A real African safari should not involve a cheesy khaki-costumed guide with a microphone standing at the front of an air-conditioned bus addressing a big crowd with big lenses and fanny packs, in socks and sandals, faces squashed against windows, all drenched in deet—you get the picture.
A safari (the Swahili word for “journey”) is not just about ticking off the big five, lounging around in luxury lodges, and watching costumed, choreographed Zulus dance about in the lobby. There should be at least a whiff of Livingstonian adventure about it. But alas, in this modern world of mass tourism, eager accident lawyers, and indemnity forms, the wilderness and all who live in it have, by and large, been turned into something gated, toothless, and tame.
Nevertheless, the real Africa does still exist, especially in the wide open spaces of Namibia, where nature is indeed still red in tooth and claw. But one must possess steely nerves before taking up the challenge of a self-guided off-road camping trip. And regrettably my nerves are not made of steel. They’re more like guacamole.
Recently, though, I learned of a relatively new idea in Namibia called the “small group self-drive guided safari”, which allows clients to drive their own four-by-four (or a rental) across the potentially hazardous wilderness without having to fear the aftermath of their own ineptitude. Concerns such as “Why has my engine blown up?”, “How do I fend off a lion?”, and “Which way is north?” become superfluous due to the fact that a burly African expert is always relatively close at hand to help you out when you go wrong, pointing the way, answering the radio, looking out for lions, setting up tents, and changing tires.
And so I signed up. Within a week I found myself trundling across the huge open spaces of Namibia, a country that lies just north of South Africa and borders on the Atlantic Ocean, in a five-car convoy in search of mysterious desert elephants and the very rare black rhino.
Ah, bliss. This was indeed the Africa of my dreams. Lions stared with malcontent, sand dunes soared, and elephants trumpeted and flapped their ears as I drove by. I was happy in the knowledge that John van den Berg (the convoy guide) was never far away should I run afoul.
I have never seen such stark and awesome openness. Horizons bend with the earth’s curvature, hazy at the seams with a Martian-coloured dust. It billowed from my wheels as if I were driving a space shuttle, and caked my face and hair and teeth in filmy saffron.
This was fine adventure, and not a soul to spoil the view. Although I was not truly alone out in the wilderness, I felt alone and—dare I say it—intrepid. John was always about a kilometre ahead, while the other vehicles were spaced well apart to give the impression that Namibia and all of its scenery and animals existed solely for my pleasure. There were no tourists, no traffic, no buildings, and no cellphone reception, just miles of open countryside, dirt tracks, and the occasional elephant, ostrich, or oryx.
The other cars in my convoy were driven by a variety of folk who, like me, wanted to experience untamed Africa but didn’t quite know how. Joan and Vivienne Saycell, blue-rinse siblings in their 60s from South Africa barely knew how to change gears on their four-by-four, let alone use a GPS. Yet as a group, we attacked steep and sandy roads which were little more than strips of strewn boulders. Predictably, we suffered flat tires, and the lovely old ladies, while chattering like guinea fowl, went off the road on more than one occasion. But all was taken with humour, and what could have so easily turned into a CNN–style drama (skeletons picked clean by vultures found in the desert) turned out to be little more than a routine winch-out, thanks to John and his bush-rescue skills.
The great Namib Desert is a deathly dry yet serene moonscape that skirts the western coast of Namibia. Rain rarely falls, and life would not exist at all were it not for the regular fogs that roll in from the Atlantic.
I stopped frequently to examine the finer details of a world that at first glance appeared dead. It was only on closer inspection that I began to see the tiny succulent plants covering the ground and the insects and lizards that scuttled underneath them.
Larger animals, such as Cape fur seals, cluster along the coast in the thousands. They heave and flap and bark like dogs, lending their overpowering aroma to the salty desert air. Wiry jackals dart between their shimmering bodies, while hyenas slink and steal a baby or two right from under their noses.
Shipwrecks litter this 1,600-kilometre strip of emptiness due to the ferocity of the sea, but those unfortunate souls who survived drowning and made it to land usually died of thirst. It’s not called the Skeleton Coast for nothing.
Day after day, my little group explored the vast and varied scenery of this southern African country where people speak in a language of clicks, and ostrich eggs litter the roads. The word namibia actually means “the land of open spaces”. After Mongolia, it is one of the least densely populated countries on Earth.
But despite its arid nature, Namibia is home to a surprisingly diverse selection of big-game animals, which somehow manage to eke out a living from the dry and sandy terrain. The black rhino, my favourite animal, lives among their ranks.
“They almost vanished completely because of poaching, you know,” John told me after I informed him of my ardent wish to see one. We were sitting around a blazing campfire with the stars up above and the sound of lions copulating noisily some distance away.
Somewhere toward the water hole next to our camp in Etosha National Park, a zebra laughed hysterically.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“Nothing funny about being eaten by a lion,” John replied dryly.
It’s a mean world out there in the African bush, and I felt grateful for the flickering flames. “Rhino populations are slowly recovering though, especially here in Namibia, but your chances of seeing one are still pretty slim,” John continued.
It was my last night in Africa, and so with a heavy heart I sauntered from my tent to check out the water hole. Perhaps I would see lions nibbling on a zebra. But instead of carnivores, I found my rhino—five of them, to be precise—gathered around the wallow, snorting and splashing like children at play. It was a wonderful experience that I’ll never forget.
And for a while I was alone, with the stars and the rhinos and what felt like the whole of southern Africa performing just for me. Now that’s something you certainly won’t get from inside a bus.
ACCESS: There are hundreds of soft safari options available for anyone who wishes to see Namibia in air-con comfort (if not in style). Self-driving into the wilderness areas is not recommended unless you travel with at least two vehicles for safety and have some knowledge of how to handle an off-road vehicle. Many people have perished in the desert alone because of something as simple as a flat tire or an overheated radiator.
Bhejane 4X4 Adventures (www.bhejane.com/) is a guided self-drive southern African safari company that grew out of the increasing demand for a more genuine, yet safe, outdoor African safari experience. Ten-night tours with tented accommodation cost 6,950 South African rand ($1,070) per person.
For more information, visit the Namibia Tourism Board at www.namibiatourism.com.na/.