How the hike had changed. In the beginning, my main concern had been: can I do it? Will blisters or sore muscles make it obvious that this idea was simply too ambitious?

That had not happened, although I had come close to giving up after only a few days, with more blisters than I had cared to count.

There is that voice of reason which says, ‘you cannot be expected to do this under these circumstances’… I have come to recognise that voice. It poses as a friend, it has been my life-long friend. But is it?

And then, with feet and legs becoming more and more reliable, the hike had become more about managing the challenges that came with changes in landscape, climate and demographics, or in practical terms: making sure there was always enough water, food and somewhere to spend the night.

There were always challenges.

Looking back over the Col de Crousette and a central part of the Mercantour National Park from about 2600m. The mountains are lower and much drier than they were more to the north.

Like this. In the Mercantour National Park, descending a stony slope where pitching the tent would have been difficult if not impossible, I was hoping to find a level, grassy area at a lower elevation. It had already been a long day and my feet were hurting. There was, indeed, more grass further down, but there were sheep and goats on either side of the trail. Of course.

Signs along the trail had been preparing me for what to do when encountering sheep: don’t cut through a flock, they had repeatedly said, go around it. So I left the trail and began what was meant to be a wide arc.

A dog came to check me out. I did what the same signs had told me to do when this happens: stop, don’t move until the dog is satisfied that you do not pose an immediate threat and then continue without making sudden movements and without making loud noises.

The shepherd came my way. ‘There are no 36000 solutions’, he said with a thick southern accent, adding a few zeros to the original expression. He pointed at the way that lay ahead of me and the sheep on either side. ‘You will have to pick your way through them. Just push them out of the way if you have to, and if the patous bother you, talk to them’.

Patou, I learned later, is a local name for the Great Pyrenean Mountain Dog, also known in the US as Great Pyrenees. They are massive dogs, bigger than, for instance, Newfoundlands but leaner, more agile. Fierce defenders of their flock, they serve to keep wolves at a distance but have, so I read, also been known to attack hikers.

The walking-and-talking thing worked. The sheep parted, the dogs did not bother me. After passing through the flock, there was another slope to descend. Two of the dogs followed me for a while and then disappeared. I thought they had finished ‘escorting me to the exit’, when suddenly, ahead of me and below, I saw the same two dogs, quietly waiting for me to pass. It was eery, I had not seen them run down, they must have cut through the forest. They repeated this a few times, until I really had gone far enough. Apparently. The dogs did not show up again.

There were promising-looking spots to pitch a tent ahead of me, but there was also – another dog. It started barking at me as I approached and there was no other option than to cautiously walk past it, apologising for the inconvenience and promising to keep going. The flock it belonged to was also ahead of me, moving in the same direction that I was going, apparently on their way to a large enclosed area where the animals would be spending the night.

After passing that, there was no more flat terrain for a while. Climbing again, I passed eight chamois that looked at me uneasily but stayed put. Encounters like this are magical and my morale was instantly boosted. Yes, it would be all right, I would find a place to camp. The sun had dropped behind the mountains and there was not a lot of daylight left, but it was going to be OK.

I reached another, higher valley and prepared to find the perfect camping spot which would surely be there, when a familiar sound made me look a bit further ahead and up to the slopes. There was the biggest flock of sheep I had seen so far. They were everywhere. There were also more sheepdogs than I had seen, and they, too, were everywhere. Then the dogs noticed me and sprung into action.

The first ones that approached me looked a lot less willing to give me the benefit of the doubt than the dogs I had come across earlier. One particularly shaggy-looking dog came to within arm’s length and bared its teeth while emitting that throaty sound that implies a canine’s readyness to inflict grievous bodily harm. This coming from an animal that weighed almost as much as I did and had a formidable set of teeth, I did not feel at ease.

The shepherd, meanwhile, came bounding down a slope, so I waited for him to call his dogs. He didn’t and instead began to empty sacks of white stuff in different places around his cabin for the sheep that had begun to approach it from the slopes they had been grazing on. For them, too, the day was coming to an end. I slowly walked his way.

– Attaquer, patous? Nonnnnn… he said cheerfully when I had come close enough. The accent and the lack of grammar made his question sound oddly out of place. Did I detect a gleam of malice in his eye? Probably just my imagination.
– You have a lot of them, I said.
– What, dogs? I nodded. Ten, he said, grinning.

I did not push the conversation any further. I did not ask him about his origins – some mysteries are meant to be left alone. And frankly, there was something about the situation that made me want to move on.

I walked on for a while across what was now a valley floor that looked like it had been savaged by wild boar. Everywhere the eye could see, the top soil had been overturned. When I was sufficiently far away from the last shepherd’s cabin I finally put down my pack and began to prepare for the night.

But.

There was something wrong with the tent. The main pole that runs lengthwise and supports the whole structure – I could not get it to reach the point where it was supposed to hook into an eye. The pole was too long, the tent fabric not long enough, I don’t know, it would not fit. I tried ten times, going back and forth, trying to find out what was wrong. I looked at the sky – there were few clouds. Crawl into a sleeping bag and sleep under the stars? Yes, it could come to that.

Not yet, though. The instructions of the tent had said (yes, I am one of those who read the instructions, call me a nerd): if you find yourself applying force, you are probably doing something wrong. Sound advice, which is true in much more general ways than just in (tent) mechanics. But it wasn’t helping.

This is what the poor thing looks like after a night in below-freezing temperatures. As soon as the sun shines on it, it will regain its brisk, proud appearance. Note how the pole hooks into an eye above the entrance. Note also the state-of-the-art anti-toe-injury system: rocks are more visible than tent pegs.

Something began to dawn. So far, when the tent had dried in direct sunlight, it had been fully pitched. The fabric had tightened but the poles had kept that in check. The last time I had dried it, though, it had hung over two chairs on the balcony of my hotel room in Auron. What if the tent fabric had simply shrunk more than before, and all that was necessary now was to pull with all my might to make the pole and the eye meet?

‘All my might’ worked, just. Reluctantly, the tent allowed itself to be pitched. With a barely audible (or merely imagined?) ‘I thought you’d never!…’, the day shrugged off the last bit of light and allowed night to fall. It fell heavily.

I had bought a small flask of Chartreuse a few days earlier, strong stuff for when an industrial strength pick-me-upper was needed. It did its job, and I slept like something that sleeps well.

The following day also turned out longer than expected. I exited the Mercantour National Park and stopped around lunchtime at the only hotel in a small village with the intention of getting a room and a meal.

‘Do you have a reservation?’ No, I didn’t. ‘We’re full’, the heavyset owner said apologetically from behind the bar. He sighed, it was a hard day. They were expecting a group of eighteen that evening, they had booked long ago. And there had just been two fatal accidents, people were coming from all around for the funerals. He had had to turn them away, too.

So I’ll have lunch and be on my way again, I suggested as a woman who I took to be his wife emerged from the half-empty restaurant. She shook her head: ‘I am not accepting any more people’, she said, ‘we are short on all sorts of ingredients. And we don’t have any bread’. A French meal without bread is not a meal. Without bread, how would you clean your plate of leftover sauce?

No bread, fatal accidents… I was reminded of something I had heard a few days earlier in another village about a motorcycle accident. ‘Ils se tiraient la bourre’ (they were racing), someone had said. ‘The baker’, the man behind the bar nodded. ‘How am I going to get bread? I can’t go back to that schmuck of a baker in this village. He makes me order everything two days in advance. I don’t know what I need two days in advance!’

I carried on. The next village had a hotel, but the reception would not open until very late. There was also a restaurant, which was closed, a grocery store, which was closed, and a café, which supposedly sold snacks and simple meals and which was not closed but no longer had anything to sell except beer and coffee. So I carried on.

In the end, I pitched my tent at an official campsite just outside St Martin Vésubie, a pretty medieval village where thankfully, life was still going on, where I could spend a few days waiting for my friend Laurent to come and see me, and where my poor feet could get some rest before the final days of the hike.

Indeed, in four or five days, I should be able to reach Menton and the Mediterranean.

Laurent came. He had landed at the Nice airport and hired a car to drive to Barcelonette for a week of glider flying, and he took a detour to come and see me. We had not seen each other in about fifteen years and we easily filled a few hours catching up.

St Martin Vésubie

After that: time to move on. I passed several villages but slept outside them. At the Col de Turini, which can be reached by car, there were 13 Porsches, all with Stuttgart plates, in the parking lot of a restaurant. I had just climbed for several hours and was looking forward to a meal. I walked in, saw a single long table with mainly Asian faces, and was told that the entire restaurant had been reserved for this one group, really sorry, they had payed a shitload of money to have the whole place to themselves.

Sospel. Oh yes, villages in the south look very different from the north.

