Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Southern Africa Diaries: Trucking & Camping from Zimbabwe to Namibia

Life: The Ultimate Road Trip
Date: Saturday, 7 May 2017
Location: Bole International, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I’ve always viewed road trips as being far more than mere journeys. They are essentially entire lifetimes in metaphorical miniature, a one-way passage with anticipated bright beginnings, sorrowful sentimental endings, and a world of unexpected experiences and newfound relationships paving the middle. I’ve been highly fortunate to have grown up with a plethora of these mini “lives”, each trip contributing some unique aspect to my greater sojourn and ever-evolving character. Like Life itself, road trips are portals for mental and emotional growth, capable of only moving forward. Since my last journey searching for peace of mind in the Caucasus and Armenia, I've witnessed many changes and felt the inevitable push forward, gradually closing the book on former homes and faded friendships, only to flip to fresh chapters in novel places with new faces. As my Catalan brother Albert is one to say, usually over a free-flowing bottle of Spanish wine, moving on quickly and having no regrets about anything beyond one's control is the happiest and healthiest way to exist.

Concerning health, finding out that my father's is not in the best condition wasn't exactly the most pleasant news to reach me this year. The realities of age, mortality, and impermanence suddenly began to dawn on me in a way I wasn't prepared for. Flipping through countless travel photos spanning more than two decades, I drowned in the nostalgia of the many road trips we'd taken together through Africa, the Middle East, and the American Southwest. Life was subtly urging me to take another road trip with my oldest and most reliable travel partner. It was telling me to keep moving forward.

Having always been passionate about savanna wildlife, my father leaped at the opportunity to join me on a three-week camping trip traversing Southern Africa, in a fashion reminiscent of our overlanding adventures in East Africa. From the lush forests of Zimbabwe, we aim to briefly cross into Zambia at Victoria Falls, before catching our truck and pushing through the arid Kalahari of Botswana towards the Namibian coastline.

Zig-Zag Through Zim-Zam: Border Hopping at Victoria Falls
Date: Tuesday, 9 May 2017
Location: Mama Africa Restaurant, Vic Falls, Zimbabwe

Strolling along a dirt road lined with dense acacia forests, we turned the corner to find a pair of slender, khaki-clad Shona park rangers, their gazes staring intensely into the blurred vegetation. "Elephants crossing around here. Take care, do not follow". I've already experienced the displeasure of a pissed pachyderm back in the Serengeti, and I wasn't ready to deal with one again, especially not less than an hour after arriving in Zimbabwe. But truth be told, those big-eared beasts were standing between me and the best iced coffee this side of the Zambezi, and after more than 24 grueling hours of transiting, nothing was going to stop me from the sweet reward of self-indulgence. We reached the Lookout Cafe, a majestic cliff hugging restaurant-bar overlooking the border bridge spanning across vertical gorge walls, the tumultuous river crashing far below. It was touristy, it was posh. In fact all of Victoria Falls town - the expensive eateries, glamorous safari lodges, and American priced souvenirs - seemed contrary to anything I would normally associate myself with on my trips. And yet, swarms of tourists aside, it felt sinfully delightful to chill in a luxurious lounge setting while downing a four dollar iced Arabica coffee shake in the baking heat. The beginning of any rough adventure should probably start with one of these. Dinner in town at Carnivore wasn't any cheaper, granted the selection of dishes presented before me was gastronomically irresistible. With choices among grilled giraffe and impala steaks, a massive wildebeest Milanese, and savory stewed kudu antelope, I shamelessly ordered them all. But the biggest highlight of my first Zimbabwean meal was actually something relatively smaller in size by comparison, albeit big in flavor - a heaping plate of finger-long mopane worms. With a crunchy head, chewy body, and smokey aftertaste, these big caterpillars serve an even bigger role as a national sustainable protein staple for the entire Southern African region. After ridding myself of my conscious awareness to down a whole plate of fried bugs, I surprisingly began to appreciate their value to the indigenous community.

