The Fate of the Bushmen

Our route through Botswana was pleasingly obvious: we would enter via the north east border town of Kasane, traverse south west through the huge Chobe and Okovango National Parks, and then take a long straight road west through the Kalahari Desert and into Namibia. This path would take us through the wild north using off road tracks and safari trails, avoiding any major settlements. The roads would be awful and in some areas pretty remote, a good day’s drive from anyone. We would be missing the Botswana of punk metal and Ladies’ Detective Agencies, but this was just what we were looking for, a chance for some prolonged bush camping after the relative civilisation of Zimbabwe. 

Look out  (Photo: RWH)

Look out (Photo: RWH)

The Okovango is the biggest inland delta in the world. The majestic Kavango river is fed by the rains in Angola, taking six months to wend its way downstream to Botswana, where it is completely absorbed by a Kalahari that has not seen rain for months. The Okovango’s own rainy season combined with this paradoxical arrival of water in its dry season means that lush marshland of the delta is kept well hydrated all year round. When the rest of southern Africa is parched the Okovango delta is in flood, supporting a huge variety of wildlife without the need for migration.

This makes Botswana a premier safari destination, something which is very evident in parts of the north from the gleaming tour cars and exclusive game lodges. The creation of national parks is great news for wildlife, but has brought bad fortune on a number of the indigenous tribes, in particular the Gana and Gwi, collectively known as the San (‘Bushmen’). It’s not just national parks that displace these indigenous people however. There are lots of reports of cattle ranches and massive mining projects ejecting the San from their hunter-gathering existence, in particular in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Wherever the truth lies in these stories, with diamond deposits worth an estimated $3.3 billion and a massive tourism industry which is only expanding, the fate of the San is still very much up in the air. he tourism bubble had pushed prices far out of our range, and camping in the park’s official sites wasn’t an option. The solution lay in carefully timing our exits from the parks to take advantage of the fact that the gates are often miles inside the park boundaries. This meant that we could find secluded wild camps outside of the gates but without leaving the reserves.  Sounds great on paper, but some intimate experiences with a selection of huge terrifying beasts made us a bit apprehensive. Driving through dense scrubland attempting to find our first such camp, we couldn’t help but take extra note of trees that had been ripped up by elephants, the huge feline tracks which freshly criss-crossed the sand, and fresh dung on the ground.

We had passed a ranger a kilometre back on the track who had joyfully informed us that there was a pride of nine lions on the road heading this way, and if we were lucky we might bump into them. We grimaced at him and continued off road, selecting a camp as the light failed. We could hear kudu and elephant nearby. It was pitch black now, darkness as only Africa can serve. A fire was our first and only priority – possibly one of the only times when I did not have food on my mind. It and the dubious sanctum of the car were our only defences. We cursed our feeble torches as we scuttled blindly around for firewood, the reflection of a light on the retina of a beast being the only way to reliably spot them in the dark; red for predator, green for prey. Fortunately the wood we found was dry as a boot, and a fine blaze was soon pushing back the black of the night with the distinctive blue flame of acacia hardwood. We set our blackened pots on the makeshift tripod of stones, a technique lifted from the Africans, and sat uncomfortably close to the heat, not wanting to turn our backs on the night. We chewed our curried kidney beans pensively, listening to the curious ‘whooo-oop’ of hyena, now close and then far. We knew from a semi-tame pack in Ethiopia just how heavy and menacing those intelligent beasts were. Despite repeated attempts to make other conversation, we couldn’t help but stray back to discussing just how reliable the information that animals are scared of fire really was. This and the following evenings were vivid, all our senses alive with drops of adrenaline; they displayed the distilled essence of the whole trip, are unforgettable in our minds.

Circle of life!  (Photo: RWH)

Circle of life! (Photo: RWH)

During this period our lives were dictated by the sun, and we rose each day to rake over the fire for coffee and protection. The Milky Way, more known to us now than at any point in our lives before, would peer down blearily, brilliantly, before being rudely extinguished by a spreading crimson from the east. We would be driving by sunrise, camp broken, car serviced. Appearance was a forgotten farce, long hair askew and clothes torn. We felt as close as we could to being bushmen, for this trip at least. We revelled in it, perhaps in naivety – we could opt out of this way of life, we knew it was a temporary state. But for us in these moments it was pure and all consuming.

