Heading into the desert with a bunch of strangers, plus my 87-year-old dad, was not an adventure I’d ever considered. Safely ensconced in my freelance journalist’s life, I’d have Dad over for dinner every couple of weeks and we’d discuss politics or his latest golf game.
Travelling together was never a plan. That all changed when I decided to go to Swaziland as a volunteer with Crossroads International, a Canadian non-governmental agency. “Is this a good idea?” he asked me over our roast chicken one night.
How best to calm his worries? “You can come over and visit me,” I replied. His eyes lit up and all of a sudden my trip to Africa wasn’t such a bad idea.
Dad and Mom had travelled quite a bit, exploring Europe, India and South America together. But after Mom passed away Dad didn’t venture too far from home. He had always wanted to see southern Africa.
I signed us up for a 5,500 kilometre, 20-day overland tour that would take us from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Dad flew over from Toronto, we met in Cape Town and then headed downtown to the tour operator’s office. Out front was a tank-like truck with the name “Makheba” painted on the door. Miriam Makheba was a popular South African singer affectionately known as “Mama Africa.”
If our vehicle could channel this warm soul, we’d be in good hands I thought as we boarded along with 14 fellow travellers from Germany, Australia and the Netherlands.
Our first stop was !Khwa ttu San Cultural Experience north of Cape Town where a young San man walked us through a replica village.
Although the San (also known as bushmen) population has dwindled drastically due to the loss of traditional hunting grounds and a concentrated effort to wipe them out by early European settlers, we learned there are still some who live in the old way.
The young man, wearing jeans and sneakers, seemed to exist in both worlds and showed us how to catch desert snacks, small lizards eaten raw (I didn’t try one), and how poison is collected from certain plants for deadly arrow tips.
A day later in Namibia, we checked into a guest lodge on the Orange River.
The longest river in South Africa, the Orange jostles diamonds all the way from Kimberly into the surf along the Namibian coast. At one time these were easy to find, but no more. As the day’s last warm rays warmed our skin, we watched birds flit over the water and toasted our voyage with a nip of duty-free Scotch dad had picked up on the way over.
A hauntingly beautiful desert distinguishes Namibia, once colonized by Germany. The rich burnt-orange dunes (due to oxidized iron ore) shift very little due to opposing winds. Namib-Naukluft National Park is one of the few places you’re allowed to climb a dune, which we gamely did at 7 a.m. before the heat became too intense.
A few kilometres away in Sossusvlei, a former riverbed taken over by a sand ocean, I swung on dead tree branches while Dad wisely stayed out of the sun. Having worked up an appetite, the group stopped in Solitaire, where the population of 25 ekes out a living pumping gas, working in the bakery and selling souvenirs. Dad and I split a hefty slab of apple crumble pie and were stuffed for hours.
Namibia is very dry and the wildlife has adapted. At Etosha Park white-ish elephants covered in dusty pale clay cavorted by a waterhole and nearby sleeping lions digested a recent wildebeest feast.
Botswana’s Okavango Delta was the opposite of Namibia, full of floating islands, green marshy grasses and water lily lined canals. At 17,000 square kilometres, it’s the world’s largest inland delta and home to a 200,000 mammals including lions, elephants, wart hogs, buffalo, hippo and crocodiles.
We rode in dugout canoes and spied many species, including elephants, munching tender grasses. In Chobe National Park, nicknamed Land of the Giants, we saw vast breeding herds of pachyderms splashing playfully in the shallow water.
Makheba was true to her trustworthy name and we made it to Victoria Falls with only one minor mishap, a flat tire that was easily fixed. At the falls, Dad and I inhaled the cool, misty air and marvelled at the thundering water. “Good trip, eh honey?” said Dad, putting his arm around my shoulders. “The best,” I replied. “Where shall we go next?”