Road trip through Africa

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By David Abel | Globe Staff | 3/22/09

HOBAS, Namibia -- Across the moonlike horizon, the only hint of life was a trail of dust kicked up by wild ostriches. The only sound was the hiss of an arid wind scouring the vast plains. And as our scrawny rental car rumbled over the craggy desert road, casting long shadows as the morning sun sent the temperature over 100 degrees, we felt an ominous thud.

Given the rock-strewn road, given the hundreds of miles that separated us from help, given where we had been and what we had already survived, it seemed better to ignore the jolt – and my girlfriend's glower.

"Not good," she said, urging me to slow down.

By that point, thousands of miles into our trip through southern Africa, we had become accustomed to bumps on the road, and other surprises that come with driving a compact car in a land better suited for military vehicles.

Our journey began in Johannesburg, where we rented a carrot-colored version of the Honda Fit. The agents at the local Avis didn't seem concerned that we were about to test its limits, or that we would be driving with just one spare, a donut. Getting permission to cross borders required little more than a 15 minute wait, a $100 fee, and a few forms for our destination in Windhoek, Namibia.

More difficult was learning to drive on the opposite side of the road. For days, every time I tried to activate the blinkers, I hit the windshield wipers. When I tried to flash the brights, I washed the windshield. And with every turn, I had to overcome an inner GPS that kept guiding me to the right – and a possible head-on collision.

Learning to look left was even more challenging with jetlag. But the real test came a few hours after we exited the well-maintained highway from Johannesburg and headed east into the winding mountains toward what our guidebook called "one of South Africa's most impressive natural features." Unfortunately, as we approached the Blyde River Canyon, it began to pour and a thick mist shrouded the snaking road. Visibility dropped to the brake lights of the car in front of us.

After a few hours circling through the clouds and seeing nothing but fog, we managed to find the way to our bed and breakfast and then to Kruger National Park, the nation's storied wildlife sanctuary that borders Mozambique and rivals the size of Israel.

Our self-guided safari began on a finely paved road that offered nearly instant glimpses of grazing zebra and watchful impala. They all seemed so sweet, almost docile, unperturbed by our presence. Then we came upon a herd of elephants.

We drove beside one chomping on a tree’s leaves. We sat about 15 feet away and admired how the massive beast seemed so limber, so light on its feet, as it stretched its wrinkled trunk into the branches, curled its tip around a clump of green, and gently dropped the breakfast into its mouth. It felt like being at a zoo, but we were the ones in the cage. Yet there was a difference: Our cage didn’t afford the same protection as steel bars.

As I snapped pictures from the passenger seat, agog at the seeming gentleness of this blubbery behemoth, the elephant started to approach us. At first, it sauntered in our direction, its floppy ears almost waving hello. Then it picked up speed. At less than 10 feet away, the elephant appeared to be in a full-on charge, and I dropped my camera in my lap.

“Drive, go – hit it!" I yelled, as Jess put the car in gear and floored the gas.

It was a good lesson – to keep a healthy distance from the wildlife – as we would pass countless other large animals – rhinos, lions, hippos, buffalo, everything from aggressive baboons with a reputation for opening car doors to monkeys that liked to steal the rubber from windshield wipers to giraffe that didn't find our curiosity endearing when we wanted to take a peek at their newborn.

After a few days, we left the low-lying savanna of broad grasslands and scattered, boulder-filled hills for a landscape that looked more like the Berkshires than how we imagined Africa. The provincial road we took south toward the great plateau of Lesotho climbed hundreds of miles along rolling, velvety green hills, through groves of pine trees, past rainbow-haloed farms. But the deeper we drove into the heart of South Africa, the more it became clear where we were.

At nearly every turn of the road, we witnessed the country’s enduring ironies: children begging beside some of the world’s most fertile land; sprawling shantytowns of zinc-roofed huts in the shadow of gleaming high rises; the tall, barbed-wired walls that enclose white subdivisions, underscoring how the official end of Apartheid has yet to yield an end to segregation.

Yet as we passed from the rocky, table-topped peaks of the Drakensberg to the seaside cliffs along the lagoon of Knysna, from the high desert scrubland where elephants feed with warthogs in Addo National Park to the lavender fields of wine country in Franschhoek, it became easier to understand why so many tribes and vying Europeans were willing to fight for this land.

