Wildlife

Breakdown in the Kalahari

Mosodi shut the hood of the truck. “It’s the gearbox.”

Earlier that morning, we had departed New Xade for another round of filming in Metsiamanong in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Shortly after passing the border gate into the reserve, the engine of our truck started making a loud clacking noise.

Now, it wouldn’t even start.

“How far to Molapo?” I asked.

“Around 45 kilometers.”

Molapo was the nearest San settlement in the CKGR. Cell service doesn’t extend into the reserve so calling someone wasn’t an option. We could either wait on the rarely used road in the hope that help would arrive or we could seek it out in Molapo.

Trips into the reserve are expensive and difficult to organize, and I felt pressure to be as productive as possible during my two-week visit. The idea of burning days waiting for something to happen rubbed me the wrong way.

I grabbed my raincoat and water bottle and shamelessly pulled a line straight out of the Fellowship of the Ring:

“I’ll go, though I do not know the way.”

Kitsiso jumped out of the back of the truck and decided to join me. I ran the numbers in my head. If we walked three miles every hour, we had nine hours of walking ahead of us.

And so we departed on our epic journey across the Kalahari plains. In the back of my mind, the Blood Diamond “hike” theme song played on repeat.

KalahariPlains
A raincloud in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

We saw all kinds of wildlife. Antelope – gemsbok and steenbok – paused their grazing and looked at us curiously as we passed. Small squirrels emerged from their burrows only to retreat back into them. A fox darted in and out of the long grasses. We even saw a giant green mamba slither across a tree branch. It was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the sprawling beauty of the CKGR without my camera in hand.

We walked the first five hours without stopping, driven forward by the knowledge that lions and other dangerous animals are more active at night. During our first stop, we downed the last of our water supply. We were at least halfway to Molapo by then, so turning back didn’t make sense. We had to press forward.

Luckily, it had rained earlier in the day. We eventually found a puddle that hadn’t dried under the sun, got on our hands and knees, and drank. Kitsiso taught me that the trick was to gently blow the surface of the water to clear the dirt before taking a sip. We satisfied our thirst, sat in silence for a few minutes, and then set off again.

We continued like that, briefly stopping here and there, until we arrived in Molapo later that night. It was probably the longest and most difficult journey of my life, but the triumph I felt when I collapsed in front of a warm fire in Molapo was worth it. We had made it. Rather than resign ourselves to doing nothing, we flexed to change, drew up a plan, and put it into action.

I write this story because I enjoy it, but it’s also a testament to an important lesson I’ve learned time and again in Botswana: flexibility is crucial in everything, including filmmaking.

Plans inevitably change, and being able to adapt to a situation is important. This applies beyond logistics to the realm of storytelling, too. I have to listen to my characters. I should go into production with a plan but be open to having that plan challenged and changed. Often, real life is more compelling than any narrative I draw in my head.

I’m reminded of an interview I read with documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman. He was asked about the best career advice he had ever received: “If you end up with the story you started with,” he said, “you weren’t listening along the way.”

Daniel Koehler, of New York City, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. He will film a documentary on the San living near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana, focusing on the loss and change of their culture.
  • Mary Kay Muders

    I’m so glad that you’re safe and that it was a good experience for you. How did you get back? This seems like a story in the movies, or a reality show.

    • Daniel Koehler

      There was another truck in Molapo, so we used that one to tow our vehicle to the settlement. Unable to repair the damage to the gearbox, we also used the Molapo truck to get us out of the reserve, a trip that had its own set of problems when we ran out of spare wheels due to punctures!

  • Nandini Gupta

    Thank you for sharing your experience, inspiring piece!

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