamanship; but, still, I had to try and keep my grin in check after this point. Astrid and I pretty much agreed that it was really much more fun our way.
Tomorrow: A drive north, arriving in time for a sundowner on the rim of the Fish River Canyon the world's second biggest, after the Grand.
M: Alright, let's be careful of turned ankles here.(hide)
M: I already paid the price for underestimating African wildlife. I found a blue beetle.
M: And it bit you?
M: I can't believe how hard it bit me.
M: It magically grew jaws that it didn't previously have, and I thought it took the tip of my finger right off.
M: Hmm, looks like there's a cave here. Hang on while I look in it.
M: I'll put precisely that on your tombstone.