Alone in Namibia with Martha Gellhorn

“You are alone?” the attractive young woman at the Hobatere Lodge reception asked.  Her raised eyebrow gave away her surprise. It was Christmas Day and I had just driven 10 miles on a gravel road turning onto it from another unpaved road. I didn’t see any other cars the whole way.  

“You don’t have children?” the other woman behind the desk asked next, but not even trying to hide her alarm. “No I don’t,” I answered, flashing a smile I had gotten used to doing, and quickly changed the topic to the five elephants splashing at the water hole in front of the lodge. 

The check-in continued as usual but the woman worried about my childlessness kept eyeing me suspiciously. Later I realized she must have thought I was some sort of a witch. During my two-night stay at the lodge, whenever I talked with the other guests or personnel, she would whisper a loud warning over their shoulders: “She’s alone!” 

The previous day I had Christmas Eve dinner on a hilltop lodge overlooking an arid valley and a plateau.  I was dining with Daniel, a Swiss man who’s lived in Namibia for a long time, and Albert, a Namibian from close to the Angolan border. They asked me a series of questions:  “Aren’t you afraid of driving alone in Africa?” I answered that I had traveled quite a bit in Africa before but that this was my first time driving, and no I wasn’t afraid.  But the questions continued: “Have there been any problems taking buses in Africa?” “You were not afraid of going to Mozambique by yourself?” Albert, a tall but gentle man, then confessed that he would be terrified traveling anywhere alone. 

I explained that I had been traveling solo since I was nineteen and that for whatever reason fear was never the most prominent feeling when I traveled. “It also seems I have good travel karma. At least an Indian guru once told me so.” Albert nodded and said, “yes, I can see that in your face.”

I didn’t tell Daniel and Albert that I didn’t exactly feel like I was traveling alone because I had Martha Gellhorn keep me company.  She was an American war correspondent and a novelist who lived throughout most of the 20th century. She was also a restless wanderer.  When I spotted the audio version of her only travel book, Travels with Myself and Another, I knew it was going to be a perfect companion for those long solitary drives in the Namibian outback. I was not mistaken: I was often laughing out loud and according to a biographer so was Martha while writing it. 

Gellhorn was seventy when she wrote Travels with Myself and Another. In the preface she announces that the book is about “horror journeys” because she reasons that nobody is interested in trips that go well.  One such horror journey is to Africa. In the early 60s she comes to some money after selling a short story to TV and decides for once to travel just for pleasure. “Travel for pleasure, the most daring idea yet,” she writes with her typical sarcasm. She doesn’t mention it but she was fifty something at that time.

Her African horror stories are mostly from West Africa: she starts in Cameroon and Chad where the conditions for tourists aren’t the most comfortable. Once she gets to Nairobi, Kenya, she refuses to join an organized safari and insists on renting a Landrover and go exploring on her own with just the help of a map of the game reserves. This is in 1962. The experienced safari guide would only rent a car on the condition that Martha has company: he picks a young man called Joshua to protect her and to help her with driving.

When I later called my mother from Swakopmund, a quaint but strange German settlement on Namibia’s Atlantic Coast, she asked:  “Didn’t they hesitate renting a big car like that to a young woman traveling alone?” I chuckle at “young”; I’m 48 years old.  On another call, my sister told me that over Christmas Eve dinner in Finland my brother, who is a proudly masculine guy, had said that he would be too scared to rent a car in Namibia.

Before traveling, I had read that Namibia is one of the least populated countries in the world.  It’s also so uncharacteristically organized with reasonably good roads that it’s often called “Africa for beginners.”  These facts convinced me that I could rent a car while I’d never do it in Ghana or Uganda.  I was nervous though but not about Africa: what scared me was handling the car and driving on the left side for the first time in my life.

Claire, the sturdy white Namibian woman running the Windhoek car rental place, looked hesitant to me as we were going over the paperwork. I felt sort of out of control and shaky that morning, perhaps still from the flight and dehydration or the lingering cold I brought with me from Abu Dhabi.  She said business was finally picking up. “Namibia made a great choice opening the borders for travelers with just a negative PCR test,” I said. “I guess. But the infection numbers are going up,” Claire answered with a sad look in her eyes. 

David introduced me to the car and started with the spare tire.  I don’t know anything about cars and have no idea how to change one.  The tire looked so big I would probably have a hard time lifting it. As he continued showing me the other features, I asked “how often do people lose a tire?” His answer that “it has never happened with this car” made me feel better.  As I left, David waved and said “take a lot of pictures and remember to drive on the left.” 

I slowly got used to the 4X4 diesel monster.  As I drove away from Windhoek in an arid but beautiful landscape dotted with hills, occasional signs reminded me to be aware of elephants and wild boars. The rest stops, marked with an acacia tree sign, promised shade from the harsh sun.  The further up north I drove the less tarmac there was and the more I appreciated the sturdy car; it helped me through gravel and dried river beds with big rocks sticking out.  One day I drove four hours between lodges and encountered only a handful of other cars all day.

