Welcome to part 2 of Red Oxx CEO Jim Markel and President Perry Jones 2011 trip to Africa. In Part 1, Hippo Booty Smacking, Tiger Fishing and more, the two fished and explored Namibia and Zimbabwe. Along the way they visited their friend and mentor silversmith Patrick Mavros. In this installment they distribute some of the joys those of us who live in civilization take for granted. Things like mosquito nets, medicine and even little dresses. Join us as we follow along in another wild Red Oxx African Adventure.
Most countries are the complete opposite of where you’re coming from, while others seem to exist in a parallel state. Somewhere in the making of place, exists the binding threads that make you want to return to them once again. It is in Namibia where I find the commonalty that is very much like Montana in many ways. The overall lack of population is the first thing that springs to mind when I try to quantify just what keeps drawing me back. Another is the huge sweeping vistas and big sky that I have come to call home. Certainly it is the friendliness of the people that is the clincher and what can make or break any experience. Of course for every nice person their always seems to be an asshole or two in the bunch. I was lucky to encounter mine right out of the plane and hopefully they would be the last two.
First on the hit parade was the immigration and customs agent who is notorious for being in a foul mood. She seems to be the cross between an angry warthog and my old Gunnery Sergeant –ugly and mean are a bad combination for greeting the tourists. Just my luck I ended up in her line again, after her customary berating, she begrudgingly stamped my passport and let me through.
Our party had now increased to four with the addition of my cousin Shawn. He barely had packed with only a C-Ruck I knew he would be scrounging my kit for whatever he needed. With our checked luggage actually arriving this time we grabbed our pile of Red Oxx bags and headed over to Hertz. I was super excited to get my rental vehicle and had been dreaming 4×4 Toyota Hilux for months. Besides airline reservations this was my only pre-planned item. Right away I could see something was not copacetic and figured I was being worked for a bribe. No sir, someone had obviously beaten me to it and had absconded with my ride.
After nearly forty five minutes and no rig I had to settle for a tiny Isuzu. Assurances that this two wheeled drive was going to get us anywhere we needed to go in country were not dispelling my disappointment. I insisted that he may not see it again, where upon he informed me that it had at least a rear locker and they would tow it. This jerk had no idea what I do to off road vehicles, just ask Land Rover. Cramming three and half adults into this clown car of a pickup we were torquing the little diesel hard on our way out of Windhoek.
Ranch life certainly has a certain allure that at times makes me yearn to live a life in the country. Sheds filled with rusting treasures and the tracks of creatures who have taken up residence in them. This often causes me to lose track of time exploring in search of secrets long forgotten. Hamma’s ranch is not so different than any other ranch in Montana. While the implements may be completely suited for desert life they still show the scars from the working of the land. The farmer’s fix is the ubiquitous ends justifies the means solution. One such Africa proofing fix is the welding of steel handles onto just about every tool you come across. Between the harsh environment and ravenous termites they all tend to suffer the same fate. Hefting up a shovel I get the feeling that being tethered to the land would not suit my roving spirit.
Eventually the sweltering heat and threat of cobra cause me to abandon my meanderings for a cool drink in the kitchen. With our team all getting ready for the big swing up north there was still plenty to do before we could shove off. Hamma had a problem with a bore hole that needed fixing so the cattle wouldn’t perish from lack of water. He and Jordan had left at first light and I had the easier task of securing some rations for the crew. Perry had decided to hold down the fort with tall cool one and had shaded up on the veranda with a look of utter contentment. Firing up one of the ranch’s ancient Toyota diesel FJ 45 pickups Shawn and I were soon looking for photo ops for Oryx and Warthog. Chugging down the two track we settled back into an easy camaraderie we have enjoyed since childhood.
Pulling the truck up under a huge acacia tree we killed the motor and sat listening to engine block ticking in the sweltering heat. Time for a little walkabout in search of a nice Oryx for camp provisions. We were soon among the thorns and soft sand moving into the wind. For such a dry country it is actually quite easy to keep the noise down. Well at least if you’re not getting any back chat from your photography companion. After a couple of hours of stalking we had failed to catch a glimpse of either Oryx or Warthog. Hiking back to the truck we were greeted by a flat tire and the shade had abated as well. After a futile search for the lug wrench, it was apparent that we were going to have to hump out before the sun set. It doesn’t take long for dehydration and delirium to set in if you’re out exerting yourself in the Namib Desert. Our three hour tour had just turned into a bit of an ordeal, after failing to bring water… a rookie mistake!