The mighty Zambezi forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia
Ice coffees from the Lookout Cafe-Bar
Getting over initial fears and biting right into fried Mopane worms, a national protein specialty

I've always had a quirky love for the concept of international borders, not as demarcations that should keep nations ethno-culturally distinct, but rather because I've always viewed them as limits meant to be crossed. I've done my fair share of border breaching, both legally and also in a more clandestine manner, but every new opportunity to "jump over" is unique unto itself. Walking to Zambia, via a misty bridge straddling one of the most famous rivers and waterfalls in the world, was exhilarating to say the very least. Immigration control on both sides were nonchalant to the point of completely indifferent to whoever was crisscrossing the imaginary line, rendering the potential thrill of an undercover breach somewhat null. But finally on the Zambian side, after a great deal of walking through the forested "buffer zone" and across the famous bridge, everything seemed... the same. The constant movement of peoples and cultures between Zim and Zam make them feel like twins, with Zambia feeling less touristy and cheaper. We headed into the nearby town of Livingstone, named after the famed 19th century missionary doctor, explorer, and Afro-phile, Dr. David Livingstone. As one of history's greatest wanderlusters, my father always threw the "...Livingstone, I presume?" quote around while I was growing up, familiarizing me with the efforts of this man to discover the source of the Nile, map the African interior, and promote the end of slave trading. Needless to say, a trip to the quaint provincial Livingstone museum was a heartwarming way to spend time with my father and one of his iconic historical personalities. We strolled around the dusty streets of the town, whose vintage facades, hand-painted signage, and low rise buildings looked like a scene from 1950s small-town America, only with colorful African textiles and baskets of fruit on womens' heads. Our wanderings eventually took us back to Zimbabwe, where we got lost in the local village of Chitomba while following a wild Google Maps goose-chase to a nonexistent destination (what was marked as the Victoria Falls Rainbow Hotel was in fact a roadside market of women selling live chickens). But as we strolled through quaint neighborhoods of corrugated tin houses and home vegetable gardens, along dirt roads filled with kids playfully rolling car tires for fun, my exhaustion from such a foot grinding day transformed into blissful nostalgia. I guess a nice zebra kebab and mojito at The Three Monkeys that evening may have also contributed to the mild euphoria.

Victoria Falls, as seen from the border bridge
Two great explorers in one shot
You Are Now Entering ZAMBIA!
First sign one observes after entering Zambia. Not sure how to feel about this...
The 50's-looking town of Livingstone

Victoria Falls. There's a reason why it's one of the world's most celebrated natural wonders, for which I was soon to discover. Making our way to the falls in the early morning, past African joggers working out on neighborhood roads and warthogs pigging out in the communal trash, my initial reaction was one of mild indifference. Yes, Vic Falls is big and famous, but it's just a waterfall and I've seen many amazing ones all throughout Asia and South America - so what's all the hype? I eventually came to eat my words upon coming face-to-face with a narrow gorge over 350 feet in height and a literal wall of white water spilling over its edges in one monstrous deluge, for what seemed to be more than a mile in length. The crashing waters echoed like roaring thunder in a maelstrom of mist and heavy raindrops, spraying enough liquid into the air to create its own cloud to be seen from miles away. As we followed the jungled cliff-side trail to various vistas perched precariously on rock ledges, we were completely enveloped by the cloud and soaked, much like taking an hour long shower while fully clothed. It was the most drenching experience I've ever encountered that didn't involve swimming, the cool misty downpour swirling in every direction within a lush rainforest overflowing with purifying energy. And when the sun found a brief chance to pierce through, hundreds of radiant rainbows danced amidst Victoria's droplets with every turn of my bewildered gaze. Surely, I found myself in the presence of Nyaminyami, the sacred spirit of the mighty Zambezi.

Wild warthogs rummaging through the early morning trash
The western edge of Victoria Falls, as it plummets over 350 ft (108 m) into the gorge below
Victoria Falls has an average flow rate of 38,430 ft3/s (1088 m3/s)
The falls as seen from the Zimbabwe side

Walking back from the falls, we ran again into street vendor, King Evergreen, only this time he wasn't trying to push us into buying more of his carved wooden animals. After having to resort to the limited, mostly upscale restaurants around town for two days, I was anxious to uncover the truly authentic Zimbabwean food scene and dine among locals. King directed us to a tiny dilapidated shack with a single open kitchen where two women were busy around large cauldrons of bubbling mystery. A single folding table with plastic chairs sat outside near the dirt road, stacks of Coca Cola crates creating a colorful red backdrop for what was essentially a grimy village dining "establishment". Serving as our translator, King ordered each of us a portion of sadza ne nyama, a blob of cooked cornmeal identical to East African ugali, used as a medium to scoop up the accompanying spiced stew of beef tripe and intestines, as well as a side of tender collared greens. Eating with the hands, I dove right into the amazing flavor combination, occasionally stealing a little salted and dried Zambezi fish from King's plate to enhance the well balanced flavors. A crowd of Zimbabweans had suddenly grown around us, everyone watching in comical fascination as two unlikely foreigners somehow ended up in their part of town; one man even felt the urge to snap a pic with his phone as I shamelessly stuffed my face. The entire experience felt classically African, even down to the cockroach that literally scurried across the middle of my plate as I ate. Even more amazing was the fact that the full meals for three people, plus a pineapple Fanta only came to $3.50.

