Solo Crossing the Kalahari – The Full Story
[This article was written while sitting under the tree in the Kalahari. June 2008]
As you read this you find me sitting all alone, about 120 kilometres inside the vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve. I am at the Bibe campsite, located at the intersection between four tracks that traverse this boundless wilderness.
I have created as best I can a small protective lager with my Land Cruiser blocking access from behind, and an open door and table beside me and the open Kalahari on the other side. The reason I am here is part of an experiment. Some time ago I read Sir Francis Chichester’s epic round the world voyage on his yacht Gypsy Moth-2. It got me wondering what it would be like travelling vast distances, on one’s own, and with only one’s own savvy to rely on in times of need.
It seems to me that there are three choices when it comes to being utterly alone. I am not just talking about the overly traded cliché’ ‘getting away from it all’, I mean going to the remotest place one can conceive that is practically within ones’ reach. Mountain climbing is an obvious one, but extremely dangerous without a second climber. Long distance hiking is another. And there is trans-ocean solo sailing or solo vehicular expeditions.
So enter my experiment: Eight days in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, my truck, supplies and me. I am utterly alone. I am documenting it on video and stills, but this is very difficult. Everything that needs to be done, I must do myself. And if I get in a jamb, there is nobody to tell about it, ask advice or lend a hand. Nothing.
The voyage started in my hometown of Somerset West. A day’s drive to Clarens to visit relatives then off to Joburg to get some supplies. Another full day in the car and my adventure begins in the Khutsi Game Reserve, a bit more than two hours north west of Gabarone. I last visited Khutsi in 1990 and I remember the tariffs were high then as well, but now at least the camp sites are equipped with a rudimentary shower (bring your own water) and long drop toilets. They are well thought out and each one placed far from each other, which is excellent. Khutsi is beautiful and even has quite a bit of game in this hot dry month of August. I have already seen springbok, gemsbok, giraffe and a lone wilderbeest.
The first night being alone was extremely pleasant. I enjoy my own company so we had a nice chat. But I did get a little bored, so I turned on the laptop to do a bit of writing. Suddenly all hell broke loose. A lion roared a deafening bellow. I had not prepared for this at all, because both front seats in the vehicle were occupied with gear and the back seats were folded flat. So there was nowhere to go and this lion was very, very close, even just the other side of the vehicle. I had to find the searchlight to find the lion. Trouble was, at the same time reorganise access to the vehicle so if I found the searchlight and found the lion very, very close, I would have somewhere to go for safety. And I had to do this without the comfort of someone looking out for my rear. By the time I had made my way into the driver’s seat with my Wolf-Eyes Dragon searchlight, my blood stream was running 80% proof adrenaline. The lion had moved past and had settled behind a small line of bushes about 60 metres away.
So here I am on night two feeling just a little bit uncomfortable. It is not that I haven’t had close animal encounters before. I lived in the Okavango for a year and close encounters with hyena, elephant and other heavies was fairly common. But I have never been alone and had one, and it’s distinctly different. As these words form on the screen, small doses of adrenaline are being introduced into my blood stream. Last night the roar came without any warning and the roars, which were never answered by any other lion, went on for about two hours. Finally at well after 11.00 I fell asleep on the roof rack, (where I prefer to sleep) to be woken much later by a roar, this time a full 180° on the other side of me. I assume the lion had wandered off looking for company.
My present location is not were I had planned it to be. My plan was to get as close to Xade as possible today. Xade is 239 kilometres from Khutsi. I am a little over 90 kilometres from Khusti and I have decided that on this trip at least, I may not make Xade and not complete my planned crossing of the reserve. And it’s not because I am feeling lonely, which by the way, I am.
At 2.30pm today I suffered a flat tyre. At first I thought nothing of it, until I inspected the tyre. It is wrecked. There are three gaping holes in the sidewall and the entire sidewall is crumpled. The tyre is not even suitable to put in an inner-tube in an emergency. So, I now must rely on my second spare mounted on the roof-rack which is a single-ply sidewall cross-ply designed for emergencies. This is not what I expected at all.
I am facing some questions and a decision: Do I continue the 360 kilometres of extremely rough sandy track for another three days, all alone, with very little traffic using these tracks and risk not making my deadline, or at worse, having to be rescued?