The wildlife was spectacular. Avoiding entrance fees as much as possible meant taking some unusual routes through the parks, tracks which led us through areas seldom frequented by visitors. Zebras and giraffes strolled around, majestic kudu and dainty impala making elegant retreats, and hippos snorted muddily from the river. Elephants were everywhere; 50,000 of them in this area of Botswana and north western Zimbabwe alone. Intimate experiences with leopard and lion left us breathless and full of wonder. It was a tiny glimpse of how African fauna must have been before population explosion and mass hunting, and it was wonderful.

Stay away!  (Photo: RWH)

Stay away! (Photo: RWH)

At a town called Maun the tarmac began. It stretched west, seemingly endless, two golden highlights igniting in the inevitability of the burning sunset. Its perfection was a mockery of the 500km we had just fought to cross. We celebrated another successful offroad leg, and amused ourselves with the thought of being able to cover the last week’s distance in a day on this new road surface. We gave Tess a proverbial pat on the head, flipped down the sun visors, and set off towards the sun, stopping only to pick up some congratulatory cold beers.

On safari (Photo: SW)

(Photo: SW)

The road to Namibia traverses the northern fields of the Kalahari desert. This is cattle land, dry scrub plains with huge farms claiming the entire landscape. There are endless fences, herds raising dust clouds which linger on the horizon. Cowboys canter along the side of the road, spurs and breeches in evidence, their horses oddly more at home in this terrain than any vehicle. It seemed as though the landscape was on loop for these 800 kilometres, the only variance being a subtle contour in the road. It was a time for reflection. Our trip was beginning to come to an end; flights booked, still unconvinced that we would actually make it, we had a lot to do before we left this mesmerising continent.

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The Making of Mechanics?

So, we had proven that we could drive long distances, under the pressures of time and inclement weather. But that would only get us so far…

We found out exactly how far two days later.

The village of Perranporth can be quite a honey pot when the weather is beneficent, with the center being a hub of activity. So it was that in the height of the midday pasty rush, and with a mechanical clatter worthy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, our car suddenly lost power. After a few sheepish minutes of tyre-kicking and bonnet-lifting, we found that the rear prop-shaft had shorn through, leaving the longer half flailing against the cars underbelly.

I would like to take a brief interlude at this point to discuss mechanical vocabulary. As we hope some Landrover enthusiasts will read this, we will not shirk on technical talk. However we cannot continue without reference to the enormous capacity that mechanics  holds for innuendo. We have no intention in following the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, nor do we want to write the script for ‘Carry on Africa’. We can only assume that the discipline needed to discuss sockets, rods, grub-nuts and grease nipples without a ribald smirk or bawdy nudge comes to a professional mechanic with years of training. We simply don’t have the time or the maturity.

So We were stranded in a beachside lay-by with little chance of recovery.

We were quick to analyse the situation:

Pros: this could have happened in the Scottish Borders when we had no breakdown cover.

Cons: We were causing what was a significant hold-up by Cornish standards with no hope of a quick fix.

It was at this point that we were to find that in a Land Rover, help is often near at hand. A few minutes later a friendly man in an old 90 drove by and offered assistance. He was able not only to tow us to safety but provide the part from one of his several Land Rovers.

We had our first repair job. We tackled the problem the only way men of our generation know how: a key-word search of Google. It seemed like a simple matter of unbolting the broken bit and bolting the new bit on. However we hadn’t realised that these parts had been bolted on with thick steel when we had been about six and left to rust fast in the Scottish highland. Dan spent the best part of a week on his back, locked in a duel with each stubborn and accustomed bolt. He eventually emerged, oily, eyes raw with rust, the mad grin of a man who has tunneled to freedom with a teaspoon on his sooty face, brandishing the broken part. Rusty nuts would be a problem that would continue to trouble us.

Rich chanced upon a chap called Dave, an ex-sapper who lived up near Exmoor and ran a casual bush mechanics course. Well-schooled in Land Rovers from a young age, he was a keen expert and seemed excited to have new vehicle, complete with new problems to solve. Over two weekends, we visited his eccentric converted church and work-barn arrangement and set about getting to grips with our machine.

A modern car is a magical automaton synapsed  with wires and computers that know better than you do. If angered in some way it will devise a fault only fixable with a laptop and part so specialist that there needs to be a company to make the tools, for a company to make the tools to make it (at a price necessarily high to keep all these companies afloat). At first this is how our Land Rover seemed. However after two rainy weekends and quite a lot of studying before and after, it all started to make sense. The whole process of how the timed cycles of a piston generate force, this force being handed from gear to gear to shaft to wheel began to lock together. We saw first hand as we removed each part, how the forces of explosions in quick unison are harnessed by a clever arrangement of oiled metal moving parts. We learned about breaking, cooling, suspension and exhaust; tools, jacks, oils, wheels and lubricants.

