After listening to something scrounging around in our trash all night, we wake up early to get out of Chobe National Park. It’s not that Chobe hasn’t been beautiful, but our time here has been surprisingly difficult: too expensive and too crowded to stay, too difficult to drive, and our game drives through this area of the park have been relatively empty.
It’s a 5-hour drive from Savuti to Kasane, where we hear there is an ATM and supermarket. We intend to pick up cash and supplies there before finding a place to spend the night and entering the park again the next day. At this point, we have one bottle of still water and a single can of sparkling water.
We figure we still have a few hours to drive around this part of Chobe, so we follow the map to one of its hills—well, we follow the map until we’re driving, practically vertically, up the side of a mountain. We’re so top-heavy that I actually can’t believe we don’t topple backwards. We stop—this was a bad idea—and decide to head back down the hill. From there, we drive to some pools off in the distance. Pools mean water and water means animals, right?
We don’t find much besides a cute jackal and an incredibly rank smell.
We locate the cluster of brush that the smell is emanating from, but not the source of the smell itself. Jackals hanging around plus the smell of death probably means that there was a kill, but we’ve arrived too late to see any of it.
[Being disappointed that you’ve driven up too late to see a lion/leopard/cheetah eating the carcass of a dead animal is a strange feeling to have.]
After sniffing around awhile, we get on the road to Kasane. At one of the gates, a park ranger asks us why we don’t have a permit for the day. We explain our plight from the day before—“We were in Savuti and tried to get to Linyanti but got really stuck and couldn’t make it and had to turn around and go back to Savuti but we didn’t get there until really late and then today we got up and left and…” Either he feels sorry for us or doesn’t want any extra work to do, but he waves us on.
We’re out of the park, and the road turns to gravel. It’s amazing what a good road can do for your spirits. I think about our refrigerator. Spending so much time in our truck, you get to know the normal sounds and the not-so-normal sounds. And something definitely doesn’t sound normal, I think, so it must be the fridge.
We stop, and I walk around the back of the truck to investigate. It’s not the fridge. It’s the back window—or lack of a back window. The window that I accidentally knocked loose the day before has completely fallen out and been left along the road. Whoops.
It’s not so bad (minus what we’ll owe the car company), because everything in the back is so covered with dust and dirt, that it’s all basically like being uncovered anyway. The only concern is our refrigerator, and the fact that the lock that holds it in place is broken. The roads are super bumpy, and we can’t lose the fridge, so we rig up a system where we attach a rope through the fridge handles, out through one of the windows, and around one of the tents on top of the truck. It works, and we steady on towards Kasane.
The way we talk about Kasane, it’s like the land of milk and honey.
“Water,” we say, “As much as we want—can you imagine?”
“And an ATM! That we can get to by paved road!”
“And a supermarket. Just think of it!”
Kasane is the promised land, and only 3 hours of driving come between us and it.
3 hours and some sand pits.
The gravel road is long behind us, and the sandy roads aren’t unmanageable at first. We make it a little bit further when we realize that there is another truck behind us flashing their lights. We figure it’s about our missing window.
“We know, we know,” we say, getting out of the car, “The window, we know.”
But a man is running towards us, waving. And he’s got something in his hands…our window! They found it on the road, intact, and figured the next truck they saw without a window must be the owner. Cool, so now we’ve at least got the window to give back to the truck company, whether or not it will actually serve us any good the remainder of the trip.
We say our thank-yous and soon we’re bumping along in our old familiar way. The sand gets deeper, and we start slowing considerably, and the first time our car stalls completely, there is a moment of silence between the three of us. Do we laugh? Do we cry? Do we set our truck on fire?
It’s back to laying down sand pits and putting the car in Tank Mode. This works, at least at first. Then we’re utilizing the old tactic: stop, dig out our car, lay down sand tracks, put the car in Tank Mode, push while Micah drives erratically just to get the tires to move at all, grab the sand tracks when the car gets going, run after the truck, jump in while it’s moving, and pray that we get at least 100 meters without stopping again. Each of these stops require a lot of energy to shovel, push, run, repeat. It is hot and we are in deep, shadeless sand. We open the bottle of water and share it sip by sip.
Our stopping happens so frequently that Chas resorts to riding on the back of the truck because he has to jump down so often to push. I think That’s a good idea, I’ll do that too, and this only works until, while we have some momentum, I fall off.
The momentum is a good thing, but it’s also a bad thing. As our car continues without me, it gets smaller and further away. I’m yelling at them, “HELLO YOU LEFT ME,” but it’s not registering.
Half of me is elated—go, truck, go! This is the farthest our car has gone in the last half hour! No matter what, DO NOT STOP THE CAR. The other half of me is cursing Chas and Micah as I try to make up the distance between us. It is so hot and if you’ve ever tried running in really deep sand, you’ll know it makes you want to throw a toddler-sized temper tantrum.
I make it back to them, we finish off the bottle of water, and decide to take a break.