Local lunch with King and the cockroach that jacked my last piece of meat. Only $1 for a full meal!

Our last evening in Zimbabwe was spent walking through the bush on our way to dinner, following an acacia-lined dirt trail in the radiant moonlight to the rhythm of a million clicking insects. Everything was magically tranquil until we accidentally startled two massive Cape buffaloes, which sent both of us running for our lives in the darkness. After hippos, wild buffaloes are the second leading animal-related cause of deaths on this continent. Dangerous beasts always seem to be getting between me and my food here. Upon eventually reaching the closed restaurant, the locals said we were crazy for trying to walk at night and a taxi was summoned to take us elsewhere. In the end, a traditional chicken dovi peanut butter stew at Mama Africa's was completely worth nearly being trampled. To think that so much has happened over the last several days, and that we have yet to begin our road trip, is a testimony to the diversity of experiences that has always drawn me to Africa. But more adventures still lay ahead as we catch our truck tomorrow and cross into beautiful Botswana.

Zebra-Giraffe-Impala kebab, pap & mojito - only $15!
Traditional Zimbabwean sadza and dovi

From Delta to Desert: Bouncing through Botswana
Date: Tuesday, 16 May 2017
Location: Bushman hut somewhere near Ghanzi, Botswana

A massive white Mitsubishi Fuso cargo truck pulled up to the entrance of the antiquated Victoria Falls Rainbow Hotel, barely missing the overhang above. It let out a loud hissing sigh as a young, lean Ndebele woman sporting a short bob of red woven braids descended down the steps from a door in the side of the metal beast. Mama Solie may look small, but she is certainly large and in charge, packing a big smile and energetic African-accented voice. Having commandeered overland trucking trips for 10 years across all of Southern Africa, I had no doubts about being in good hands for the next several weeks on a camping road trip that would cover over 3200 km from the Zambezi to the Atlantic. Together with hefty, cool-dude truck driver, Dingi, whose full Ndebele name is beyond my ability to pronounce, we met the other travelers taking the same route; we'd number nine during this first leg of the trip, eventually picking up another four people later in Namibia. After loading our gear into the rear and foods within the side undercarriages of MJ, we departed Zimbabwe towards Botswana along a bumpy highway cutting right through the dense forests of Zambezi National Park. "Ok happiness family, we gonna try our level best to find happiness this trip. Happiness?" Guess Mama Solie's favorite word.

Beautiful Mama Solie basks in the breeze at Etosha Pan
Riding our truck "MJ" in style, with driver Dingi

The most exciting part of any road trip is meeting new adventurous faces, people that could potentially become lifelong friends (or foes, but it's best to let that shit go and still savor the trip). Like my last road trip through Kenya and Tanzania, our crew was exceptionally eccentric. There's Team South Korea, composed of Sonnie, Sun Hee, and John. Vivacious and hypersocial Sonnie (35) was a charismatic and outspoken English teacher slash tropical orchid wholesaler turned film producer. He's currently working with Sun Hee (45), an obnoxious celebrity travel photographer whose bleach blonde hair and bizarre Bohemian-Gangnam style fashion sense makes her as conspicuous in the African bush as a peacock among bush chickens. She's apparently known for her roles as a judge on Korean reality TV competitions and, together with camera man, John, was shooting throughout Africa for an upcoming Korean TV travel show. Team Brazil, Anna and Mike, were an experienced older couple in their late-60s who have traversed the globe via his tiny personal airplane and both look like they've seen their fair share of adventures over many decades. Since Mike's plane was damaged in a South African storm, they've had to downgrade from exotic air travel to more mundane road travel until they can return to their villa-like posada in Sao Paolo. Team Italy consisted of the sweet and colorfully-expressive Silvia and Ilario, both in their late 30's and in the travel industry, who were just wed a week ago and are savoring their exciting African honeymoon together. Finally, there's sweet British-born Kesh (23), the only Indian guy I've ever met standing at over 6 feet tall, who's just graduated from university and is taking a year off before hitting the pavement with resumes and job applications. All in all, Mama Solie's "family" was an eclectic mix that I knew would, let's say in the least, keep me "entertained" as the truck pushed through the Kalahari. While we didn't have official crew duties like my last trip in East Africa, my father was vaguely selected as camp manager, while I appropriately took it upon myself to facilitate in the camp kitchen and learn Mama Solie's cooking.

