A Walk in the Woods
In the dry season, parts of Northern Botswana can start to look like the world has ended. Everything is dry, elephants in their hunger push down trees to get at the remaining leaves, and wide swathes seem like they could be heavily bombed and look no different. A key feature of this apparent desolation is Mopane woodland. Just south of the marsh and river systems that make up northern Botswana’s sparkling watery jewel runs a thick band of a particularly short and ugly tree called Mopane. This Mopane woodland stretches for seemingly endless miles in a band across almost the entirety of the north of the country. And let me tell you that as a place in which to get stuck, it sucks.
It was through this woodland that I found myself trudging in what I hoped was a straight line towards a road I knew.
This was a few years back, before I gained the veneer of civility that leasing a car and having a mortgage affords one – in what honestly seems like a lifetime ago – I lived in the bush in Botswana running a remote safari camp. It was a small camp at the time with just a few staff and me looking after it. One of my jobs was driving into the closest town for supplies and admin. Everything from picking up the meat and veg order, to making sure the licenses on our canoes were up to date (which, incidentally, took place at the government office with my all time favourite name: The Department of Water Affairs). It often took the entire day to get everything done which meant that sometimes I would make the long drive home in the dark. I had done the drive hundreds of times by this point and could do it nearly blindfolded. So with a full truck, and two staff members with me in the cab, we started the 4+ hour drive home.
At times the drive would take on a sort of timelessness – I would put the landcruiser in gear, leave the tarmac and drive on autopilot. But on one particular evening, a few hours in, there was a sickening *clunk!* and the left rear end of the vehicle dropped by about a foot. Snapped back into reality, I got out to have a look. Technical details aside, the left rear wheel of the truck had sheared off and we were well and truly stuck. I built a fire for warmth and started trying to figure out what to do. We ate some of the food from the supplis, and then crawled into the cab for the night – just to make sure we would be safe from any unwanted visitors. As it happened the two staff with me saw a leopard walk past the fire during the night.
The following morning I’d made up my mind and decided that I would walk and get help. I knew with a high degree of certainty the direction I needed to go in but what I underestimated was how close to home I was. I figured I’d be walking for 3 or 4 hours and would then hit our game drive roads or airstrip and be home by early afternoon. I took some fruit and a small water bottle and set off.
12 hours later, I was still walking. My meagre supplies were long gone, and while I was confident I was still heading in the right direction, I now had no idea how far I still had to walk.
Most of northern Botswana sits at 900m above sea level and as a result the horizon is pretty flat and featureless, so I navigated by checking the time and figuring out where my shadow would be in relation to my direction of travel. This is good for a general sense of direction but an error of a just few degrees means you will miss your target by a huge margin. Nonetheless, I felt I knew the area well and bet that I would eventually emerge somewhere I would recognize. And in any case, my grayscale-screen Nokia phone, despite its virtual indestructibility, lacked a compass.
The day wore one and grew murderously hot. I would stop to rest and fall asleep immediately waking in a clammy sweat. Occasionally I would come across lion tracks, or hear the thunder of hooves as a dazzle of zebra detected me before I saw them and ran away – just a flash of stripes through the Mopane and they’d be gone. I came to a clearing with a water hole where I came across the carcass of a huge bull elephant, vultures picking at his remains.
The hours wore on and I knew I was getting dehydrated. When it got dark I made the decision to stop for the night. This was before the current obsession with apocalypse movies and Youtube survivalists hawking the latest emergency kit that you could use to fend off a hoard of zombies. I don’t smoke, and I had no matches or lighter to make a fire. I had a small headlight and a hunting knife and that was it. I put the headlight on my head, set it to flash, held the knife in my hand and crawled under a bush. There was zero chance of me getting any sleep, I was already on high alert and within an hour I heard the yelp of hyenas. There seemed to be several running in a wide circle around me. I never saw them but to this day when I hear their call it takes me right back.
Finally dawn began to break. I got up and kept moving. A few hours later I abruptly burst through the Mopane and onto a road I recognized. To say I was relieved is an understatement. I began to walk in the right direction and before long a convoy of vehicles approached. I flagged them down but by now was so dehydrated I couldn’t speak. I made the motion for a drinking and they gave me water. After chugging down a bottle of water and a coke my throat loosened up enough to be able to talk, explain my situation and they agreed to drive me back to camp.
When they dropped me off the head guide looked at me like he’d seen a ghost, I was filthy, covered in dust and ash from a recent bush fire. When he got over his shock he gave me a bear hug and explained that they had been about to call in the cavalry. I explained where the vehicle was and guys from the camp promptly headed out to rescue the staff and recover the supplies.
When I looked at the map after it was over I had walked nearly 50km in 18 hours. I then slept for 2 days straight.
This is the kind of story you tell your parents long after the fact, and I’m not telling it now as a sort of post-match report, to analyze what I should or should not have done. Instead it’s to illustrate the effect that the experience had on me, which was to extend the range of my comfort/discomfort spectrum by some several thousand degrees. I’d been surfing at the ragged edge of what I thought I could deal with, and nothing ever tasted as good as that bottle of tepid water afterwards. The episode is an extreme example of the profound effect that tension and discomfort can have on the other end of the spectrum – the truly awesome, the sublime, those moments that come as near to transcendence as it’s possible to get.
I’m not suggesting I start planning trips where we abandon clients in the wilderness. But it’s a reminder to me to plan trips that explore the spectrum and that deliver some discord with the harmony. For me Africa has those highs and lows, the moments of sheer terror and fear and the moments so profound and fantastic that they defy description. Just don’t say hyena to me when I’m sleeping.
This may have been the only Africa trip Dan ever took where he didn’t bring back amazing photographs. But it’s not only for that reason that we love Dan and we’re glad he was not eaten by lions. Contact him here for more stories from the bush.