Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Life Aboard N'doto

It’s not a walk in the woods living in a 40-year-old Land Rover. Not a cushy ride, or a temperature controlled one either. What policemen laughingly refer to as my A/C, is a intermittently working (never when it’s hot) small dash-mounted house fan with vibrant blue blades. Sometimes it spontaneously and unexpectedly comes to life, usually the moment after I have cleansed my face with a TLC Deep Cleanse 3- in-1 Cleanser, Toner, Moisturizer Facial Wipe. The resulting plume of dust sticks to my face like static on a nylon slip. After that, nothing but a Huggies Aloe Strong and Stretchy Wipe will remove the heavy layer of grime on my face.

Living in N’doto is about as far away from a spa day as one could get.  Rubber seal that once surrounded all the doors and windows has been replaced by gaps as wide as my pinkie finger. There is also a silver dollar sized hole in the floorboard near the gearbox that spews a puff of dust and smoke into the car every time we start her up. Particles of tawny colored talcum-powder-quality dust cover the seats, the bookcase, the storage bins and every other surface inside of N’doto like a coat of paint. When we wash our clothes, a significant amount of African topsoil is washed down the drain. We could avoid most of the dust if we stuck to the tar roads but we prefer the dirt, sand, or gravel tracks because they seem to take us to the most beautiful places. Like the Old Petauke Road, worth every grain of grit collected along its 180 kilometer, off road, 9-hour drive. Or where we are now, camped along the Luangwa River in Zambia one of the best riverbanks in the world to view wildlife, read, write and have a gin and tonic. Elephants abound. So much so that instead of the usual passports, cash and other documents that travelers turn in for safekeeping at reception, safes at camps along the Luangwa River are full of citrus fruit brought in by campers who forget that elephants will do anything to get at a juicy orange. Just the other night a shell-shocked novice camper fumed, “An elephant broke into our Toyota and helped himself to whatever he wanted!” They only stayed one night. I locked our oranges, and other strong smelling food in the camp bar safe but the gin and tonic remains in our fridge chilled and ready for sundowners at 5. Yes, we have a fridge! It’s 12 volt, small, and always dusty on the outside but inside, the beer, wine, veggies, cheese, meats, and juice keep cold and food stays fresh even a day or two past the use by date.

Mornings, beginning at dawn, are easy and unrushed. We don’t have much on board in the luxury department but one thing we can’t do without is good coffee so we enjoy two cups of French Press coffee with two rusks – an African hard, crunchy dunk-in-your coffee staple - apiece each morning before starting our day. Lunch is a picnic. Chips provide salty crunch.

What’s in the dashboard? Peaceful Sleep insect repellent (elephants hate it too so if we are bush camping I usually give a blast to the windows and doors before we retire), toilet paper for the nose and/or “other”, Huggies Strong and Stretchy (so many uses I can’t list them here), an old Advil bottle filled with a combination of ibuprofen and aspirin, what I call my Obama-care because it’s wrapped in a Obama for President ’08 bumper sticker, a Chinese version of Vaseline Intensive Care Body Lotion, sunglass and eyeglass cases, head torch, pens and pencils, a glue stick, GPS, and a camera fill in any gaps. Scott keeps a wildlife sound recorder in his cup holder; mine holds a stainless steel water bottle. We can get clean drinking water at most every camp. Usually it’s borehole water so might taste a little chalky but it is clean.

We also have a library on board. It’s filled with guidebooks, wildlife reference books, our dangerous game log books, and books we have been given (thank you Brian Block and Karl Nutt) or swapped for at various camps along the way.

In the slot inside my door, there is a poo shovel, a Southern Africa map, an Eastern and Southern Africa map, and a map of the entire continent of Africa, just in case we get super motivated to head further north than Kenya.

The front seat, kind of a bench seat really, is covered in gray pleather (plastic leather) and I’m sure at one time it provided some kind of cushioning though now it is as flat as a pancake. We let each other know its time for a break when one of us exclaims; “My ass is numb!” which is pretty frequent. The back seat isn’t really a seat at all. It’s more of a perch. We acquired it from the man who installed our second carburetor (we are now on our third.)
The seat came out of one of several old Series lll Land Rovers that lay scattered in his yard like fallen soldiers. It’s one of those L-shaped bench seats that used to go in the far back of Land Rovers for sideways sitting. But Scott found a creative way to attach it to the false floor boards behind the front passenger seat, next to the library so that we would have a super uncomfortable place for people to sit in the back. We added a few inches added to the seat and had it re-upholstered in Hoedspruit so now it is a super uncomfortable, yet more cushioned place to sit in the back. We have found that it is perfect for small African children, though those not yet potty trained are relegated to the pleather (washable) seats in front. (See No Pampers North of the Limpopo to see why.)

Giving rides to people in the bush, especially to old woman, has become a regular thing. Woman walk incredible distances carrying heavy loads, babies, and Africa on their backs. 
They rarely speak English. Since our doors are very difficult to open Scott comes around to help them out when we arrive at their villages. One African woman was so old and frail, Scott had to lift her into and out of the car. She must have been walking more than an hour in the dust and heat before we came along. Men, woman, and children sitting in the shade of a tree of her village were gobsmacked to see this tall blond haired blue-eyed shorts and t-shirt clad chauffeur pull alongside, open the passenger door and extend a hand to her as if she were royalty. There is usually applause, two claps of cupped hands and a wave of the hand before our passengers set off on another narrow path that leads to their hut. They never look back. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we are often the only vehicle to pass all day and in really remote areas, all week.  Why do we do it? Partly as a way of giving back to a continent and people that inspire us and have given us so much. Partly because we’ve never forgotten how hard it was to get transport through Africa when we did it by bush taxi in 2005. We vowed that if we ever had our own vehicle in Africa we would give rides, so we are.

