A strange sensation swept though my consciousness, the presence of a greater force of nature, an intruder or otherworldly and unexpected visitor. Glancing to my left, a double shot of adrenaline flooded through me as a massive gray silhouette appeared from behind the tree, illuminated by the glow of our campfire. Quickly covering my headlamp I motioned to my traveling mate in a forceful whisper, "Elephant, left... shhhh... still..."
Sitting on the opposite side of the fire, Allen froze: His eyes darted to the opposite side of the baobab tree as an escape route. In almost total silence, the uninvited pachyderm lumbered by and disappeared into the brush.
We had set up camp near the enormous baobab about 10 kilometers from the Botswana border. But whose camp was it? Several hundred yards away in the calm of a moonless South African night, several other elephants joined the large bull and cavorted with reckless abandon in what remained of a receding water hole. The baobab - our baobab - with a diameter of almost 5 meters at the base, provided a semidefensible location in a world where anything with a pulse is part of the food chain.
Looking up, we noticed a large raw area and gouges in a bloated, overhanging branch. This was the real Africa - one of the wildest places on earth. The baobab, at an estimated 1,000 years old, was a youngster in an area considered to be the origin of human existence. It was also an African elephant scratching post, and we were camped directly beneath it.
Two weeks earlier, ominously black clouds rolled across the horizon as we pulled on to the bitumen (pavement) heading north. In our rearview mirror, the diminishing lights of Cape Town, South Africa, slowly faded to a horizontal ribbon of white in a sea of blackness. We had been drawn to Africa's most southern region by a long-standing fascination with its ethnic diversity, tumultuous past, and exotic wildlife. Rather than booking a prepackaged safari, where everything from meals to toilet paper is prepared or provided, we had opted for a spontaneous self-guided adventure... and adventure is what was in store.
Our African odyssey was not focused on locking differentials, articulation, or extreme four-wheeling: We could do that on our trails at home. This was about thousands of miles of desert two-tracks, indigenous cultures of which we had no prior experience, and close encounters with species foreign to our native land. Guests in a distant and potentially unruly place, we were two semiprepared guys with a couple of maps and a rented 4x4. Our quest, to search out the roads less traveled: the Namib-Naukluft desert, Skeleton Coast, and Kaokoland of western Namibia; the Kaudom and Etosha game reserves; and cross the recently rebel-controlled Caprive Strip to the flooded plains of the famous Okavango Delta. With only 30 days, we would have to keep moving to make it to our final destination at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
The first drops hit the windshield as a British voice came over the radio stating that the entire South African coast was expecting four days of rain. Our party consisted of two: myself and Allen Andrews, an old college roommate. Fifteen years from our partying coed days and four years since our last face-to-face, we rendezvoused at LAX for a twenty-three-hour flight to Cape Town, South Africa. We picked up a dual-cab Toyota Hilux 4x4 from Sabonazi Self Tours Cross Country Rentals in Cape Town, double-checked our gear, shopped for food staples, and headed north.