I would’ve been a lousy Boy Scout had I ever joined (…the one and only Groucho Marx comes to mind with his quip , ‘I wouldn’t belong to any club that’d have me as a member’…) It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Scouts’ per se—I did take an interest in the their ethos of self-reliance and emphasis on outdoor survival skills—camping, fire-building, poring over maps, etc. But those ranger uniforms and all that Teddy Roosevelt hearty-ho! business turned me off. Now, however, finding myself lost in a seemingly endless savanna in southern Botswana with night coming on quick, I was feeling like a couple of eagle badges in ‘Finding Your Way Out of Trackless Wilderness’ might’ve been helpful.
By now, it was no small task trying to muster my diminishing cognitive skills–I’d had a can of carrot soup for breakfast and coffee for lunch, calories and caffeine long since burned–to figure out which direction the communications tower I’d passed earlier was relative to my current position. The facts as I understood them were thus: I’d been driving eastward when I passed the tower which was now behind me–meaning it was west of here. Right, Mr. Too-Cool-For-The-Scouts?
I then located the lightest part of the twilight sky that marked where the sun had gone down–this had to be west. Somewhere in that direction was the tower. So off I went, smashing through the bush at a dizzying 5 km/hr, the truck bumping and scraping, lurching this way and that over uneven terrain.Each time the Toyota’s underside smacked and scoured a rock I cringed as I envisioned mangled truck parts being shorn off and strewn all over the savanna. A dark thought began to trouble my focus: What if the truck broke down out here? My iPhone had been showing ‘No Service’ since crossing the border many hours ago. Even if I had service, who would I call? Triple A Botswana? No, this line of thinking was too horrific to consider. If I couldn’t find my way out driving, what chance would I have of finding my way out on foot?
While trying to swat these thoughts away, I saw a slight rise that looked promising. As I cleared it, there in the distance was my current Holy Grail–the blinking red light of the tower!
Of course, I knew better than to pop open the champagne just yet. It was now well past dusk and, as I crept toward the beacon, I was imagining heating up a can of samp and beans for dinner once I stopped the truck. (‘samp’ is the southern African version of hominy, for you culinary sorts…) But the closer I got, the more I felt that sinking feeling once again. I couldn’t t see any well-worn access tracks through the brush and it began to look as if the whole area hadn’t been cleared of brush since the tower was first put in. Even worse, the ground around the tower was anything but level. There’d be no parking the truck here for the night. I was too demoralized and exhausted to let loose even a modest torrent of profanities. Nothing to do but back away and try to find an acceptably level patch of ground within eyeshot of the tower to park for the night.
I found a spot that seemed to meet the ‘acceptably leve’l requirement and just popped the tent, skipping the samp and beans. And, despite my being an empty husk of human exhaustion, sleep came fitfully. I found myself constantly waking up, crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the tent, my sleeping bag sliding down with me in it–‘acceptably level’ had been defined way down when I picked this spot to park…) Did I think about what was ‘out there’ in the dark African night? Of course. Several times I opened the flap of my tent (on top of the truck, remember…) and gazed out at the darkness with my headlamp, wondering if a reflecting pair of eyes would be staring back at me. None ever did, so I turned off the light and looked up at a Milky Way that seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon like I’d never seen, with another few billion stars filling out the sky in every direction. Especially clear and sharp was the Southern Cross which I never got tired of seeing.
As soon as there was enough murky daylight, I drove back toward the tower, hoping those access tracks might show up better in the daylight. They didn’t. The night’s assessment still held—the bush had reclaimed the ground.
For a moment, I just sat there in complete silence, hands on the wheel, eyes staring blankly at nothing in particular. I let my forehead fall onto the wheel as I moaned in despair and started muttering to myself in the third person.
‘Okay, Bozo, now what are you going to do?’
‘Get a grip on yourself.’
‘God helps those who help themselves. Blah, blah, blah…’
As this conversation began to grow stale, it occurred to me that what was needed was another dose of that Boy Scout Zen.