In St Martin Vésubie, looking out the window of a restaurant, something interesting had caught my eye. I had asked the waiter if that was really a grapevine that I saw winding its way up a tree, all the way to the top. The leaves look like that, he had said, and yes! there, I see grapes! He had been working in that restaurant for nine years and never noticed the grapevine in the tree just outside.

I was reminded of that when I found myself developing an interest, somewhat belatedly, in the trees and shrubs I saw during the last few days. Most trees by now were deciduous. At first there had been many chestnuts, then whole forests of oak, and finally a rich mixture of common and less common trees that, as far as I knew, were… trees.

I downloaded a tree identification app made by the French forestry department and slowly learned to distinguish the many aspects of leaves, bark and general build of trees, everything one needs to look at to identify a tree or plant. What had begun as a means to give names to the trees I saw around me evolved into greater awareness of the forest itself, and I marvelled at everything I had not seen before. Or rather: seen, but not noticed. The names no longer mattered much, I was seeing with new eyes what had always been there.

Had it not been for that, those last few days might have been hard. The constant physical effort of climbing and the constant need to be careful when descending, rather than becoming routine, were beginning to weigh on me. Of course, the end was near and it is always the end that is the hardest.

And then there was the last day, the very last one. The day on which my destination was suddenly there, 1100 meters below me. It was not so much the Mediterranean that moved me. After all, in all its beauty, it is a sight I know well. I sailed on it for five months. What moved me was the realisation that I had actually done this. For six weeks, it had been a matter of ‘one day at a time’, and ‘just keep going’, and now, suddenly, this was it, the end. I sat and watched the sea for a long time, while memories came flooding in: memories of places I had seen, people I had met, difficulties overcome, moments of unbridled happiness. Then those memories receded and what remained was this, here and now: sitting in the grass, looking out over this beautiful blue sea, enjoying a beautiful sunny day with bread, sausage and cheese. I finally picked up my backpack and started the last descent.

The one day I spent in Menton was overshadowed by something that I shouldn’t have eaten and that kept me occupied for most of the afternoon. Was it the large amount of fresh fruits I had bought and eaten in the morning? The swordfish I had for lunch?

It couldn’t have been the tiramisù which had followed the swordfish, that had been pure poetry and after many bad approximations of the real thing, it had the power to single-handedly restore my faith in mankind.

Back now in Châtel, in the northern Alps. I had wanted to travel back by train, but it would have taken two days and turned out to be much more expensive than a flight from Nice to Geneva.

What next? Big plans. We have found the car we wanted (a converted Toyota Land Cruiser) for sale in Italy and are in the process of buying it and importing it into France. But don’t tell anyone, not yet. We will have to finalise all that first.

Menton

After leaving Modane and climbing for a good few hours, I came upon a spot that was just perfect, so I pitched the tent and took the rest of the afternoon off. From time to time, a whistling sound made me look up. Gliders, approaching at high speed, some then making a few tight turns over the mountain to reach the base of the clouds overhead at well over three thousand meters, others only pulling up to take advantage of the thermal and then accelerating again to continue to the next mountain.

Some time after they had passed and with the clouds over the mountains already beginning to disintegrate, something changed abruptly. From the west, menacing clouds moved in rapidly and soon after that, violent wind gusts began to shake the tent. A first rain shower fell and I took advantage of a brief lull to fasten the storm lines and reposition a few pegs.

The full force of the storm arrived shortly after that. It didn’t seem possible that the pegs would hold the tent, nor that the inside of the tent would stay perfectly dry. But the pegs held and not a drop of water got through, and although the pummelling and pounding continued, I relaxed and fell into a long, deep, untroubled sleep.

The following morning, the rising sun and the residual moisture on the ground and in the air wrestled to create a tormented skyscape in which sometimes the sun seemed to gain the upper hand, only to be delt defeat after defeat by clouds and vapor in a convincing display of ‘soft power’.

A passage through what the French call la Vallée Etroite and the Italians la Valle Stretta proved interesting in more than one respect. I had noticed earlier that the vegetation had been changing. Instead of spruce and fir, pine trees had begun to dominate the hills at elevations of up to 2000 meters, and now, there were trees I did not recognise. Mélèze, said a French-speaking hiker I asked about them. Larch.

Not the kind of larch I had seen in Siberia, whole forests of a brilliant yellow that lit up in autumn, before the needles began to fall and winter became inevitable, no, these turn a brownish yellow in autumn.

I see, I said, and please tell me, how come everyone I meet here speaks Italian? Well, because we are in Italy here! They stole this from us in the second world war!

The reality turned out to be a bit different. This had been an Italian wedge into French territory, and it had become French at the end of the second world war. Nevertheless, it is still much more easily accessible by road from Turin than from any French city, and apparently, wildly popular among Italians as a weekend getaway.

The Three Wise Men (I Re Magi, Les Rois Mages) and, below, the cars of Italian visitors.

At the rifugio ‘I Re Magi’, where I thought I would join a crowd of day trippers for lunch, the first service at noon, I was told, was fully booked. The second service, at two o’clock, still had a few places open. Never mind. Another rifugio almost next door, Terzo Alpini, welcomed me and served a commendable lamb tajine.

Col de la Lauze. Below: a shepherd with his flock of sheep. In the background: the Ecrins National Park.

After passing the Col de la Lauze and not particularly keen on descending all the way to the Montgenèvre ski resort, I found a nice spot to camp, except… I didn’t have any water left, and had not seen any for a few hours. And then, not far from there, there was a small stream. Problem solved.

From there, it was an easy descent to Briançon. Not particularly pleasant, because although the trail led through a pine forest, the road and therefore the noise of cars was never far away. Once, a terrible, frightful, rapidly approaching sound startled me. I froze and quickly turned to look behind me, only to see a mountain biker who grinned and said hello as he thundered past me.

I hate mountain bikers who do this. I hate them about as much as I hate Italian or Malaysian motorists. I mean, they’re right up there. Man, these people don’t realise how dangerous they are, nor how much they frighten others. Every time a mountain biker scares me like that, my heart races, my mind too, I have thoughts that involve my poles and their front wheel, and it takes a long time before I calm down again.

Arriving at Briançon was spectacular. While to the west of the city, there is a wide valley which runs more or less north-south, to the east (which is where I came from), a valley that connects the city with the Montgenèvre ski resort and Italy narrows as it approaches Briançon. Here, in fact, the glaciers of the Ice Age encountered a ‘plug’ of erosion-resistant rock and cut a deep, narrow gorge around it. The city was originally built on the harder rock, with a fort to control the entrance. Four hundred years ago, a stone bridge was built over the gorge, and it is still in use today as a foot bridge. Crossing this bridge has to be the most impressive way to enter the city.

The gorge that this bridge spans is much deeper, much more impressive, than can be seen in this picture.

As for the picturesque, historic old town of Briançon… well, a hundred million tourists can’t be wrong…

After Briançon, the trail took me into the Queyras. Less densely populated than more northerly parts of the Alps, there were practically no more refuges to depend upon for food.

Instead, there were gîtes. Unlike refuges, gîtes tend to be in the valleys instead of higher up, and while only a few refuges offer meals and refreshments at midday, almost all gîtes do.

So while those who were travelling without tents tended to start their day in a gîte in the valley, climb to a mountain pass and then descend into the next valley to find the next gîte to sleep in, I quickly changed into a different pattern: I would start the day high up in the mountains, descend into the valley in time to have a three-course lunch at a gîte, and then climb back up for a few hours to find another place to bivouac.

Ceillac, in the Queyras.

Can you see how this picture was taken?

Lac Miroir

Lac Sainte Anne

Looking back at Lac Sainte Anne.

South of the Queyras, the Ubaye and the (beginning of the) Mercantour turned out to be very sparsely inhabited areas. I passed through villages from time to time, but these were no more than hamlets that had no mobile phone coverage, no grocery shops or bakeries, no shops at all in fact, nowhere to charge my phone. I carried food for several days, and ended up finishing almost all of it.

Hamlet in the Ubaye. Chapel, postal services, of course. Mobile network, groceries, atm’s – no.

In an unexpected anachronism, (French) cheques were accepted for payment at gîtes besides cash, but cards were not. And with my cash reserves dwindling, there were no atm’s. So I kept going.

During one of my bivouacs, a young man came to see me. He explained that he was an assistant shepherd, asked me about my trip, told me that the lake I had chosen to spend the night at served as a watering hole during the day for two different flocks of sheep, and invited me to come and see him at the shepherd’s cabin the following morning.

I did.

A lake that is shared by two flocks of sheep on alternating days for drinking. There is not a lot of water left.

