You can listen to this voice narrative or read through the text below.
I have been absent for some weeks, away on a reconnaissance.
I have long wanted to form an idea of what the far western part of the Kalahari of Botswana looked like on the ground. From Google Earth imagery, and, a few times, from hazy views out of aircraft windows at cruising height, it seemed tantalisingly deserted. Not a single fine scribble that might indicate a road, nor any pin-sized dots that could mean dwellings. Just the endless savannah, flecked here and there with grey-white calcareous clearings.
Perhaps its remoteness, its aridity and its inaccessibility had conspired to keep its deeper reaches untouched by influences that would alter natural patterns; perhaps its bare calcareous flats, or even the darker clusters of more lush vegetation, hold secret basins of water that are perennial and support game…
I had, over several nights, sat squint-eyed in front of my computer, painstakingly transferring coordinates of interesting-looking spots from blurry Google Earth images to my GPS. These were the areas I would be heading for. These were the ones, I reasoned, that would give me a fair overview of whether it is indeed a wilderness, and whether it is waterless and barren, or whether it holds enough life to be interesting.
The expedition was not meant to be a deep penetration, or to involve long overstays and on-foot explorations. It was more like the bush-equivalent of a drive-through, to gain a general impression. It nevertheless meant venturing into some pretty challenging bushland several vehicle-days away from any human habitation and, more importantly, from known water sources.
During my previous venture into the deep Kalahari, I had become uncomfortably aware of a few hairline cracks in my edifice that seventy years had managed to open up. Nothing of a phase change yet, but little hints for sure – missing a detail here and there, getting distracted from the activity at hand, not being quite as agile in my observations and needing the binoculars more frequently, finding lifting the Land Cruiser’s heavy spare wheel from the ground onto the load bin unexpectedly challenging, perhaps not waking as quickly at the slightest sound, and so on…
It had fortunately not led to any mishaps worth mentioning, but my years of wandering the wilderness had taught me that the bush could be merciless, and even a small mistake could be fatal, especially if you are completely alone and far from any form of help. So, this time, I decided to take along a younger companion.
The decision was not easily reached. It had several strong arguments for it though – my family would be a bit less worried, it would double and deepen available resources and, important for my writing, the right person would be far more minded and skilled at taking photographs, and help to better exploit the advantages of modern technology to keep alive.
Now, let me immediately emphasise that I am not inclined to rely on technology. I feel that it may shift the situation too much towards unnatural means. However, it did seem sensible, some years back, to swop my trusty compass for a GPS. It helped in getting right onto target areas, and it gave me much peace of mind and even freedom to move around, not having to worry about finding my vehicle again in featureless areas like the Kalahari. To fully utilise modern GPS’s is quite a technological challenge though, and while not intellectually hard, remains a stretch if one does not have the inclination to spend time mastering the technology and the specific device.
A price that has to be paid for taking someone along is, of course, the wonderful luxury of solitude and “soleness,” or “soloness.” I would normally be the sole point of awareness, liability and response to my environment. That, my companions, uniquely focusses the mind and sharpens cognisance. But, the right companion that is also a bit of a mental soul mate can make up for that, at least to an extent.
So, apart from just generally getting along well in close proximity to each other for days on end, it is important that the companion has more than just a cursory interest in the wilderness, can be trusted to endure some hardship if things go wrong, and will not get all jittery and scared when, for example, lions start roaring close by. (Note, being scared is of course something relative. Every sensible man must feel scared in the face of life-, or serious injury-threatening situations. The thing is to remain calm and to act sensibly within the orb of the situation and one’s knowledge and intuition.)
I was very fortunate to have Jan-Martin, a close friend of my daughter since school days, to agree to join me. He was a near perfect fit to my selfish preferences, and I found his presence not only very helpful but also enriching and companionable.
In the coming weeks I will tell a little of the reconnaissance, or perhaps something else, for stories cannot be scheduled on a time line. They come at their own time and place, and I submit to that.