We're all up early and before 7am, I'm back at the side of the road, with my dusty backpack, my paperback novel and lunch box that Fiona packed me, waiting for my next ride. It's stick and sultry and I suspect by midday I'll be sweltering. But the Strip is tropical, unlike the rest of the country and, particularly at this time of the year, gets some heavy rains. The up side of this, of course, means plenty of lush vegetation – swamps, waterfalls, maybe even some rapids. And with any luck, a chance to camp at the side of one of the major rivers and see some game.
I'm 45 minutes into my crime thriller, after a few abortive attempts with my thumb, and a 4WD pulls up. The back is piled high with gear and supplies, the outside looks like it could do with a good hose down but the driver has a great smile and I immediately know we're going to click. It's my lucky day! Reuben, from the Netherlands, is heading to Kongola – about 400 kms west and deep into the Strip – where he's hoping to connect with a guy he met back in Angola. He's pretty loose in terms of his plans, maybe he wants to stop off on a few places en route, even camp out in the bush, but that doesn't bother me. I'm happy going off the beaten track and, anyway, it's a great ride, because it gets me very close to the Victoria Falls. Reuben's been in Africa several months, taking photos for a magazine he works for back home. He too is a stranger to the Strip but he figures it can't be that tricky a road to drive it.
No? A few days later, this journey will be up there in my list of Top Five “Worst Road Drives of my Life.” Good job I don't know it yet.
Initially, everything is fine...it's stunningly beautiful, verdant and lush. We see kids playing at the side of the road (the Caprivi is home to numerous villages, filled with farmers and subsistence fisherman) It's a real Delta – marshy and swampy, fertile, flat plans, with Baobab trees everywhere I look.
And because we're on a two-lane tar highway, the B8, we're managing fine. Things only start to deteriorate once we turn off the main highway (we've decided to take a detour to see the Popa Falls which, I've heard, are spectacular rapids. They're also a hop skip and a jump from the Okavango Delta, where we can camp and gaze out on hundreds of hippos, wallowing in the river. Consequently, we're now on the road parallel to the B8, which follows the river, only its more of a dirt track than a road and full of potholes – huge potholes that we're hitting every 30 seconds. We bumping along, being thrown around wildly, but still I'm coping. And then, without warning, we come to a halt. I look out of my window and see the wheel is encased in thick mud.
As if that's not enough, the heavens then open (what I later learn is the daily afternoon Strip thunderstorm). We're on a lousy access road, in the middle of nowhere, bogged down in black stuff and the rains have come. Reuben looks at me, raises his eyebrows and, phlegmatically, (after all, he is a Dutchman) remarks:
“Don't worry – I've got enough food and water in the back for three days. Oh, and a shovel, a wrench and a tow rope too...”
He's not joking either.
Misery ensues. We both get out, survey the mess we're in (literally), and discuss what to do next. Reuben's idea is to push us out of the mud...'unstick' the jeep as it were. He moves me behind the wheel, and starts yelling instructions to me from the back end. I am completely clueless – I don't even have a licence...I don't know how to start a VW Golf, let alone handle a 4WD. Trust me, I'm the worse possible travel companion he could have at this moment and he knows it as well as I do.
Nevertheless, I do what he says, turning the key when ordered, pulling the steering wheel right or left, as told. But no joy. And a long two hours later, we're still stuck only now we're both filthy, soaked, stressed and short-tempered. All I want now is to be back in Fiona's pink-walled guest room, or that cute little bush chalet back in Etosha. I am cursing myself, cursing myself for having put myself in this situation (I could have bussed it, I tell myself...I could have flown. Actually, I could have stayed in Cape Town!) I look in the mirror - Reuben looks world-weary. I suspect he thinks we're doomed...death by mud...
But Lady Luck, of course, intervenes, in the shape of another jeep that arrives on the scene, driven by a local camp site owner and his manager. The owner grew up here and as he tell us, grinning, we're not the first tourists he's seen stuck in the mud. He tells us he's got chains in the back of his vehicle and, along with Reuben's tow rope and a bit of hard graft, he reckons that's going to be enough to free us. I really hope so. The rain is teaming down now, we're tired, hungry and filthy but the two of us do as we're told, and follow his instructions. (I'm still behind the wheel, but listening attentively and following instructions to the letter). Somehow, amazingly, it has to be a miracle, under the guidance of the pros, we are free. Filthy, hungry, exhausted, nerves completely frayed but...free. No more driving today now, we decide. We'll take a raincheck at his campsite.
That night, after showers, dry clothes and supper, and sitting round a glowing fire, we're almost at the point where we can laugh about it. Dave, my new hero of the hour, tells us that last week torrential downpours completely flooded the road for 2 days. If we'd been on the track then, any kind of rescue attempt would have been almost impossible - either we'd have been prisoners of a 4WD for 48 hours plus or had to wade our way to freedom. So, he says, all's well that ends well. And now, dry, clean, belly full and hands stretched out to the flames, I can't help but agree.