What is disturbing me is why is the tyre so badly damaged and what are the chances of it happening again? The tyres are Bridgestone 275/75R16 694 Dueller ATs. The rear ones are new and the front ones have already covered about 35 000 kilometres. Having had not one puncture with them I have no previous experience with these tyres and punctures. To help me I have just loaded the still pictures from shots taken at my lunch stop, which was at the cut-line intersection just north of Bibe campsite. This is just 1,9 kilometres from where it blew. There are two shots that clearly show that the right front tyre is almost flat but not completely so. There appears to me no visible damage to the sidewall. This means that the sidewall collapse was not the cause of the puncture, but that something punctured the tyre beforehand and the running flat destroyed it. But this makes no sense.
The 1,9 kilometres was not particularly rough, the sand thick only in pockets and my speed would not have exceeded 20 kph. Something does not add up. Usually when a tyre sidewall ends up like this, it is the result of a high-speed flat followed by a distance during which the vehicle slows to a stop. It is during this slowing down period that the tyre often runs under the rim and the sidewall is damaged. This is exactly what this sidewall looks like has happened. Secondly, a flat tyre, especially a front one, is quickly noticed by the driver. But it took me all of four seconds to feel the flat and stop the vehicle. In this short time, on flattish sand (not rocks or shale or something that could contribute to sidewall damage) the sidewall was cut to pieces. WHY? Another clue to the distance over which the tyre is subjected to low pressure flexing is temperature. Instinctively I felt for its temperature the moment I saw the damage. The tyre was hot, but no more than expected on a warm 32°C day, driving on a warm surface. I could put my hand on the tyre barehanded without it burning me. I have personal experience of how hot a tyre can get for inner-tube heat failures and sidewall disintegration, and this was not even close.
It can surely mean one of three things: 1. The wheel rim is overly sharp. 2. The tyres are weak when the sidewall is asked to flex to such a degree and that any puncture will likely result in total sidewall failure. 3. I have been really unlucky and previous sidewall damage is a contributor. What other options are there?
The rim design is no different to any other that I have come across, not particularly thick and not thin either. I would say average. So it must be a design fault with the tyre. This also sounds unlikely. This is an excellent tyre, offering excellent all-round performance including good road handling and grip in mud. In my experience, over a total of about 70 000 kilometres running this model tyre, they have exceptionally good puncture resistance. I have also not heard any reports of this tyre’s punctures frequently resulting in destroyed sidewalls. On the final point, I have had these tyres since new and know of now situation were previous sidewall damage could have occurred.
However my conclusion is that something caused the failure, either tyre or rim, and I can do nothing about it. Do I go on with the trip? Being on my own means that I have nobody to consult with, reason with and come up with any kind of joint decision. As I sit here in the dark, tomorrow’s sun will rise. And boy, what a sunrise that will be. There is nothing on earth as beautiful as a Kalahari sunrise.
Travelling alone sounds marvellous but one is never completely alone; the family is always with you in one form or another. The unexpected is that when travelling like this a deadline is an unfortunate necessity. Completely out of communications with anybody, a missed liaison will cause untold anxiety with the family. I have a liaison when I reach Rakops the first town with cell coverage in four days, and it will take the full four days to get there. Also, I must ask myself: Would I tackle this trail with only one spare, even in the company of other vehicles? Easy: No I would not. It’s risky enough as it is. The safe option is to admit defeat and turn back. Every voyage has a point of no return; that point when turning back has no advantage. I am almost two full day’s drive before that point, so I must turn around. One thing I have learnt from my light airplane flying is that what is often referred to as ’get-home-itis’ is a very dangerous mental state to be in. I am going to practice what I preach and do the sensible thing.
Another thing I have learnt from this is to prepare completely. I spurned the idea of a satellite phone but see now that it need not be an unwanted companion, and can be used in cases such as these and not necessarily for daily communications. I was well prepared but I could have done better in the tyre department. I must have written it a hundred times: On a trip such as this the chances of tyre problems are larger that anything else. I should have renewed all my tyres or selected tyres with stronger or thicker sidewalls.
For a trip like this, where uncompromised self-sufficiency is not negotiable, I could have organised much better.
My final decision will be made in the morning. But whatever, I decide, I will be back.
Written by Andrew St Pierre White