Several times I was stopped by anti-poaching police who asked me to open the trunk.  The pair of police officers would patiently wait as I struggled with the two manually operated locks each with its own key, which refused to open once filled with dust.  But I was too relaxed from being on the road to lose my nerves and just took my time. Each time the scene was the same: I finally got the trunk open and the three of us stared at my dust covered suitcase and laptop bag lost in the huge and otherwise empty trunk. 

I’m not sure why they all just stared at the site for a long time. Because they were expecting to find a dead zebra? Or because the dusty luggage confirmed that I really was traveling alone?  “All that work opening the trunk and nothing,” one middle-aged officer said in a lovely, distinctly African accent. “Thank you for doing the work,” I replied, flashing that smile again and climbing back into the big car.  I couldn’t wait to put on my headphones to continue with Martha. 

Gellhorn is at her funniest as she slowly unravels how Joshua, her so-called protector on the road trip, is not much help at all. He takes no initiative. He is terrified of the animals she wants to encounter.  He is worried about soiling his pointy black shoes and imitation Italian silk trousers. It’s Martha who ends up getting knee-deep in rivers to check whether they’re safe to drive through. It’s Martha who removes trunks from roads with lions and rhinos in close proximity.  Little by little Martha also realizes that Joseph doesn’t know how to drive: he had lied just to get the job.

So in the end Martha hired Joseph just to lift her suitcase in and out of the car and occasionally translate a few words of Swahili.  All this while constantly getting on her nerves.  But in appearance he was the one protecting her.  I kept thinking that ihe was like an equivalent of a beard for a gay man: a ruse to ensure the world that gender norms were properly fulfilled. That a fearless middle-aged woman traveling alone isn’t capable of doing it all. That she is in fact as helpless and in need of a man as the world perceives her.  If I had had such a beard equivalent nobody would have stared at my luggage in silence, asked me whether I was afraid, or thought I was a witch.

But I’m not as capable as Martha. I left out the small detail that I damaged the car about ten minutes after renting it.  After David had reminded me to drive on the left, I left the parking lot repeating to myself “you’ve got this, you’ve got this”.  Somehow I made it to my hotel.  As if a self-fulfilling prophecy, entering the cramped uphill lot I lost control of the car and bumped into a metal pole causing a deep dent and scratches on the left bumper.  In deep shame, feeling like an incapable woman, I decided to tell nobody and to deal with it only when I returned the car.

Later that night I changed my mind and messaged one of my gay friends: “Damaging the car in parking lots is perhaps the single most feminine thing about me. And the phobia of mice and rats.” I was at my first lodge room after a successful leopard game drive with a German family. I was still giddy with excitement about the close encounter with the big cats who were so curious the ranger had to remind us to keep all our limbs inside the vehicle.  It was my first time seeing leopards, so cat-like and yet so wild.

Afterwards, as the family was telling me the story of how a lodge owner in Kruger National Park was killed by a leopard, the ranger prepared us gin and tonics using the hood of the car as his table.  Suddenly the German mother asked, a bit surprised, “Are you having a gin and tonic as well?”. “Yes, why not” I answered innocently thinking that little does she know; like Martha, I like drinking. 

I found out that Martha too kept secrets when she felt she had made stupid decisions.  In Surinam, reporting on the wartime efforts, she realizes there is an unmapped part up a river.  She makes arrangements to go explore it — “how could I not?”–  and hires a local man she doesn’t like very much, whom she calls “Slicker.” He warns her of the jungle mosquitoes but she doesn’t take him too seriously having already survived the insects in the capital.  But she ends up falling very ill and has to rely on Slicker to carry her back. It turns out she caught dengue fever. “I told you about the mosquitoes,” says Slicker. She’s so embarrassed she tells no one about her thwarted expedition until writing the book decades later.

Listening to Martha’s story driving further north a few days after I had decided to keep a secret made me feel better. I felt understood. I felt seen. I admired her matter of fact and self-depreciating tone and humor. I flattered myself by finding many similarities between us: a chosen — no: compulsory — nomad existence, an innate curiosity, a love of swimming naked and encountering intense moments of happiness while traveling.  Martha describes them as body and soul momentarily existing in harmony.

When I reached the famous Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia I was hoping to join a group to visit the park.  But due to a low number of Corona time visitors there were no groups. “But mam, you can drive yourself.” “Damn,” I thought, imagining getting stuck in a remote part of the huge park with no way to ask for help.  As if to enable my horror scenario, when I started off right after dawn the next morning I forgot my phone in my bush bungalow.

I bought a map at the park entrance and drove along remote roads.  Stopping at a water hole, turning off the engine and opening the windows I listened to the deafening silence. The zebras were silent and so were the giraffes.  Even the birds had decided not to make noise that day.  Along one road, I stopped to observe baby ostriches. A snake crawled across the road. A nearby mongoose stood up on its back legs and looked at me curiously.  Suddenly a herd of springboks approached my car and surrounded it.  The delicate tiny antelopes stared at me in the eye, making no sound, as they were munching on leaves.  It seemed like I had been allowed to join a pastoral, to be a part of it.  With body and soul in sync.

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