Friday, March 28, 2008

Day 48 – My adventure in the Kalahari – A series of unfortunate events

I got on the way early in the morning, ready to tackle rough 4-by-4 roads, but was quite disappointed when I found out that progressive little Botswana has been busy building an excellent network of paved roads. I crossed in a northwest direction, toward the towns of Palapye and Serowe, and was delighted when I saw two ladies asking for a ride. I stopped and invited them in. One of them was very traditionally built, and when she sat in the back seat the car listed slightly; she had a beaming smile. The other one sat by my side, and made small polite conversation in English, in that charming accent that the Motswana people have. Once we got to Palapye the lady in front got ready to get down from the car, but after a quick conversation in Tswana to the lady in the back she informed me that “This lady will show you to the bank, Rra”. Unfortunately the traditionally built lady spoke little English, but with a lot of smiles we got over my false turns and eventually reached the bank, for me to get my first infusion of “pulas”. After that we said goodbye, and from now on I will always think of her as the image of Mma Precious Ramotswe, my heroine from “The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency”.

The next leg of the trip, always on paved road, took me to the neighborhood of the diamond mines of Lethiakane and Orapa. These mines are one of the main sources of wealth for the people of Botswana, and have been used with great wisdom by the government to (1) build the necessary infrastructure of roads and electrification, and (2) “trickle down” money through the economy by employing large numbers of people for public works. More about the amazing phenomenon of Botswana’s well-run democracy and economics later, but at this point I must report that in the midst of this bonhomie there is always room for petty thieves. To back up one step, that morning I had discovered that the little digital camera that Faby and DJ had given me as a present so I could share pics with you all had a malfunction. The screen one uses to frame the photograph would not do its thing, but rather showed a psychedelic design. Bummer! Still, I kept pointing and shooting at stuff, in the hope that the recording device might still be working. About an hour after discovering this malfunction I gave a lift to a young man, who worked as a front loader operator in one of the mines, and for about an hour we chatted about cattle, the mines, and the fact that you don’t mess with the police (I had been stopped at a control point, and the policeman in charge had read me the riot act for not making a full stop at the sign, which was good 20 meters from where he was standing doing the control). Fifteen minutes after I had dropped him off I reached for the camera to take a picture, and the camera was gone! So now I have no camera to show you the sights I saw, and I must rely on secondary sources to illustrate the narrative of my week in Botswana. Sigh!

After Orapa I continued to Rakops. I was getting grumpy because I had run for another 400 km without encountering challenging driving conditions. Where were the deep drifts of loose sand promised by the rental company. Renting a 4-by-4 is bloody expensive, and the only reason I had done it was because I expected a wild and savage country. I felt that all I was doing was driving and driving through a pleasant but not particularly scenic countryside (a bit like driving for hundreds of kilometers through the flat arid valleys of northern Mexico and Nevada, but without the mountains). It was this with savage delight that I made a screeching turn into a road labeled “Central Kalahari Game Reserve”, which is the largest national park in Botswana, and the heart of the Kalahari. I was in paradise! Finally there was a dirt road, and indeed it had lots of loose sand, and I was on my way to see wonderful wildlife, bushmen, and the amazing Kalahari. Now, I had read that (1) 4-wheel driving through the Kalahari is not for the faint of heart: check, not even my worst enemy would not consider me faint of heart (foolish yes, but not faint of heart), and (2) one should never venture alone through the Kalahari: not check, but what is one to do.

After 40 km of sand I finally reached the gate of the reserve, where a very nice man collected the fee, and gave me very vague directions to the west gate of the park. Unfortunately my maps were poor at best, and the directions in the bush are close to meaningless (everything being flat, there are no landmarks to follow). Fool that I am, I had not brought with me a GPS or even a compass, but trusting on my good sense of direction I felt I was ready for the adventure. I get in the truck, turn the key, and . . . nothing! Dead. Hmm, the warden and I tapped the cables of the battery and still nothing. Ah, here comes another car, so I ask for a jump and the truck starts. What to do next? Prudence and common sense told me to go back to civilization immediately, but the thought of being so close to the Kalahari and turning my tail and running was simply unbearable. So I compromised to myself. I would head straight for the west gate of the park, thus crossing it from east to west, and reach civilization on the other side. I was counting on two things: one, the engine would keep going as long as I didn’t turn off the key, and two, even if I inadvertently turned off the ignition someone else would be able to jump start me.

Off I go into my dream safari. The Kalahari is a most unusual desert, in that it is not just a vast expanse of sand. Rather it is heavily vegetated with grass and scrub bushes, which have adapted remarkably to survive on the scarce rainfall and whatever moisture they can scavenge from the atmosphere. As it happened, I visited the Kalahari at the end of the rainy season, so everything was green and gorgeous. However, the Kalahari is a desert for people because there is not a drop of surface water anywhere. There are big playa lakes, which might hold water for a week or two, but the water quickly evaporates leaving behind big pans covered with cracking mud and grass. Everywhere else water infiltrates through the sandy soil almost immediately, leaving behind a soft but very dry paradise.

I went for about 50 km, now and then seeing a warthog, a few gazelles and springboks, and tons of birds. I was beginning to think that I had gone a long time without seeing a soul (later I was to find out that on that day there were only three vehicles in the 10,000 square kilometers of the park), and was beginning to doubt whether I really was heading in the right direction, when I hit a sand bank the wrong way, the truck was thrown against the bank, and the engine stalled! Oh, my God, the unthinkable had happened, I was stuck in the middle of the Kalahari! Trying not to panic I tried to start the engine: nothing. OK, I disconnected the second battery from the back (the one used for camping), dragged it to the front and connected it: nothing. Oh God, why hast thou abandoned me?

It was about 4 pm, so I had maybe an hour to get help. Alright, chop, chop, I got water and started walking back. I had passed an intersection about 5 km back, so I figured I would go all the way there to look for another vehicle, and that if I didn’t find one I would leave some sort of SOS signal and go back to the truck to spend the night. So I trudged back through the sand for about 4 km and, miracles of miracles, so at the distance the very tail end of a vehicle turning into the road of a camping area. They were three young Germans, who were gracious enough to come back with me to try to jump start me, but who were not happy to be on the road at such a late hour (lions start hunting after the heat of midday starts going down, around 4 pm). We are at the truck trying to figure how to give me a jump (they were behind me, and my jumper cables were not very long), when another truck comes to the jam from the opposite direction! Clearly God had not abandoned me, and was sending all sorts of help. The new comers were two Greeks, who had stepped straight out of a Clive Cussler book: Tall, suntanned, and with a rugged look that said “no problemo” to life. So the scared Germans took off, and my Greek rescuers got ready to give me a jump. Damned, the truck wouldn’t start, and the starter made a very funny prr-prr-prr noise. We tapped at the starter, and tried all possible combinations, but to no avail. “Sounds like your starter is gone man. You are going to have to replace it.” I sank deep in despair, thinking on how many days and pulas it would take to get a mechanic to the middle of the Kalahari to make the repair. “Come on, we’ll take you to the gate, and maybe they will know of a mechanic that can come make the repair”. At least I was not going to be eaten by lions, and the guys did their best to inject me with good cheer, but my spirits were very low when they finally dropped me at the gate, where the game wardens had their office, at about 7 pm and in total darkness.

To be continued

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