Great White Place

We drive through the Mopani scrub. Kudu and Rhinoceros browse on the Koedoebos. The scene framed by the multiple trunks of the African Moringa which emerge from its swollen base. The truck skirts out onto the Etosha pan, a Bantu word meaning great white place. A fitting description for a 1000 million year old salt mineral pan stretching the Kalahari Basin.

Originally this was a lake fed by the Kunene river but the river changed course and thousands of years ago the lake dried up. The San people believe in a legend that a village was invaded and everyone except for one woman was murdered. She was so upset that she cried and her tears formed a huge lake. When her tears dried the great white pan remained.

In the far distance on a clear day you can make out the outline of the savannah bushland bordering the pan, but today the white earth collides with the grey sky and the dust and heat is belied by the oncoming rain.

The warm rains of the storm lightly lashing the sides of the truck as Rod reaches over and grabs my Discman, fumbling with it for a moment. A couple of false starts. Then he smiles and turns it up as high as our speakers would go. We wind down the windows the rain cooling the mugginess of the day and breathing a freshness through the cabin. We pull up in the middle of the basin. Toto’s Africa now streaming out into the air.

“We getting out?” I ask.

As was customary with Rod he surprised me continually by making profound statements that contradict his looks and sit juxtaposed with his usual conversation and overall demeanor.

“Robbo, in life you can’t wait for the rain to stop, sometimes you must learn to dance in it” and with that, he was out of the cabin, arms stretched to either side, like Andy Dufrane from Shawshank Redemption allowing the rains of Africa to wash over him, touching him both outside and within.

I leap from the cabin also, calling to the passengers to join us, hitting repeat on Toto and bounding past Rod into the rain along the salt encrusted earth. The music blares from the truck’s cabin “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you, that’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do, I bless the rains down in Africa, gonna take some time to do the things we never have”

We all stand out on the white pan singing Africa at the top of our lungs, passengers moving past their initial confusion embrace the moment. The cooling breeze against the rain falling on our faces, soaking through our clothes as we spin around and laugh and dance in the storm.

As if by some evolutionary leap, we are able to feel our surroundings, the soul of the African wild embracing us. Here we connect, in this instant, opening the page of our travel adventure to a moment of truth. To a moment of understanding of the true meaning of journey and exploration. We embrace each other, miles away from the chattering of keyboards and the demands of business meetings. Each of us living, really living. Experiencing Africa in the way you would in the movies, like you would in your dreams.

We return to the truck, our spirits wide awake, each of us knowing we were all a part of something that enriched each of our souls and left us with a feeling that will stay with us long after this moment has passed.

An African Morning

The shimmering mirage creating a river in front of us through the barren and alien landscape. Cruising through Kuisab Canyon, the sky is bright, the koppies familiar, plummeting into a maelstrom of ravines. A series of striated earthy colour surrounds us and creates a back drop in a study of browns. The wind is given form by the dust trailing our truck…. I know this road.

I had now been guiding in Africa for the best part of a year. We head north through Namibia and make our bush camp.

Sleeping in the bush can be confusing. The groans, gasps and cries in the night of animals I didn’t know initially disorientate years of conditioning. But now I am woken by a noise. It was a familiar sound and I lay there. Still. I feel the stony ground through my swag against my back. Breathing slowly and silently, terrified. Skin prickly, I hear the throaty exhalation of a male lion. Listening intently, trying to determine distance….. “huh….. huh….. huuuuhh”. It’s close, very close. I lift my head, ever so slowly and look into the darkness. There are no other points of reference. I can’t see anything. Slowly I release my arm from my swag, and ever so stealthily I reach behind me and grab hold of the side panel of the truck. Slowly I pull myself under the truck and peek out from under it.

Another low grumbling growl comes from the darkness. My hands tremble as I reach for my swag and pull it under with me. For the next hour, I keep a silent vigil. Eventually I fall asleep, satisfied the roar of the lion is now miles from me.

I wake up, as always just before dawn, crawl out from under the truck and kick the Black Backed Jackals away from the base of my swag. I wrap my maasai blanket around me, light my cigarette and move to tend the smouldering coals of last night’s campfire to life, grinning that Rod is also under the truck up the other end. He obviously faced his own midnight confrontations with the passing pride.

My Grandfather used to tell me pre-dawn was the best part of the day. It won’t be long until the older of the tourists stir but until then this is my time. The air is crisp and so still it can noticeably be disrupted by the turbulence of movement. The sky sand washed, dust cleansed, incrementally shading to blue. I stand there, the coldest part of the night. Watching the movement of elephant, of buck, of monkey as a side show to my focus on the horizon. Gripping the maasai blanket tight around my shoulders as I light another cigarette. Enjoying the cool against my face that barges past the fluttering edges of my blanket. And then the sun pokes up. The expanse providing room for awakening clouds to battle, tumble and streak away. Levitating herds grip the pinks and dissolve into the blues.

Sometimes a passenger gets up and tries to join me in conversation “Wait…..” I would say “listen, watch” and we stand there waiting for the brightness of the sun’s orange to force a squint upon us and the heat rush our faces. Then you notice the beating of wings. The birds darting through the tousled head of the tree tops, the hum of the insects keeping one pitch, then the whisper of the morning breeze through the acacia. I never believed my Grandfather until now.

Silently we stand, connecting. It’s a failure of the western world that it becomes an awkwardness when the silence lingers and inevitably nature’s magic is broken. I’m never the first to speak but when they do it is always in some blessing of the wild. It doesn’t matter. The troops are rising, back to the fire to get breakfast organised and to discuss the sounds everyone heard last night and their hypotheses on the creatures from which they emanated.