Boondocking Botswana and Namibia (with the BBC Bs)
Feb 20, 2006
David Rich 1400 Words
Boondocking Botswana & Namibia w i t h the B B C
I over-landed Southern Africa with a dozen others, coincidentally trucking the same route as a BBC film crew. We meandered through Namibia and Botswana for three adventurous weeks, our interactions with the BBC creating a tad of tension. While the BBC busily filmed five American women, we debated how to appropriately characterize their precocious stars, throwing about adjectives some might describe as warped. To avoid further scandalizing the BBC, you'll have to conjure the proper description for yourself.
Natural questions arise, such as how the BBC was insulted by a passel of intrepid boon-dockers, and why anyone would go to Namibia and Botswana, the backlands of southwest Africa, in the first place?
Because our communications with the BBC film crew were sullied early on, I can only speculate. Perhaps Michael Palin began the BBC's reality-travel fad with Pole to Pole. Then BBC travel execs think-tanked an American women's adventure tour through the worlds' most extensive and colorful sand dunes, a humongous game park, and into wetlands the size of Delaware, relieved by a quaint German town and the exotic Himba people. Whatever the reality of BBC pre-planning, we shared their experience, if not their pain.
We left Cape Town under the shadow of Table Mountain, en route to Victoria Falls in the scalawag country of Zimbabwe. At the scenic first stop across Table Bay the famous flat-topped mountain foreshadowed dramatic adventures ahead, notwithstanding that we had planned on idyllic peace and quiet. The beauty of our three-week route lay in its avoidance of cities, anathema in Africa where population centers act as a magnet for the poor and desperately dangerous.
The first stop was the magnificent Fish River, 160 kilometers (one hundred miles) long and almost 2000 feet (550 meters) deep, a Grand Canyon-like meander similar to the Goosenecks of the San Juan River in Utah. Fish River Canyon grabs adventurers worldwide, but we barely paused on our pell-mell rush to a date with destiny, a first collision with the BBC film crew. We were hastening to the world's longest and most colorful sand dunes stretching umpteen miles north-south and a hundred miles west, from Sossusvlei to the Atlantic Ocean. Sossusvlei means quicksand place in the clicks of Bushman language, segueing in changing light from cream to bronze, violet and burnt sienna, permanently chocolate brown in shadow.
Anchored by the nara plant, similar to a humongous tumbleweed, these whipped-cream-like dunes grow to lofty highs of 650 feet (200 meters), climbable on their ridges. We first encountered the BBC film crew and its quarry, the five American women, atop dune Number Forty-Five, a half hour before sunrise. The BBC had toted up bulky cameras and elongated directional-mikes, crowding the hair-wide dune top, which we civilly shared.
We gossiped merrily amongst ourselves, trashing the make-up and hairdos of the BBC ladies, along with their giggles and vacuous conversation. Admittedly, their chat-room was not dissimilar from our own. After a countdown from ten to sunrise, repeated thirty-one times, the ladies were filmed jumping down the nigh-vertical dune like kangaroos. We reckoned it'd play well in prime time, meanwhile speculating with inimitable vacuity on words beginning with B, from babes, bambinos and banshees, to barracudas, baronesses, and bachelorettes.
Our next brush with the BBC occurred in the dead Vlei, where the last encroaching dune had chopped-off the waters of the Tsauchab River 300 years previous, creating a, well, dead place of starkly skeletal trees. Half a dozen over-landers opted for a tour superbly led by Frans the Bushman, who'd never heard of The Gods Must Be Crazy. But he could click like the dickens, uncovering hidden residents of the dunes, from biting lizards to reclusive spiders, and the ladies of the BBC, where they posed by the hulk of a dead tree. We further speculated on baubles, beboppers, bibble-babblers, and baloney ballerinas.