We have established a routine when arriving in camp. I get behind the wheel and park N‘doto so that we can enjoy sunrise from inside the rooftop tent and so the table and chairs can be convenient to the back door (panty), yet situated in an aesthetically pleasing way.
When she is exactly where I want her, Scott gets behind the wheel and moves her to a spot that is level. He flips open the tent, attaches the ladder and fly, unfolds the table and chairs and pours himself a gin and tonic, which is always well deserved after a day of rough driving in Africa. I wipe down the table that has acquired the obligatory layer of dust, move the tables and chairs to a slightly more pleasing spot and spread out a small white tablecloth (kept white by using the local diaper cleaning soap. Don’t knock it. It’s gentle on the hands yet does the trick on tough stains!) Then we enjoy the sunset while I cook dinner over our single burner propane stove. This is always a highly enjoyable time of day. We are relaxed over sundowners, I love cooking in the bush and Scott seems to enjoy watching me cook in the bush.
We talk about where we might go next, or how we will get to Karl and Mandy’s wedding in South Africa in October, or if and when we should attempt to climb Kilimanjaro. Showers or liberal use of Huggies Aloe Strong and Stretchys fit in sometime between arrival and bedtime. Sometimes we sit around a campfire chatting to other overlanders or sometimes there is a camp bar where we go for conviviality. “Let’s be convivial,” I’ll say, or “This place looks convivial. Let’s have a beer.” The other day, at Eureka Camp outside of Lusaka, we ran into a hyper convivial couple from Portland Oregon. “Don’t I know you?” I asked when the woman threw a wide, enthusiastic smile in my direction. Serendipity seems to rain on us when we travel in Africa and we are always running into people we’ve met before so I thought we had met in Hoedspruit, or on the Kariba Ferry, or somewhere sometime over the last five and a half months. “We were on Amazing Race!” she said. No wonder she has that reality show perkiness, I thought. They didn’t make it to the end of the race but they fell in love with Malawi while on competing on the show so they returned to Africa, this time on an overland truck.

We rise and fall with the sun so bedtime comes early. We sleep great. Almost every morning Scott says, “I never sleep so well as I do in Africa.” His ability to sleep so soundly in the wilds of Africa can frustrate me at times. Like the other night when we had to bush camp along the Old Petauke Road because we had not reached our destination before the setting sun. One thing is for sure. It is not safe to drive after dark in Africa. Anyway, we had just passed a small herd of agitated elephants and another smaller herd sleeping; the sun was about to set and it was time to pull over. We drove into the bush, far from the track and away from any village. Scott quickly flipped the tent out and installed the ladder. We skipped the table and chairs and stove and opted for a bed picnic. It wasn’t long before the first hippo bellowed and the elephants began to rumble and trumpet. A hyena whooped in the distance. Though we couldn’t see in the dark, something big was right there in the bushes below our tent. Because we have heard too many stories lately of elephants overturning cars, we discussed an exit strategy. We left the doors unlocked and the key in the ignition so if we had to, we could make a quick getaway. We ate quietly. Scott had a gin and tonic, then another. I was tempted to join him. It had been a long, hard, hot day of driving and bush taxi service but I didn’t think dulling our senses when there were ellies about would be a good idea. “Don’t you think we should keep our wits about us – that we should be alert?”

“That’s just what the world needs. More Lerts!” Scott said taking a sip of Gilbert’s Gin (Not a mistype. Not Gilbeys, Not Gordons. Certainly not Tanqueray which we ran out of long ago, but Gilbert’s, bottled on Lomagundi Road in a fictional, I think, town called Stapleford South Africa and purchased with our last Rands at a shop next to the Mblizi Zambezi Lodge adjacent to the Kariba Ferry,) “That’s not what I meant by keep your wits,” I said surrendering.

Scott slept through the night, like a good baby. I got maybe two hours. There was no moon that night so I couldn’t see what was going bump in the night but each time I heard a rustle or a heavy footfall I would peer out the front screen then rotate around and peer out the back, all night long like a spin dial on a board game. “Who’s out there?” I whispered to myself straining my eyes to see what looked like a hulk of an elephant but moved like a hippo.

“I never sleep so well as I do in Africa!” said Scott at sunrise.
“Sheesh! You missed it all!” I said with exasperation.
“What did I miss?”
“I don’t know! But there was lots of it!”

It is nearly 6p.m. and the Gilbert’s is waiting. Elephants are beginning to head down to the river while hippos are beginning their slow meander up the banks for a night of grazing. There is a soft breeze, which is a welcome relief from the dry Zambian heat. We miss everyone at home, that’s for sure. But we so enjoy this lifestyle.
We have plenty of canned tuna, Peaceful Sleep, optimism, and curiosity on board so, for now, we’ll keep going. Maybe there are people further north who would like a lift in an old Landy named N’doto.

Scott and Tris
South Luangwa