The key in most survival situations is to remain calm and have a plan of action before you’re unable to think straight.
Keeping a slow and even pace, we hiked out over next four hours and made it back just as the sun was easing over the horizon. Hamma and the crew were all out in the yard organizing a rescue as our two man rat patrol came dragging in. Even though I don’t speak German, I got the gist of just how pissed off he was about the lug wrench and the two fools who forgot to bring water. Ja vol, won’t happen again Mein Herr.
We weren’t the only ones looking a little sun fried, Hamma and Jordan had been out fixing a bore hole since dawn. They had spent the day hunched over a hole in the ground trying to unstick a pump rod. Using a broken mirror, they created a jury-rigged welder before finally crafting an ingenious surgical-like tool. It looked like something Torquemada might have appreciated. While effective, it had exacted a toll of sweat and blood from both of them. While the rest of us were getting scorched, Dave "Mr. Happy" Lundin was out spreading his own special form of good cheer. Part of our mission here was to help out with his annual distribution of mosquito nets.
In addition we would also be staffing some field clinics up in the Caprivi Strip. He had made a run out to Otavi to pick up the locally produced nets and then back to the Super Spar for more supplies. For those familiar with life in Africa a full-on western style grocery store is a bit of rarity. This place is a veritable hub of activity for the town of Otjiwarongo and is always worth a stop just to check out what is offered on the shelves. Of course the real fun is out in the parking lot, people watching. Seems that Mr. Happy had a bit of a parking issue and managed to completely knock down one of the massive light poles with the Toyota. The truck is all kitted out for safari life in the bush so said light pole was flat on the ground but no damage to said rig. This of course caused a huge kerfuffle with the half dozen parking lot attendants who were all decked out in matching green jump suits emblazoned with "SPAR". Their fearless leader was flapping his arms in an attempt at admonishing Dave and hedging for a payout. That was until the big boss came out of the air conditioned store and let it be known that the customer was always right, it was they who were in trouble for not stopping the accident in the first place!
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Perry had spent a perfect day on the veranda with a pair of binoculars and some gin. He told us of the visitors he had in a progression from Meerkats to Oryx followed by a troop of Baboons haranguing a family of Warthogs. Yes indeed, another wonderful day in Africa.
Things were about to get real and for the uninitiated, Africa is the place in the road of life that has a tendency to make profound changes in people. Far from the marbled concourses of today’s modern traveler, there exists a World where humans struggle for the basics in life. Coming into direct contact with this reality is completely avoidable by simply sticking to the cruise directors list of approved activities.
My first brush with extreme poverty came at an early age while on military leave in the Philippine islands. That experience left me with the impression that some people have no chance at life based simply on place of birth. I have since amended my views somewhat in lieu of the pace of globalization that’s taking place. Change is occurring on many levels as the social tectonics continue to grind on here in the early 21st century. Being part of that process is a way of paying back just a little of the birthright afforded in winning the lottery as an American.
With all the preparations made we loaded up and set out in convoy for the Namib. Punishing our little Isuzu to keep up with Mr. Happy’s twenty four valve Toyota we were feeling some serious truck envy before leaving pavement. Good thing I had brought along a hard core off-road driver in the form of Jordan Blasé aka Koombie. Being outgunned and in two wheel drive was going to pose some serious driving issues along the way, lockers or not.
One of my favorite things is buying bootleg CDs from the little urchins who hustle trinkets and such at the filling stations. It has led to the discovery of some truly inspirational music along with some great laughs on the road.