Fellow "truckers" for the Zimbabwe-Botswana portion of the road trip
Sonnie felt a little too relaxed cruising the Okavango
Sun Hee, in all her Gangnam glory

Team Italy honey-mooners, Ilario and Silvia

One small step for Kesh... two giant leaps for mankind

I turned my head and completely froze, my eyes interlocking with the massive black pupils of the monstrous beast that had approached the 4x4. I could actually reach out and touch its grey, wrinkly leathery hide, still dripping with water after it charged from the river, nearly ramming into the vehicle in a defensive fit. I didn't have time to panic as the group of elephants quickly surrounded us, swinging their trunks in the air and tossing up red ochre dust with trumpeting outbursts. "Don't move and don't make a sound", a soft African voice ordered from the driver's seat. I kept my cool, but nearly pissed myself internally, having been so close to a wild animal of such an extraordinary caliber and uncertain as to whether or not this would be the day it decides to crush me. Welcome to Chobe National Park.

While the concentration of animals in Chobe hasn't been anywhere near as high as what I've seen in the Serengeti or Maasai Mara, the game drive experience here was rewarding purely for the shockingly close encounters we've had with the many elephants, from which the park derives its international fame. On two separate instances, family groupings encircled our 4x4, exhibiting loud and unpredictable displays of mock charging using their trunks and flapping ears. Other animals, including impalas, Cape buffaloes, crocodiles, and hippos, suddenly seemed banal after our intimate meeting with the park's famous elephants. After an tiring day of animal spotting, a relaxing cruise along the Chobe River on a large ferry pontoon in search of hippos concluded the evening, an iconic fuchsia sunset over the gentle waters giving rise to a full orange moon.

Early morning mist over the Chobe River
Lazy hippo

A elegant African fish eagle

Pulled right up to some elephants taking a bath in a dangerous, yet stimulating close-encounter
Elephants and impalas strolling through the park
Elephants and egret friends munching in the Chobe marshes
Don't let babies near those pesky crocodiles!
Angering an elephant that nearly charged the car. Lessons from Kenya still weren't learned for Botswana
Radiant sunset from a Chobe River cruise

Living off a truck and camping along the route is a lifestyle that isn't novel to my family, which has been heavily influenced by nomadic lifestyles through decades of both moving and travel. Finding a place to plant your tent and setting up your clothes-line are both important, but my love for eating and cooking usually directs my focus straight to kitchen setup. Mama Solie began to grow suspicious as I followed her around like a hawk stalking its prey. "I think you like cooking. Come help me, it's traditional African food tonight... Happiness!". I jumped at the invitation, helping pour more maize flour into a giant bubbling pot of sadza that she fiercely began to stir. Two other pots occupied the propane burners, one with a spicy tomato sauce and another of sliced cabbage, into which she poured a large helping of special peanut butter (Mama Solie only uses Zimbabwean peanuts, as nothing tastes more authentic than ingredients from home). After braii spicing the pork chops and breaking apart the blazing wood coals, we sent the raw meaty slabs over to Dingi, who grilled them to juicy perfection. Learning how to cook Southern African food on a truck-side fire from an Ndebele woman while out in the African countryside was a fantasy turned reality for me. Aside from the loads of camp dishes that I had to gather water for and wash by hand, I'm always looking forward to what I'll learn next in Mama Solie's bush kitchen.

Laundry - the essential bane of every camper's adventurous existence
Washing dishes for the camp
Learning in Mama Solie's bush kitchen how to prepare sadza, dovi, and pork braii
Mama Solie frying up some Hake fish fillets
Dingi grilling porkchops over the fire

That time we nearly missed a rhino because we had to peel potatoes

Cooking spaghetti and bruschetta with Team Italy

More and more spiders began to pour in, along with mosquitoes, gnats, and other critters. If I didn't try to get away, I'd likely break into another arachnophobic panic attack. And if I made even the slightest move, I ran the risk of tipping us over into crocodile filled waters. It felt like the Amazon incident repeating itself, only this was the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta network in the world. Like a wild Africanized Venice, the boatman used his long wooden pole to navigate our makoro through the narrow naturally-formed canals cutting through overgrown walls of papyrus reeds undulating on a gentle current for miles. From the main water channel, we pushed deeper through the labyrinth of dense reeds, frequently getting whacked in the face by grass and low hanging branches while simultaneously flooding the canoe with insects scurrying into every dark corner. Yet looking beyond the unsettling aspects of the makoro ride lay a veritable floating Eden, a crystal clear water garden of lush reeds, beautiful blossoming white lilies, and islands of date palms. On one of the larger islands, we explored through the thick bush, our tracker walking in complete silence as his eyes and ears focused intensely for any signs that a beast might be secretly hiding behind the next bush. Pausing beside a pile of elephant dung, he crouched down to break it apart with his bare hands, feeling it, smelling it, analyzing it like a forensic scientist investigating precious evidence. "They were here yesterday, but now they have moved on to another drier island". So we didn't get to see elephants up close again, but we did learn great things about the amazing flora and other animals that call the mighty Okavango home. It baffled me to learn that the great biodiversity on these islands owes its entire existence to the lowly termite, whose hard labor serves as the catalyst for island generation and formation, upon which the other creatures help contribute. Even the smallest of the small have tremendous significance on our shared planet, a humbling yet simultaneously inspiring thought.