And nowhere did the stark beauty stand out more than around Cape Town, a peninsula at the tiptoe of the continent, where steep mountains rise from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the rich flaunt their wealth in gaudy cars and the less prosperous offer to watch them for a few rand, and a mélange of Africans, Europeans, Indians, Malaysians, and many others mix more than anywhere else in the country.

We skipped the more touristy sights, such as the cable car ride up to the cloud-covered Table Mountain and the overbooked sail to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned in a tiny cell. Instead, we walked the center of the city, from the opulent Mount Nelson Hotel to the 350-year-old Slave Lodge, where thousands of slaves were confined in horrific conditions before being sold. We explored the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, home to 9,000 indigenous plants and flowers; swam in the cold, turquoise waters off Boulders Beach, where thousands of penguins putter and nuzzle in the white sand; and hiked the cliffs along the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern point of Africa.

We could have spent weeks in Cape Town, but we were on a tight schedule. It was time to leave the ocean for the desert. For the equivalent of about $25, we filled our tank and drove about 300 miles north to Namibia, a former German colony known as much for its towering sand dunes as its diamond mines.

When we arrived at the sun-baked border in the late afternoon, the heat remained intense. Outside, the scattered quiver trees, a squat and spiny symbol of the desolate land, provided little shade. Thankfully, crossing involved little more than handing over our passports, getting our car’s papers stamped, and shaking a few hands. The English-speaking border guards echoed our guidebooks, assuring us we would be fine with our two-wheel-drive car. Their only advice: Don’t drive at night and never pass a gas station without filling up – even if we had three-quarters of a tank.

Minutes after leaving, however, it felt like we were on the moon, with a lot more gravity. The road to our campsite resembled a rollercoaster, and it was among the better roads we would experience over the next week. But as we set up our tent and slipped into the warm river below, we watched a purple dusk give way to a cool breeze and a canopy of stars, and we knew it had been worth the trek.

The next day, after canoeing on the border-dividing Orange River, we ventured further north, along an increasingly lonely road. For hours at a time, we saw no sign of human life. Our cell phone flashed “No Service” and the GPS that served us well in South Africa searched fruitlessly for civilization. When we finally made it to our next destination, a 100-mile span of gouged rock called the Fish River Canyon, we breathed deeply as we watched another crimson sunset dissolve into another glittering night. Maybe we were worrying too much, I thought.

The next morning, as the temperature quickly surged, I drove with more confidence. The car could handle it, I thought. The roads looked worse than they were, I said to myself as I watched a pair of ostriches sprinting in the distance. It was about that point when I failed to notice a sharp rock jutting from the center of the road. The car shuddered. Jess looked at me with a combination of fear and pleading for me to slow down.

As we rolled on, I began to smell something unusual for the middle of the desert, something acrid. Neither of us wanted to acknowledge it. A few minutes later, when we came across a pack of antelope-like animals, we stopped to snap pictures. Jess got out to investigate the smell.

“Oh my God,” she said, adding stronger language as she gaped in awe at the damage.

When I got out, I saw mostly melted rubber, shards hanging off the rim. The front left tire was completely destroyed.

So we dug out the donut, jacked up the car, and pulled off the remains of the old tire. Then we set the donut and lowered the car. From there, we knew it would be a long drive. One more bad rock, and we would be walking.

The closest town was about 150 miles away. So we went easy on the water, marked the mile whenever we passed a human being, and drove slowly down the rocky road, averaging about 20 mph.

The stress was enough to make us think about turning in the car. But there was so much left to see.

After we replaced the tire, an ordeal that set us back a few hours and less than $100, we drove further north into an increasingly otherworldly landscape, where we would meet orphaned cheetahs, explore a forest of quiver trees, hike through deep canyons, and climb oceans of sand that sprouted thousand-foot dunes.

The roads didn’t get any better. In fact, they seemed to get worse, almost beyond imagination. So we drove slowly, often ridiculously slowly, and we both watched the road more closely.

Turtles crawling along the road seemed to pace us, but we were enjoying the ride.

After several weeks, we finally made it to the paved roads of Windhoek, where we hand-washed the Honda, scrubbing out the dirt from every crevice.

We decided we would let someone else do the driving, and a few hours later, we left Namibia on a 22-hour bus ride to Zambia, undaunted by the long road ahead.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.