This tale took place while filming for the documentary, The African Witchfinder. (you can read more about the filming HERE) Because Kaokoland, the northern region of Namibia where the largest population of Himba live, is so arid and sparsely vegetated, when the rains come in the wet season, they can cause flash flooding in the seasonal riverbeds. We found this out for ourselves one day when we drove to Ndjinaa's village from our lodge in Epupa Falls to film her -- "we" being me, Berrie, Mally and Toby. It was a spontaneous decision to go there at that time; we had driven to the top of the falls to look for a guy to interview who served drinks in a little hut there. He wasn't around, and so Mally said, "Well let's drive out now to see Ndjinaa." So we did.
This means that Berrie's friend, Koos, with whom we were staying at his lodge, was not informed of this spontaneous decision, so he had no idea we had struck out on the dirt road to the village in the Berrie Bus -- a 10 passenger van that generally served us well but was not a 4-wheel drive vehicle nor a high-clearance one. Driving the road to the village was no problem. On the way home, late in the day (early evening by that point), we found ourselves on a rather different road, as it had rained up-country and filled some of the river beds. So we crossed a couple streams, no problem. Then we came to a broad river, shallow but moving fast.
Berrie halted the bus and there was a discussion in the group whether or not to try crossing it. In a high-clearance 4x4 it would not have been worth even discussing. However, we were in the Berrie Bus. We decided the first rational thing to do was to scope out the riverbed and make sure there were no unseen deep pits we could get stuck in or large rocks we could high-center on. Berrie grabbed a nearby tree branch for a walking stick and waded across the river.
After finding no surprises in the riverbed, he came back with a "thumbs up."
So now we voted. Me -- you may know me well enough by now if you follow my blog to guess that after about 10 seconds of deliberation I threw in my vote for "yes." Toby was game. Mally not so much. He had a legitimate concern about all the expensive camera gear in the car and the footage we'd just acquired, etc., should a worse-case scenario unfold. I had a very hard time imagining the van getting swamped or flipping over, however, who knew how much more water was on its way from the hills and could arrive at any moment. Berrie took no convincing to vote "yes," even though it was his van on the line. Well, actually it was his friend's van, loaned to him. I hope they are still friends. I haven't asked.....
But we wanted a unanimous vote, and Mally soon came over to our side. So, Berrie revved up the engine, and with a unified voice we cheered the Berrie Bus on. The BB started out with a strong showing and we were encouraged. But half-way across it lost momentum and quietly sank into immobility.
Berrie and Mally in the front seats got out. I opened the sliding door in the back for Toby and I to get out, and water poured over the top of the running board. Ack! Quickly closed the door and climbed out of the front seat. Yep, the BB was not going anywhere anytime soon. It was time to abandon ship.
We took all of our camera gear to shore just to be safe and got to work right away grabbing stones from the shore to put under the wheels and try to gain some traction. But the water was bringing down so much silt, it began piling up against the wheels and undercarriage. So we worked on two fronts ... some piling stones and some digging away the sand.
We tried to move the BB again and made zero progress. We were clearly fighting a losing battle. There was no cell phone reception for Berrie to call Koos to rescue us, but he thought he could just walk down the road a little ways and get in reception range. He'd traveled this road many times in the past, so the rest of us trusted his judgement on this and presumed he would return shortly after placing the call. He set off alone with nothing but his cell phone.
The rest of us decided to fight the futile battle anyway, and we busied ourselves digging sand away from the wheels and undercarriage, and trying again to move the BB with me driving and the two fellas pushing from behind. No progress. I think they doubted my abilities at the wheel, even though I live in the snowy mountains and have had to get stuck cars out of snow banks many times ... I know how to rock a vehicle and how to move it forward, and I have a manual-drive truck myself. But I can understand they don't know me, so Mally tried his hand at the wheel with me and Toby pushing.
Nothing. Except water and mud in my face.
Stuck as stuck could be.
We were wasting our energy and the light was growing alarmingly dim. Where in the world was Berrie? After more than an hour he had not returned and the sun was setting. We were in the middle of rural Namibia. In that hour-plus, not a single person on foot, bike, or car had come near us. Berrie was on foot alone. The other three of us were in a country we didn't know, facing darkness in a land where the natives stay in their kraals after dark because of the snakes. Black mambas can easily be mistaken for a stick in the dark and will send you beneath the roses in a gruesome and expedient manner.