Trucking into Nguma at the mouth of the Okavango Delta, Botswana

Escaping the heat with a makoro boatman
Rowing out into the thick marshes filled with insects

Water lillies gave the marshes a divine Eden-like ambience
Tracking elephants by analyzing piles of manure

Trucking right through the marshes en route to Maun

Air sweet with wild sage, orange hues reflecting off mirrored waters, and the symphony of living sounds emanating from the distant setting sun, the Okavango was an oasis in the arid Botswana desert. It was also a perfect place to really relax and get to know the family better, from savoring a scrumptious chutney chicken feast with fellow foodie Silvia at the Nguma Lodge to playing competitive Korean card games with Sonnie and Kesh by tent torchlight. Playing the role of "bush medic" after Kesh deeply sliced his hand while cutting an orange also added some color to the otherwise excessively leisurely ambience; we'll just tell future generations a crocodile got him. And simply sharing a rich red sunset with my father on a silent pontoon was sentimental enough to make me forget about the malarial swarm buzzing in my ears. There is a savage beauty and vivacious calm present here.

Navigating through narrow channels formed from Egyptian papyrus
Cruising into the sunset
A beautiful calm... before the creatures of the night come out to play
Playing intense rounds of Korean "Go-Stop"in our tents
Everyone's happy with surprise juice boxes and pencils!
Paying a little visit to a nearby Tswana family village
Now here's a woman with decadess of serious bush cooking in those potjie pots

The shuffling of seed rattles bound to heavy stomping feet matched the flickering shadows cast by firelight. There was a symphony of clicks and pops filling the air, yet none of which derived from dung beetles or crackling wood. This antediluvian percussive sound was actually coming from them, from the people's own lips. It was the sound of Naro, one of the many rhythmic Khoisan click languages of the San Bushmen. Wearing nothing more than small animal hide loincloths and grasping hunting staffs, the men trampled the silky Kalahari sand in a rigorous dance imitating the antelopes and birds that share their desert home. Around the fire sat the women, their cracked sun-baked faces glowing in the flames as they clapped and sang unintelligible words from an era before language, sounds that mimicked animals and invoked the spirits for healing. Though it felt like witnessing a living scene from prehistory, these people are as real and contemporary as any of us, struggling to maintain a timeless identity in an ever-changing, time-sensitive world.

Singing and dancing under the Kalahari stars with the bushmen of Botswana
Sounds and songs that have been passed down orally for thousands of years
Attempting to assimilate into the community for which I have so much admiration
Party like it's 3,000 BC!

The Bushmen of Botswana are a tiny people, exceptionally lean and not often taller than 5.5 feet. But do not be fooled by such petite and slender figures, which secretly conceal exceptional strength and resilience to survive in some of the harshest conditions on this planet. They roam the dry scrub land in minimal animal hides carrying little more than a small bow, a digging stick, and an ostrich egg water canteen. They have been hunting in this manner for millennia, but their way of life, like that of so many other indigenous hunter-gatherers around the world, is lamentably under threat with land privatization, racial discrimination, and unstoppable globalization. When we arrived at a camp in the bush outside of the little town of Ghanzi, I anxiously waited for my chance to meet this fascinating tribe, my only knowledge of them limited to vintage National Geographic photos and the hit 80's film, The Gods Must Be Crazy, both of which brought their ancient culture to international fame. After hours of pacing, they came to the camp, a small family group all dressed and speaking exactly as I had envisioned them. And what better way to interact with these people than to go on a walk together.

