Namibia and cancer journeys

I am writing this blog in the back of a hired Ford Ranger at 5.25am on the 7th October 2017 on the road to Skilpadshek on the Botswana, South African Border. This is the last day of our holiday before flying back to London tomorrow. But this was no ordinary holiday, two weeks in a convoy of three 4X4s setting off from South Africa through Botswana to Namibia. Organised by Sakkie and Beatrix, our South African friends, Tercia and I together with their 3 adult children, Tian, Rachelle and Ruben (plus girlfriend Luca) and friends George and Mimmie travelled to the wild, majestically beautiful and sparsely inhabited KaoKoveld Region in the North West tip of Namibia (I wonder if this is the same place as Trump’s ‘Nambia’?) next to the Angola border. We had last met Sakkie and Beatrix two years ago in October 2015, when they joined us to watch the opening matches of the Rugby World Cup in the UK. It was also the time that my throat cancer was diagnosed. Previous blogs have tracked my progress (see below).

However, the two year follow up with my surgeon a few weeks ago had particular significance. Patients with my particular type of cancer have a reassuring 80% five year survival rate – but the 20% that recur tend to do so early on within two years. The surgeon gave me a clean bill of health, so I was now in a buoyant mood ready for an adventure. And an adventure it proved to be – we have covered 6,000 kilometres in the fortnight and seen too many wonderful sights and had too many special experiences to be described in great detail here, but some have to be highlighted.  

My African experiences have also allowed me to compare and apply lessons to my other ongoing journey – the so called ‘cancer journey’.

Having left Polokwane in the Limpopo Region of South Africa on 23rd September, our first night was spent on Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi and Naxi Pans National Park, Botswana.

A surreal experience of mile after mile of white dust. Our camp was on a raised area replete with giant Baobab trees that is only a true island at the end of the rainy season.

The next day we experienced a complete contrast at Swamp Stop on the Okavanga Delta; there we had an early morning boat trip to see the birds and crocodiles. This delta flows into the pans and disappears rather than going to the sea.

Then via a camp on the Cupango river to Etosha National Park. The campsite overlooks a waterhole and we saw five rhinos including a rhino calf coming to quench their thirst late at night. These rhinos did not just saunter down (as you would have thought given their size and strength) – but they had a ritual of each coming out of a different part of the veld and positioning themselves so that the calf was safe from any predators.

The elaborate ritual took a couple of hours and except for one hyena who came close and then backed off, no other animal came. They presumably came back later. There are only a few water holes left in the region at this time of year as it is the end of the dry season, so the animals have to share. But the Disney pictures of animals all settling down to drink together, forgetting their position in the food chain hierarchy, seems to be false. Each animal knows its position and respects the others.

The next day we suffered our first puncture (there were to be four more) within the reserve. A passing game bus driver told us off for being outside the vehicle – but how else do you change a tyre from within the car? However, we soon understood the wisdom of his admonishment as, with tyre replaced, we set off again only to find in the next mile a few vehicles collected together with eager tourists pointing out a cheetah and her young. So then, up north to the atmospheric Kunene river that forms the border with Angola and onto Epupa Falls.

To get to our next camp at Otjinungwa we traversed the infamous Van Zyl’s pass which tested all our ‘off road’ skills. You can only transverse the pass east to west – as two east facing rusting metal carcasses in the valley bed are a testament to.

On to Puros to seek out the unique desert elephants – we found one after a few hours searching and then camped on the side of the river bed; waking up to a herd of giraffes and the cleanest camp  toilet I have ever seen (and the hottest shower ), thanks to Mr Chips the camp administrator. The camp had been visited by a jackal at night, the African version of an ‘urban fox’ which leaves a similar mess.

We soon fell into a pattern each evening and every morning of witnessing the setting and rising of the ever present sun in the clear skies. The former accompanied by ice cold local beers and exotic cocktails (battery powered deep freezes in the bakkies) and the latter by freshly brewed coffee. While this was an adventure it was accompanied by extraordinary degustatory and imbibing excellence with a braai most nights  – courtesy of Tian, ‘braaier extraordinaire’  – even fresh bread baked by Mimmie in a ‘braai/sand oven’. 

