Is there anybody out there?

It's hard to tell from the window of our Namibia overland tour

Writer’s note:  I wrote this post during our Namibia overland tour last month. I gave it a cooling off period to see if maybe the bumpy, bone-rattling bus ride and (really) cold desert nights had maybe addled my brain. They may have … but hindsight has not changed my perspective in the slightest.    

“It’s a truck, not a bus”, Wilma chastised me for how I described the aged overland safari vehicle I was climbing into. Wilma was acting as our temporary driver and guide, after a colossal fuck-up by Drifters, an African overland tour company. A lack of organisation and numerous excuses had left us stuck at the Namibian border for a day with a guide who did not have a work permit. Wilma, a tough, bubbly South African woman who thrives on 4 hours sleep a night, a pack of cigarettes and caffeine drip was not going to have me abuse the converted 12 ton truck with connotations of tourist coaches. Even if the truck’s cargo was eight Europeans for 17 days.

Melissa and I have covered a large expanse of southern Africa over the previous three months in a hire car, public buses, local combis, tiny planes and open top safari Toyota Land Cruisers. We’ve used organised tour companies when it has made sense to reach remote places and see wildlife truly in the wild. For Namibia we decided to let somebody else take the strain of planning activities, booking campsites and driving dirt roads. An overland tour requires group participation setting up camp, cooking and cleaning, but should be an enjoyable way to travel to remote Namibian sights and national parks, we thought. A knowledgeable guide could help us understand what we were seeing, we hoped.

Namibia is big. It has deserts larger than European countries. And a total population spread around its vastness that is smaller than the number of seals that live on its shores. Almost a half of Namibians are living in Windhoek, the capital, and a few other small cities. There are buses that travel between these towns apparently, but they won’t get you to much that you want to see. We wanted to get into the Namib desert, up the Sossusvlei sand dunes, into the Fish River Canyon and under the stars of the Kalahari. Without private transport we’d have been hitchhiking on gravel roads that see very few vehicles.

Namibia is empty. With two people per square kilometer on average you travel miles on dirt roads seeing landscapes unbroken by buildings. Many people working at tourist lodges, at diamond mines, or in national parks live in staff housing. Theirs is basic accommodation where they typically live for two months at a time with a few other Namibian workers. At the end of their stint they get a week, or sometimes two to return to visit parents, see their children and enjoy some time off. Most people we’ve spoken to seem to accept this is the way things are if you want to make money for the family. You can’t drive to work every morning here. Home is a hundred kilometres away over gravel tracks, you don’t own a car and there are few buses.

Shouting “is anybody out there?”, returns an echoing silence in Namibia. There are few people to shout back, and subsequently few buses for them to get around. You have no option when travelling except to pay for a tour, rent a car, or chance your luck hitching a ride from the occasional ‘bakkie’ pickup truck. Given our experience with this Drifters overland tour, I’d go for either of the latter two options for a real experience of the country.

This overland tour has proven to be a tourist coach without the luxury, a tour bus without the knowledgeable tour leader holding a microphone commenting on what you are seeing when you “look to the left”. This African adventure means being shunted from campsite to campsite on an exhausting and unclear itinerary, without regard for having a great experience. Sorry Wilma, you were right: this is definitely not a bus. This is a Drifters overland truck, where clients are treated like cargo, routinely delivered battered and late. All I can do is remember how lucky I am to have the opportunity to travel here at all.

Have you ever taken a trip that was more exhausting than you were expecting? Tell us about it in the comments below.

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