He would cross 155 miles of proposed parkland, a region known as Kunene, and survey the culmination of his life’s work, from the big-game savanna bordering Etosha National Park to the rocky badlands where the black rhino dwells, across the world’s oldest desert, the Namib, to the blinding dunes and foggy cliffs of the Skeleton Coast on the Atlantic Ocean. Even by the standards of Namibia, Africa’s second least densely populated country, this is remote territory. Kunene is bigger than Virginia but has fewer than 70,000 inhabitants. The two-week route would see no towns, paved roads, power lines, or, with the exception of a handful of huts, human-built structures. Which is the way Rudi likes it.
Like the black rhino, Rudi is a solitary creature who prefers hot, desolate voids and resents the intrusion of others. He browses a spartan diet, pays little mind to fads or current events, and would be quite happy to spend his days sipping from water holes and napping away the afternoon heat in the shade of the poisonous euphorbia bushes. For this trek, Rudi envisioned a bare-bones crew of scientists and trackers to survey the wildlife and a team of six camels to carry the load. They would move light and swift.
But then it got complicated. Impressed by what Rudi has achieved on a shoestring budget, the world’s best funded conservation group, the Nature Conservancy, gave SRT $100,000, finally allowing Rudi to work in five-year plans instead of six-month scrambles. The Namib trek would serve to launch their partnership publicly.
What this meant for SRT was a shot at the big time, international acknowledgment of its success, and vindication of Rudi and Blythe’s decades of uncelebrated labor. But what this meant for Rudi’s walk was one headache after the next.
The Nature Conservancy’s scientists would be uploading blog posts and video clips for the group’s members and donors, an undertaking that required laptops, power sources, and a satellite modem. The crew bloated to include a reporter (that’s me), a photographer, and a documentary filmmaker. Suddenly there wasn’t room for all this gear on the camels—the team was shorthanded, since one of the beasts had been eaten by lions. The trek would have to be supported by vehicles, and the roster swelled again, with four drivers, two cooks, and two camp hands. And for the kicker, one of the Nature Conservancy’s billionaire board members, along with his wife and grandson, was crossing the Atlantic in a private jet to join the expedition’s final leg, adding another two Land Rovers and four staff to the entourage. Rudi’s walk in the desert was beginning to look like the siege of Rum Doodle.