Working our way north and west towards the Caprivi Strip via the Hoba Meteorite, I spotted something about the world’s largest meteorite in a guide book and was determined to scope it out. Mr. Happy had other ideas and was giving me a load of grief about looking at more old rocks. A 60 ton iron meteor has some pull of its own and I like to think that a little diversion is what life is all about. Like a lot of attractions in underdeveloped countries you can have a full sensory safari. No barrier ropes or condescending park guards here. You can touch and climb and really get to know your way around the object of your fascination.
Pushing on for the day we found a quite suitable campsite along the Kavango River just across the border from Angola. After years of civil war things had finally quieted down to the point that it is possible to visit. Tales of minefields and Russian T-34 tanks rusting along the road filled our conversation around the campfire. Thoughts of prospecting for lost treasure were on my mind also, but so was getting blown up for my curiosity. Glancing towards a beautiful African sunset my cousin Shawn remarked, "It’s going to rain." I was doubtful and proceeded to set up my cot under the open air in anticipation of enjoying some peace and quiet away from all the snoring. Nigh about 0330 the ghosts of the T-34s decided to unleash a barrage. Out of the Angolan side of the river came a storm for the ages complete with lighting so bright as to cause an x ray effect on the corneas. Rolling the flap up on my bedroll I was determined to ride it out.
Before long the torrential rain had soaked through and the concussions from the booming thunder had made sleeping an impossibility. Smiling ruefully I curled into the fetal position to try and conserve some body heat. Eventually slipping into a trance like state while patiently waiting for sunrise to abate the storm. I was first up and made my way down to the Kavango as the sunrise illuminated a low hanging fog on the river. Small tiger fish were hunting in the reeds occasionally a thrashing would signal the end of some smaller fish. Hmmm, time to toss a line in and see if breakfast was biting, it was not. After packing up a devastated camp and strapping soggy bedrolls to the roof rack for expedited drying, it was time to head into the bush for our first clinic.
We got our directions from a local doctor Yuri who works at the hospital in Rundu. Yuri had made arrangements for us to meet our guide beside the road under a tree at 10:00. Counting off the kilometers and sure enough our intrepid guide was posted up in the shade of an enormous acacia. Bangu Bobilla or “big stinky” as we came to affectionately call him, was in desperate need of a shower. I guess he had missed out on last night’s rainstorm. After playing the small truck card our crew had a nice chuckle as we watched him climb into Dave’s rig. Nothing beats the sweet smell of adventure, except hauling ass through the bush. With lockers engaged we were doing our best to keep up as the underbrush got thicker. In some places of the trail we were snapping off three-inch saplings as the trail faded in and out.
Suddenly a five gallon gas can was torn from the roof of the Toyota and we had to stop for recovery. By this time the heat of the day had caused the sand to become almost impossible to drive on unless you kept the power on the wheels. After some tense moments we had finally got the little piece of junk moving again after a little heave ho. Glancing down the side of the paint showed some serious Bundu bashing from the thorns as my security deposit recovery was looking like a pipe dream. We were making our way off grid and I was beginning to think that there was no sign of human habitation nearby when we suddenly burst into a clearing. Here corrals were stuffed with cattle and primitive huts where the locals were managing to eke out a living in the meanest of conditions.
The quintessential bush clinic starts off all organized but unless you keep an eye on the crowd it will quickly scale out of hand. As word gets out the people seem to materialize out of thin air and in some cases walking in from 5 kilometers or further. We all had our assigned tasks and I like to stick to the fun stuff since my first aid skills end at duct tape. Every young lady likes a new dress and we had brought plenty. The Little Dresses for Africa are made from re-purposed pillow cases by volunteers and are well suited for the novice seamstress. We had spread out some of the dress hauling duties by using our Expedition Series bags for mass cargo. The dresses, while simple, are well made with each one a having the unique reflection of the love and skill of the maker. While handing them out we had to guess sizing and do the old hold up trick from back to school shopping. The girls were all very excited and if I had to guess this might be the only new piece of clothing some of them had ever received. The creative ways in which the dresses were crafted and the embellishments were simply amazing.
