My search for the Source of the Okavango River
My search for the source of the Okavango River, and the origins of my passion for overland adventure.
“Pay attention, boy!” came the command from across the classroom.
I jerked awake from my dreaming.
This was a daily, sometimes hourly, occurrence. I used to assume that every boy dreamt like I did. Wasn’t that normal?
Yes. But not as much as I did.
As I grew up, I learnt that dreaming is vital to the successful person. It worked well for me. It’s what makes us unique. Mine were dreams of visiting amazing places with strange sounding names. In 2010, I lived that moment when I travelled into the heart of war-torn Angola to find the source of the Okavango River, one of Africa’s greatest waterways. I realized then that I had conquered all, and that a dream of many colors had become reality. And it was as good, if not better, than I’d ever imagined it would be.
My father, a very successful writer, championed my dreams. Like most fathers, he planned our yearly family vacations. But unlike many, he had us go to the most out-of-the-way, remote and extraordinary places imaginable. Ordinary was not in his vocabulary. The trip I remember most, and which had a profound impact on my career choice and lifestyle, was to the Okavango Delta, Botswana, when I was twelve. The experience had the effect of setting up a constant pain in my chest. An almost insatiable yearning, a lust to travel through the most remote places I could find. In addition, much later, I spent a year in the Okavango, the result of which is the bestselling travel memoir, Torn Trousers.
By 2010, I had created a mapping company, written 14 books, produced three TV series and had become pretty well-known for my knowledge of matters 4×4. I decided to celebrate by making what would be my most ambitious TV series yet. It was to be an expedition to locate the source of the Okavango River, the river that feeds the Okavango Delta. But it lies in a country far to the north, in one that had forgotten the meaning of the word tourist. Angola’s 20-year war against its neighbors and itself, has taken a toll on its people that is hard to imagine. But this strange, rarely visited country was where I had to go to find the river’s birthplace. And this I did.
At the time, I was driving the much-admired Toyota Land Cruiser 105, which is basically a 100-series with the 80-series suspension. It was mostly standard but with up-rated suspension and tires. It would take an estimated 60 days from my home in Cape Town, South Africa, to find its source, and then follow it, mile by mile to its end, somewhere in the remote Kalahari.
The Okavango is unlike other rivers as it never finds the sea. Its waters originate in the highlands deep in Angola, flow into the Okavango River, and then into the vast paradise called the Okavango Delta. If you can imagine a bucket of water being poured onto a kitchen floor, that is what the river is like: the water spreading ever outwards from its source, never getting deep. The Kalahari, onto which it spills, is incredibly flat, so a river, barely a hundred yards wide, creates a delta covering over 13 000 square miles. Animals of every kind gather to enjoy its bounty. The river is feed by summer rains in the Angolan highlands. Due to the slow flow, in the times of rain in the Kalahari, the water level is at its lowest, and at the height of the dry season, the flood plains are soaked and often impassible. It is one of Africa’s great miracles.
For me, the expedition began at my home in Cape Town in June 2010. I headed north, through the remote Namib Desert. I did this 10-day stretch all on my own, to experience the sensation of being utterly alone and completely cut off. I intentionally took no satellite phone with me. On the way, the isolation was so acute, I suffered from what I call ‘benign insanity’. It’s a passing malady and nothing to worry about, instantly cured by the presence of other people. That happened on the border between Namibia and Angola, where I met my guides to take me into this new country.
Angola turned out to be the most extraordinary country I’d ever visited, and far different from any of the many other African countries I had explored. The colors, textures and spirit was unique. The people, while being mostly friendly, also seemed curios and cautions of us. Tourists were extremely rare. Nobody can enter Angola unless specifically invited by an Angolan resident or business. So arriving at a border, hoping to be accepted is a lost cause. It had taken me three months and an invitation to secure my visa.
In Angola, unlike almost all other African countries, it is considered polite, and even prudent, to inform the local police of your presence when entering a new town, especially if the intention is to overnight. And this meant that an interpreter was needed. My guides included an Angolan man whom we affectionately named Speedy.
The lingua franca is Portuguese, and so I learnt to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ before I arrived. I figured it would be enough. Turned out it wasn’t. So I picked up a few extras along the way.
My biggest lesson came while driving on roads recently cleared of land mines by the United Nations. I got separated from the convoy, and because roadblocks were frequent, used my never-fail method of getting through them unscathed: off came the sunglasses, down with the window, and up went the sides of my mouth.
“Ola,” (hello) I said.
This was followed by a blank stare and several words that could have been Cantonese, for all I know.
So I handed over my passport. It was flipped through a bit, and followed by several more phrases.
Then I used a new phrase that was to become a lifesaver. “No comprehendo. Tourismo.”
The officer replied with several more unrecognisable words, but I could swear I heard the words, “Bloody tourisimoes!”
Anyway, it worked.
In frustration, he waved me on.
He might have been trying to tell me he wanted to search the truck, or he may have been asking for a cigarette. Either way, I had nothing to hide and I didn’t have any tobacco. Twice more I was caught without an interpreter, and twice more I used this trick, and it did equally well.
Finding the source of the Okavango meant research before the trip. But it wasn’t easy. I could find very little help and had to come to conclusions on where it might be with almost no written evidence. Could I be the first to ever document its exact location? I doubted it, but I could find so little evidence, that it was possible. I was sure though, that I would be the very first to film and document it in a TV show.
