The bakkie went over a large pothole and I was jolted awake, the shock making me inhale deeply and sharply. The air was hot. My throat and eyes stung from all the dust. The unbending road ran like a dagger through the heart of the desert. There was nothing else. Just us, the road, the desert, the sky and the burning sun, and the great weight of my hangover forcing itself in on my shriveled, raisin-like brain and lungs. I wondered for a second if we were heading towards the end of the world.
It had all been a terrible accident really. I knew almost nothing about Namibia except that there were a lot of sand dunes, and without a few too many drinks to lubricate the imagination and fire the yearning for adventure, it probably never would have happened. The truth is though, I could probably say the same about a lot of my trips over the years, especially the most interesting ones.
It had all started in what might loosely be called the ‘town’ of Springbok, a little way back across the border. I was there on a job and had confessed my ignorance of Namibia to a local Afrikaans prospector’s son named Rico, who I had got talking to at the local bar. His head was similar in size and shininess to a watermelon, yet still looked disproportionately small for his enormous frame.
Now there I was in the back of his battered old vehicle hurtling northward away from the South African border like a bat out of hell, still not entirely sure where I was headed or why. And good old Watermelon Head was at the helm up in front of me, his equally large wife bumping along in the seat next to him and occasionally barking what I could only imagine were strong Afrikaans expletives at her husband. But still he went bravely on, potholes and abuse or no, taking me ever deeper into the burning heart of the unknown.
After a couple of nights camping under big, cold, starlit desert skies and subsisting almost entirely on alcohol, we eventually found ourselves in a town called Outjo, a little way south of the boundaries of Etosha National Park.
I decided it was time to say goodbye to my companion before I ended up beyond the point of no return. He hugged me so tightly I thought I might die in his arms, then he was gone, heading ever northwards.
I checked into the town's only youth hostel. As the only guest, I was invited to have a traditional poitjie stew for supper with the owners, under the arms of the great Baobab in their garden. They asked me what I was doing in their neck of the woods. I told them I had no idea.
"I'm running a little trip into Etosha tomorrow," the husband Mossie said as the balmy, wine-filled night drew on, "you should come with me, be my co-pilot, you know".
The next day I was on the road north again. We entered the park and could soon see the great moon-like expanse of the Etosha Pan ahead of us, shimmering green and white beneath the late morning heat haze as it stretched to the horizon like a vast ocean of salt. The word Etosha itself means 'great white place''; the name was inherited from the Ovambo tribesmen who used to cross this part of the country for trade.
When white traders first came to the region and began to follow in the tracks of the Ovambo, they were overwhelmed by the wealth of wildlife that they came across. All the way back in 1876, an intrepid American trader by the name of McKiernan remarked that “all the menageries of the world turned loose would not compare” to what he saw around him. As Mossie and I drove on through the park with the two Germans he was escorting, I felt that aside from the occasional 4x4 vehicle not much had changed since those days gone by.
And the human history was just as rich and abundant as the wildlife was. Some of this history was literally engraved in the dolomite rocks in the western part of the park in the form of ancient rock art. Many wandering San Bushmen used to pass through this part of the country and the engravings and drawings that they left behind, mostly depicting the wild animals they held sacred, were sometimes up to ten thousand years old.
We got back to Outjo with the sun just beginning to set.
I was walking down to the supermarket in search of beer when a bakkie skidded to a halt next to me. As the dust cleared, I saw Rico and his wife smiling at me from the open window on the driver's side. "Fancy a ride?" Rico asked. "Sure"I replied and jumped in. As we approached the supermarket I banged on the roof but Rico paid no attention and carried on out of town and onto the open road. "Where the hell are we going?" I screamed. "Skeleton Coast" was the simple reply from in front. I had no bag, no change of clothes and no passport.
A little way on, we saw an old Namibian man waving frantically on the side of the road. I guessed from his frenzied eagerness that a passing car was a pretty rare occurrence in these parts. We stopped and the old man got in the back, sat down opposite me and smiled. "Where are you headed?" I asked. He said nothing and continued smiling at me through the gaps in his crooked teeth.
Perhaps we really were headed towards the end of the world. Truth is, it didn’t really seem to matter. Maybe it was the journey that was important, not the final destination. And as we hurtled into the desert and the unknown once more, it sure was beautiful.
Christopher Clark is a British freelance journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. After travelling to more than 50 countries worldwide, he came to Africa on a one way ticket in 2008, in search of sunshine and stories. He writes travel and opinion pieces for various platforms including News24 and Future Challenges and is Deputy Editor of the Cape Town Globalist international affairs magazine. He was featured as one of The Big Issue magazine’s best young writers in South Africa in 2012.
[photo credits: Photos courtesy of www.africa-pictures.org]