An assistant shepherd? Well yes. Shepherds had complained about the government’s policy to reintroduce wolves into the mountains, and they had obtained aid in the form of extra manpower. These people’s salaries are mostly payed by the state, and their mere presence does help keep wolves at a distance. The assistant shepherd had travelled around the world and lived as an itinerant worker, but he liked this job more than any other he had done. It was the tranquility, the absence of everything that bustles in the valley that made it special. He admitted that he considered himself lucky not to have the responsibilities and worries of a shepherd.

After he had made me coffee at the cabin and given me two goat’s cheeses (for which he would accept no payment), he asked me to help him by holding a wounded sheep that he needed to treat.

A rock that another sheep, higher up the slope, had caused to fall had hit this animal on the snout and left a gaping hole, close to the eye. Flies had been quick to deposit their eggs in the wound, and before long, maggots had been crawling in it. They had pulled out the maggots one by one and closed off the wound with clay. Then, an antisceptic spray had arrived from the valley and with regular applications, the wound had begun to heal and there was hope that the sheep would survive.

The shepherdess he worked for had taken the flock of twelve hundred sheep and twelve goats out to graze just before I had arrived at the cabin. I met up with her close to the pass that I was going to cross and that marked the boundary of ‘her’ area.

She was busy directing the dog to get sheep that had climbed to dangerously steep slopes back down into safer places. ‘They climb up there’, she said, ‘because they can no longer find anything to eat’. This year had been a particularly dry one, no snow in winter, no rain in summer. Normally, the flock would stay in these mountains for another month before being taken to an area several hundred kilometers away from here. This time, they would have to move much earlier, in two or three days. However, even inland, they would not find much more to eat. The drought had caused many wildfires to rage through what should have been pasture. What was she going to do, I wondered. It seemed to me that I saw her sigh, but I couldn’t be sure. One third of this flock was hers, and it would soon be a second owner’s turn to take care of the animals. What was he going to do? She didn’t know.

Dawn at the Lac du Lauzanier

Le Lac de Derrière la Croix

What looks like a breach in the black mountains on the left: I have come through there.

This was what that looked like from up close: scree, unpleasant and not without danger to walk on, and a steep passage above that which you wouldn’t think was even there.

After descending into St Dalmas de Selvage I sat down on a bench, waiting for a café to open, and when it did, I got up and realised that… my walking poles were not there.

I had earlier had to buy a new mattress in Briançon because the old one had begun to look more like a beach ball with every time I inflated it. That had been a gradual process. This, however, was as sudden as it was incredible. I retraced my steps in the village ten times, climbed back up the mountain I had just come down from, but the poles were gone. Carry on without them? Unthinkable. Especially during descents, they had helped in preventing falls countless times, and that was just one of their benefits. But there was nowhere I could buy them.

Later, as I was drinking a beer in St Etienne de Tinée, a Belgian hiker came to me and said, I heard you’ve lost your poles, I am done walking, would you like to have mine? I was moved by his offer but declined. It was only a couple of hours to the nearby ski resort of Auron, I was counting on being able to buy new poles there.

And yes, I bought new poles in Auron. And put all of my clothes in a washing machine. Charged my phone. Had a long hot shower. And a big cold beer. Got money from an atm. Bought new supplies. Finished this report. And lay on a hotel bed, feeling good.

Not quite there yet, still some distance to go to the Mediterranean. But getting close.

Wild blueberries, raspberries, strawberries… yummy.

An ornament, probably.

In the end, I just went. I had been putting this departure off, for all sorts of reasons. My thigh muscles, which had atrophied as a result of injury from a slip in Namibia, had needed rebuilding. The weather forecast had consistently shown a possibility of rain. And, to be honest, with feet that grow blisters more easily than anyone I’ve ever known and a paunch that appeared seemingly out of nowhere a few years ago like a cat that shows up on your doorstep and settles in with the obvious intention to never go away again, the prospect of hiking for two months was – a bit daunting.

Besides, since our return from southern Africa, summer in the French Alps had shown itself to be so generous that it seemed like madness to go away again. Picture this: a breakfast table with the best bread you can get anywhere in the world; cheeses that are the result of thousands of years of refining the art of making them, are made from the milk of cows that graze on alpine meadows and can only be bought in small, specialised shops that only sell local produce; cured meats, also produced locally of course; different kinds of spreads, bought at the weekly market and made from artichokes, dried tomatoes, anchovis and/or olives; perfectly ripe avocados; and seasonal fruit: peaches, apricots, melons, succulent and bursting with flavour. And that is only breakfast. Summertime is bliss.

Almost. We shared this beautiful time and place with others who had different needs. The frequent drone of unmuffled motorcycles, the groups of school children singing at the top of their little lungs, drunk youngsters spilling out of bars in the middle of the night and honking the horns of cars they shouldn’t be driving, the never-ending bustle during the day… I find, more and more, that I need to be away from that. I need silence, peace, solitude. I need quietude. One way to find it: leave the valley, go up.

Charlotte accompanied me for a couple of hours. We took chairlifts up to Chaux Fleurie, walked, had a drink at the Refuge de Chésery and a simple lunch of bread and cheese sitting in the grass just below the summit of Mossette with a view of the Dents du Midi, and then we parted ways. She returned to Châtel via a different route, while I continued along the only part of the GR5 that leads through Switzerland. The sun shone, the heat was of the sweltering kind, thunderstorms began to brew. By evening, the path had taken me across the border back into France. I pitched my tent near a gîte and enjoyed a dinner of diots (a local kind of sausage), boiled potatoes and salad. That night, it rained hard. The tent performed very well.

Why had we left southern Africa? The two months we spent there had been unforgettable, so why leave? Well, Charlotte was going to spend some time in the Netherlands anyway. After we returned the rental vehicle, I thought of travelling by public transport to see more of the region. It soon became clear that there is practically no public transport in Africa, and after two months of camping and going wherever we wanted, being confined to the few cities that could be reached by bus was not an attractive option. So I thought I might travel through eastern Africa back to Europe, and then that turned out to be full of unpleasant surprises, not least the fact that from Egypt, overland travel to Europe is not advisable in any direction, and ferries stopped running years ago. Flight tickets from Cape Town to Geneva turned out to be surprisingly affordable. It was not a difficult decision.

Having passed the Col de la Golèse, the descent towards Samoëns took me through moss-covered forest, pleasantly shady and cool, with only one minor drawback: it’s also the type of environment where horseflies thrive. After following the Giffre from Samoëns upstream to Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval, it was time to climb again to an exceptionally beautiful plateau.

Quietude found: bivouac at Lac d’Anterne

A few days into the hike, an increasing number of blisters made progress increasingly painful. In spite of all my efforts to prevent and treat them, they became the one thing that overshadowed all others.

In the course of those few days, I met some wiry old men, veteran perambulators who had completed most of Europe’s major hikes, and some even more than once. They would typically cast a passing glance on my feet as I was airing them, ask a few introductory questions and then proceed to lavish advice on me.

I had read some of their advice on the internet, preceded by the words ‘do not’. A few things I had already tried out. And occasionally I was told to do something that seemed a bit impractical in the mountains: ‘fill a bucket with water, mix in a kilo of salt and soak your feet in that.’

Aiguilles de Chamonix, Aiguille du Midi, Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit and the one they call ‘White Mountain’ (mostly obscured by Pormenaz), all in a pre-dawn view from the tent.

One thing emerged from what I heard and read: not all feet are the same, and what works for one person may not work for another. Oh, and something else: what works in one environment may not work in another.

The early-morning sun brushes over les Chalets d’Anterne, setting the surrounding hills alight with colour. Digital image editing has pushed the limits of the camera in my phone.

I often think of Serguei who took me hunting and trapping a few times. He would bandage his feet and lower legs with strips of wool and then get into a simple pair of gumboots. In Siberia’s marshes at the onset of winter, this proved to be wonderfully effective, his feet stayed warm and dry all day. My hiking boots, by contrast, would fill up with snow or even water, rendering them all but useless.

Back to here and now. Summer: definitely no wool, because that just gets wet with perspiration, and wet skin means blisters faster than you can say the word. Besides that: use two layers of socks? Vaseline? Talcum powder? Tape? Compeed and the like?

To begin with, instead of climbing to the summit of Brévent, I descended directly to the valley to take a few days off. This descent, to my surprise and delight, took me past a paragliding launch site at Plaine Joux where I had, years earlier, participated in a regional competition.

World-class paraglider launch site at Plaine Joux, Passy. Mont Blanc in the background.

I spent a few days in Le Fayet, an unassuming small town that lives in the shadow of nearby Saint Gervais (of which it is officially a part) although it is in Le Fayet that the thermal baths are located for which Saint Gervais is famous, Le Fayet where the Mont Blanc Tramway begins its journey up the flanks of the famous mountain, and Le Fayet that is the local transport hub. Saint Gervais, with its belle-époque architecture, its brasseries and terraces and its skiing infrastrucure, still easily steals the show.

