The Trip of a Lifetime

Desert voyage of discovery

by Stephen Hesse

How much trouble can two errant JT columnists, seven female undergraduates from a Tokyo university, an ex-bush fighter and motley others get into during 10 days exploring the wilds of Namibia? Join Stephen Hesse, Hugh Paxton and their intrepid entourage for a lively, humorous and often touching adventure in southern Africa.

At any other time of the year, Namibia is a land of contrasts — but not in the dry season. Then, during its southern hemisphere midwinter, Namibia is rough-hewn and sublime by turns, revealing itself in myriad shades of brown and yellow. Still, it is consistently hot and dry. And it’s dusty: Dust that’s so fine and gets so deep into your pores that I swear you cough it back out.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For five years, my close friends and intrepid fellow Japan Times columnists, Hugh and Midori Paxton, have been living in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. Since virtually the day they moved there, we have been chatting about organizing a tour for my undergraduate law students here in Tokyo, giving them (and me) a chance to traipse through the wilds of that huge, empty country on the Atlantic in southern Africa — a country that’s half as big again as France, but home to fewer than 2 million people.

Problem was, I just never managed to conjure up a reason that we thought would pass muster with my faculty paymasters. I also didn’t want to put my colleagues in the awkward position of telling me once again, “Ah, Hesse-san, please remember, this is Japan.”

Then fate came to my aid. An international diplomacy course I was co-teaching needed to place several students in short-term summer internships. Knowing that other students were headed for Geneva, Thailand and the Philippines, I crossed my fingers and took the leap.

“How about Namibia?” I asked, waiting for laughter. But it never came.

“We could certainly consider it,” my colleague replied.

My expression froze so that a huge grin wouldn’t split my face in half.

That afternoon I dashed off a note to Midori. “Any chance of placing some students in two-week internships?” I inquired.

Her response was quick and kind: “Not a chance. Interns need much longer time commitments.”

It was the next line that was kind: “But we could organize an environmental conservation study tour of what’s happening at the United Nations Development Programme, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and at various NGOs across the country.”

“Yes!”

* * * * *

Three months later, on Aug. 28, 2006, I am at Narita Airport with a huge box containing a windshield for Hugh (talk about unwieldy omiage) and the seven female law students between the ages of 19 and 21 who had been chosen from our pool of applicants — all of whom, curiously, had been female. All are beaming, carrying backpacks, and ready for Africa.

I have complete faith in Hugh and Midori, but I’m no longer completely sanguine about traveling to Namibia with seven students. For the first time I get worried.

“Aren’t you nervous?” I ask one of them. “No, I can’t wait,” she replies. I ask the others the same question. “No,” they all say, smiling and brimming with confidence.

Now I really am worried — for them, their parents, the university and, particularly, for myself. I realize that these young women are assuming that everything will work out just fine, simply because they expect it to.

How can anyone be so trusting?

My brain starts racing as I imagine all the things that could go wrong: A snakebite, a kidnapping, god forbid a death! How few can I bring back and still keep my tenure, I wonder.

Little did they know that within days we would be bouncing through mountain passes; pushing stalled vehicles; changing tires; eating meals consisting entirely of meat, not all of it identifiable; surrendering ourselves to the finest dust on the planet; and losing cameras willy-nilly. (Hugh is convinced that this is due to genetics).

Yet, to my surprise, and at times total amazement, the young women accept these challenges with aplomb, even joyfulness. I am flabbergasted; and by the end of the trip their patience and adaptability have me on the verge of tears.

* * * * *

From the outset my students seem to trust their guides — Hugh and Billy (and me) — completely or at least they don’t let on if they have any doubts. This should put me at ease, but it doesn’t.

Billy, our driver, storyteller and local fixer, is intent on finding venomous snakes to show the students. “It’s safe if you know how to hold them,” he assures me.

Hugh, too, wants this trip to be educational. He is determined to teach the students colorful epithets that are Namibia’s primary linguistic currency in the bush. (When he breaks his ribs, the students leapfrog to the advanced course.)

