There is a lot to be said for wide-open spaces, especially when you're traveling with a good mate, a solid 4x4, and no particular schedule. You can kick that up a notch if those wide-open spaces are in the wilds of southern Africa. The previous two weeks had taken us from Cape Town, South Africa, to the red sands of Sossusvlei. We'd been camping under the stars in the African backcountry, searching out the remote two-tracks and indigenous wildlife. We were two weeks into a month-long African road trip, and we had just restocked our supplies and were heading north to find what people had said to us was the "real Africa" - a place where anything with a pulse and on foot is part of the food chain.
The ribbon of land from the Swakopmund to the Angola border, coined the Skeleton Coast, receives less than 1 inch of precipitation per year, most of it in the form of dew from coastal fog. Through the centuries, oceanic and atmospheric conditions, which form heavy fog and an onshore breeze, have sent hundreds of ships to their demise, running aground and breaking up in the pounding surf. Castaways who scrambled to the shore would think they were saved when they found the encampments of previous castaways. The sobering reality of their predicament became clear when they also found the half-buried, bone-clean skeletons of the previous occupants scattered about the dunes.
Travel up the coast is restricted to private tours, but our maps indicated a track east through the coastal range. We decided to take our chances and renegade it. As we lurched forward, a stiff gale blew in from the coast, whipping up foam from the surf and turning the horizon into a vast sandstorm. We found a faint sand track leading inland toward the Hoanib River and followed it for several miles. The wind was blowing ferociously when we reached the dry Hoanib riverbed. Alone, without a winch and the track becoming less visible, we recounted the tales of the castaways and opted for a more established route to the south.
The Hoanib and Huarusib rivers are home to the desert elephant and the rare black rhinoceros. Sorting through a dozen sand tracks from the village of Sesfontein, we found one that would lead us to the Hoanib. Blending with the vertical lines of the trees, giraffes plucked at the thorny branches of camelthorn acacias while baboons sat in the shade, picking lice and combing each other's hair. Within an hour, as shadows stretched long in the canyon, we were face to face with a family of desert elephants. Two months earlier, an Italian tourist was reportedly stomped flat as a pizza by an aggravated bull. We stopped in our tracks and waited for them to pass. Meandering down the riverbank, they took little notice of us as they lumbered by.