At the end of 2010 I booked a super spur-of-the-moment last-minute flight to South Africa and Namibia. From the very first second I arrived at the airport I was thrown into a series of wonderful, terrifying, unforgettable experiences that left no space for a single dull moment. After adventuring through a part of the journey by myself, I eventually met up with my parents who had arrived into Windhoek for a high school reunion. Together we rented a silver Toyota Corolla and drove across the stunning Namibian landscape to many of the places that had defined my father’s childhood and adolescent years. Driving through one of the oldest deserts in the world can be a somewhat dangerous and unpredictable experience at the best of times. Driving across the Namibian desert in a Corolla of all things is just downright stupid.
Somewhere into our holiday my father proposed that we drive deep into the desert, well and truly off the grid, to find a very special and incredibly strange plant called the Welwitschia. This particular plant is significant because a single specimen can reach an age extending well beyond 2,000 years, its two wide leaves becoming increasingly wind-shredded and tentacle-like as it survives in one of the harshest desert environments in the world. As a lover of all things ancient and remotely archaeological, this honestly did appeal to me a great deal at the start. We drove for hours and hours in no particular direction other than the one that dad pulled from some half-forgotten memory in his mind. Before long we hit the winding gravel roads and followed our noses deeper and deeper into the desert, further and further away from any signs of civilisation and the necessities they offer for staying alive. Like water, shade, and apple strudel.
Eventually we found what we were looking for: Welwitschia plants sprinkled across the harsh golden landscape, green and unwilted in the unrelenting African sun. We took a few obligatory pictures with them (this took us all of two minutes total) before we decided we had better get right out of there and find ourselves somewhere to eat and sleep that night. Feeling somewhat victorious, and more than a little silly for the enormous effort put in for two minutes of photo fun time, we drove on. Quickly, and with a sudden thud, we stopped and felt our hearts sink into our stomachs. Our hearts fell even further when we stepped out of the car and saw the punctured tyre. Never mind, all good, change the tyre. Great, all done. Have a sip of near-boiling water, nibble the corner of the soggy sandwich I sat on earlier and keep going.
Within a minute or two we were once again driving in hopeful search of any main road that might lead to a little village (or frankly anywhere with fewer animal eyes and more eyes of the human variety), laughing and joking around like we had not a care in the world.
“Drive slowly – last thing we want is to have two flat tyres in the middle of the desert!”
“Yeah, haha, how totally hilarious would that be?!”
“Oh look, a paved road up ahead! Seems like we’ve made it and won’t die from dehydration or leopards after all, hahaha –”
Insert sound of quick air expulsion from direction of tyre —
So now we were stranded with two flat tyres and no spare in the middle of the desert, on a long, empty road to only God knows what. We were quickly becoming dehydrated, heat stroke was imminent, and that pull on the heart was back with a vengeance. We congregated and discussed our options, each more dire than the last. We could walk in some direction and hope to find a town or even just a person who might help us. We could sit in the car and wait for someone to drive past and attempt to flag them down (“People might not drive this road at all, or only very infrequently. Who knows?”). We could take stock of our remaining resources and decide to do this thing Bear Grylls style till we came up with a better solution.
Just then on the horizon, many kilometers away from where our silver Corolla stood glimmering in the setting sun, we noticed a dot moving with an astounding speed toward us. It was a man and he was running right at us, bare-footed and long-legged. In almost no time he reached us, all smiles and sweat. His eyes darted to our car and his smile broadened as he took note of our punctured tyres. Communication was interesting, but the man could speak a little Afrikaans and we were able to figure out that there was a small village approximately 15km away from where we were. The man said he would help us ‘fix’ our tyres and raced like a lightning bolt back toward his little makeshift shack on the horizon. After a while he returned with a bicycle pump in hand and just kind of shrugged when he realised the punctures would let air out as quickly as we might try to replace it.
We decided that we would try to flag down a car and hitch a ride into town with one of the tyres, hoping that someone there might be able to temporarily repair it. One or two cars passed us in the first hour or so while we stood there scratching our heads and wiping our brows. But for a long time no one stopped or even eased their foot on the accelerator. I was waving my arms so hard that I thought they might unscrew themselves and fall to my feet, but eventually my method paid off and a 4WD rented by a touring German family stopped cautiously next to us. They agreed to take us into town and we decided that my mum and I should go while my dad waited by the Corolla with our happy ‘helper’. When I said goodbye to my dad I told myself that this could very well be the last time I ever see him. People in countries like Namibia get killed regularly for much less than a car, but we simply had no alternative. As we drove toward the little town I watched my dad and the Corolla disappear slowly over the horizon.
Once we got into town the German family drove us to a small, shabby petrol station and waited with us for our tyre to be patched up. My mother and I were instantly surrounded by a group of local men who tried to sell us little rocks and hand-made trinkets. All complained of hunger. I knew that in uncertain situations like these it’s wise to make quick friends. I went to the small shop and spent my money on bread, butter, cheese, fruit and juice to give to the group of men. They hurried off, abandoning their rocks, and sat in a tight circle to eat and drink together. Meanwhile, the man who was repairing our tyre looked my mum and I up and down hungrily, and with a gold-toothed grin offered to personally drive us back to our rental car. Seeing this, the German family quickly intervened and insisted that they would drive us back instead. With a sigh of relief and enthusiastic waves from the eating men, we drove back to find my dad in deep, friendly conversation with the local man. The man smiled widely while we replaced the tyre, and with a toothy farewell he held out his hand to suggest that a tip would be very nice, thank you very much. Dad gave him a nice, crisp bill and we drove toward the village at the pace of a dying snail.
They say ‘live and learn’, but the best things in life always seem to be found well and truly off the beaten track. One brand new tyre, a musky bed, a warm meal, and a slice (or two) of strudel later, we drove on into the desert, ready for new adventures to present themselves.