And so tonight, ten days into the trek, on the eve of the arrival of the world’s 707th richest person, news came that the Land Rover commissioned to haul all manner of senseless luxury items like ice chests and dinner tables some five hours across the desert had dropped a drive shaft and been temporarily abandoned. Rudi responded to this news by absolutely losing it. I mean losing it—bellowing to the skies with a stream of epithets scatological, anatomical, and blasphemous that could not be printed in this or perhaps any magazine. And now the guys from the Nature Conservancy, the ones who’d bankrolled this expedition, were approaching the panicked realization that perhaps Rudi was not quite ready for polite company, that the prickly traits that made a great desert conservationist were not the same as—indeed, might be the opposite of—those required for glad-handing benefactors and charming the media. Like the ungrateful rhinoceros that would just as soon puncture the gut of the wildlife biologist who wanders into its lair, Rudi could really screw things up here. Shucks to your media, shucks to your acclaim, and shucks to your philanthropy: Rudi of the Rhinos might just prefer to flee into his desert and be left the hell alone.
Touchdown on the Savanna
My first glimpse of Namibia knocked the wind from my lungs. After 48 hours and six flights, hallucinating mildly from jet lag and malaria pills while the guy behind me busily tapped on his BlackBerry, I looked out the window of the charter plane as it dropped toward a dirt landing strip in the middle of nowhere and saw a big gray thing loping across the sand. It was sort of like seeing a celebrity on the street. Omigosh, that big gray thing loping across the sand looks just like an elephant! Wait, it is an elephant! Then a handful of smaller, brown things chased after it, and with my confidence swelling from my elephant sighting, I blurted out, correctly: "Lions!" Staggering onto the hot tarmac amid the screams of crickets, I steadied myself and deduced: I must be in Namibia now.
We had arrived at Hobatere Lodge on the western edge of Etosha National Park, and before the sun set I’d been shuttled out to the plains to see zebras, springbok, oryx, and warthogs. I realize that in the pantheon of adventure, viewing animals from a vehicle ranks fairly low, but I was rapt nonetheless. In fact, I suggest that if upon hearing a herd of zebras thundering across the land, their gamey musk floating on the breeze, if a person does not feel some deep stirring of wonder and religion, then he lacks a soul.
I might have been pleased to spend a few days beneath the thatched roofs of Hobatere, where at every turn a handsome African in olive kneesocks and a crisp khaki shirt presented a tray of icy orange soda and cold beer. It was like wilderness, with waiters. But that was not my purpose here, and in the morning, with the sound of hornbills banging against the hut windows, we laced our shoes and loaded the camels and got ready to walk.