Well, I’m back.
I meant to write this post three weeks ago, but my return to the United States, Christmas, New Years, and all manner of good and nasty business took me by storm. In any case, I managed to carve out some quiet time, and give my final weeks in Africa the time and respect they deserve.
This will likely be one of my last posts for the blog in its current form. After this, in one or two months, I plan to write a final post to tie up my fourteen month journey around the world.
Thanks for your patience. For now, Fare Thee Well, Africa.
Etosha National Park, Namibia
A dark, 5:15 AM alarm: It’s game time.
During a quick breakfast, the eastern sky starts to pale, first crowding out the stars, next brightening the entire sky. Clouds cluster on the eastern horizon, hiding a shy sun from her initial dramatic appearance.
By 6:00 AM our group is all assembled, on the truck, and bumping our way over gravel and dirt into Etosha National Park. As the morning brightens, and the proud sun threatens to reveal herself, we make our first stop at a small, perfectly still watering hole. A lone tree stands near the middle, and, as we watch, a symphony of tiny birds explodes from its branches, flying backwards and forwards, this way and that, all in perfect, mesmerizing synchronization. The modest sun finally bursts her rays through the clouds, light to a morning dance.
Out the window, we spot a tower of giraffes, some walking, some running, as if in slow motion.
A parade of elephants next makes their appearance, the older members casually ripping apart grass and trees, the younger members trotting playfully, and two twin babies clinging adorably close to their mother.
Springbok, a small, deer-like species of impalla, are everywhere.
I take a special liking to the beautiful, long-horned Oryx. They are an amazing animal, equipped with sophisticated water-saving respiration systems, fantastic markings, and lethal saber-like horns.
All manner of other animals, including warthogs, ostrich, kudus, hyenas and jackal all go about their business.
Around noon, we approach a final, special water hole, where everyone seems to be invited to the party. A dazzle of zebras mingle with a herd of wildebeest. Kudu, oryx, springbok and a few ostrich take careful turns drinking water. Up front and center, two massive, wrinkled, weathered elephant bulls dominate the scene.
Back on the truck, the group floats on cloud nine, savoring the sweet, juicy moments. This day has gone from good to great to legendary. This, this is what we came for. This is Africa.
The Namibian Desert
There is something special about the desert.
Last night brought a strong, fast, burning sunset, rapidly followed by a dramtatic, bright, clear-skied moonrise. The perfectly round, glowing silver coin rose quickly past the horizon, casting bright rays of reflected light back onto the nighttime desert sand.
The brightness was amazing; I always forget just how much light a full moon can provide. I took a stroll, as the moon rose higher and higher in the sky, and could clearly see everything around me. The ground, the shrubs, the few trees, the sandy road. The far-off dunes. The distant mountain ridges. I even turned around, mid-walk, and, turning my back to the moon, saw my own shadow stretch out before me, clear as day.
Sometime during the night, errant clouds invaded the crystal-clear sky, and so when I emerge from my 5:30 AM pre-dawn tent, the eastern glow already has character. By six o’clock, the sun finally peaks her head over the mountainous rim of the desert world, and with an orchestra of pastel colors, lights up the morning sky.
Sunrises and sunsets are so difficult to describe, or capture, or preserve. They are ephemeral. They are, perhaps, amongst the most ancient activities on earth. And yet, no two are alike, no two experience are alike. Pictures don’t do them proper justice. They ground you, bring you back to earth, back into the moment. They remind you that you are alive. It’s important to just, enjoy them.
The morning drive through the desert puts most people back to sleep, but I’m enjoying the sifting, endless sands out the window. 45 kilometers we drive, to the magnificent “Dune 45” (this country was settled and organized by the Germans, a highly organized and practical, if not imaginative, people).
It is difficult to describe the magnitude, shape, power of the dunes. They’re massive. They’re ancient. They have an elegance, an undulating, serpentine beauty to them. These particular ones were formed by the relentless, howling winds and hand of time over the last five million years.
Feet bare, I look up at the dune stretched out ahead, and above of me. The morning light from the freshly-risen sun accentuates the calm, mesmerizing reddish glow of the undulating sand. In front of me, a small ridge begins, the most basic of geographic shapes: two sides sloping up to intersect at a high point in the middle. This small mound, a smattering of different-colored sand, quickly rises up one foot, ten feet, a hundred feet up into the ongoing, serpentine peak line of the dune.
Now rising, now level, now steep, now gentle, I work my way up a well-trodden ridge, my bare feet sinking into the surprisingly soft, warm sand with every step. To the left, a deep valley, lit up by the bright, harsh sun. To the right, the steep slope casts a shadow that reminds me me of the undulating back of a mythical, giant dragon, or a sand serpent.
The ridge is narrow–hardly three feet across, and always follows the highest crest of the dune. An exuberant step to the left, and I sink down 2 or 3 feet into the soft, sun-fired sand. A step to the right, and I sink into shadow, and a chilly bed of surprisingly cold sand, still asleep from the hard desert night.