In that area there aren't many other worrisome animals except for crocodiles (no lions or large mammalian predators). I doubted a crocodile would find its way up such an ephemeral river bed, but they are so greatly feared in my mind that I felt worried anyway. They live in great numbers in the Kunene at the Epupa Falls. (in fact, it had been raining so much that the Kunene was very swollen and as we were conducting some interviews on the lodge grounds, the banks had been fortified with sand bags and my role was not to chase chickens and goats this time (see Making A Film), but to keep an eye out for crocodiles who might be swimming close to the sand bags. It's not an overly cautious move ... the previous year I was there, I asked a local about the crocodiles and he informed me that locals get munched not infrequently, and tourists have, too, ones who were stupid and ventured into the water.
We began to feel concern for Berrie's fate. What if he got bit by a snake? What if he twisted his ankle or something? What if ..... we actually couldn't come up with many what-if's, because we couldn't imagine what would keep him from returning. Maybe it was just taking Koos a long time to come fetch us with his Land Rover, but then we would imagine Berrie would start walking back to us to tell us Koos was on his way.
The minutes ticked by. No Berrie, no locals, no moving Berrie Bus. The proverbial cricket chirping in an empty room. (we had been able to keep the tailpipe above water so that the vehicle was kept running the whole time ... if we could just get out of the mud, it would be fine) Should we gather our gear and start walking down the road after Berrie in the dark? Should we stay put indefinitely?
The sun abandoned us. Although there were three of us on the river bank, we felt terribly alone. Finally we heard an engine, and headlights split the darkness, blaring right at us. It was a local with a pickup truck and several passengers, including Berrie, who had never reached cell phone reception. He had gotten caught up In the excitement of the attempted crossing, and basically simply forgot that he knew there was no reception for a long stretch yet down the road. But he kept walking. Finally some locals came through and picked him up. When they reached us, they saw immediately our predicament. They didn't speak English and we didn't speak Himba, but no words were necessary. They got out a rope to hook to the BB's front end. It was dark now, and I don't think anyone had flashlights (I can't actually remember now), but the locals worked so quickly in a pack that though we couldn't really see what they were doing, they seemed to have it firmly under control as if they'd done this a hundred times, so they inspired our confidence.
So the rope was hooked up between the pickup's tail and BB's front. The pickup lurched forward and we heard a peculiar sound, but the BB did not move. Confusion. Upon closer inspection of the BB in the dark, we could assess that the rope wasn't hooked to the proper place. We didn't know for sure what it had been hooked to, only that it was not the right place! Now we didn't know if the BB was severely damaged or what, but the locals retied the ropes and tried again.
This time the BB followed obligingly and rolled up onto dry land at last. Yay! We thanked the locals and they drove off while we started home, wondering what exactly had made the peculiar noise when yanked by the rope. Hardly had we started home when Koos came driving up in his Land Rover, wondering what in the hell had happened to us, we didn't show up for dinner. Nobody knew where we were. He finally surmised where we had most likely gone and came to find us. Since I don't speak Afrikaans, I don't know the exchange of words spoken in this tongue between him and Berrie, and Berrie told us later that most of the words happened back at the lodge between the two of them. All Berrie told us was that Koos was close to livid and told him if they were still in the military, he would have severely disciplined Berrie for such foolishness (Koos rose to be a high commander in SWAPO, whereas Berrie got out of the army as soon as he could).
But all became well that ended well. Koos had calmed down by the next day, Berrie was appropriately sheepish about the situation. Mally, Toby and I were pretty happy with the adventure since it turned out okay. The only casualty was the BB. The locals had hooked the rope to the air conditioner. Which was now the "late" air conditioner. We still had many days left in the trip, and it was summer, when temperatures in this region could be blistering. I confess that a sense of dread washed over me thinking about the rest of the traveling, as I am not one who tolerates heat well. In fact, I had insisted to Berrie before coming that we needed a vehicle with air conditioning or I wouldn't fare well.
But amazingly, the weather was not too brutal, and with all the windows open, it was perfectly tolerable. We made the rest of the trip without air-conditioning.
So ... should we have crossed the river? :)