A solo journey across southern Africa

WILDLIFE AND DEATH: The author stands in the middle of a dead landscape at Sossusvlei.
WILDLIFE AND DEATH: The author stands in the middle of a dead landscape at Sossusvlei.

Miles from nowhere and driving solo, Wellington TV producer Jeanie Davison looks for the Africa beyond the safety and ease of organised tourism.

As the first hint of daylight gives scale and shape to the mountains looming ahead, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed.

I am driving alone through a rocky wasteland; a dot in the vast emptiness of the Namib Desert. I flick on the radio for comfort, but I'm beyond the reach of any transmitter.

So I drive with only the loose gravel grating the underside of the car as the sun erupts over the mountain ridge, sending shafts of light on to the hazy desert floor.

Determined to explore "the real Africa", I've eschewed the usual guided tour. I'm four days into a self-drive trip through southern Africa, starting in Cape Town, heading north through Namibia, east into Zambia and down through Botswana, arriving in Johannesburg 21 days later.

Hiring a four-wheel-drive is well beyond my budget, so I've embarked on this 10,000-kilometre journey in a humble Nissan Tiida more suited to the school run than a journey through wild, untamed country.

But it has a spare tyre and a jack, and with this reassurance I set off into the vast expanse of Africa.

For the first two days I power northwards on tarmac roads through the mannered landscape of the Western Cape - lush green hills dotted with whitewashed Cape Dutch homesteads presiding over brimming vineyards.

Crossing into Namibia, these picture-postcard vistas give way to arid desert, encircled by rugged chocolate-brown mountains on a road that stretches, runway-straight, towards the shimmering horizon.

It's time to see if the Nissan can handle gravel. I head west, cross-country, bumping along at 25kmh over loose stones, dust billowing behind me.

The corrugations in the track get steadily worse, and before long I'm juddering like a pneumatic drill. The locals call this "the African massage".

It's a gruelling drive - the Nissan repeatedly goes into little skids, and I have to stay fiercely alert to catch and correct them. Other cars are few, but when they do appear, they leave huge dust-clouds in their wake.

I'm heading for Sossusvlei, a swathe of colossal, constantly shifting sand dunes stretching 650km along the coast and 130km inland. Even after six hours of bone-shattering driving, the blazing orange dunes don't disappoint.

Glad to be out of the car, I head into the searing desert heat to climb one - partly for the view from the top, but also to quench a sudden desire to conquer a piece of this landscape that has relentlessly underlined my insignificance.

At the top, dunes stretch in every direction. I feel as small as I did at the bottom.

It's two days' drive north to Etosha, Namibia's premier safari park that covers 22,000 square kilometres. When the gates open at sunrise, I spot several Land- Rovers packed with eager, babbling tourists brandishing telephoto lenses. I drive off in the opposite direction.

I've been warned that you have to be patient when spotting wildlife, so I settle back in the driving seat. But within minutes, I round a bend and there, just metres away, is a lone giraffe, chomping leaves on an acacia tree.

The animals keep coming - zebra, kudu, ostrich, wildebeest, rhino, hyena - my camera can't keep up.

Suddenly, a lone elephant appears from nowhere, barely a metre from my bonnet.

I quickly contemplate my next move. Apparently, elephants will charge if they feel threatened and I'm way too close for comfort. But if I accelerate away, the engine noise might freak him out.

Then again - as the huge beast lumbers towards me - sitting tight and sweating it out doesn't feel like a great idea either.

For a second, I long to see a friendly tour bus crammed with gawking tourists. But then the elephant wanders off, leaving me quivering with adrenaline.

Next day, I'm driving east along the Caprivi Strip towards Zambia. The road runs right along the border with Angola and I'm a little anxious - until recently, tourists could only travel along it as part of an armed convoy due to civil unrest in the region.

But a couple of nice AK47-wielding Namibian policemen assure me I'm perfectly safe, and tell me the only real hazard is elephants crossing the road (I smile inwardly, I've tackled that danger already!).

The Zambian border is a mish-mash of ramshackle caravans with no obvious signs of officialdom or formality. I'm ushered by various un-uniformed people from one to the next, handing over a dubious selection of "taxes and levies" to get me and my vehicle over the border.

I'm convinced half the money is being pocketed, but I'm hardly in a position to challenge. With relief - and a significantly lighter wallet - I cross a bridge over the Zambezi into Zambia and head for one of the world's greatest natural wonders.

The Victoria Falls are satisfyingly breathtaking, cascading over a 108-metre rocky shelf into a churning chasm below. As I take in the spectacle from a precarious path on the opposite side of the gorge, I'm quickly drenched by spray - and only then notice some entrepreneurial locals behind me touting raincoats and umbrellas. The roar of the falls is deafening - no wonder they're known as "The Smoke That Thunders".

A pontoon ride back across the Zambezi takes me and my car into Botswana, and a whole new challenge - potholes. The 300km route between the border and the next village is ostensibly tarred, but barely 10 minutes into it I'm cursing. There are craters all over the road, as though some giant elephant has stamped its way along leaving metre-deep chasms in its path.

On the shimmering tarmac, the holes are impossible to spot until you're braking hard on the edge of them - at which point it's too late. Steering the poor old Nissan round - or more often into - the potholes, I zig-zag precariously for five hours.

When the road finally comes good, I take in my surroundings. I'm crossing another of the world's great deserts - the Kalahari. Unlike the Namib, this one is dotted with low-lying vegetation stretching across the flattest land I've ever seen.

The endless roads are punctuated with occasional checkpoints - police, military and veterinary. The latter are apparently designed to curb the spread of foot and mouth from livestock to wildlife and involve trundling the car through a saline dip under the watchful eye of uniformed officials.

Apart from this, the desert is a vast expanse of nothingness, and driving through it feels like I'm the last person left on Earth.

Three weeks after leaving Cape Town, I finally head back into South Africa on the home straight to Johannesburg. I'm back in civilisation again, and it feels shockingly surreal. There are traffic lights and pavements for a start, and concrete buildings, neon signs, noise.

Within minutes, I'm hankering to be in the wilderness again.

The Dominion Post