How a Wooden Kitchen Spoon Might Have Saved Our Lives in the Kalahari

Purr....March 15, Kasane, Botswana

The African bush was more than 10 feet high on both sides of the Land Rover. It was so thick and so close to the truck, we wouldn’t have been able to open the doors if we’d tried. All that was fine considering we were in the middle of the best wildlife viewing of our African adventure. And, frankly, why would we want to open the doors, given that a large male lion was about 10 feet from us, peering at us through a small window in the bush.

We were in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, more than 100 kilometers and a full day’s drive from the closest town. We sat with the truck turned off in complete silence and watched the lion for a good 30 minutes. He lay lazily and yawned and watched us. Occasionally his nose would perk up when he would catch a whiff of us, or the Australian family that was in their car just in front of us. Sarah and I had the luxury of traveling a few days with some Aussies, which included two wildlife biologists, Stu and Sally. (Stu had even spent time with the late great Steve Irwin. Crikey!) We sat and watched and took a few pictures, the only noises being the movement of the shutter and our breathing. We exchanged looks of amazement with the Aussies when the lion would look our way.

After we had had our fill and realized that we were probably invading the lion’s personal space, we knew it was time to move on. I turned the key to the Land Rover. Instead of that comforting “clunk clunk” sound of a diesel engine turning over, all we heard was a loud whine. Then silence. My jaw and Sarah’s jaw hit the floor. We were stunned. The Aussies, just a few inches off our front bumper in their own car, turned around and stared in disbelief. Now, all I could hear was my heartbeat and my breathing. The Land Rover didn’t start and the lion was yawning again. I’ll be honest with you here: I was terrified.
Sarah and I sat in silence for what seemed like 15 minutes, although it was probably more like about 2 minutes. Should we try it again? Should we wait for another car or truck to push us away from the lion? Victoria FallsBut that could be days! And even still, then what? Call a tow truck in the middle of the Kalahari Desert? We sat in silence, again, this time staring at the lion, who was staring back. He knew exactly what was going on.

What could we do, but try the ignition key again. So we did. Nothing. Except silence.

We sat and waited, and occasionally looked at the lion. He looked back.

We tried the ignition key again. This time, to our amazement, it started. Sarah and I were giddy. The Aussies looked as relieved as we felt.

Our time in the Kalahari was an amazing experience. The same lion we’d seen close up with our mechanical problems, we’d seen the day before mating. We’d heard him at night roaring. There is no other sound and feeling that compares to the roar of a lion in the middle of the night, just a few hundred meters from your camp. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating. Even from a decent distance, it literally shook us.

After the Kalahari, we headed to Francistown, Botswana, to a mechanic, who claimed there was nothing wrong with our starter motor, the Cheetahs in Krugerprobable cause of our lion incident. We begged him to find something, so we could find some sense of relief, but he came up empty handed.

We then headed up to Chobe National Park in northern Botswana to try our luck again back in the deep African bush. We teamed up with a Brit, John, and his American girlfriend, Lauren. They were almost finished with their Cairo to Cape Town journey in a similar Land Rover and were keen to see Chobe, famous for the largest elephant population in Africa.

We weren’t disappointed in Chobe. We saw hundreds of elephants, some frolicking and swimming in the Chobe river, others grazing. We saw a few baby elephants, some that couldn’t have been more than a few days old. We also saw hippos and on a boatride on the Chobe we got too close to one. He charged and dove and charged at us as the captain sped away. Hippos, the most dangerous of all African animals, are known to sink boats and take bites out of canoes. And people.

On one of our daytime safaris deep into Chobe I noticed the battery light flickering on and off in the truck. I shrugged it off, thinking, just like in the Kalahari, there’s nothing to do but hope — hope for a lion-free experience. Still, our final morning in Chobe, the Land Rover wouldn’t start. It was the same noise we’d heard in the Kalahari — a whine. A loud, obnoxious whine. I was frustrated and annoyed, but John instantly revealed a 500-page “How to Fix a Land Rover by Yourself in the African Bush” manual. He was flipping through the pages. Alternators. Batteries. Starter motors. What to do if this happens? What to do if that happens? Then he remembered hearing from a friend that if you tap a hammer to a starter motor, it will move the coil and brushes just enough to get the truck going again.

I laughed. Sarah laughed. John laughed back, as he handed me a hammer. “Seriously,” he said. I crawled under the truck and proceeded to tap at the starter motor. Dirt and dust and mud and elephant crap that had built up over the past few weeks fell in my eyes. I tapped again. More dirt and dust and elephant crap.

I got out from under the truck and tried the ignition. Sure enough, the Land Rover started and off we went. A hammer. Amazing.

After Chobe we headed up to Livingstone Zambia to have the Land Rover looked at again and to view Victoria Falls. The morning we had planned to head to the mechanic, the truck wouldn’t start again. There it was, that familiar whine, instead of the engine turning over. Our hammer was buried deep in the bowels of the truck, but near the rear door were our cooking utensils, including a foot-long wooden spoon. The spoon didn’t have the same tapping power as a hammer but with enough force it just might do the trick. A few whacks and sure enough the Land Rover turned over and the truck was spewing out diesel fumes. Off we went to the mechanic. A mere $60 later and we had a re-built starter that was free of dust and grime and elephant crap.

A week of heading south again brought us back to South Africa so we could do some climbing at South Africa’s most famous crag, Waterval Boven. Sadly, our experience there was tainted by a robbery and the pathetic response of the local officials. The thieves got all of my photos! The lesson learned, as you can read about in a further blog entry, is not to trust security guards in South Africa as they are often involved in the crimes. Even the manager at the campsite, Elandskrans Resort, admitted to us that her campsite was not safe and in the past, security guards and staff were involved in crimes! Other travelers, be warned: Don’t stay at Elandskrans in Waterval Boven.

We tried to raise our spirits by heading to Kruger National Park for some wildlife viewing. Kruger boasts the highest population of animals in Africa. And, we were treated to some sights of the big five, as well as three cheetahs, rolling in the grass.

Off to Swaziland and then on to Mozambique.

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