We trailed behind the elders and young boys into the  bush grasses as they scoured the ground in search of medicinal leaves, roots, and tubers. When spotted, a fierce digging commenced, yielding a hidden organic treasure from the desolate dry terrain. Yet the San are far more than simply gentle trackers; they are an extremely pleasant, genuinely comical, and highly expressive people. A boy began to slap himself repeatedly all over his head and body. "Mimimimimimi! Mimimimimimi! Ayyyy!" We laughed hysterically, our translator helping to explain the incomprehensible outburst. "The plant he collected is for protecting against the biting of many mosquitoes!" Another boy dug up a root, then proceeded to ramble in the click language before clenching his stomach, squatting down, and imitating the unpleasant sound of flatulence.  "Haha... This root is used for stomach pain." We continued on with them into an orange dusk, observing everything from making natural soap out of a desert melon to igniting fire using solely two sticks and some grass. As the dark chilly evening fell, beneath a sea of sparkling celestial lights, we sat around the fire with more of the tribal community, everyone smiling and laughing in the universal language of contentment. I stomped myself into exhaustion after being invited to join the "lion dance", raising the heat of excitement as the night plunged even colder. It was a magical moment in the middle of nowhere, intimate moments with a warm nomadic family that I'll never meet again, serving as a subtle reminder to always savor every present stop on the road trip of our collective Life.

Sweet, comical, and gentle best describe the bushmen family
Digging for medicinal roots and tubers

Making natural soap from a desert melon

Kalahari Cruisin' to the Coast: Nomads in Namibia
Date: Wednesday, 24 May 2017
Location: Katutura Township, Windhoek, Namibia

After more than a week of camping and migrating west, the truck traversed the Trans-Kalahari highway through vast flattened wastelands towards the mountainous desert regions near Namibia's capital at Windhoek. The family was relieved and truly excited - a night at the Heja Game Lodge, with a real bed and bathroom to regroup and recharge, lay ahead at the end of a bumpy dirt road. No one seemed to pay much attention anymore to the herds of impalas and springboks that grazed along the path leading to the fancy accommodation, which included a garden bar and swimming pool situated on the banks of a natural watering hole where game animals came to drink at dusk. Even more pleasurable was a family dinner at the lodge restaurant, where my father and I splurged on appetizers of garlic escargots and smoked oryx, followed by stewed springbok and oryx steaks. Of all the wild game meats I've consumed on this trip, the springbok antelope has been my favorite, as tender as beef tongue. The truck dropped off Brazilians, Mike and Anna, and picked up four new family members, most of whom will continue on the route to Cape Town: Brazilian Bianca, Australian Robert, Argentinian Abigail, and Israeli Patricia. The first leg of the Namibian journey got off to a rather rough start, having traveled no further than 100 km until one of the truck's back tires blew out, rendering us temporarily stranded on the side of a desolate highway for about an hour. The men set to work replacing the massive tire while the women prepared lunch, an attempt to make up for lost time and reach Etosha National Park before the sunset closing. About 200 km into the 300 km journey, we were stopped at a police checkpoint, where Dingi entered into an intense argument with an officer over an issue that none of us were able to decipher. Plowing through the barren landscape, we made it to the Etosha gateway barely before sunset, though the truck still had to pay the fine for entering after hours. Setting up camp in darkness, we were completely exhausted by the time I got around to helping Mama Solie finish preparing a late dinner. As the chicken lay frying in the cast iron skillet, we talked of her dream in opening her own tour company to show visitors the best of her Zimbabwe and all Southern Africa, on her own terms with her own trucks. It was in this solitary moment that she confided her interest in having me help design, organize, and market cultural tours for her future company, to spread awareness for African peoples, cuisines, and traditions to visitors who normally forget that Africa is more than just wild animals. It was perhaps the most honorable compliment and invitation I've ever received. Will this road trip pave a path to new networking in tourism?

Last star-studded night in the Kalahari
Lost a tire on the highway past Okahandja
With four people anxious for some tire-changing action, I took on a slightly less exciting job
It's a bug-eat-bug world on the Namibian highways

Reaching the far northern park of Etosha, in an area not far from the Angolan border, we had our hearts set on seeing the big animals that we lacked during our game drives and wanderings in either Chobe or the Okavango. Up at 4:30 AM, we were amused by the graceful giraffes and whimsical zebras that frequented the watering holes alongside herds of prancing springboks and tall elegant oryxes. Besides the many herbivores roaming alongside rocky roads crisscrossing the 22 thousand square kilometer park, the terrain was equally as impressive, as acacia and mopane forests transformed into open grasslands and eventually into a dried desolate lake bed extending towards an endless horizon. After taking in the sheer emptiness of the Etosha Pan, Namibia's smaller version of Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni, the family's sense of excitement gradually began to dwindle as animal sightings grew even fewer. No one wanted to even look at another zebra, much less photograph it. Pulling into the camp site of the Halali Lodge, spirits were mildly disappointed and greatly tired.

The gentlest and most graceful beasts of the savanna

Springboks are a plenty in Etosha. They are great stewed with tomato

Hartebeests grazing near the Pan

Zebras causing severe traffic on the road to Halali

Beautiful oryxes, the national animal of Namibia

Lone male elephant looking for hot young pachyderm

They all came to the pool party wearing the same outfit. Terrible.