Dave’s style of teaching certainly nurtured the initiative essential for a bush mechanic (these days defined as a mechanic without Google). He would happily watch us discuss how best to gain access to the transmission or lever the tyre off a wheel. This cemented the procedure into our memory. As well as teaching the correct approach to repair and maintenance procedures, he encouraged the improvisation needed to fix a problem with limited resources. One crowning moment was fixing our recently busted differential lock. We stripped away the casing and used a parts manual to narrow down which part was broken. We meticulously removed each fitted lever and cog and found the culprit (a sheared grub screw if you must know). Of course taking things apart is easy; it is the putting back together that is the challenge. Our Landy is simple enough that, by and large, as long as long as you put it back as you found it, you haven’t made things worse. This of course is a simple theory with a frustratingly complex practice. On attempt number three, the Diff-lock lever slid firmly and smoothly in, to engage the engines full power, with manly roars of satisfaction all round.

We were on our way to becoming bush mechanics.

The Components of Adventure

“So, when do you guys head of on this trip of yours?”

I’m standing in the hallway of a house party, having failed to penetrate any further. Still holding my coat and without a drink in hand, I reel off what is becoming a well rehearsed explanation.

“We hope to drive off at the beginning of October, our main problem at the moment is getting into Egypt from Europe. The Arab spring has made both Libya and Syria no-go areas but a new ferry has opened up. We’re looking for medical placements in Kenya and Cape Town, gathering a bit of data for the London School of Tropical Medicine and raising money for some African charities. We hope to be in Cape Town by April/May time.”

My eyes drift past the friendly chap making small talk and survey the scene. The Community surrounding the Royal Cornwall Hospital where we work is an interesting mix of staff and students. Far out west, there is a cut-off and intimate feel to the place. Pick up the telephone to make a referral and the odds are you’ll speak with somebody you recently saw in the pub or out surfing. A walk down a corridor usually entails a series of meetings and greetings. Everyone knows each others business. Rich, Dan and I are known as the boys planning ‘that huge trip to Africa’. This has been reinforced by the fact we’ve been bouncing around Cornwall for the past month in an intimidating long wheel-based 110 Land Rover Defender with raised suspension and a custom roof rack. It looks like it eats other cars.

“ Wow, it sounds amazing. I’m so jealous.”

Responses to my now reflexive explanation can be broadly classified into anxiety and envy. People either say we’re mad or express their wish to do a similar thing. Cornwall probably has a higher proportion of the adventuring sort.

“You should take guns!”

This unusual response is a new one for me and doesn’t fit neatly into my above classification…

“Um, I think firearms might cause more problems than they solve,” I suggest.

I edge further into the party.

This enthusiastic envy gets me thinking. What is it specifically about this project that catches people’s imagination? The journey seems fraught with back to back problems or ‘challenges’ as the optimistic call them. There is certainty of discomfort, boredom, disagreement, mechanical failures, crippling beaurocracy, risks to our personal safety and a thousand other ‘challenges’ we have yet to identify. A cynic would say that an adventure is a holiday with a series of problems. Surely a year long holiday should earn greater envy? I think it boils down to human nature and the way we are wired. Adventure gives purpose. Becoming totally immersed in overcoming these daily challenges, adapting and changing the plans, gaining new experiences and stories along the way, all the while with a cause in sight, is the fundamental appeal.

I’m sure Dan, Rich and I have varying reasons why we have chosen to embark on such an adventure, at this time in our lives. We have all separately travelled before, in a variety of places for our medical electives as students. I certainly look back at the three months I spent working in Tanzania and Ethiopia as a very challenging but life-affirming time. I think a common reason is that, in medicine, with its clear hierarchal progression, one can see where you will be in a few years. None of us have yet entered training programmes, the ladders to the specialities. If we want to do something like this, now is the time. We had been living together in a house on Perranporth beach on the north coast of Cornwall. We were renting a rather nice holiday home for the off season months (far beyond our combined means). Through the winter, as the westerly winds lashed at the walls, we spent many an hour at the kitchen table, drinking tea or whiskey, and talking. Cut off from the rest of the world our ideas tended to spiral…

Dan pranced downstairs one evening, fiery-eyed (as he can be, whether he’s raging against life’s deep injustices or denouncing cheap tea). I think he had just finished Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and it had clearly made an impression, as many a book does.