My feet healed rapidly and after a final rest day during which the average rainfall for four weeks fell in a single day, a short bus ride to Les Contamines got me back on the trail. The day’s assignment was a 1400 meter climb. With a special cream to toughen the skin, new, highly technical summer hiking socks and the firm resolve to change socks every two hours or so to keep my feet as dry as possible, I was ready to give it a go.

A few days earlier, I had talked to someone who was hiking the GR5 in the opposite direction and who told me she had skipped a few stretches because they were shared with the Tour du Mont Blanc, an apparently well-known hiking trail which circles Europe’s big mountain and is overrun by hikers. I had been surprised to hear that, but I was about to find out how right she was.

Until now, I had come across other hikers, in small enough numbers, mainly French. Suddenly, there were hikers everywhere: ahead, behind, a steady stream of people speaking a host of different languages: English with British and North American accents, Québécois, German, Russian, Chinese, Korean. Steeper sections looked like the Hillary Step on summit day.

Immersed in conversation with a couple of Spanish hikers and unable to see much because of fog, we missed a turn and found ourselves climbing 200 meters higher than had been necessary, and going the wrong way. 1600 meters of climbing in a day… and my feet had taken it all in their stride. After arriving at the refuge where they were going to spend the night, we had a beer and exchanged phone numbers: ‘when you are in Spain, you will have a place to stay’. I pitched my tent not far from there, far enough to be alone, though not far enough to be spared the noise of 109 hikers emanating from the full-to-capacity refuge until late at night.

The following day was another tough one: a total of 1500 meters descending and 1000 meters climbing. I found myself alone on the trail once again, since the crowd had gone off in a different direction. What should have been a succession of awe-inspiring views was hidden by clouds and drizzle. Only briefly, when descending below the clouds, did I catch a glimpse of the region that is famous for the Beaufort cheese that is made there.

Not today…

It wasn’t until six o’clock that I reached a refuge where, sure, I could have dinner with the other twelve hikers who would spend the night, and sure, they had a spot for me to pitch my tent. It rained most of the night, but I remained blissfully unaware of that.

In the morning though, the rain mixed with wet snow and it took some courage to fold the soaking tent, put on my still-wet hiking boots, pick up the backpack and start walking, together with a French hiker I had met the day before.

Wide valley in the Vanoise National Park

From then on, things started to look up. The rain stopped, down in the valley that is known as the Tarentaise the temperatures became pleasant again, and a few unforgettable days in the Vanoise National Park lay ahead.

A little below the Col du Palet

At the Refuge du Col du Palet

Unforgettable, because perfect. The weather held, apart from the occasional rain shower in the evening. My feet were noticeably tougher and blisters no longer formed. And the Vanoise National Park is a hiker’s paradise: wide valleys without roads, impressive rock faces, glaciers, mountain streams. Alpine flowers. Wildlife like marmots and Alpine ibexes that (unlike elsewhere) barely see man as a threat and can be observed from up close.

Ibexes can be seen from up close in Vanoise National Park

Pitching a tent in the Vanoise National Park is only allowed at night, on the perimeter of refuges, which means that many scenic spots have to be left alone, but it also means that many refuges have created spots for tents and offer campers the possibility to have a simple but satisfying meal.

One day, I noticed a dozen or so big birds high in the sky which I thought might be bearded vultures, although the sheer number of them made that unlikely. Speaking to the caretaker of a refuge that night, that was confirmed: there were only three bearded vultures in the area, but griffon vultures could be seen in larger numbers. A bearded vulture, he said, could sometimes be seen with a golden eagle in a kind of symbiotic relationship: the eagle would kill a small mammal and feed on its flesh, after which the vulture would eat the bones. And sure enough, on the following day I saw a bearded vulture and a golden eagle soar maybe twenty meters over my head in an encounter that left me speechless.

A helicopter brings supplies to the Refuge de l’Arpont

Arriving in Modane after a long descent in the evening, the first impression was that of a town where even the locals didn’t want to be. Only the pharmacy and a depressing small bar were open and both closed by the time I had finished my beer. A bakery across the road was closed for good, its premises for sale.

Outside the town, the train station turned out to be a much more lively area, with hotels, restaurants, shops, where more Italian is spoken than French. After France was linked to Italy by the Fréjus railroad tunnel in the 19th century, this became a border town with a wealth of new jobs, eagerly taken up by Italians. Since the creation of the common market, many of those jobs are gone, but a sizeable Italian community still exists. This is where I am taking a day off, to write and publish this report, buy fresh fruits, eat good food. I am a hiker. A hiker has to take good care of himself.

The previous report was posted shortly after our arrival in Maun, a bustling little town in northern Botswana which serves as the starting point for safaris into the Okavango Delta region and the northern part of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. As can be expected in towns that bustle and lie close to safari destinations, excitement hung in the air, while all sorts of serious-looking vehicles drove off and on, some departing into the bush, some returning from their adventures, others buying supplies at one of the supermarkets. There were garages where those who had been unfortunate could have a go at getting their cars fixed.

We met an elderly couple from Cape Town who had been unfortunate, and continued to be unfortunate. They had attempted to cross a river in their Mercedes 4×4, gone in too deep and sustained all sorts of damage, like a turbocharger that no longer turbocharged anything. They had somehow brought their car to Maun – that was six weeks ago, they said. Since then, they had been frustrated about mechanics who only seemed to make things worse, they said. They had managed to get an emergency extension on the period they were allowed to stay in the country, but with only a couple of days left of that, when a mechanic started the engine to check the progress of the repairs, the car was still belching white smoke (white smoke… isn’t that a sign of a blown head gasket?). They sighed and said that their car was not so good in water, they were going to get a different car. If they ever got this mess sorted.

The Okavango Delta is a destination for visitors on package tours and 4×4 enthousiasts alike. In the first few months of every year, seasonal rains in Angola push the water of the Okavango river southeast until it arrives at a level inland area where it branches out. For several more months, the water continues to advance into riverbeds that had been dry, attracting an abundance of wildlife and making river crossings hazardous. Then, in the dry season, the water simply evaporates, drying up the delta, until a new cycle of rain and flooding begins.

Two Saddle-billed Storks stand guard before a colony of pelicans.

While the package tourists come to see and photograph wildlife, the 4×4 drivers are also drawn by the promise of adventure and challenging driving conditions. But more than one driver unwittingly gets into a situation that is more than he bargained for, leading, in some cases, to the unceremonious death of the prized vehicle.

Since we are not experienced 4×4 drivers and time constraints forced us to make choices, we thought we would spend just two nights in Moremi National Park, which lies in the delta and is not too far from Maun, and then turn around and head towards Namibia. Charlotte found an agent who could book our two nights at a campsite in the park. For what we paid, one would expect something along the lines of:

18:00 Lions perform a traditional dance around the campfire.
19:00 Buffet of grilled game meats, supplemented with local starches and vegetables.
21:00 Time to get into your duvets, while hippos hum you to sleep with a typical a cappella lullaby.

The reality was less hollywoodian. Although we did see a lot of animals, we had seen most of them before, and quite a few even during our drive to the park. Other travellers who had written about their experiences had commented on how expensive it was, but so worth while because they had found elephant dung next to their car in the morning. Sure, we saw piles of shit, and we heard hippos nearby during the night. But was that it? I had asked the lady at the reception desk what kinds of precautions we should take, with all these wild animals around. ‘You have to be careful’, was the only reply I got.

I was unsure how being careful would keep us from being turned into catfood by the superlative felines that were said to live in the area and could walk freely through our camp, but seeing how other people behaved, I relaxed. We met some wonderful people who came to camp next to us and spent a whole afternoon with them, sitting outside under a tree, talking and drinking wine.

Buffalo and its oxpecker. The bird rids the buffalo of ticks and is therefore allowed a few antics.

Only the next day, we would be reminded once more of the lions and cheetahs we hadn’t seen. As we drove through the park towards the gate, a game drive vehicle, coming from the opposite side, stopped to talk to us. The guide asked us, ‘What have you seen?’ and listened patiently while we named all the animals that didn’t matter. ‘No cats?’ Errr, no, no cats. ‘We saw some tracks back there’, he said, casually pointing his thumb behind him, and I thought, shit, that should have been my line.

We thanked him and wished him luck. And then took some detours on our way out, taking paths less travelled. During one of those, while avoiding a muddy part of the trail, we managed to get stuck in another, less obvious patch of mud. I got out to assess the situation. One front wheel turning freely, one rear wheel as well. A combination of unfavourable factors suddenly added up: stuck in the mud, path less travelled, possible presence of ‘cats’ and no cellphone coverage. The word ‘predicament’ came to mind. But there was one decisive factor that worked to our advantage: with front and rear diff lock on, we easily got out and onto firmer ground. Paraphrasing Trevor (our 4×4 instructor in Cape Town), I’d say that front and rear diff lock has to be the best invention since the corkscrew.

