In this time of marvels, the fundamental miracle is evolution. As the dazzling winter light ebbs from a huge southern sky, I am looking out at the creatures gathered around a waterhole in the Etosha National Park. From the gloop of the same primordial soup that created humanity have emerged elephants, giraffes and rhinos, and they have all plodded over for a drink. Far away, a lion roars (though it sounds more like a deep, throaty bark) to remind the more vulnerable animals of their place in the food chain.
On this side of the barrier, evolution has seen to it that a hundred humans can line up to watch, their jaws dropping and cameras clicking in unison. To seal the moment, I conveniently happen to have a drink in my hand – not primordial soup but ice-cold Namib lager. From such moments are the best travel memories etched.
That was in August. To jog the memory banks as the Northern midwinter approaches, I am looking at a 2015 calendar. It is a limited edition. Only five copies are in existence: one for each of the families on an African adventure that was a three-week interlude in our own evolutionary journeys, yet which sometimes seemed to be lasting forever.
Rural Africa, if I am not mistaken, is about three things: animals, landscapes and people. It is not about high culture, haute cuisine or smooth and predictable travel. To explore it you have a choice: you can cast your fortunes to the road and flag down whatever cars and buses (a broad concept in Africa) are heading down the dusty road towards a horizon corrugated by raw rock or idle acacias. If you have plenty of time on your hands, and are prepared to suspend your risk threshold, go ahead. But should you be fortunate enough to find yourself with a family, there is a wiser plan: sign up for an overland trip in a truck piloted by African experts and populated with like-minded travellers.
On a camp site in the middle of Victoria Falls (the township, not the impressive water feature) Charlotte, Daisy, Poppy and I met our fellow adventurers. A family of four from Australia; a mother, son and daughter from Switzerland; a mother and son from Hertfordshire; and a father and daughter from Leicestershire.
1/6 Africa overland
A waterhole in the Etosha National Park
2/6 Africa overland
Neema the truck and Mat the driver
3/6 Africa overland
On the crest of Dune 45 at sunset
4/6 Africa overland
High-altitude selfie: Simon Calder
5/6 Africa overland
The 'eerie curves' of Spitzkoppe
6/6 Africa overland
For the first and last time, the professionals working for Dragoman put up our military-style tents, and welcomed us to an unfamiliar world. The tour leader, Ellen, is an American who combines passion for Africa with formidable organisational skills. Mat, Ellen's husband, is a wiry Englishman possessed of the ability to drive flawlessly all day through MMBA ("miles and miles of bloody Africa") with a sense of humour. And the most popular person on the trip by an African mile: Denford, the Zimbabwean cook, who could concoct extraordinarily tasty and nourishing meals in the most challenging circumstances, in the culinary equivalent of alchemy.
Then there is Neema, the truck that would bear us across rivers, frontiers and salt pans for 2,000 miles. She is painted in Dragoman's colours of white and orange, making her easy to spot from 1,000 yards and instantly differentiating us from the dozens of other trucks transporting travellers around the southern African circuit. The full version begins and ends in Cape Town, heading north to Zimbabwe, going west into Botswana and Namibia, before returning through the Western Cape to the southern tip of Africa. Fine for those with 12 weeks, but for normal people the travel firm has curated the best bits achievable within three weeks and £5,000 for a family of four.
We booked the trip at a travel show, at a discount, for £1,211 each. That works out at £64 a day for all travel, accommodation and meals. And more: no sooner had we arrived than Mat handed us $120 because the holiday included a visit to Victoria Falls National Park, admission fee $30 per person. We gaped at this masterpiece of the elements. Earth is represented by ancient rock gleaming like new; wind by the natural aerosol that attenuates the afternoon sun; fire in the dazzle of colour refracting from the mist; while water plummets from a plateau to carve a course to the Indian Ocean.
We carved our course in the opposite direction, to the Atlantic – the pretty way. Over the next 19 days we paying passengers remained supremely impervious to the tricky business of organising a journey through a precarious part of the world: Mat used his expertise from crossing a million African frontiers to navigate through the jigsaw of post-colonial borders, Ellen negotiated park and campsite fees, and Denford shopped – often trailed by a procession of youngsters keen to learn the secrets of on-the-road alchemy. #
We shared a daily regime of dismantling tents, helping prepare meals (according to a meticulous rota), packing up the truck and hitting the road – which, this being Africa, sometimes meant the road hitting us with a volley of blows only partially dampened by the shock absorbers.
Overlanding evolved from ex-Army trucks, and family trips demand military discipline to avoid unravelling in a mess of kit and recrimination. Every piece of equipment has its place beneath the belly of the truck, and everyone has a designated task,
Lunch would have lent itself to being filmed on a time-lapse camera: truck pulls into shady grove, everyone piles out, tables and chairs unfold from two to three dimensions, salads appear from nowhere, a kettle whistles in the wind, washed-up plates are waved in a crazy semaphore to dry them, everything is safely stowed and the truck disappears leaving only tyre tracks. Night brought the added entertainment of putting up tents. The design of these heavy-duty structures is idiot-proof, but that didn't stop some of us from struggling – and cursing when hooks trapped fingers, zips got snagged and torches got dropped. To continue the back-to-stone-age-basics theme we gathered around the fire – sometimes sharing South African wine (penalty: an extra visit to the bush loo).