I’m feeling glad I’ve prepared myself for two weeks of shallow sleep, with an ear open for the inevitable scream.

But that scream never comes.

* * * * *

No, the Namibia we saw was not a land of contrasts; but it is a land of sublime beauty that enchants and seduces.

After just five years, Hugh is addicted, and Billy’s love is decades deep, tempered in the crucible of war.

* * * * *

These men, and others equally in love with the sparse beauty of Namibia, teach me a lesson about the desert: In as much as it is kind to anything, the desert is kind to rough edges.

There are rough-edged mesas and towering rock pinnacles; and there are rough-edged people, too busy living and working, and loving both, to be worried about anything but getting on with life.

Yuri, for example, the barefoot Japanese guide who showed us around the dunes of Sossusvlei, and revealed to us teeming life where our untrained eyes saw only sand and desiccated plants. Eight years ago, Yuri came for a visit; now Namibia’s her home. She and her partner, who is also a guide, never wear shoes — ever.

And Rudy, who runs Save the Rhino Trust and swears more in a sentence than most of us do in a month. He’s as rough on the outside as the species he’s dedicated to saving, but he has a heart of gold and is willing to sacrifice himself, and anyone who gets in his way, to save Namibia’s endangered rhino population.

Jeff, a young American researcher working with Rudy, had all the students enchanted. When we got a flat tire in the bush, he had the girls fix it — leaving them all with dirty hands and huge grins of self-satisfaction.

Then, when we returned to camp after six hours bouncing through the bush, he immediately packed us into a Land Cruiser and raced off on a bone-jarring ride to the top of a windswept mesa, miles from the nearest human being. There we had existential sundowners: red and white wine and a game of Frisbee above the African sunset.

Mad Max, a legendary hunting guide we met at Etosha National Park, kept us entertained till sunrise with brandy-fired stories of hunting and sex, the two indistinguishably intertwined, all packaged in the most creative bursts of profanity I have ever heard. (Disclaimer: This was long after the students had gone to bed.)

As drunk as he was, Max proved sober enough to recognize a great deal when he saw one: He bought the last reviewer’s copy of Hugh’s most recent book, “Homunculus,” and got a full-page personal inscription to boot.

Then there’s our driver, Billy, whose stories revealed enough layers for us to know he has many more, some perhaps better left untold except to historians. Billy, who Hugh euphemistically called “very good to have around in a tight situation,” unhesitatingly swerved off a gravel road into the savannah grass to free a springbok tangled in a fence; and his face never looked more beatific than when he was feeding bread to ground squirrels.

And Hugh himself, a consummate storyteller of fact and fiction, both rough and sublime. I’ve known Hugh for 15 years since he lived in Japan, and I swear he was Namibian long before he ever set foot in the country. Though he’s actually English, it’s as if he’s been searching for home all these years and finally found it.

Namibia’s not all sublime beauty, of course. There is serious poverty and no one in their right mind would wander around the streets at night, except perhaps with Billy. The haves and have-nots are separated by high walls topped with electric fences and barbed wire.

But Namibia is a young country with potential that other African nations can only dream of: mineral riches, fabulous scenery and wildlife, and a blossoming ecotourism sector.

It also has indescribable open spaces. A vastness that gave my students a unique chance to explore their own hearts free from the judging eyes and sanctions of home.

And they changed. Their eyes are brighter, their laughs are clearer, and they speak more comfortably than before. I don’t know if the change will last, but to have known that clarity even once is a treasure.

That’s why, as we drove out of Windhoek to the airport on our final morning, I had tears in my eyes. In Namibia I had seen nature at its best make better people of my students.

And she taught me something, too: Sometimes, everything works out just fine simply because you expect it to.

* FAIR WARNING: A Paxtonian take on the same trip, sometimes cheerfully referred to in Namibia as the “f&#%ing Paxtuncular Insight,” may be found here.

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