Learning lessons on “expedition”

I recently experienced a six-day 4×4 expedition to the Kalahari in Botswana (as a newbie to the world of 4x4ing, I have already learnt to call these trips “expeditions” as it sounds far more impressive). Expeditions make it seem like you are roughing it and conquering undiscovered terrain. “Wow!”, they will think. “He said he was going on an expedition and this must mean that he is going somewhere dangerous like Mali! With that incredibly huge amount of gear in and on top of and under his car, he must really need to protect himself from the elements!”

The fact that you could be going to a campsite two kilometres outside Johannesburg is completely immaterial because I have also learnt that no matter where you are going, you end up taking the same colossal load with you. In fact, whilst finalising the packing for my expedition, I had to make last minute emergency changes and remove my microwave, twelve bottles of wine, a continental pillow, the solar powered dishwasher, a five-thousand-piece puzzle, and a spare suit. All this just so that I could fit the satellite dish in!

My excuse for packing so much was that I was not going to a campsite just outside of Johannesburg; I was going to the great wilderness of the Kalahari. A huge expanse of land filled with lions, snakes and the occasional bear. I would be part of a small, controlled tour group and we would drive through an isolated area twice the size of the Kruger Park, camping out in the open. I decided I needed everything – just to be safe.

Of all the knowledge I gained while on this expedition, the first thing was probably that you need half the things that you think you need. Most things are packed in fear of the unknown, and I guess that it is only through experience that you will finally learn what is important and what is not.

In addition to that, I also learnt a great deal that may be of use to others who are going on their first trips:

Packing (again): The golden rule is that if everything fits in too easily, it means you have forgotten something. There were certain days on the expedition when all the gear fitted into the car with phenomenal ease. I would proudly call my girlfriend over and show her how quickly I had packed the car using a new technique. It was usually at this stage that she tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out the five square metre canvas tent that I had forgotten to take down, and the satellite dish that was sneakily hidden behind it.

Experts: When going on an expedition with a veteran who does everything efficiently, be prepared to be filled with a slight feeling of ineptness. This, I hope, is completely normal. When we stopped to set up the campsite at the end of each day, we usually found that our fellow traveller and expedition leader was sipping a cold beer eight minutes after the cars stopped. I was still balancing on the side sills, trying to reach the ratchet straps that were just millimetres out of reach on the roof rack. When my calves finally started to cramp, I got my girlfriend to climb up and unload the roof rack while I joined our leader who was on his third cold beer by that time. So there truly is a solution to every problem.

Animal Spotting: I had to force myself to accept the fact that there will be times when you simply cannot see the animal that your tour leader is pointing out. I believe that what makes it so difficult to admit is the two-way radio. There is something very difficult about pressing that little red button and transmitting a message to all the people in the lead car, admitting that you are the only one who can’t see the animal that is causing so much excitement.

Sometimes, saying something like: “Oh?..yes. Um. Yes. Beautiful!”, when you are seeing nothing but green scrub, takes the pressure off. Or, if you are really feeling brave when someone has apparently spotted a leopard, sitting in a tree, that is invisible to you: “Wow! That is amazing! I love the incredible colour of his eyes!” This has a tendency to backfire when the next transmission you receive is that it is actually not a leopard, but a piece of dead bark hanging from a branch.

Vehicle Damage: Early on, I learnt how to stifle my sounds of anguish and hide my tears when the high pitched screeching sound down the side of my car indicated that it was being scraped by thorn tree branches. I usually did this by simultaneously stuffing my entire bottom lip into my mouth and clamping my jaws shut. People will try and make you feel better about the scratches on your paint work by saying things like: “At least you are using it for what it was designed for.” But to tell you the truth, this didn’t work for me.

Securing Things: I gained an immense amount of experience with regard to the fact that unless something is absolutely NAILED to the car, it will move from its original position during the journey. I was continually surprised by the ability of inanimate objects to squirm out of their original location. Water pouches bounded throughout the car as though they had kangaroos stuffed into them. Roof rack straps flapped tirelessly on the roof of the car even though you tied them, triple tied them, stapled them, and tucked them into any available spot.

Breakages: I found that if something does get broken on the trip, apologies, expedition, it will be one of the things that you borrowed. It will also usually be the thing that you promised to look after “with your life”.

It will also be the one item that belongs to a person whose things you would least like to break. In addition, I have also decided that if something does pop or burst, it won’t happen outside of the car. It usually happens on the front seat and leaves a puddle a few centimetres deep.

The entire experience taught me to enjoy myself and to appreciate the amazing scenery that South Africa and Botswana has to offer. It was truly a wonderful trip and all of my lessons were learnt with great pleasure.

I knew I was doing something that many people will never get to do in a part of the world that many people will never get to see. The wonderful vistas and scenery will live with me for a long time and I am already planning my next “expedition”.