Dry air and cracking skin and the gentle drone of airplane bits and airplane pieces all working as they should. Muffled snores, muffled coughs, muffled chatter. I swallow air and my ears pop and I slide the bottom half of my narrow window upwards and peer down. Beneath me, some thirty-six thousand feet: Ethiopia. Or thereabouts: perhaps Eritrea, perhaps Djibouti, perhaps the borderlands of some other state drawn haphazardly and carelessly by some European some centuries ago. Whatever people choose to call it, it is perfectly gorgeous. Red, rolling mountains and rocky, towering mesas dot the ancient landscape; overhead, an African sunrise, my very first, painted fiery orange and mystically green and startlingly violet against the horizon. We still have another day of travel in the air, but already I feel like we've arrived.
Lauren stirs in the seat next to me and glances out. It has been a long night of crying babies and tiny cans of ginger ale and intermittent turbulence, and we both find ourselves in that aggravating state of oh so tired but also not tired enough to sleep through this. I check my phone and it's roughly 4AM—not 4AM DC time, not 4AM airplane time, but 4AM southwestern Africa time, a desperate attempt to mitigate jetlag and realign my sleep schedule. Even with the aid of sleeping pills, it's not working.
Just as well, though. I resign myself to calling it a night and I begin my day, sneaking quick, blindingly bright glances of the great grassy continent below. Our plane descends and the details of the Ethiopian landscape became clearer, the contours harder. Reclining seats return to their upright position and tray tables go up and we all go down, descending toward the modest airport on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Seatbelts unbuckle and passengers hurry to their feet and the cabin depressurizes. Welcome to Africa.
We layover for two hours in a sweaty, crowded, dingy little terminal that could pass easily for a train stop in India or a bus station in eastern Europe. When our connection begins boarding, we're herded out to a small shuttle that pulls us a kilometer up the road onto the balmy black tarmac. And then back up we go: out of Ethiopia, across the Sahara, over the Kalahari, all desert and dune and dusty roads straight as a ruler.
Six or seven hours later, we land on the southern tip of Botswana for a quick refuel in Gaborone. Quick isn't so quick, though—paperwork delays, we're told—and we spend an extra hour on the runway, hot African sun pouring into our sweltering little plane. There's a communal sigh when the engine kicks back on and that first cool gust spills out onto the seats, and a quiet exhilaration as we ascend one final time. Two hours later, we land in cool, sunny Cape Town.
We got on our first plane at 10AM Sunday morning, and now it's 6PM Monday evening, so we're eager to leave the airport and breathe some real air, the kind not conditioned and circulated through coils and vents some thirty times over. Right between frigid DC and steamy Ethiopia, Cape Town at dusk is just right: cool air, a gentle breeze, the smell of salty ocean not too far away. We look for a bus to bring us into town and settle for a cab instead, and ten minutes later we're sweeping by the iconic Table Mountain, perched tall and proud over the seaside city. Ten minutes after that, we're at the front steps of our hostel.
We drop our heavy packs and change our musky clothes and head out on an aimless stroll along a pleasant, porticoed street. Stomachs grumbling and hearts yearning for food not served bland and cold in palm-sized foil-wrapped containers, we find ourselves an hour later seated on the patio of a festively-lit little restaurant, and an hour after that, sleeping soundly (and horizontally) for the first time in two days.
I wake the next day with thrill and excitement, sure, but also a little apprehension. The plan is this: pick up a truck and drive north several hundred kilometers to Namibia, then keep driving north for another week or two or three. The problem, though, is this: the truck is four-wheel-drive, it's stick-shift, it's large with limited visibility, and it's to be driven (like all vehicles in South Africa and Namibia) on the left side of the road, and I've never driven any of the above.
Well, that's not exactly true. There was that time last summer, in a gravelly old parking lot in Bosnia, when a friend taught me to drive our little manual compact car, stick and all. And I did learn (barely), and I did get it on the highway (barely), and I did make it from Dubrovnik to Split (barely), but that was all straight, smooth highway, free of traffic—the car left fifth gear maybe once. This, the whole driving-to-and-through Namibia thing, it was a different beast.
But hey, I think, I'm a quick learner.
We rise and we shower and we manage to scarf down just a few slices of toast before our cab back to the airport—and the rental facility—appears. On the way over our driver, one of the rental agents, fills us in on all the terms and conditions and rules of the road. We listen carefully and we arrive at the depot and, after a few more forms and a little waiting and a very quick orientation of the truck itself, I'm handed the keys and we're wished farewell.
The truck itself seems lovely. Embarrassingly big for just two, definitely, but nothing short of a home away from home for us these next three weeks. It's a big single-cab pickup with a long, covered truck bed, and inside that bed, storage and supplies. There's a tiny refrigerator to keep things cool, a propane stove to make things hot, pots and pans and cutlery and pillows and sleeping bags and blankets and—charmingly—a fold-out table and chairs. Atop the truck sits a foot-high covered square, and underneath that cover hides a roomy pop-up tent, mattress and folding ladder and all.
We climb inside the cab of the truck. I insert the key and turn and the engine roars to life. Go time. Slowly, cautiously, digging deep into those wishy-washy memories from that Bosnian parking lot, I press down the clutch, shift into first, and let up on the clutch as I ease onto the gas. Success! We begin rolling out of the garage and we turn toward the exit and I desperately search for somewhere to pull aside and ride some circles and, finding nothing, I brake, and with a great clunky violence the truck bucks and jerks and turns off. Four-thousand-plus kilometers to go, and we've made it but three meters.