For the boys we had a neat solution as well, "been there got the T shirt" is something we can all relate to. So many shirts so little time to wear them all. I have found the perfect way to share them, by simply saving them up for my trips abroad for redistribution. With our team all taking care of their respective duties the hum of the crowd began to grow around us. Glancing up I got the feeling of a feeding frenzy beginning to build as the crowd jockeyed for position. With supplies running low it was time to call it to a close as the last of the shirts were disappearing Jordan pulled his own shirt off and gave it away as well.
Later sitting in the truck I noticed a contemplative stare. I inquired even though I knew the answer to my question, I could see the tears in his eyes, “These people have nothing!” while compared to us that is certainly true, a poignant and moving observation. Right then and there, a profound change in the way he saw the world had occurred. In giving he had received a reality check like no other. Having a life of opportunity and realizing you do, are two completely separate perspectives.
Our next stop was to be the hospital in Rundu and our intrepid guide Bangu Bobilla had a “short cut” heading east and then north –by my estimation the wrong way. Soon we were even further into SWAPO country and the trail had all but vanished as we lost sign of human habitation. The really strange part was there was not any wildlife either. Not a bird in the sky or bushbuck in residence, it all been cleaned out by subsistence poaching. It was like a Stephen King novel, where only the traces of mankind had been left behind, trees emblazoned with carvings of AK-47s marked the way. Not slowing down for any photo ops we kept moving at a high rate of speed and eventually left the dead zone in our wake of broken branches. The shortcut had added some serious wear and tear on the rigs after a quick pit stop we tossed out some nefarious insects and a large amount of bark.
Rolling up to the hospital we were greeted by Dr. Yuri and given the obligatory nickel tour. Of course I always seek to stay out of the hospital, especially in places like Central America and Africa. Some of which have scared me by just driving by them! This hospital is surprisingly clean, very well run and actually had a nice set of grounds. Despite that, there were some seriously ill people being cared for and a somber undertone that an infectious death was waiting in the wings. Note to self, don’t touch anything and wash my little hands ASAP. The staff took us around and showed us where we could help out. The Mossi nets were very much appreciated. The one bright spot was the neonatal ward where the little ones were cooking away in their incubators. It is pretty wonderful to have this sort of treatment available here in rural Namibia. It was decided to earmark a substantial amount of mosquito nets for the hospital.
Turning our caravan west it was time to make a run back into Otavi to score another load of Mossi nets. Our next destination was the Ombili foundation, home to the San or Bushmen people which have had a long history of being displaced. Here they are relatively safe and have found a way to earn a living with artisan crafts using native materials and small scale farming. A fairly regular tourist trail stop on the way to Etosha National Park, I find the place fascinating. The farm has all the efficiency of a military camp with a little barracks for the school age kids, cafeteria and workshop. The children are incredibly tiny and are always friendly, well behaved and curious when we visit.
Like a lot of indigenous people, the San have been considered second class citizens in their own countries. Here they have a chance at an education and learning some of the modern skills of sustainable dry land farming. It’s a good fit and a model of how life could be lived a little closer to the land. It reminds me a bit of the Hutterite colonies I have visited in Montana, albeit not so extreme on the dress code and religion. We had enough nets to cover the whole population but I asked what else they could use. Blankets are always something they seem to never have enough of.
Pulling up to the edge of Etosha we decided it might be time to splurge on a nice lodge. The Mokuti Lodge doesn’t disappoint, it’s a great place to unwind and get ready for another foray into the bush. After our recent experiences in the field the luxury of the place was a shock to the system, a nice shock at that. Like a lot of kids of a certain generation I grew up on Jacques Cousteau and Marlon Perkins whose shows were a window to something magical. While having a great appreciation for their work to this day, still nothing beats experiencing the natural wonders in person. Etosha National Park is still the kind of place that really gets the blood pumping. Things have been sorting themselves out here for time immemorial and it is nice to know the king of the jungle still rules supreme. I would not relish the thought of being on foot and unarmed after dark.
Camping with Hamma Diekmann is something special with his background as a soldier, rancher and professional hunter he brings all his knowledge of Namibia to bear. His secret camping spots are many and in varied terrain. Some come with a warning about snakes others tend to have a cat problems. Leopards don’t worry him too much but Lions are cause for a large fire and a sprinkle diesel aftershave.
