Overlanding Africa - Race for the Border

Guzzle H2O Goes to Africa - Race for the Border

I'll preface this installment of the series to say that it has nothing to do with Guzzle H2O or its products, but is an exciting part of our travel story.

We last left our story on the high of seeing the lion and lioness saunter into the light of the water hole. It was exactly the kind of animal encounters we envisioned when we planned the trip. Unfortunately, while we were enjoying the animals and landscape of Etosha, the world had still been moving and Coronavirus was quickly becoming a major issue everywhere. Until that point, we had been pretty well connected to the world via our cell phones or park wifi. For some reason, in Etosha, the cell signals made it seem like we should be getting emails and web browsing, but hardly anything would load correctly. The restaurant's paid wifi was also down. That afternoon, we had overheard a few people around the pool talking about what they were going to do, where they were going next, etc, but nothing seemed much worse than it had two days prior when we had last gotten good information.

Luckily, Doogie speaks fluent french and overheard some men talking in the bathroom about how they were getting recalled to France the next morning. They had come from Victoria Falls (where we were planning on heading next) and told him the situation there was not stable as far as the border crossings were concerned. They explained that their guide had told them they had to get on a plane home the next day.

Everyone we spoke to had a lot of intense emotions around this issue, as there were hardly any cases in Southern Africa and everyone's home countries were starting to get overwhelmed. I know that we felt much safer from the virus in Namibia than we did in Washington state.

After a brief talk about it, Doogie and I said we would reevaluate in the morning and retired into our separate rooftop tents. There had been some hyenas roaming through camp in the evenings, so we each bunked in with one of the kids just in case they needed something during the night. I think both of us were lying there repeatedly hitting refresh on our phones, trying to squeak a little bit of info through. After a restless night, we woke up early and both agreed that maybe we should not continue east, but perhaps head south to the nearest town to see if we could get wifi and cell service so we could reevaluate our situation. We debated about still doing a game drive and then going south from the other entrance of the park, but luckily decided to head straight south and make up the game sightings later in the trip...perhaps in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana.

We got to the nearest town around 8 am and stopped for gas. Our gas fill-ups were painfully slow due to the extra gas tank. The way the tanks filled required the gas attendant to slowly fill it by hand so that the gas could drain from one tank into the other. But that was ok, it left us plenty of time to start browsing our phones to read the latest news. That's when we realized how serious our situation had become. Sailing friends who were also staying on in Africa to do a safari, but staying in South Africa, text us and said that the borders were going to close to Americans that night. We were going to be locked out! Doogie and I both got on our cell phones and found out that South Africa had already closed 75% of its land borders and was not allowing any citizens from high-risk countries in starting the next day (which we assumed meant midnight that night). Now, if you read my other posts, you've already read how vast Namibia is as a country. It's huge and nearly 1000 miles long at the coastline. We were very far north and very far away from South Africa. Start the panic!

Just about everything was running through our minds. What if we were stranded in Namibia. Could we fly out of Windhoek? Where we would be able to go? What about Botswana? Doogie still had bags in Cape Town for his next event (and plane tickets out of Cape Town), but that event had also just been canceled. The kids and I had tickets out of Johannesburg. Cue ALL.THE.EMOTIONS. Doogie called his mom and got her out of bed in the middle of the night in California so she could research for us and follow up with consulates, US government recommendations, etc. We looked into everything and contacted anyone we could think of. I was on my phone's internet looking for the closest land borders. We were especially concerned about the borders closing before we could get there, as many typically had limited hours and closed in the early evening. Finally, we concluded that no matter what, we had to start heading south.

As we drove south, we figured the closest way to Johannesburg was actually to cross into Botswana and then into South Africa, but that meant two border crossings and importing the car into Botswana just to drive through. We quickly decided that was too risky and the border crossings themselves might take too much time, so driving straight south to the South Africa/Namibia border was the best route...13ish hours away. It was around 8 am at this point. I drove (on the left!) while Doogie continued to call consulates, travel agents, and more for advice and information. A lot had happened in those two days without wifi or cell phone reception. South Africa had already closed several smaller land borders. Luckily we found two 24-hour borders still open on the main highway, due south of where we were. Now we just couldn't stop for more than gas because who knows how busy the borders would be when we got there.

Also adding to the panic was the fact that we had driven on gravel roads for a lot of our time in Namibia. The distance was doable on paved roads, but we were worried about ending up on gravel roads again. It turns out the road we were on was paved the entire way because it is the major road that runs the length of the country. I won't call it a freeway since most of it was one lane in each direction, but that's what it was by Namibian standards.

We drove like the wind. We were happy to have a double gas tank and diesel fuel. We only had to stop for gas once after that initial morning fillup. Both Namibia and South Africa have rest areas every few kilometers along the road. These are not like the rest areas you see in the US and usually only have a picnic table and perhaps a tree for shade. (If you have bathroom needs, you have to make do with the bushes!) For lunch, we stopped at a picnic table, threw together some sandwiches from our cooler, and kept driving. In the late afternoon, we stopped for gas, bought road snacks, and kept going. Google said we were going to make it with time to spare, but there was a nervous energy in the car. We finally made the South African border around 8:30 pm. The border was not busy, but they already had official notes that said not to let in any citizens of the US, China, Italy, and a few others. Talk about being nervous. If they didn't let us through, we had a few backup plans, but none were as ideal as catching our original flights home. The border agents ended up taking pity on us since we were a family with two kids and it was late. We had also come from South Africa earlier in the week and explained that our flights were out of Johannesburg we were headed back there to arrange new flights home to the US. Doogie had actually been in Africa long enough that he was past the two-week quarantine period and would have probably been let in no matter what, but the kids and I hadn't been there quite as long. Luckily there was still a health worker on duty, so they took our temperatures, as they had done when we flew in, stamped our passports and let us in. What a relief!

Racing for the Border

Last sunset in Namibia as we get closer to the South African border.

Race for the Border - we made it!

A fuzzy selfie that Doogie took at the border to remember our story.

Our race for the border was intense. If we hadn't made it, we probably would have had to buy new plane tickets home out of Windhoek, Namibia's capital city, and fly through busy European airports that were already starting to shut down. It was so late by the time we got to a town that night that all the campgrounds were locked up for the night, but we passed a hotel and decided it was time for real beds and wifi. We settled in around 10 pm, eating a package of freeze-dried spaghetti that we had brought from home for emergencies or late night dinners.

Of all the things we thought we would encounter on our grand adventure, a race for the border was not among them. Little did we know that our adventure to get home was just beginning.