Life around the watering hole

But Etosha had a magical and unpredictable way of rewarding us. From the silent, night-viewing platform of the watering hole next to the lodge, after what felt like an endless wait, she produced from the darkness two beautiful white rhinos, their clumsy mechanical movements delighting a concealed audience as they rubbed noses and drank. Then, proceeding to drive out of the park the following day, Etosha surprised us with a truly generous offering - a spectacular male lion that cut across the breezy yellow plains and weaved his way around the truck and other 4x4 vehicles of gasping onlookers. His elegant display of drinking and strutting to the tune of a hundred shutter clicks was the literal definition of striding down a "catwalk", before finally meeting with his consort and disappearing into the tall grass. Etosha threw one final heard of majestic elephants with their babies at us on the way out, a token parting gift for a family still buzzing with newfound energy.

White rhino waiting for his partner for their drinking date
Handsome lion needs a drink before going back to the wife
Caught, red-pawed!

We've finally reached the end of the earth. Now what?
Because no Africa photo album would be complete without that one lonely acacia tree in the middle of nowhere

From the ferrous soil beside her bare feet bound by strings of woven anklets, she retrieved the long rusty blade. With a swish, the melon was halved and tossed into an iron cauldron bubbling over a small wood fire. Following her long slender legs, animal hide tresses flickered in the arid breeze beneath exposed breasts weighed down by collars of metal beads. At her summit, a radiant face of smooth mahogany beamed in the noonday sun, her thick ochre dreads cascading down the back and ending in tufts. It was an iconic image of Africa, a warm countenance resting upon a tall and elegant physique. She is Himba.

The dirt road from Outjo through Kamanjab was a hot and rugged one, passing through a flat dry savana interrupted by rocky outcroppings and low lying hills of boulders. In the shadows of one hill lay a small village, arranged as a circle of cow dung huts protecting a tree branch enclosure of goats. The invisible space between the elder's hut and the sacred hearth, where fires honoring the ancestors are kept alive, was a forbidden zone never to be crossed. It is the Himba way. She left the cooking pot and entered a hut, where she burned special herbs over a few small coals. With a blanket covering her half-naked body, she hovered over the orange embers, allowing its purifying smoke to swallow her. With ground ochre and animal fat infused with aromatic oils, she painted herself an earthy red, fresh for the day. The women of this tribe never bathe with water, but rather with fire. It is the Himba way. Her eyes met mine and she smiled, a bright white smile glowing with four bottom teeth neatly removed. It is her traditional mark of beauty. It is the Himba way.

Popped into the village just as the women were preparing stewed melons

Beautiful anklets of metal beads have different meanings depending on their placement

Burning aromatic herbs before the purifying "smoke bath"

The fact that the Himba way of life has survived to this day in the wake of harsh colonialism and imposing globalization is nothing short of remarkable. While the other tribes in the area, the Hereros and the Namas, have long since turned to the Western god and retired their animal skin loin cloths, the Himba have sought to still live by their own rules.  But change is ever so appealing, as young kids in the village have started to wear shirts beneath their beaded jewelry. In any case, getting to spend the afternoon with the community was an anthropological fantasy, reminiscent of my tribe-hopping expedition in southern Ethiopia, only this time, the people were friendly and welcoming rather than fierce and war-like. Though most of the men were away with the grazing cattle, it was fascinating to observe the women of the village mash mud mixed with dung to construct their huts, cook using machetes, and tend to the elaborate hairstyles for which the likes of National Geographic have brought them to international recognition. With the help of our translator, we expressed great admiration for their ancient forms of beauty, to which they laughed and blushed. I went overboard bartering in a storm of purchases, beautiful carved bracelets and wooden effigies that help to support the village and hopefully maintain the Himba way, even in light of my contaminating Westernized presence. They laughed and made cringed expressions at my exceptionally low offer, but later smiled after winning me over with an offer I couldn't refuse. It was one of the most pleasant and memorable afternoons I've had since embarking on this trip, made perfect with a lunch of Mama Solie's fried steaks in the cool shade of yet another thorny acacia.