You need to be careful gathering the wood unless you’re immune to scorpion stings as well. We were somewhere in the western mountains on the trail to Sesfontein. It was time to lay up a huge fire and get ready for a chilly night at altitude. Perry had decided to camp inside the Isuzu lest his snoring encourage some nocturnal beasts unwanted attention. With all my overland cooking experience I treated the crew to a feast in the field of Oryx and fresh vegetables and of course a little shima. Cooking with all the bounty of the land is always a joy and I like to keep it basic with the cast iron and savory flavors. After dinner Hamma stoked the fire to Viking like proportions and I shoved my cot close enough to bake in the glow. Morning bought with it a touch of frost which for us was a shocking development when compared with the daytime temperature. Kicking the fire back to life I set about making a quick breakfast of oats and apples chased with blacker than death coffee.
No time to be lagging about I needed a swim and the closest water was to be at our next campsite. Ongongo Springs is getting to be a well-known spot these days judging by the off-road vehicle traffic. Rutted roads and talc-like dust makes for an interesting drive. By now we had taken to tucking the snatch strap under the bonnet since we were getting the little rental truck stuck on a regular basis. The flexible metal of the hood made it so we could still latch it. Not really sure Isuzu designed it that way and it was looking more like I was going to be buying a new truck once Hertz got a good look it. After eating a tremendous amount of dust it was with great anticipation that we finally made it to Ongongo Springs for a refreshing swim aka bath. Up close to the waterfall you can still feel some thermal warmth from the source. Having been here before the place doesn’t disappoint after a hard day of wheeling. Camping here in an established site is about as convenient as it gets so it takes little to no time to get organized.
Our next visit would be to school at Sesfontein and things there are not exactly brimming with opportunity. Still our visits are much anticipated and with some proper guidance I could see things improving at some point in the future. It may just be the case of turnover or too much demand on the system in place. In either case someone needs to step up and take charge for things to get any better.
Continuing west we headed for the town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast. Time for some fresh oysters and to see what kind of fish were lurking in the ocean. One thing is for certain my fishing interests run from throwing rocks to mostly sleeping in the sun. But on occasion if the bite is on, then the fight is on. In which case I will fish till my little fingers bleed or we run out of bait.
Swakopmund is a small town along the Atlantic coast with a very German colonial vibe. Like most beach towns it has a season and during the chillier months crowds and prices are lower. We happened to be in town right about when things were starting to warm up. Hamma had secured us a boat and some guides for the day so all we had to do was show up at the little harbor. Like most people I hate getting seasick, so eying the sunny skies it was looking like a blue bird day. We would be fishing for Kolb just offshore and that was fine with me, after living in Montana for so long I have become a bit of a land lubber. With the sun beaming and no wind to kick up a swell we started nabbing fish right away. With the bite on we began hauling in fish at a fast rate keeping only mature ones and tossing back the runts. After a while the guide said it was time to go as he was worried about overloading his boat! He would be selling the fish at the market in town. What a deal, we pay him to fish and he sells our catch for a profit. I think I need a new business model…
Leaving the coast with the setting sun at our backs it was apparent that the crew in the back seat was spent. Heads lolling, hair flapping in the breeze like a couple of nine year olds after a big day at the beach. Suddenly a massive hand claps me across the shoulders and about puts me through the windshield. In a moment of exuberance Hamma had transmitted his feelings about just how special the day had been for him. The crew in the back had snapped awake wondering if I had offended the man in some way. No, just a shared point in time not to be forgotten and the mark of a perfect day well lived.
Our safari in Africa was coming to a close and we had little time to reflect while trying to stuff our luggage with trinkets for the folks back home. It had been a wild 30 days that had covered two countries and some of the most awesome sights and sounds to be encountered while on safari. Somehow without a true plan or reservations we had managed to pull off the trip of a lifetime. In passing Perry mentioned that this had been the best trip of his life. I must say I felt a moment of pride in being able to pull that one off… It could have all gone wrong in so many ways. Having some friends along to help out and share the vision with can be fun and enlightening for all parties involved. I would rather be lucky than just about anything else.
Jim Markel, CEO
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