Crossing a bridge in the Moremi.

After the Moremi Game Reserve, we did turn back and headed towards Namibia, but not without spending one more night in Maun for several reasons. Two of them were called mopane.

You see, we had been buying firewood at petrol stations (collecting firewood in nature reserves is a big no-no) which had invariably been Namibian hardwood. Once it burned properly, it had yielded excellent embers to grill on but it had been very reluctant to burn. The local wood from mopane trees, which was sold in and around Maun by the side of the road by people looking to supplement an otherwise meagre income, was a softer wood that was much easier to make a fire with and still made decent charcoal.

The person who had told me this had also mentioned the mopane tree’s inhabitant, the mopane worm, which happens to be a regional delicacy that he fully expected me to know about. I didn’t, so I sampled a couple of them, fresh from the grill, during our stopover in Maun. About the size of my little finger (the one that is still whole), crisp on the outside and fleshy on the inside, it was indeed succulent and tasty.

After a fairly eventless drive to the Namibian border (except for a foot-and-mouth disease checkpoint where we were told we came from an infected area and were given the choice between surrendering a beautiful t-bone steak and some lamb chops, or cooking them on the spot),

… so we cooked them on the spot

we continued west and visited Charlotte’s friend Ingeborg who owns and runs a thoroughbred horse operation north of Windhoek. We then headed towards Spitzkoppe, following advice from Daan and Cyril, who we had met earlier (you want to see nice landscapes? Go to Spitzkoppe, and then head south).

Spitzkoppe is a mountain that has been dubbed ‘the Matterhorn of Namibia’. Who would think of such a silly comparison? Probably the same people who come up with ‘the Paris of the west’ or ‘the Paris of the east’ (many towns and cities have been called that) or ‘the Giethoorn of the south’ (The Italian hamlet of Venice has been compared to the Dutch town that is world-famous for its canals).

Anyway, the Matterhorn of Namibia looks pointy from afar, but as you approach it, it begins to sag and droop. From up close, it reminds the visitor of Uluru in that it could well be a sacred mountain, rising in its granite monolithicness from a basically flat landscape. Also, it boasts rock paintings which can only be visited with a guide (which we didn’t do).

From this description, Spitzkoppe may sound like it is not a big deal, but it is. For one thing, there’s the geology. A long time ago, magma bubbled to the earth’s crust but did not break through it. Over millions of years, the softer materials around what had solidified as all sorts of granite shapes then eroded away, leaving the granite exposed.

And then there are the camping possibilities. At the base of the mountain, there are a number of official camping spots, many of them spaced so far apart that you can have the illusion of camping wild, an illusion that is enhanced by the very basic facilities: each spot has a place to make a fire and an outhouse, called long-drop toilet here. Even these, by the way, are not essential. We have used our shovel to dig fireplaces and latrines before.

We found our perfect spot to camp, and while I busied myself setting up camp and marvelled at a flock of Rosy-Faced Love-Birds (a Namibian species of small parrots) settling in a tree nearby, Charlotte went off to watch the sun set and came across a band of rock hyrax and two klipspringers.

Camping at the foot of Spitzkoppe.

The following day, we went on a long hike around Spitzkoppe and the neighbouring hills. We returned to our campsite exhausted, but the beauty of the place would leave a deep impression.

Spitzkoppe at sunrise.

Near Spitzkoppe, at sunrise.

I believe what we are looking at here is a long-legged armoured katydid laying eggs. They are everywhere in this area.

Spitzkoppe as seen from the north at midday.

Leaving Spitzkoppe.

He flagged us down, standing next to a beat-up old Toyota. Speaking in Afrikaans, he told us that he was on his way to a funeral but had run out of diesel. He then produced a hose and a jerrycan and began to syphon diesel with the ease and skill of one who has done this many times before. Then he asked for food (kos) and clothing (klere). And then for a hundred dollars. I let him have the diesel.

More wild camping was to follow. Charlotte had found out about the Namib Naukluft National Park, which has similar campsites throughout large parts of the Namib desert. We drove to the seaside resort of Swakopmund to buy permits from the NWR (Namibian Wildlife Resorts) and learned that you pay for the number of nights you want to stay in the area, and you can stay at any of the designated sites. No booking, no reception, no facilities, no nothing.

No body, as it turned out. Nobody. We booked only two nights, stayed in two spots, were the only ones both times and ended up wishing we could stay much longer.

Mirabib.

The first site we stayed at consisted of a few spots located around the same phenomenon of bubbling magma and subsequent erosion, albeit with slightly different resulting shapes.

In the Namib.

Homeb.

The second site was a wooded area on the bank of a dried-up river. The stony desert had suddenly shown large cracks, then tentative greenery, and we descended into what could have been mistaken for a pine forest. People lived nearby – from what? – and several animals kept us company: bulbuls, starlings and a few skinny dogs that happily and docilely accepted whatever we tossed at them. We had bought a loaf of excellent bread in Swakopmund, but most of it went to the dogs.

Starlings and…

… bulbuls happily shared our meals with us.

Skin and bones: some animals are less fortunate.

We were not far now from what everybody thinks of when you mention Namibia: the red sand dunes at Sossusvlei.

I might use the word ‘iconic’, if that hadn’t been so terribly overused.

4×4’s like ours converged on Sesriem, the departing point for the 60-something-kilometer-long tar road that ends in the middle of the famous dunes. I was sceptical, ready to accept another overrated tourist attraction that you ‘have to have done’. We arrived at the campsite at Sesriem that lies just within the park’s boundaries and found the campsite fully booked. Just as well we had reserved our spot a few days earlier in Swakopmund, at the NWR office…

There are two gates. The first one gets you into the park and the campsite, which is where we were. It opened at 06:45, right around sunrise. The second gate, just past the campsite, opened an hour earlier, allowing us a one hour head-start compared to those outside and an opportunity to get to what is called dune 45 (45 kilometers away from Sesriem) in time to climb it and watch the sunrise, keeping in mind that there is a 60 km/h speed limit in the park.

What is the big deal about being on dune 45 at sunrise? I honestly don’t know. As soon as the gate opened, cars raced to the dune, oblivious of the speed limit, and in the end, all the people in them saw was a sunrise like we have seen many times before.

And these balloons, that is true.

The reward of the trip was further down the road, where it ended. Curiously, the end was not the end. The tar road ended, but a sand trail went on for another few kilometers to the ‘real’ end of the road. Shuttle services helped people bridge those last few kilometers at inflated prices, but 4×4’s were allowed to continue at their own peril.

Even as we were deflating our tyres, we saw people rocking a 4×4 rental from side to side on the sand trail in an effort to get it unstuck, and then give up. Our tyres deflated, we manoeuvered in front of them, got out the tow strap and pulled them out. A bit further, we passed another rental, buried up to the axles in sand and abandoned. Nothing to do here.

It’s longer than you would think.

But so rewarding.

At the ‘real’ end of the road, we saw people walking up several dunes. We picked the highest one because it offered the promise of the nicest photos. It probably took us an hour to get to the top, it was serene there and quite beautiful, the sand we sat down in was hot on the side the sun shone on and cold on the other, and then a group of youngsters arrived, gregarious and boasting about getting up in 45 minutes. We had seen people following a guide who had run down the dune towards a salt pan, and did the same. The sand vroomed below our feet as we bounded down, feeling invincible.

Of course, we picked up some sand on the way down.

The salt pan that is known as Deadvlei was easily crossed, our car parked not far behind it. Like what had happened earlier, sunshine and effort had worn us out, but what we had done, seen and lived was priceless.

The evening at the same campsite was filled with the yelling of other people’s children and the repetitive bass riffs of some far-away music. Time to leave and get back into that world where there is nobody else, just silence and stars… What can be more important?

As we drove further south, or east or west for that matter, we would see more and more faces of the desert. The Namib is a million colours, a million shapes, a landscape of age-old petrified vision that changes faster than the eye can follow.

Unless you stop. And contemplate. The desert is addictive.

The most surprising thing in this picture: another car.

Yes, there is life in the desert.

We spent a night at an abandoned campsite (a former community project that had not worked out) halfway up Mount Brukkaros, an extinct volcano. We had thought we’d stay longer, but a howling northwesterly wind tried to blow us off the mountain, and then, during a hike into the crater, I slipped and pulled a quadricep, instantly becoming a cripple for who knows how many days.

Charlotte preparing our signature three-bean salad. A can of kidney beans, a can of lima beans, you get the idea. With only a few days to go before we have to return the vehicle, it’s time to start using up our emergency food.

On our way to the crater. ‘Before the fall’…

We thought it better to heed the mountain’s warnings and leave. My left leg was unusable, so Charlotte had to drive us down to the plains on a gnarly 4×4 trail. She didn’t like the prospect one bit, but after we had regained the easy roads, she mused for a while and then smiled and said, ‘I would like to do more of that’.