Thus we meandered through Africa, our trip punctuated, and rewarded, by a dozen wonders:
1 The glare from the salt pan in Etosha sliced through the polarised protection of the mightiest sunglasses, opening up an apocalyptic vision of planet Earth as a sun-dried fossil.
2 The eerie curves of Spitzkoppe, a rock the size of a decent-sized asteroid – its rough edges smoothed over millennia. In the hour before sunset, we clambered to the top for a photograph that became the cover shot for that calendar.
3 Palmwag, a desert oasis where finally the unrelenting horizontal scrub crumpled into something much more interesting: ochre hills thrown into sharp relief by the unrelenting sun, interrupted by shadow-filled valleys; and this blossoming mirage-like farmstead – with the added benefits of cold beer and warm wi-fi.
4 The dunes outside Swakopmund, where you interact with Africa by lying face down on a 6ftx3ft slice of hardboard shoved down a 45-degree gradient while a chap with a police speed gun measures your speed (30mph was my limit).
5 Animal magic. Early on, a boat trip along the Chobe river revealed elephants and zebras, and a bush walk in the Okavango Delta taught us all we needed to know about dung – though closer and more rewarding encounters (with animals, not dung) awaited. Like most aspects of the trip, wildlife experiences improved as we went along.
6 We knew we had earned our safari stripes when we stopped getting excited about driving past that evolutionary masterpiece, a zebra. But Etosha, a Suffolk-sized patch of north-east Namibia protected against the worst excesses of human exploitation, revived our enthusiasm. The dusk procession (with added lager) was followed next afternoon by a theatrical performance by an ark-full of creatures, with slow-motion elephants shown up by nimble gazelles.
7 A surprise wildlife attraction during a brief stop on the "Skeleton Coast" – the strip of Namibia perpetually in cloud because of the atmospheric fault line between ocean and desert. Amid the wreckage of countless ships that lost their way in the fog is a raucous colony of Cape fur seals that you can smell from two miles off, hear from a mile away and photograph from a distance of two feet (or flippers) as they frolic and flatulate.
8 At Etosha's Namutoni camp, the visitors' book of sightings is a sight in its own right. One entry begins: "1 leopard, Black Rhino Mating" – presumably with another rhino rather than the unfortunate leopard. The next instalment boasts: "3 cheetah making kill".
9 Namutoni stands as a reminder of European involvement in this corner of Africa. Its heart is a fortress constructed by the Germans to consolidate their hold on Deutsch-Südwest-Afrika. Their influence is explained in another fortress-turned-museum in Grootfontein, while German impacts on city life is most visible in Swapokmund – decorated with architectural masterpieces of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) that make you feel you're walking in the Black Forest rather than beside the Atlantic.
10 Encounters with local communities were rarer than I had hoped, but two stood out. The first was with the San Bushmen, whose society has been violated by colonialism and alcoholism, but who shared with us the secrets of survival of a diminutive people in the harshest environment.
11 Even more rewarding was a day that promised little more than a stay in a campsite near the scruffy town of Rundu, beside the Okavango River. We could gaze at Angola on the opposite shore, but not touch. Then, in a textbook example of good community tourism, a guide turned up to invite us to a nearby Namibian village. We got a glimpse of how the nation lives, works and plays – culminating in a game of football that brought everyone together. We thanked and paid the guide, then wandered back to our portable, privileged world of wine and wonderful meals.
12 Save the best until last is always a good plan. It is a tribute to our fellow travellers that there was never a "wish I wasn't here moment". Fears that the journey with a bunch of strangers could turn into a real-life coalescence of On The Road and Lord of the Flies proved unfounded. For the finale, humanity and landscape converged at Dune 45, the greatest of the waves of sand that ripple across the desert. We clambered heavy-footed to the ridge of the dune to watch the sun set on the day and our trip. Then, as one, we plunged down the soft escarpment, leaving billows of sand and echoes of laughter at the end of an evolutionary journey.
Simon Calder paid £1,083pp for a flight from Heathrow outbound to Livingstone, Zambia and inbound from Windhoek, Namibia on British Airways (0843 493 0787; ba.com) via Johannesburg. For such a journey, it is difficult to avoid Johannesburg because it is the main hub for southern Africa. For travellers starting in cities other than London, flying on Air Namibia via Frankfurt to Windhoek is also worth considering.
Joining the tour
Simon Calder paid £1,211pp, covering transport, accommodation in tents (with a couple of nights in a chalet in Swakopmund and the final night in a good hotel in Windhoek) and almost all meals – including a couple in restaurants. It also covers National Park admission fees, which are substantial. Unlike most overland trips, there is no additional contribution to a kitty. Dragoman (01728 885637; dragoman.com) has departures on the same itinerary on 19 July and 10 August 2015, with limited availability.
The red tape
Botswana and Namibia make no charge for UK visitors. Zimbabwe charges US$55 (£35) for a single-entry visa.Reuse content