We then turned south passing the Brandberg mountains (lion seen the day before so no walking to our room in White Lady lodge) to Swakopmund.

Here animal and landscape watching was replaced with ‘extreme sports’: Running up and down the notorious Dune 7, dune quad biking and then bakkie driving in the mountainous dunes. This was followed by a traditional German dinner of Eisbein and 2 litre boot beer tankards in the old town (still influenced by the German colonial days of South West Africa). Then onto Windhoek to sample the food and Jagerbombs at the Legendary Joes (full of memorabilia reflecting living and travelling in the Namibian Desert). You either love these shots or hate them – I am in the latter camp.

We first stayed overnight in fixed tents on a magnificent plain at Solitaire and experienced the power of a strong desert wind (the area also famous for its Apple Strudel). Now we were on our way home, having stayed the last night at Kang just North of the Kalahari Desert. Ironically the rainy season started and we witnessed a thunder and lightning storm with huge hailstones, which was the only rain we had experienced except for about eight drops in the Namibian Desert.

To finish we had a mere 600 kilometres to reach home via Pretoria (to drop off Ruben and Luca at an IT fayre in Pretoria – the biggest in Africa).

Looking back over the last 2 weeks I reminisce on evenings spent talking around the Apiesdoring wood fire while a game of bridge was continued on the side. Like everything in Africa, even this game was intense. A young budding actuary, chartered accountant and industrial engineer meant that the standard was high, almost matched by the more mature advocate as the 4th player. Our conversations ranged widely from the Angolan war to the strengths and weaknesses of different types of cattle, the nutritious value of different types of grass and, always in the background, the future of the African nations. But often when the conversation returned from English to Afrikaans I just relaxed and revelled in the pleasure of good company.

So what lessons were gleaned that could be applied to my other journey. Well, the labour-intensive exercise of pitching and breaking camp each day for 10 people reinforced the importance of harmonious working together. It required a team that knew their individual roles (Tercia and I did move from being totally passive at the start to helping a bit towards the end of the two weeks) and these skills were also applied to the (minor) emergencies of the punctures and soft sand. I am also beginning to understand the real application of modern technologies – satnav was invaluable – and not only for finding our way, but identifying tyre depots and diesel stations in the middle of nowhere. Also Apps for naming stars and constellations in the clear Namibian sky, and for identifying birds. However, maps are still useful as a social way to discuss routes (and do not need a charged battery) . It is more congenial to sit around a map to discuss a journey than use a sat nav –  even though the local camp owner at Otjinungwa thought my map ‘shitty’. He came as a tourist a few years ago and stayed, and I can understand why.

Before the trip I had become low as I had hoped by this time that I would be ‘normal’ again rather than retaining the label of ‘cancer survivor’. However after two years, my post radiotherapy fibrosed jaw muscles, limited saliva and lack of molars mean that I am constantly reminded of my diagnosis and treatment every time I eat and drink. This was mixed with a feeling of guilt that I should be happy as my prognosis was good and I should not be ruminating on the minor side effects. In the end I sought help, because whilst I found I could cope with the trauma and challenge of the acute events, this drawn out and permanent feature seemed daunting. Apparently, this delayed reaction is common in ‘controlling’ people who need order in their life and feel problems should be solved and not lived with. 

The answer, of course, was revealed by our Namibian excursion – take each day as it comes – rejoice in the rising and setting of the sun (easier when you can see it, which is not always possible in the UK!). Accept that each day will contain many adventures (and some challenges) and take pleasure in overcoming them.

And when all is said and done – there is always rugby! We arrived back in Polokwane just in time to watch the New Zealand vs. South Africa rugby match. South Africa lost by one point (24/25) in a thrilling game with a controversial All Blacks try, a controversial South African red card and an inexplicable South African kick for touch rather than goal. Our reluctant return home was brightened by sharing the passport control queue with the All Black players.

Roll on 2019 and the Rugby World Cup in Japan

7th October 2017

PS. A month before the trip Sakkie commenced his own ‘cancer journey’ as he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and two weeks ago had robotic surgery in Pretoria. Not many patients would consider this trip a good way to convalesce. As they say ‘Africa is not for wimps!’


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