“I think we should all go through Africa together,” he pronounced, gesturing to a convenient map on the wall.

Our adventure began sooner than expected…

Of all the chance journeys an e-Bay purchase could have taken us upon, I cannot envisage a stranger encounter. On that particular day we decided to look for a Land Rover, we found one that we knew we had to have. It was a fine red 20 year-old, fully kitted out Defender that we believed would withstand the ravages of Africa. There were two snags: 1. It was far up on Rannoch moor in the Highlands of Scotland. 2. It was already sold.

A phone call solved the second problem. The owner on the other end of the line was a man a talkative man called Malcolm. One of his sons had put the car on e-Bay but it had sold for far below what he wanted for it. We’re unsure as to how he got out of the deal but he was keen to sell to us. We established a good rapport with this enthusiastic Cornishman who, for some reason was residing up in a vast Scottish wilderness.  His asking price seemed reasonable so we arranged to fly up and ‘have a look at the car’.

Dan, Rich, Guy and I flew up on one weekend in early spring in a small aircraft from Newquay to Glasgow. Arriving on Saturday afternoon, the plan was to hire a car and drive into the Scottish wilderness, get the car and drive it back to Cornwall in time for work on Monday. This was almost scuppered by a hire car administration error, leaving us stranded in the airport. Fortunately we were rescued by a kindly sole from another company, who arranged for us to borrow one of their cars.

We drove through Scotland in the golden evening light, racing past castle and loch, making good time. Eventually we turned off the main road and began to wind our way into the highland. As the light faded and the deer to human ratio shifted strongly in the favour of the latter, we began to appreciate how isolated our destination was.

Over a rocky mountain pass, along a dark loch and at the end of a long dead end road we arrived. In the last phone call before we lost signal, Malcolm had said,

“Just head for the castle,”

And this we did…

It was a starry dark as we reached the end of the drive. Although we could no longer see the snow-tipped horizon, there was a feeling of vast and blackened highland above us. We looked up at a turreted castle. After a period of staring at this lofty clan stronghold, we knocked on the door. Behind a threshold that had probably withstood a clan feud or two, a bearded face with a cautious smile appeared. Hands were shaken and we ushered through into a panelled hallway, festooned with hunting trophies. Monarchic antlers interspersed the heads of big African game looking down in anger or surprise.

In the grand living room, under more trophies, we were offered a whiskey. We hadn’t eaten for most of the day but there was a sharp chill in the air that our mild Cornish blood wasn’t used to. Malcolm was a Cornish man who had made his fortuned in ‘speculating’’ as he called it. He was living up on Rannoch moor with his wife and eight children and had a very ‘opt out’ approach to society. When he had bought the place several years ago, it had been a school.

We stayed that night in one of the old teacher’s houses and awoke at crack of dawn to a cloudless spring morning. There were deer on the lawn and the air was thick with birdsong, running water and nothing else. The plan had been to set off bright and early after the purchase as we all had work the following morning at the other end of the country. However we were unable to resist the surroundings and spent the day exploring by foot and Landrover as well as having a celebratory bottle of champagne in the sun.

It was half seven when we finally returned our rental car to Glasgow and crossed the border. The weather was closing in and the sky was bruising. The following Nine ours stand out as a surreal and desperate string of service station stops and driving shifts in non-stop driving rain.

From Abstract to Reality

An overland trip to South Africa has been a pipe dream for us for quite some time; with an career break* on the horizon, what better time to give it a go before family, a mortgage, and “real life” take over?

We quickly realised that a big dream becomes a Sisyphean task; something which it would be easy to put off indefinitely. We needed something to cement the concept, to force us to invest in the project. We needed a vehicle.

Many animated conversations ensued over pints of Betty Stoggs, but in the end there was only one conclusion. It had to be a Land Rover.

As it turns out, you actually pay quite a lot for an old Landie. We quickly found that our budget limited us to a minimum age of 15 years, a high likelihood of some holey bodywork, and an engine with at least 100,000 miles under its belt (‘just worn in’ is how most Land Rover boffins describe this land mark – we’re not convinced).

After weeks of looking we found a 20 year old Defender which looked like it would do the job. The only hitch was it was in Scotland…

*career break = conscious avoidance of any serious career-shaping decisions