The last few nights were spent at guest farms, with memorable meals (springbok medallions and kudu carpaccio), memorable campsites (by a river that exploded with animal calls at sunrise and sunset) and memorable encounters (with three wonderful, good-hearted Australians).

We returned the vehicle yesterday. Camping in beautiful spots, coffee on chilly mornings, the thrill of having animals around, the breathtaking landscapes – finished. It has come as more of a shock than I thought. Now what? Let’s start by taking a bus to Swakopmund today, then we’ll see.

Don’t try this at home: this farm ranger has befriended a cheetah he feeds.

Which he will not even try to do with this leopard.

Spoonbill, casually spoonbilling in a tree.

Weaver birds’ nests come in different shapes and sizes.

This is a Sociable Weaver Bird, which…

… lives in colonies of sometimes hundreds of birds.

The entrances to their enormous nests face downward.

Often, a Pygmy Falcon lives in a symbiotic relationship with the Sociable Weavers. It sounds the alarm when bigger raptors or snakes approach. In return, it gets room and board: an unoccupied chamber in the nest and the occasional chick to snack on.

The few days that we spent in Sandton (Johannesburg) were filled with more than we had thought. Charlotte’s tablet got inexplicably hot and discharged rapidly, so we looked up what could be the cause of that (probably power surges caused by starting the car engine while the tablet was connected to the car charger) and took it to a Samsung service centre to see if it could be repaired. They wrote ‘urgent, assess before Saturday, client leaves on Monday’ on the form, so when we hadn’t heard from them on Monday, Charlotte went to pick it up, hoping they still had it. The good news was: yes, it could be repaired and they had ordered the parts. The bad news was: it would be ready in a week. So she pointed out that it had been urgent, they said ooohhhhh sorry… and offered to waive the assessment fee. Charlotte said that’s all right and retrieved her still crippled tablet.

We also visited a 4×4 fair in Pretoria, and man, did we see nice things there. We had gone to see a Land Cruiser conversion done by a firm called Bushlapa which is based in Paarl, very nice work, and then saw a 4×4 camper trailer by Conqueror that looked like a dream come true. We were completely sold on it and would have bought it on the spot.

But we did some research and found out that although we could buy a car and a trailer in South Africa, we would not be able to register them. The South African authorities don’t allow visitors on a tourist visa to register a vehicle. Others had tried it recently and had found no other solution than to register a vehicle in a South African friend’s name and then travel through the countries of southern Africa with a signed letter saying that the owner of the car had allowed them to cross borders with it.

That’s fine if southern Africa covers the extent of your plans, but we are looking at something a bit bigger: Africa, Europe, the world. You can’t travel around the world in a vehicle that is not registered in your name. There goes the dream of buying what is readily available in South Africa and not available elsewhere. These old 76/78/79 series Land Cruisers which are the vehicle of choice for overlanders (and SA farmers) because of their ruggedness and reliability and which Bushlapa converts into campers are still made in South Africa – but we can’t have one. The trailer we saw is not available in Europe. We could buy one, ship it to a European country and import it, but there is no guarantee it will pass European roadworthiness tests, because none have been imported before.

Let’s store this for the moment. It’s likely that we will get back to it at some other time.

So on Monday, we picked up the vehicle we had rented for the second leg of our trip, through Botswana and Namibia. Land Cruiser bushcamper, fitted with everything you need when going off the grid for a while: 2H, 4H and 4L of course, front and rear diff lock, 180 liter fuel capacity, water tank, two stoves, two gas bottles, a braai grill that fits nicely around one of the two spare wheels, two fridges, three batteries (the auxilliary batteries can be used to assist the main battery in starting the engine), solar panel, hot water geyser and outside shower, and the list goes on.

With that kind of equipment, you would expect that we would head straight to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, but wait… this reserve, which occupies a prominent place in the middle of the country and has a lot of wildlife to offer, has only a few spots where camping is allowed, and those are booked a year in advance. In the unlikely event that there are cancellations, you are still looking at fees per person, fees for the car and park fees that add up to the equivalent of a very decent hotel in a European capital. So no, thanks.

Instead, we decided to ease into our ‘off the grid’ experience by beginning with something much more tame: a visit to a rhino sanctuary north-east of Gaborone, and then look at where to go next.

Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill

We arrived there late afternoon, were assigned a beautiful spot to camp, surrounded by trees, and started to settle in while all sorts of birds around us were getting ready to call it a day. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills were already there and seemed to want to impress us with their stunning good looks, Burchell’s Starlings arrived and began an endless, good-humoured chatter, Meyer’s Parrots fluttered over our heads before settling down on the branches of a dead tree and allowing us ample time to identify them, occasionally uttering the kind of strident, raucous call that will never earn them a place in the order of songbirds.

Thompson’s Gazelle

Impala

These animals need no introduction.

Staying two nights and doing game drives at different times of the day turned out to be a good idea. We ran into some old friends (kudu, wildebeest), made some new (Thompson’s Gazelle, Impala, Giraffe, Go-Away-Bird, Red-eyed African Bulbul, ), and even managed to find three of the rhinos that the park was named after but that turned out to be very elusive. A vehicle that did guided game drives came to join us, but we had found them first 🙂

Elusive, but here they are. And a Black Wildebeest in the background.

A French couple from Reunion Island told us things that made us want to visit their part of France, so far away from Paris, so near southern Africa. Some day, we will.

On, then, northbound to Letlhakane, where we filled our tanks and bought groceries and firewood. Then a bit further north, and east, on the way to Francistown.

We turned off the tar road immediately after a veterinary checkpoint, to follow a trail adjacent to a veterinary fence (intended to curb the spread of diseases), which would, hopefully, take us to an island in a salt pan we had read about. There were no signs, but it had to be the right trail.

Crimson-breasted Shrike.

After about half an hour, we saw another vehicle. It had come in the opposite direction but had got stuck in a sandy gully. The driver, a local, was glad to see us and explained his predicament. He was driving an old, beat-up Nissan pick-up which, in theory, was a 4×4, except it would only work in two wheel drive. He’d been stuck in the gully for a while and no one had come past. Charlotte asked him if he had cell phone reception and he replied that his battery was dead. She then gave him and his young son some water, which they gratefully accepted and gulped down.

I went to look at his Nissan and was relieved to find it was not buried up to the axles, there was apparently harder ground underneath the sand. We had a tow strap and even a winch, but I was reluctant to use those as long as there were other options, so I rolled out the sand mats and deflated his tyres to a hundred and something bar (one of them had been inflated to 400 bar!), while he watched with the curiosity of someone who wants to learn and remember. He managed to drive out of the gully. And then, knowing there would be no more challenges ahead of him, we reinflated his tyres with our compressor.

That could have been all, except that as he drove away, there was an alarming noise. So he asked for our toolkit, crawled under his truck and began doing things that were not clear but went on for a very long time. Finally, he said to me, ‘Won’t you have look and see what you can do, because I haven’t got a clue’. I muttered something about not being a mechanic but then agreed to have a look, and what I saw seemed clear enough: the driveshaft centre support rubber was gone (I had to look that one up afterwards). I told him that there was nothing I could do, but if he drove slowly, he would make it out of there, and then he would have to get help. He said something about God will bless you, and drove off.

We passed the gully and carried on. We had lost several hours and could not hope to reach our destination before sundown, but there were spots where we could stop for the night all along the trail. We found a particularly open spot, away from the trail, and decided to camp there.

It was beautiful.

Although we had food for up to a week and some of it was just perfect for a braai, we decided not to light a fire and grill food, because there was a fresh breeze blowing and we were surrounded by dry grass, but we had some salads left, which, with a glass of wine, did the job.

The sun set without making a fuss and soon afterwards, the full moon rose on the opposite horizon.

Charlotte gave voice to both of our feelings when she said, pointing at the shrubs around us and the stars above us, ‘When you tell people you’ve been to Botswana, they will ask you where you’ve been. Okavango Delta? Kalahari? But who needs those places where you have to book campsites a year in advance or buy an all-inclusive package and in both cases pay an arm and a leg to stay there, when you can have this?’

She would repeat that the following day. We reached the salt pan after a pleasant drive through shrubs and small trees from which birds darted across the trail. We saw the island a few kilometers away from the edge of the pan. We couldn’t get to it though, because the pan was flooded. The water wasn’t deep but it covered a layer of mud that sucked at my feet with every step I made and I had no stick at hand to try to measure the thickness of the mud layer, so rather than risk getting stuck in an area where we had seen no other car since the previous day’s Nissan, we set up camp on a bed of pebbles at the edge of the pan. And enjoyed the silence, the flamingos, a walk, and time to doze. Oh, and a braai, once the breeze from the pan began to die down and before it shifted to a breeze from the hills. In other words, a little after sunset.