Let’s try this one more time, I said aloud. East. The direction I’d been heading before all this. Since the sun was now coming up in the east, what if I just headed toward it? Keep the sun in front of me and the tower directly behind me in a way that would sort of mimic the general direction I’d been driving before I turned up this ridge? Wouldn’t that eventually bring me back to the tracks I’d driven up here on?
By now, any logic seemed solid enough so I started out again, bumping and scraping through the brush that came up to the top of my doors, all the while keeping the tower directly behind me and the sun directly in front so that we were all in a straight line.
Twenty or so minutes might have passed when I came to what looked like a cliff edge with a drop on the other side. Could this be the edge of the ridge I’d seen from the road? If I looked over that edge, would I see the road I’d been driving?
I stopped the truck about ten feet away and walked toward the edge. As I stepped up to peek over the top, my heart once again sank—on the other side was not the road, but another fairly steep slope that led down to another seemingly endless stretch of savanna that went off to the horizon. I turned in every direction to more of the same—nothing but endless savanna. No wheel tracks, no road, just bush as far as the eye could see.
Now any of you who’ve ever bottomed out to the point where you feel like some tiny, weak, insubstantial speck in a gargantuan and roaringly indifferent world, then you’ll know what it’s like to say to yourself, as I did in that moment, ’Now what??…”
And if you have ever arrived at that point, you know there’s only one answer, only one thing you can do—keep moving. You can scream, you can howl, you can curse the heavens and cry like a newborn, but when it’s all finished, there’s nothing left but to keep moving.
Like a senseless drone, that’s exactly what I did. Got back in the truck, did a three-point turn and crawled through more brush, keeping the tower behind me and the sun in front.
I wish I could tell you how long this went on but I can’t. Several times I had to maneuver around rises that looked steep and questionable, with too much potential for getting stuck. These swings chewed up a bunch of time and I noticed the sun climbing higher in the sky—high enough that it didn’t take long before I was no longer sure of the spot on the horizon where it had risen—my compass point of east.
The ugly thoughts started coming back with a vengeance—the dead truck, me turning into a zombie, dehydrated and delirious, walking off a cliff, etc. For some reason, in this cascade of panic, my mind landed on the phone. The iPhone. Even without service, didn’t the compass still work? I think so… The truck’s GPS hadn’t been very useful out here without roads to follow. The iPhone, on the other hand at least, had a reliable compass that I could use to keep myself facing east even as the sun got higher in the sky.
Don’t stray, I kept telling myself. If you stay pointed east, you have to run into those wheel tracks eventually. And because I’m here telling you this story, you know that’s exactly what happened. It took the better part of another hour and a lot of zig-zagging around those steeper rises, but I finally came upon the well worn set of tracks I’d taken up to the ridge, confirmed by the impressions from my tires still fresh in the dirt. I turned right onto them—south!—and it wasn’t long before I reached the top of the ridge I’d come up and below that, the sealed road I’d been on.
Some time later I found myself wondering how serious this episode had really been. It wasn’t like I was adrift in a dinghy in the middle of the Pacific during a cyclone. Yet, being alone and lost anywhere beyond the reach of help is no small thing and the vast empty savanna of southern Botswana, while probably not the absolute worst place to get lost, is certainly on the A-list. If the truck had indeed become stuck or broken down, could I have walked out of there and eventually found the road? Possibly. But I also could have walked the wrong way and gotten myself in even deeper. Maybe gotten injured or become delirious from dehydration and heat exhaustion, been bitten by a venomous snake, the list goes on. The point is, no one knew I was out there. It wasn’t as if I’d signed a trail register on my way in or notified someone of my intentions. And even if any of anyone had been keeping tabs on me, who would they have called if they thought I was in trouble? This was Africa not the Adirondacks and my mistake was not remembering that. If I had, I might have never gotten off the main road.
But fatigue, hunger, overreach and the kind of breezy hubris that can beset a seasoned traveler undid my better judgment. On this trip I drove over 4000 miles through four countries in southern Africa and I rarely saw police except at checkpoints near bigger towns. The police, fire and ambulance services we take for granted in the industrialized world remain a rarity in most of sub-Saharan Africa. The vast majority of Africans understand this and conduct their lives accordingly. It’s westerners like me, who tend to forget this. It’s a good bet I won’t ever again.