I wrote up this first person vignette about getting lost in Botswana for a website called AFKTravel, that I created a lot of content for when it began — they sent me on assignment to Zimbabwe and also Cape Town. But the story itself took place years before, when I was researching my first Lonely Planet travel guide, just out of college. The book was Africa on a Shoestring, and I was covering three countries: South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. For Lonely Planet you went everywhere, even the most out of the way towns, so I rented this little car for three months and took my friend Lani, who was ski-bumming in Colorado at the time, and we literally drove every inch of those three sub-Saharan African countries — often times taking the car to places a small white Fiat should never have ventured. People in all three countries used to ask if we were insane. And not because we were two white chicks driving around Africa (that was never actually an issue), but simply because we were stupid enough to off road in a hatchback. I explained it was a budget travel guide, and this was at least a little easier than using public transport, as some authors would try to do.
“There’s no way this can be right,” Lani says as she twists around in her seat, and cranes her head out the car window. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, no one would be crazy enough to build a hotel here.”
She’s probably right, but I’m not ready to concede victory.
“The book says 25 kilometers, we’ve only gone 23 kilometers. Maybe it’s around the next bend,” I say with a fake grin.
“Are you crazy? Next bend? There are no bends. We’re in the middle of a freaking pan, it’s dead straight in all directions and I don’t see anything that even closely resembles a life form, let alone some desert oasis. I think we should turn around. You know what the book says about pans.”
“I know, I know,” I say as the car lurches across the scorched and barren terrain. The book in question is a Lonely Planet guide, which we are following in an attempt to find a backpacker-style hotel in the middle of nowhere.
It said we’d be following a rough cattle track, but this feels more like four-wheeling across the moon. The ground looks like it hasn’t seen a drop of rain in decades. Like the hands of a weathered farmer who’s spent too many days in the relentless sun, the earth is dry and cracked, coated in bits of gravel, specks of razor-sharp sand. Nothing grows here; it seems impossible to imagine any human could build a life amid such an inhospitable climate.
We are deep in the heart of Botswana and I’m starting to get scared.
“We need to turn around,” says Lani, who has embarked with me on this crazy 15,000 kilometer trek in a small white Fiat that will take us around three southern African countries. “The book says you should never drive into a pan without a GPS system, that it’s really easy to get turned around. We could drive in circles for days and no one would ever find us. Come on, it’s not worth it.”
“Look, we’ve been following the same path, if we don’t see something soon we’ll just turn around and follow the track back,” I say through gritted teeth as I try to swerve around what looks like a crater. I hit the edge of it. The car groans and buckles. I feel the bottom dragging on something and the right side lifting up. I accelerate, pushing the little white Fiat forward, over the rocks. There’s a loud scraping side and Lani and I watch the right hubcap fly off the rim and tumble across the rocky lunar landscape. Now this is too much. I find a semi-level patch of ground, brake and kill the engine.
It’s only after I retrieve the hubcap that I start to really worry. The landscape is disorienting. The view from every angle is the same – flat and barren with barely a tree to mark one’s course. I start the engine and turn the car around. It worries me that Lani looks so worried. Until now, she’s been fearless. In the last three months we’ve driven through most of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, but nothing we’ve driven has been as scary as this.
“I think this is the path we took,” I say as I peer out the window, looking for any familiar marker.
“Who knows?” she replies. “It all looks the same.”
“No this is right, I remember this bump,” I say, but my voice is anything but sure. Maybe we didn’t come in straight, maybe I’m angling off course. There’s a track to the left and another to the right, but neither one looks like anyone has driven on it for years. If I guess wrong we could drive around in circles for days, or worse, never find our way out. I’m starting to panic. I count the kilometers as we backtrack: 10, 15, 20…
We pass a cow.
“Hey, I remember that cow. Don’t you remember that cow?” I practically scream. I guess I’m really starting to lose it.
She stares at it. Leans her head all the way out the window.
“I don’t know, it just looks like a cow to me.”
“Yeah, but we only saw one cow. It’s got to be the same one. I remember the spots,” I say, my voice only slightly hysterical.
“Many cows have spots,” she responds.
And then I hear the best sound in the world. It’s faint at first, but as I accelerate it gets louder, more distinct. That’s definitely the hum of wheels on pavement. The highway. I let out the air I’ve been subconsciously clinging to. Breathe deeply. We’ve made it out.
“Hey,” Lani says. “Isn’t that a sign for the lodge? She squints as I reach the t-junction we started from. “Yeah, it says it is 250 feet in that direction,” she points ahead. “We turned left, we should have turned right.”
“The book said to turn left. And it said 25 kilometers. F#*k, how did we miss it?”
“We weren’t looking right. You should never trust everything you read,” Lani says with a wicked grin. “F@&king, Lonely Planet, bible indeed.”
It takes another 15 minutes to check-in. Soon we’re planted safely at the bar, sipping semi-cold African brews and smiling. Suddenly being lost in a pan seems a lot less scary and a lot more like the wild adventure we’ll commit to memory for years to come.