At the source, I collected a bottle of water full, intending to pour it out at the very end of the river, which we knew would be somewhere in the deep, remote Kalahari.
These first 15 episodes follow the expedition all the way through Namibia and Angola. In the final 11 episodes, currently being uploaded to YouTube at one episode a week, the expedition attempts to follow the river through Botswana. Our path was mired by floodwaters. It’s an epic tale of adventure and triumph.
“This is some of the best adventure travel TV I’ve ever made, and remains the most significant expedition I have yet undertaken.” Andrew St Pierre White.
I’m standing on a beach, all alone, many, many miles from the nearest humanoid. I stare out at the grey-blue Atlantic Ocean. Waves roll unceasingly onto endless white sand. Under my feet lies the exposed skeleton of a ship. Steel, deep-red in color, flakes off under my hand, fluttering onto the sand. Gulls call, spreading the news that whoever came ashore here, must have perished.
And then a joke.
“Imagine someone being wrecked ashore here,” I say to my trusted travel companion—me.
“Oh! Thank God! We made it!” I reply. “We got to land. Praise be the—”
A look about. White emptiness stretches on both sides to the distant horizons. In front, a barren range of dunes almost fills the sky.
“Hang on a minute.” Another pause. “Maybe I should get back into the boat.”
This is the joke I shared with my camera minutes after suffering a bout of what I call ‘benign insanity’ —the result of being all alone all day, every day, day after day for days on end.
Few people get the chance to experience this bizarre illness.
The symptoms include:
1. Talking out loud to one’s self and feeling just fine about it,
2. Talking about really trivial things that become very important,
3. Rationalizing out loud on even minor decisions,
4. Enduring the unshakable feeling that you are being watched, even though you are the only person in a thousand miles.
That was in 2010 and I was on the first part of an expedition to find the source of the Okavango River. The first part included a six-day solo drive through the Namib Desert. I was on day four, deep into the Skeleton Coast, on a search of a shipwreck. I was standing on it when the attack occurred.
But I was no stranger to the illness.
Two years earlier, I had crossed the Kalahari Desert, on my own. I did it because I had read of the exploits of Tom Sheppard and his solo trips to Algeria and Tunisia. I was determined to find out why he preferred to travel alone. So I packed my Land Cruiser 76 wagon and headed out. I spent the first three days in the Kalahari fighting off the insanity—and giving my laundry-man a challenge when I had a close encounter with a Lion. The scariest moment of my life. I wasn’t enjoying myself. Not at all.
Then I had a catastrophic tire failure. That forced to me to consider my options. With suspect tires and only one spare, I had hundreds of miles to go in very rough terrain with only a small possibility of seeing other people. I had intentionally not carried any form of communication device with me because I hadn’t wanted one. The whole idea was to see how it felt, not to just be alone, but to be completely isolated from the world. I had to rely on my own wits to keep me alive. I decided to turn back.
This first attempt, while it could be considered a failure, wasn’t one. In fact, I considered it to be an unmitigated success. I learned from the experience that preparation is key to enjoying solo journeys. If well prepared, communication devices are not necessary or even undesirable.
But the best news of all is that benign insanity is something one should not just get used to, but welcome. It’s okay to be a little mad. As long as nobody is looking. With me, though, I am always watched by my TV and web audience. My solo trips are among my most popular shows. I guess it’s because they are always a bit of a surprise and make people laugh.
Finding places to be alone for long isn’t easy. Even in Africa, I can’t drive across the remotest Kalahari for more than two or three days before bumping into someone, no matter which track I take. In the Namib, especially in the sand seas off the coast, one can go for longer. But six days is probably the maximum. So if one wants even longer stretches of insanity, a yacht may be the only option.
Every day on the trail, I experienced the almost unnerving feeling that I was being watched even when I knew that there was no possibility of anyone within a hundred miles.
And then there is the odd sensation that you have nobody to worry about except yourself. It might appear selfish, but I think this is what I enjoyed the most about these trips. In our everyday lives, there is always someone else we need to consider. Our children need a ride, wife asks us to help with something, or wants to go to the movies with you. The dog needs feeding and the bloody lawn is still growing. And I haven’t even got to my office yet. But alone, in the wilderness, the experience is so utterly different to any other life environment because there is no one to consider but one’s self.
That didn’t mean I had time to goof off. I always found myself busy, no matter what. In the evening, a fire, and a meal to prepare. Tidy the vehicle. Check it over for the drive tomorrow. Watch the sun go down. Open a beer. Be in the moment. It’s fantastic.
Good parts about solo travel:
• Benign insanity and laughing at one’s self.
• Only yourself to look after.
• It’s exciting being in a potentially dangerous situation and being cool about it.
• Feeling of accomplishment
Less good parts:
• Loneliness, especially after dark.
• Missing family and friends.
As far as the risks are concerned, I learned what to anticipate before I headed out. The dangers included:
1. Fire, because it would deprive me of life-giving shelter, and water.
2. A debilitating fall. I slept on the roof on my wagon, sans tent. There’s nothing quite like opening one’s eyes to a Kalahari morning under the sky. But a ladder slippery with morning dew could result in a slip and fall, which could mean death. I knew it, and I reckon if you’d seen me climb down from that rack, you’d have mistaken me for a crippled old man. I was very, very careful.
Here is where I post my shows were at some time, I suffered bouts of what I call, ‘benign insanity’ It’s what the solo traveller suffers after a time utterly alone.