I spot my shadow, hundreds of feet below. Sometimes, moments like these in life, like standing on top of a 5 million year-old dune in Africa, are surreal. Some people pinch themselves to remind themselves that they are alive. I take a deep breath, pause to look at the view–really look at it– and try to take it in. The sights, the sensations, the feelings, the moment. I get lost for a precious second, in the infinite realm of space and time. Then, I see my shadow–a speck on the ground, on the back of a massive sand serpent. I see my shadow, and I come back to the earth. I see my shadow, and I smile, and I wave.
Africa was my first, true, separation from the outside world on this entire trip. Most of the rest of the world had fast wifi, inexpensive SIM cards, and/or Verizon international coverage. Not Africa. Sure, I got a bit of occasional, horrendously slow wifi, sent a message here or there, responded to something important, let people know I was safe. But I disconnected, almost completely. No cell service. No phone calls back home. For the first time during the trip, no outside world.
And you know what? It was magical. I was able to (mostly) shut out the white noise of the world, and focus on the moment. Focus on myself, during the long hours of overland truck travel, during the breathtaking sunrises, and sunsets, amid the raw, primal nature; the world as it once was.
I glimpsed the scale, the magnitude of land, of the earth. How it changes, over thousands and thousands of miles, carving our way through rolling savannah to barren rocks to lush green to jagged mountains to stupendous canyons. Yes, Africa carved an outline of itself onto my heart, recesses of an older, wilder part of the world.
And I’m happy for the time it took, the long hours of bouncy silence, the faces and smiles of the children on the streets. The time helped give weight, give meaning to the experiences, fleshed them out from topical adventures into deep, multi-dimensional journeys, profound and powerful in their own rights.
I can never write enough words, or show enough pictures, to fully convey what it felt like to stand on top of Dune 45. To feel the warm, red sand encompass your bare foot as you step another step into her.
I can’t explain what it felt like to stand on the Cape of Good Hope, with the knowledge that everything you’ve traveled over the past months–over 6,000 miles, and still only a fraction of the African continent–lies behind you.
And I really can’t explain the immensity of the endless place, the Serengeti savannah, where earth meets the edge of the universe, where finite collides with the infinite. I can’t explain the rush of emotion that comes when you stand up in a jeep, speeding down a dirt road, and look back at the long, dusty path stretching out behind you, sun and clouds and trees and mountains slowly sinking further into the past, disappearing on the horizon.
One lesson I’ve learned on this solo trip is that experiences are made even more vibrant, more electric, when shared. At the beginning of this world tour, I wanted to do it alone. I wanted no help, and I wanted to walk my own path. But, now I see, that’s a bit silly. We all walk our own paths in life, but some of the greatest moments we experience in life, and that I’ve experienced on this trip, have been shared with others.
I have not mentioned much about my fellow Safari travellers, but they played an integral and central role in the African experience. During six weeks of 24 hour interaction, like it or not, you get to know people.
Sure, there are times when others get on your nerves. There are times when you just want some space to be alone. And there are times when you want to strangle the hell out of Safari Tom.
But, those are small prices to pay for the companionship, the friendship, and the goodness of the people around you. The camaraderie of the homo sapiens group. The feeling of “these are my people.” The helping each other out, the getting to know one another, subtly, little by little, better every day. The inside jokes, the favorite songs, the sharing of a sunset over a beer, or just a simple moment in a tent, listening to music in the dark.
I feel honored that I could share them with such a fun, kind, adventurous group of Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Germans, French, Dutch, Canadians and Kenyans. We’ve all since parted, but I cherish these experiences, these characters, in my heart.
It is difficult to quantify how all these small moments, these individual experiences, these chance encounters, all add up. How do you simply sum them all together, write them down on a page, arrive at a bottom line, and say “this was my experience of Africa”?
Things are more complex than that, with interweaving layers of memories and human connections and emotions that combine to create a part of you, a new layer of fabric on top of your existing heart and soul.
And it is difficult to value the experience, because the impact of this sort of thing is not a tangible, static thing. It’s movable. It’s changeable. You don’t, can’t, know, even in small ways, how it will impact your life. You don’t know how it will impact your today, or your tomorrow, the paths you choose and the decisions you will make.
Who knows, in 40 years you might look back and see how different your life would have been had you chosen a different path, had you not had the courage, and support, and luck, to try.
And that, for me, was Africa. The children’s waves, the desert dunes, the endless savannas, the characters and eccentricities of my fellow travellers. The majesty of the sunrises and sunsets. They all weave a tapestry of memory and experience that lives, not only in the past, but inside of me, protecting me, consoling me, giving me strength, and knowledge, and courage for future.
Fare thee well, Africa. Perhaps, one day, I might have the honor to meet you again.