Leaving the Tracks in Southern Africa

Botswana 2(2)

by Elisabeth Veit

The dry green and brown shrubs of the northern Botswana savanna rush past the car windows like soldiers in camouflage. Eagerly they charge forward, then hesitate, stop. We drag the gear lever from ‘drive’ to ‘reverse’ and the soldiers beat a hasty retreat. Back to ‘drive’, the gear box grinding in protest. Over and over we do this while the burning blue sky slowly turns orange, until the white trails on the tarmac show that most of the sand has come out of our drive shaft. “That’s better, I can shift with one hand again!”

We beached the car taking a deep sand track that was too ambitious for an old Honda CRV, especially one laden down with a roof tent. It’s nearly closing time at Chobe National Park. Most of the safari vehicles have taken their tired guests back to the lodges. It’s lucky the 4×4 works, or we’d be digging (again).

These are the lasting memories of the two months travelling across Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Ten thousand kilometers, and probably as many rocks hit along the way. Big landscapes, patchy fixes for the car, pangs of excitement. Like on that day in Etosha National Park, when two lions materialized out of nowhere, sniffing the Honda’s tire before sauntering down to the watering hole. Atomized stories which together form that intangible, nostalgia-tinged feeling of a long road trip.

Botswana 1(2)

For the two of us who travelled down potholed roads and sandy tracks, dodged suicidally fearless zebras and dozed to the bass rumbles of hippos at night, it was adventure. We crossed flooded bridges, drove across the Makgadikgadi salt pans, saw rhinos drinking and saw elephant calves nursing, lions hunting. But it was never difficult. Guided by mobile internet and GPS we were always within a day’s drive of a supermarket, a gas station and a campsite.

And when, inevitably, we did get stuck, people helped. One day, two dozen students dug us out in a flurry of grabbing hands and grinning faces. Another time, an Afrikaans mechanic, visibly amused by the roaring of our punctured exhaust, welded it up for free after an evening drinking together.

To those at home, this narrative is disappointing. On my return, they have burning questions and wisdoms to impart. Some lust for the Dark Heart of Africa, tales of danger, disease, and corruption that we see on TV in sad eyes swarming with flies. They want to shake their heads, commiserate, “na geh, the things these people have to bear down there…” Others, more enlightened, want stories of salvation; for them, disease is Western Civilization. In Africa, they tell me, the landscapes are virginal, untouched, and the people poor, but happy. Both, ultimately, want to consume the tale of an Africa irredeemably depraved and impossibly pure at the same time.

It is a juxtaposition to which the local tourist industry has adapted. Luxury fly-in safaris in private game parks and six-wheeled overlanding trucks offer a chance to experience both the drama of Southern Africa’s nature and the drama of its people. To us, the occupants of the Township Tour coaches look like pilgrims readying for penance and moral validation. One girl we speak to later in a camp bursts into tears she saw a boy with no shoes.

Most of all, however, these trips reflect the essential feeling among visitors that ‘Africa’ is still a place of danger. The heavy vehicles and guides with guns offer not just the chance to see, but the promise of maintaining a safe distance while seeing. In air-conditioned, bug- and disease-free busses visitors can maintain a comforting European bubble, a taste of the life and times of the old colonial administrators.

If Google maps and the internet have erased the white spaces on our maps, then Western mindsets have proved curiously resilient to the light they have shed on the Dark Africa. The tropes of the colonist’s Africa, however, no longer fit. They probably never did. I didn’t meet death or salvation on that trip, didn’t learn a big moral lesson about how Africa, the eternal other, relates to Europe. What I did learn, and learned damn well, is how to fix a car.

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