“How far do you think we have?” one of us asks. It’s hard to say. Probably a good 5-10 kilometers to the villages that pepper the map between us and Kasane.
“How much water do we have?” someone else asks. We check. Just one can. Oh, but we do have a newly busted container of hummus, so that’s great. I’m so frustrated, I have to talk myself out of violently throwing the plastic container into the bush.
This is not working. We get stuck so often that we spend more time out of the car than driving in it. There comes a point when a great victory is getting our car to move the length of itself. Think about that: we’re excited when our car moves 15 feet. 15 feet. And those moments are few and far between.
Eventually, we don’t move at all. We dig and we dig and we push and we push, but we are legitimately stuck. Each attempt just buries our tires further. We consider walking to the one of the villages. But, with no water and no idea of how far it is, there’s nothing to do but sit and wait and share the shovel between us. Someone mentions casually that a body can survive a couple of days without water.
In the distance, I see the reflection of a car coming towards us. This is the first car we’ve seen in the last 2 hours even though this road is a main one. They can’t get around us, so now we’re both stuck. It’s a sweet German couple, also camping, and they ask if they can help. But with no shovel and no way to go behind us and physically push our car with theirs, they’re forced to wait on us. And we aren’t going anywhere.
We reach our lowest point when the three of us have a pow wow and decide we should try to buy water off of them. It’s an awkward social space to be navigating, and we’re practically out of cash, but we’re desperate enough to try. I think they can tell how thirsty and defeated we look, so they give us two bottles of water for free. “It’s nothing!” they say, but to us, it’s not.
After about 30 minutes, we see him.
In the distance, in a beast of a Land Cruiser built for nine, barrels Toby from Chobe. We never get his real name, but this is what we call the man who saves us.
Toby from Chobe drives straight up the bank to our left, tearing down trees left and right, takes one look at our truck as we attempt moving again, and says, confidently: “Your differential lock is broken.” In a matter of 10 minutes, he’s hooked up our car to his, navigated the other couple’s truck so that they can turn around and go back—“This road is littered with stuck vehicles,” he says, “Do not attempt it.”—and has pulled us free.
Toby tells us that we’ve got about 6 more kilometers before the road becomes drivable, and offers to tow us all the way there. It turns out that he’s a safari guide and heading back to his camp, so he’ll pull us through a back road he knows before setting us loose to get back on our own.
Toby from Chobe is a lifesaver. We say this again and again. He has exactly what we need—a giant truck that can pull us out of the nightmarish sand pits called Chobe. His assessment of our truck also explains a lot: It explains why, after our car sounded like an airplane the day before, we have continuously gotten stuck. That must have been when our diff lock stopped working.
He detaches his car in some thick brush once we reach a hard road and says, “Keep following this road until you get to a Baobab Tree—you know what a Baobab Tree is right?—then, turn left. See that tree line off in the distance? Do not, under any circumstances, drive in that direction. That is a giant sand pit and you will spend the night there.”
We thank him, this man who enters and exits our life so quickly, but changes it forever. And we drive, easily, for the first time in two days.
It’s another hour until we reach a village. At the first sign for a “Bottle Shop,” we pull over. We practically run inside to see if they have water. We buy six giant bottles of it—two for each of us—and begin on the jewel of all paved roads towards paradise.
Once we’re in Kasane, our first stop is the Chobe Safari Lodge, right on the edge of the park. Since it’s not inside the park, you can camp there without paying exorbitant amounts of money, but we still expect it to be close to $30-$40/person.
We’ve joked about Kasane being the Land of Milk and Honey, the Promised Land, but the scene that we step out of our car into is basically just that. We are so covered in dirt that when I take my sunglasses off, there is an outline where they used to be. Our legs and feet are dark brown. A crowd of elderly people step down from a giant tour bus where a man hands them hot towels. The man standing at the reception desk beside me desperately needs to talk to someone because he wasn’t given a welcome drink when he arrived. I haven’t washed my hair in over a week.
Where are we?
The lodge is incredible. Cheeky vervet monkeys run between chairs stealing sugar packets while people lounge by the pool. There are signs for dinner cruises and massages. We figure it’ll be much too expensive for us to stay, and that we really don’t deserve to since we are clearly the dirtiest people there.
The woman at reception tells me it will be 240/per night. I figure she means dollars, and thank her anyway. “No,” she says, “240 Botswanan Pula. 24 US Dollars for the three of you. And we take Visa. Oh, and didn’t you know—these three mango juices are for you and your friends.”
We have certainly made it to the promised land.
We stock up on necessities at the supermarket down the road, and then follow the signs towards our camp site. The camp is different than the ones we’ve stayed at thus far—the sites are much closer together, and it’s basically in a town. But it has electricity and its own bar. Um, what?
We shower, clean out our fridge, set up camp, and watch the sunset from the bar. Tomorrow morning, we’ve decided, we’re going to take it easy. Lounge around the camp, read a book. It’s been a long two days and we’re ready for a break.
We raise our glasses. We made it. We didn’t die…again.
”To Toby from Chobe,” we cheers.