I'm not reckless enough to get onto the road like this, so Lauren hops out and grabs one the guys we'd been chatting to a little while ago. We just need a place to practice, she explains. Rodney, miracle of a man, returns with Lauren to the vehicle and points us to a parking lot just a few hundred meters up the road. With pleading eyes, I ask if he wouldn't mind, y'know, driving us over there, and he oh-so-kindly obliges, taking up the steering wheel as I scoot over.
He rolls smoothly onto the gravelly lot and Lauren hops out and we switch places. He gives me a few pointers and they don't help much at first but after ten or twelve or twenty boneshaking stalls, I happen upon some luck. I drive from one side of the lot to the other and shift from first to second to third to second to first to neutral, and I turn and I do that again and again and again and—stall.
Rodney's reassuring. Eventually he hops out too and tells me to keep trying on my own, and I relax and give it my best and, slowly but surely, reduce my stall-to-success ratio to a just-about-roadworthy level. Lauren and Rodney look on approvingly from the end of the lot.
We thank Rodney, profusely, and he gives us directions north, and for the second time in as many years I roll out of a gravelly parking lot on a foreign continent with my hand on the stick and just the thinnest clue of what I'm doing.
But I feel safe. Safe-ish. I wouldn't dare put us both in danger if I didn't think I could keep us on the road, and I know that once I'm up in gear I can manage—it's just starting and stopping that's the problem. So like the bus driver in Speed, we bolt north doing whatever we can to just keep going: no stops, no stalls.
We work our way a few hours up South Africa's lovely, dry Garden Route, and recognizing that we need to pull in for water and groceries at some point, we ease into the smallest, least trafficky town we can find. Downshifting slowly, I roll through a few stop signs and bank into the supermarket parking lot and smoothly pull into a tight spot before jarringly stalling out, all heads turning in our direction. Whatever, I think, I was done driving anyway.
Rice and beans and potatoes and bread and peanut butter; soap and sponges and toilet paper and a lighter. Water: liters and liters of it. We fill our cart and pay and return to the truck with our provisions, and once more lumber out of the lot, all sharp left turns, finding our way back to the Garden Route without daring stop for a wide right.
As if the stickshift struggle isn't bad enough, this whole driving-on-the-left deal is trying me. At least ten times in our first day, Lauren reminds me that left turns are sharp and right turns are wide, and it's easy to remember but hard to actually employ: driving on the right just feels, well, right, right?
We drive—on the left, in fifth gear—for hours, with me turning the wipers on every time I try to signal because, oh, I'm on the right side of the car and all those controls are thus opposite too. The Garden Route grows less garden-looking and we climb beautiful hills into orange horizon under deep blue African sky. Cacti and juniper shrubs dot the landscape and loose yellow dirt dominates, and the roads grow windy and the hills become mountains and we climb into them. Up ahead an oil truck fills the lane, and I slow behind it, dropping into fourth until it becomes safe to pass.
But it doesn't become safe to pass. The hefty truck ahead of us crawls, and my RPMs begin to drop and my mind begins to panic and I try to fix it by shifting back to fifth but that just makes it worse, and suddenly we're not moving at all, and the needle noses in at zero and our truck shakes and we shudder to a stop. On an incline. On a mountain. On a highway.
Fortunately African highways are not American highways, and after a second semi-truck barrels past us—terrifyingly fast, I might add—as I blare the horn in warning, I slow my thinking and take a breath and think back to my peaceful, simple little bicycle resting back home: littler gears for bigger hills. Downshift, don't upshift.
Clutch in, reset to neutral, clutch out. Start car. Clutch in again, back to first. Gas, lots of gas, clutch out slowly. It fails the first four times but it works the fifth, and a few minutes later we're inching back up the road, cautiously gaining speed, adrenaline pumping. Oops.
I spend the next hour or so figuring out manual gearing in my head, digging up little nuggets of discovery from our incident. I'm stressed and eager to make it to Namibia, land of quiet roads and big wide expanses on which to practice driving like someone who knows how to drive. I worry I just won't get better at it—that this is it, our next three weeks, gorgeous scenery we're too anxious to appreciate, wonderful places we're too unskilled to reach. Perhaps this whole ridiculous adventure is a mistake.
Gulping down doubt, we assess our situation. We're only an hour south of the border, but the sun has begun its descent and we're not exactly eager to be driving along the borderlands in the unlit dark, so we pull into the next village we pass and ask for campsites and we're pointed a few kilometers up the road to a cluster of modest rounded chalets. The entrance gate is closed, but a jovial Afrikaans man hurries out of the center chalet almost immediately. I jump out and meet him at the gate and ask him if we can't find a small corner of his property on which to camp. He nods excitedly. But no toilet, he notes. I ask him if the great toilet of nature would be a problem and he says no, and we have a deal. The gate opens, I start the truck—no stalls!—and we head inside.
We park along the back fence and walk over toward the front to pay, and in that short time our host has discovered that one of the chalets is available, and it does have a toilet. We're perfectly content in the tent, but he seems to prefer we use the plumbed toilets, and at under ten dollars for the working toilet, the rest of the chalet (which we don't use), and the camping spot, we don't bother to argue. Rands change hands, we grab the key, and then hustle back to the tent to set up camp before sundown.
Lauren cooks up a pot of rice and beans and onions as I pop the tent and organize the trunk and set up the table. We dine a camper's feast under a fluffy purple sky, play some cards, and climb the ladder to our cozy canvas tent. In the distance, trucks howl north in the night. Tomorrow morning, we join them. Tomorrow morning: Namibia.