We skedaddled from romantic Sossusvlei to the only touch of civilization between Cape Town and Victoria Falls: Swakopmund, a compulsively neat and tidy town of 30,000 people, built by Germans in homesick architecture on the wild Atlantic coast of Namibia. The gingerbread casino was turreted and half-timbered in quasi-art deco, the same as the hotels and shops. However, the gods must have been crazy, putting us in the same hotel as the BBC film crew, which meant things rather came to a head.
The hotel's single dinner table sat next to the swimming pool, where we shared space with the BBC ladies. Somehow, perhaps I spoke too loudly, someone on the BBC staff overheard a word that sounded something like bimbos. Well, verbal fireworks flew, promptly followed by our tour-guide throwing everyone into the pool, while the BBC cameras filmed merrily on. Crazy gods enjoy sodden folks gasping for breath with all their clothes on.
Then came the incredible Himba people. Say you wanted the clearest, most fabulous complexion on this green earth, the kind of skin for which Hollywood starlets would massacre. Instead of knee-jerking Television's Pavlovian ads for the last umpteen eons, I recommend visiting the Himba, and taking notes.
First, never ever bathe. Water is a bummer for the skin, drying it like cowhide. Second, cram your hair with clay and smear your bod with a mixture of ochre and butterfat. Presto, you're gorgeous. Ochre scrubs the skin and butterfat makes it glow better than Coppertone.
If you don't believe me, pictures are better than the few words here. For the frosting, add copious scuds of smoke and snuff for sniffling. But don't, like us, camp next to a BBC film crew.
Deborah, a Belgium lady married to a Himba warrior, introduced us to a Himba village. She was irate with complaints about, and suggestions for the BBC film crew, mostly unprintable. They'd phoned to demand free lodging, were refused, yet drove up with a loaded media truck and van, exercising their reservations. Deborah shooed them to the campground. The BBC had been scheduled to sleep in a Himba hut, the epitome of waterproof engineering, but declined when a few drops of rain fell waywardly down. We shrugged while concentrating on ground-level photos of centipedes, having previously settled on the meaning of B.
We accompanied the BBC ladies through the Etosha Game Reserve, one of the largest on earth, spotting elephants, zebras and giraffes dueling amongst themselves, surely fighting over the svelte females in the coy background. We meanwhile avoided further dueling with the BBC film crew. However, the lions never slept at night, instead terrorizing the BBC ladies and ourselves with earthy roars of imaginative feastings.
After sneaking into Angola for an afternoon frolic, we repaired to three days in the magnificent Okavango Delta, which swallows some of Africa's longest rivers in the sands of the Kalahari Desert. The Delta covers a 15,000 square kilometer (6000 square mile) maze of lagoons, channels and islands chock-full of elephant, lions and a billion birds.
We navigated root beer-colored waters, drinkable at will, in mokoros, dug-out canoes built for two. Each mokoro was manned by a synchronized poler, gliding through lily pads, flowers, papyrus, and long grasses with reflections to do National Geographic proud. The stalwart polers entertained around nightly campfires, singing earthy renditions of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. But we saw neither lions nor the BBC ladies. Instead, the Okavango Delta was so utterly peaceful and quiet that absence rendered our hearts grossly fonder, for the soap opera of the BBC ladies.
If You Somehow Meander Off to Namibia and Botswana: I booked with Nomad Tours, the largest overland company in South Africa. See www.nomadtours.co.za. Their truck was superb, along with colorful driver and cook. Nomad offers a choice between tent-camping and more "rigid" accommodations. As a rule of thumb, tenting with all meals and transportation costs $60 a night, while hotel and similar accommodations will run $80. Add $10 to $200 a day depending on your capacity for alcohol and extracurricular activities, such as sky-diving, dune buggying and bungy jumping. Tours leave from Cape Town, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls and Nairobi. Over 300 overland tour companies operate in Africa, providing lots of competition and alternative levels of luxury for analogous prices. For airfare to Cape Town or Jo'Burg enter South Africa airfare on any browser and marvel at available specials. The best time to travel is on the shoulders of high season, which is also the rainy season and southern summer, encompassing November to April. So go in May or October.