Striking up a good deal - of laughter - over carved bracelets

I feel over-dressed for this village cook-off

In the final leg of this amazing road trip, the rocky stomach-churning roads from Khorixas to the coast were filled with a variety of treats both cultural and natural. Like bouncing through a scene straight out of the American Southwest, with its red stone cliffs and prehistoric petrified forests, we off-roaded through Namibia's scenic desert terrain dotted with cattle ranches and small corrugated tin villages. Roadside Herero tribal markets sprung up on occasion, where we were greeted by women wearing colorful Victorian dresses with their distinctive flared hats reminiscent of stylized cow horns. But most of this vast terrain was completely void of sentient life, with more rusted corpses of abandoned cars appearing in the distance than people. After wandering the granite outcroppings of Spitzkoppe concealing 4000 year old bushman paintings of hunting scenes, the grassy plains eventually gave way to a flat sea of sand as far as the eye could see in every direction. The Namib desert was truly a spectacular sight of pure other-worldly desolation, paradoxically filling me with a liberating sense of emptiness. It stretched perfectly into the horizon, allowing one to see possibly as far as 25 km ahead without obstruction. Then finally, seemingly at the earth's edge, a thin blue line hovered above the yellow - the Atlantic ocean. At last.

Two related tribes with completely opposite forms of dress
The Wild West of Africa
Prehistoric petrified pine tree that washed into the Namib desert after the last ice age
Hiking into Spitzkoppe, a prehistoric bushmen paradise
4000 year old rock art of crouching bushmen stalking a rhino
Lunch at the foot of a massive granite hill
Afternoon relaxation in Nambia's rocky north
Driving through the barren Namib desert towards the sea
Getting groovy with some Damara tribal dancers that wandered into our camp... AMARULA!

Following the Skeleton Coast - aptly named for the countless souls who washed ashore only to find themselves facing one of the largest and most inhospitable deserts in this hemisphere - we cruised into an oasis of civilization at the edge of the Namib's mighty orange dunes. Swakopmund is like a small Afro-Germanic Santa Monica, a palm-lined beach town sporting boutique shops, art galleries, fancy eateries, and deluxe seaside condos. Hailing from a week in the rural north, the family entered town like a group of exuberant weather-beaten refugees having finally reached paradise shores. After weeks of dusty camping, extremely early mornings, occasional cold showers, and a lifetime without a hair dryer, my father and I spent our last day of the road trip swept in a whirlwind of souvenirs, iced coffees, and fresh oysters over ice, topping our Namibian coastal experience with a cast iron potjie pot of stewed fish, squid, mussels, and prawns fit for four. It felt rather strange being in a "white Africa", hearing more Afrikaans and German in the air rather than the native Oshiwambo or Khoekhoe click-languages. Interestingly, I'm not sure I felt entirely at home either. Nevertheless, witnessing the culture change was a fascinating glimpse into the contemporary product of intense colonialism and apartheid that completely reshaped the region.

Skeleton Coast and one of its many shipwrecks

Camels ready to take visitors into the Namib's scorching dunes
Scene from downtown Swakopmund. Kucki's is actually much better than they advertise!

When you're too cheap to put a real warthog skull on your safari car

Escaping the desert heat on the Atlantic coast

Bidding farewell to the family was a melancholy endeavor, as already expected, with final hugs and sentiments exchanged on a sandy beach in the dusk. While the others would continue on the truck all the way to Cape Town, I knew I had another life to return to, other families with whom to share my experiences. New road trips were already being formulated using my journey as an inspiration. And while it was difficult to part with Mama Solie, I knew that I ultimately gained an Ndebele sister, who so eloquently put it, "Until we meet again, because I don't believe in saying goodbyes". She kept her word; we did find happiness, running wild in the African bush.

It only seemed appropriate to finish my trip just with my father, doing what we've always done best - wandering. Granted, it did take us into the middle of the sketchy Katutura Township, off the posh tourist route where the real African inhabitants of Windhoek live. Yet despite constantly having to watch our backs, we found a fly and rat infested market that served up a surprisingly delicious kapana grilled beef, amidst baskets of mopane worms and dried fish. Our last meals were as diverse in ambience as they were in flavor and price, from monstrous game meat kebabs with Windhoek's middle class at bustling Joe's Beerhouse, to stewed goat's head and free-range chicken in a spicy marula sauce at a quiet Owambo folk restaurant in the heart of a ghetto. Wherever the sights and flavors took us, it was heartwarming to share them with someone who has always appreciated them and even bestowed upon me an equal, if not greater, sense of appreciation. As the lifelong road trip continues, I can only hope that this magic of shared wanderlust will always remain the core of every adventure, no matter who pops in or out, hops on or off.

Going for game meat at famous Joe's Beerhouse in Windhoek
Oryx, kudu, springbok, crocodile, and zebra all on one stick
Traditional Owambo meal of stewed goat head and marula chicken in the Katutura township
Appalling conditions, but great barbeque, at the Single Quarters market in the Katutura township outside of Windhoek
Pick your mystery cut and send it to the coals