We begin an African road odyssey with 14 other travelers hailing from Australia, Canada, Germany, Korea, Poland, the UK, and of course, Holland. As usual, I’m the only gringo on the bus truck, but this time running under the Irish flag. I also notice that I am also the oldest, an occurrence that is happening much too frequently lately. Most on board are 20 or 30 somethings, and they bring that gusto and verve of youth required to take on an ambitious overland safari like this.
My desire to do this kind of bone-crunching road trip must be buried deep into my DNA. It comes with a price—long days bouncing down bumpy roads, eating boxed food on the run, early starts to seize the precious, safe daylight hours. Traveling Africa at night is not advisable. If the road bandits don’t get you, the unseen black rhino on the highway will. But the payoff for this kind of demanding travel is big time–glimpses into roadside lives, short encounters that require getting to know someone fast, the satisfaction of earning the landscape one mile at a time. Sure, jet flying is speedy and expedient. But give me the mantra of miles to get a well-earned understanding of a place. It’s the same beat that drove Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway and Easy Rider down the road to adventure.
Our driver is The Captain, a savvy, streetwise Zimbabwean with an enormous, ever-present smile. He commandeers Tommy, a 5 year-old Mitsubishi Fuso truck. This expedition workhorse was built to carry people and provisions on overland adventures. Fuso is the Chinese word for Hibiscus. But Tommy has little in common with the delicate subtropical flower. Rather this non-nonsense road beast eats up the African roadscape like a leopard devouring an impala. We cover over 1700 miles (2700 kilometers) in about nine days traveling through South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
The Captain delivers big time. The only problem we have is in the decrepit Botswanan town of Maun where a pedestrian claims that The Captain ran into him while backing up Tommy in a grocery store parking lot. Within a Harare heartbeat, our commander is gone, taken away by the police. Stranded without driver, I borrow a cell phone from a Polish passenger and call Nomad Expeditions in South Africa who organized this trip. Under the “Done Roaming? Meat Deli” sign I explain our situation and am told the manager there is in a meeting but he will get back with us. Twenty minutes later, The Captain returns to Tommy. “What happened in the police station, Captain?” I enquire. “The guy in the parking lot claimed I back into him and wanted money for damages. But he couldn’t show any injuries. The police demanded that I pay him anyway. I refused. This went back and forth for a while and then they let me go. This is Africa.”
The Captain again starts up the roaring diesel, and with a puff of black smoke, we leave the dreary town of Maun behind. Two of us pass the time by playing aerial road games. Hettie sees a wisp of a cloud in the endless blue African sky and predicts it will disappear. It eventually will, but in the meantime we boldly declare different images as the cloud morphs form. It’s a galloping horse. Then a duck-billed platypus. No, it’s a large, snowy mustache. And now a car, a Ford Mercury to be specific. We laugh as Tommy roars through the Botswana landscape magically dotted with springbok, giraffe and elephant.