Sunset, braai. Flamingos are going to sleep. Silence.

From there, it was still a decent stretch on what was mostly a sand road, occasionally crossing a dried-up river bed. We saw a pair of Southern Ground-Hornbill, massive birds which, according to our bird guide, are scarce, and which fled when we approached. Where we emerged from the bush and drove onto a tar road, a police checkpoint had been set up, so that was an immediate and automatic fine for not wearing seatbelts as a reminder that we had returned to the fold of civilisation.

Further north, there was an area with water holes where other travellers had reported seeing elephants come to drink and bathe, so we headed that way, thinking of setting up camp there. We found the water holes, waited in our car for a while, and sure enough, a first elephant appeared, saw us, hesitated, but then accepted our presence and began to drink. A herd of about ten animals arrived shortly after, showed signs of nervousness, but finally entered the water and began to play.

Then came a solitary animal from a different direction. It turned to face us and stood, motionless, for a long time. We were ready to start the car and make our getaway, if needed. In the end, it stepped back, and then some more, and finally it turned around and retreated.

Taken through the windscreen

One last encounter on the way out with a much younger animal.

We thought we had intruded long enough and didn’t really like the idea of not being able to leave the car if we stayed, so instead of camping there, we drove to an official campsite, which had the added benefit of excellent hot showers, as well as a bar and restaurant.

Very different scenes the next day. We wanted to take the A3 from Nata in the direction of Maun and then in the small town of Gweta turn onto a sand trail for 40 kilometers or so to a salt pan where we thought we would camp next. We had read reports about a part of the A3 being flooded over a kilometer and a half, but the first report was two and a half months old, and subsequent reports had shown gradual improvement. The turnoff in Nata towards Maun had a big sign across it saying ‘Closed, residents only’, but residents assured us that Maun was that way. So we continued.

The road was flooded all right, and it wasn’t simply a layer of water on top of the bitumen. Even before we reached the flooded area, it was clear that the bitumen had been washed away, and what we were going to drive through was an intimidating collection of deep tracks in soft mud on one side, and a layer of water with who knows what underneath on the other side of the road. I opted for the mud but we would have to traverse some water, as well.

It went well. We made it through and came out on the other side onto dry pavement, feeling exhilarated and jubilant.

So then on to the salt pan on what the map showed as a single track but was more like: something going roughly in the right direction but with tracks going off at all sorts of angles and a sign halfway saying ‘No entry, privately leased land’, which forced us to find a way around that and actually led us past this baobab with vultures nesting in it:

After hours of driving on a trail that sometimes was in decent shape and sometimes wasn’t, we reached the salt pan, drove off the trail onto the salt flats and picked a spot to camp, at random. Once again, silence around us. And endlessness. A million shades of just two colours: off-white and blue. At night, once again, countless stars. Peace. Ah, who needs anything else.

And this is where we leave you, dear reader, for now. To be continued…

 

Purple Roller

Lilac-breasted Roller

Pale Chanting Goshawk

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater

In good magical-realistic fashion, when none of our international sim-cards allowed us to make phone calls in Lesotho or connect to the internet, we should have realised that we had not just crossed a border. We had, in fact, gone back in time. Way back. We didn’t realise it, not yet.

First day in Lesotho.

But let’s start where we had left off. We were in Ladybrand in what had once been called Orange Free State and is now just Free State. Ladybrand is a small town that may well owe its relative prosperity to its proximity to the border with Lesotho and its capital, Maseru. There was a surprising number of well-stocked supermarkets, which led us to wonder if we should stock up on supplies before crossing the border.

But Charlotte looked up the customs regulations and found that importing plants, dairy products and meat into Lesotho was prohibited, and that the duty-free allowance of wine was two liters per person. We decided to fill both our tanks with diesel, just in case, see about buying groceries on the other side of the border, and just take a gamble with the wine we still had left over from a shopping spree in Paarl.

We approached the border and stopped behind a lorry (truck), thinking that was the end of the queue (line). Two men in uniform walked past, looked at us bemusedly and motioned for us to drive around the lorry, and when we did, we saw it was simply parked there, effectively blocking the only lane towards the border, with no other vehicles ahead of it.

We slowly moved on, past a checkpoint where no one was checking, and that was all for the South African side of the border. Then on to the next checkpoint, where again no one was checking, we continued as slowly as we could, looking left and right but seeing no reason to stop, and then… we were greeted by a sign saying, Welcome to the Kingdom in the Sky.

Let’s dwell for a moment on that phrase, so beautiful in its simplicity. Surrounded on all sides by South Africa, the territory that is now Lesotho was pushed up higher than its neighbour by the geological forces that shaped southern Africa millions of years ago. Tremendous volcanic activity had caused a thick layer of lava to flow onto the southern part of the continent, which then gradually eroded away, except where it was covered by erosion-resistant dolerite (that explained the hundreds of ‘Table Mountains’ that we had seen all over South Africa!). The central plateau was then pushed up, creating what is called the Great Escarpment: the boundary between the high plateau and the coastal plains, which is most obvious at Lesotho’s eastern border with the South African state of Kwazulu Natal.

In fact, after gradually climbing as we progressed through Lesotho, and then descending into Kwazulu Natal, we would see the escarpment that forms the border from the Kwazulu Natal side, not as a series of peaks and valleys, but as one long, contiguous wall that looked impenetrable and has, indeed, only one pass that can be crossed by vehicles into and out of Lesotho: the 3200 meters high Sani pass. The Kingdom in the Sky really is an altitudinous state.

Our plan, then, was to enter Lesotho from the west, traverse the country and exit via the Sani pass. We could not afford to stay for more than a few days, because now, in winter, any snowfall would make the road impassable for several days, and we had a little over a week left to return the car to Johannesburg.

Stopping for supplies in Maseru, the city centre struck us as livelier, more colourful, messier and cosier than anything we had seen in South Africa. Markets, stalls, vendors caused a pleasant shock of recognition; I was reminded of Asia for a moment, but no, of course, this was Africa.

The shopping done, we left the city in a southeasterly direction, without a plan, and initially just toured and took in the countryside until we found a place to camp. It was immediately obvious that we had arrived in a very different country, although the extent of the differences would take some time to sink in.

The following day we turned around and, acting on a whim, turned onto a gravel road that would take us to the God help me pass on the A3, which is one of two roads that connect the capital with the approach to the Sani pass.

The gravel road soon turned into a 4×4 trail that took us through a beautiful countryside where not cars but horses and donkeys were the prevailing mode of transport, while many people simply walked. People gazed at us where we passed, some waved and smiled. We waved and smiled back, and marvelled at the colours around us, the landscape that changed with every turn.

We tried to speak with a shepherd, in vain, but he smiled a lot and burst out laughing when I showed him a picture I had taken of him. The pace at which we travelled became more relaxed than it had been, of necessity because of the road conditions, but also because there was no reason to rush. We stopped often, taking in the views, feeling calm and happy to be there.

For a few days we kept progressing slowly eastbound, and even the A3, which had been paved near the capital, turned into a gravel road and finally, at the Menoaneng pass which doesn’t share the Sani’s fame but is nevertheless situated at 3000 meters altitude, into a winding 4×4 trail that the low, bright sun made very difficult to navigate.

The further east we came, the higher we climbed. The days continued to be pleasantly warm as long as the sun was above the horizon, but the nights became colder. After sundown, we would marvel at the stars for a short time and then hurry into our sleeping bags. By eight o’clock, if not earlier, we would be fast asleep.

In South Africa, the temperature had dipped below freezing at night a few times, but in Lesotho, this became a common occurrence and in the morning, we regularly found our water supply frozen.

With the higher terrain, the vegetation became sparser, although small flocks of sheep or goats could still be seen. Here and there the rondavels, small traditional round dwellings with thatched roofs, and children and women calling out to us: give me something!

Lesotho is a poor country. Most of the population lives below the poverty line. In spite of that, the people seemed content with the life they are living, a life that hasn’t changed for centuries.

The difference with South Africa struck us. In South Africa we had driven through and stopped in towns where San, also known as bushmen, form the majority of the population. Traditionally, they had been hunter-gatherers, but there is nothing left to hunt (all the land belongs to people who have put fences around it, and when the San stole or killed cattle from the people who had put up the fences, they incurred the wrath of those same people who then organised ‘disciplinary’ expeditions in which hundreds and thousands were killed), and there is very little left to gather.

So the San now live in towns, and it is a desolate sight: men standing by the side of the road with nothing to do, all day. There are always more of them gathered around the local liquor store than elsewhere, but even at the liquor store, there is no hope.

In contrast, most people in Lesotho have at least a few head of cattle and most grow some maize (corn). We were told that many eat twice a day: ‘pap’ (maize porridge) in the morning, some meat at night. Once in a while, someone undertakes the long journey to the capital to sell wool and goats and buy what is not normally available to them, in other words, anything else, since there are practically no shops anywhere in the country.

It is a form of poverty, yes, it is the natural state of the subsistence farmer. It is not the poverty of the disenfrachised. The people of Lesotho have always been the masters of their own destiny, however humble.

Another thought: many whites in South Africa that we spoke to volunteered this information: the country is going down. It’s not, of course, and they’ve been saying it as long as we can remember. Basotho (people in Lesotho) will never say such a thing: like Asians, they smile about adversity, they giggle when embarrassed. They will not burden others with their problems or anxiety.

Are these thoughts premature, after such a short time? Probably. They are only my thoughts, my two cents’ worth as they say. Don’t attach too much importance to them.

Much to our surprise, from Mokhotlong, where the A1 and A3 met and continued together as the A14 towards the Sani pass, the road surface was a perfect tar.

This viewing platform just before the high point offers a last look at Lesotho. It also offers a look at the rocks some 10 meters lower through this part that has caved in…

After the high point at 3200 meters, which, strangely, is not considered the pass, we crossed a plateau before reaching the Lesotho border post.

Jackal Buzzard taking off.

I had been feeling uneasy about the way we had crossed the border near Maseru. Had we done the right thing? Should we have parked the car, got out and entered an office to do things with documents and stamps?

Now, as we stopped for a padlocked gate that made any thought we might have entertained about ‘just driving past’ sound silly, my apprehension grew. We approached a counter where an immigrations officer accepted the documents we handed him, leafed through them, and then asked us with a look of what-am-I-missing, When did you enter Lesotho? Upon our reply he studied each of the stamps in our passports and after what seemed like a long time, stone-faced, he handed them back to us. We were free to go. We carefully maneuvered the car onto the ‘wrong’ side of the road, which was not closed, and slowly, so as not to upset anybody, drove off.

There was indeed snow on the pass, which had fallen more than a week earlier, but it did not cover the whole width of the road. Right after that, the tar surface of the road changed into gravel, strewn with rocks, and the valley on the other side opened up. It was still a long way down to the South African border post but already, we enjoyed great views into Kwazulu Natal. From the South African side, 4×4’s operated by tour companies came up with paying passengers who had booked a ride up the most famous pass in Africa. It was the first indication that we had slipped back through the time warp and had come back in South Africa. The South African border guard shrugged and gave us a new entry stamp.

Back in South Africa: it was fences, gates, signs that threatened ominously with ‘armed response’. But also: a restaurant where we enjoyed a decadent meal on a patio, supermarkets that sold everything we could imagine, and more. Wealth in which we, the priviledged, could share. And I’m not going to lie: we enjoyed it. But memories of ‘the other side’, the beauty, the simplicity, still lingered.

We stayed in the Drakensberg area for a few days: Highland Nook, Nottingham Road, Monk’s Cowl, Golden Gate Highlands National Park, did a few hikes, spent one last night on a game farm near Johannesburg where Charlotte startled a few gemsbok (oryx) when rounding a corner at the end of the campsite and then went on to photograph several rock hyrax that were lazing in the afternoon sun, and then, reluctantly, we entered the city to return the car.

The city… Let me tell you one thing about Johannesburg: you don’t want to be there. After a few weeks spent outside, eyes filled with sun, stars and distance and ears filled with silence, entering Johannesburg was a shocking experience. Being in a metropolis is bad enough, but to drive into it and be thrown into a dog-eat-dog environment with irascible, capricious, reckless drivers is something no one should subject himself to.

Unfortunately, this was where we agreed to return the car, and where we will pick up the next one, which we’ll take into Botswana and Namibia. Fortunately though, the area where we are staying for a few days has some very, very good food options. Oh well. If you can’t have one thing, you can always indulge in another.

Zebra grazing in Golden Gate Highlands National Park.

Vervet monkey waiting for us to turn our backs.

Long-crested Eagle

Greater double-collared Sunbird.

Malachite Sunbird, male, non-breeding (I think).

Golden-tailed Woodpecker.

Crested Barbet.

Now what is this??

In Reitz, camping by a lake. Charlotte took this picture at dawn. The bird photos are hers, too.

We landed at the Cape Town airport in the early evening after a breathtaking view of the sun setting over the Atlantic Ocean, the silhouettes of familiar mountains and the lights of a city that had resigned itself to the onset of darkness. Getting through immigrations wasn’t quite as easy as it should have been, because fingerprints were required of all my ten fingers, and I have only nine and a half. Digital processing (pun intended 🙂 ) was therefore not possible, but I was escorted to another officer who processed my request to enter the country ‘the old way’ and dutifully stamped my passport. Feeling hungry, we then went to look for something to eat. We found only a handful of fast-food outlets and had a perfectly horrible meal at a place called ‘Steers’. After that, things were to get much, much better.

Cape Town, of course, is known for its excellent restaurants and nearby vineyards. We visited some of both over the next few days and became very happy people.

Lunch near Franschhoek

After those initial days in Cape Town we went to pick up the first of two vehicles that we had booked, a Nissan ‘bakkie’, converted into a 4×4 camping vehicle, which turned out to be a Toyota Hilux, just as well. We spent the rest of the day shopping for groceries and a few useful things, such as a lantern, a collapsible bucket, a bird guide. The next day, we took the Hilux to a 4×4 training area, where Trevor Knutsen taught us the basics of driving on sand, mud, gravel and rocks, as well as how to tackle steep inclines, choose a line on treacherous trails, and what to do when things don’t go as planned. With that knowledge and those skills acquired, we felt ready to drive off into the African bush.

We headed north-east and camped shortly before Ceres, and learned our first lessons. Like: you don’t leave any part of the car open and you don’t both sit with your back turned to it, not even to enjoy the setting sun. If you do, you may find that those cheeky baboons (bobbejane in Afrikaans) that ran right past you on their way to somewhere else have come back and raided your supplies without making a sound.

The following day, we reached what would be an undisputed highlight of our trip through South-Africa: Tankwa Karoo National Park.

Our first night in Tankwa Karoo NP

And the next morning.

South Africa has many National Parks, of which the Kruger is undoubtedly the most famous. What made the Tankwa special for us was the  fact that it has a few spots where camping in the wild is allowed, and besides that, it is remote and much less visited than the Kruger. We were alone, we did not feel we had to tick off the obligatory ‘big five’, it was perfect. We followed a 4×4 trail to reach our first camp in the park by late afternoon, folded out the rooftop tents, poured ourselves a glass of wine, listened to the birds and contemplated. This is not something you just do, it needs some settling into. We were going to get plenty of practice.

What followed was unforgettable. The day came to an end. Even as it touched the horizon, the setting sun was too bright to look into. Jupiter was the first ‘star’ to become visible, then came Sirius and Canopus, the Southern Cross and its pointer stars. While the birds still skitted around us, the western sky took on a blood-red colour, darkening by the minute. Low above the horizon, the familiar shape of Orion appeared.

A cold wind started dropping down from the surrounding hills. We became aware of the sounds around us – there were none. We stopped talking and listened, just listened. Perfect silence. More stars appeared, until the Milky Way left us absolutely speechless. The cold wind became periodic, then sporadic. It seemed to want to stop, but it would later come back to rage all night and make our tents shake violently. By sunrise, it would die down to a lull once more.

Second camp in the Tankwa.

We would drive through the park the next day, spot many animals we had never even heard of, set up camp in a different location and once again do lots of contemplating. We would travel on to visit the Karoo National Park, which draws much more visitors and which, precisely for that reason, impressive though it was, would not end up on our list of  favourites. We would continue east to Graaff-Reinet and the Camdeboo NP, and yes, this did come in second after the Tankwa. Ah, the Tankwa…

The town of Graaff-Reinet is on the left, with Spandaukop on the right.

Charlotte overlooking the poetically named ‘Valley of desolation’ near Graaff-Reinet.

After the National Parks, the animals, and long drives through a stunningly beautiful country, we found ourselves in Ladybrand, near the border with Lesotho and its capital Maseru. We didn’t know it yet, but Lesotho was going to be a very different experience. To be continued…

(Here are some of the animals we encountered. Charlotte took most of the animal shots).

Steenbok.

Gemsbok

Greater Kudu.

Springbok.

Cape Mountain Zebra. Nearly extinct a hundred years ago, now numbers are growing thanks to conservation efforts.

Klipspringer.

Red Hartebeest.

Common Eland.

Rock Hyrax (klipdassie in Afrikaans)

Blesbok.

Crag Lizard.

Flamingo.

White-backed Mousebird.

This Cape Bunting and…

…this Bokmakierie kept us company during our first evening and morning in the Tankwa.