There is a narrow stretch of land that spans the northern border of Botswana and stretches from Zimbabwe in the east to Namibia in the west. Known as the Caprivi Strip, the area has been controlled by various nations over the years and had long been the subject of heated international dispute. Officially part of Namibia since it’s independence in 1990, it was the site of a separatist coup attempt and violent incursions from Angolan guerillas as recently as 2002. The strip gained a certain notoriety in travel circles when in December, 1999 armed thugs killed tourists traversing the highway that links mainland Namibia with Victoria Falls and other destinations eastward. After a series of such attacks, the nascent Namibian government closed the strip to open travel and instituted a program of armed convoys similar to that we encountered in central Egypt in the summer of the same year. The hostilities on the strip died down after the conclusion of the Angolan Civil War in 2002 and travelers are once again allowed to travel the region independently.
This suited us just fine since the Strip afforded us quick entry into the Namibian heartland from Livingstone, Zambia. We toyed with dropping back down into Botswana to the Okavango Delta but decided a quick boat ride from the town of Rundu would be sufficient (two days on canoes with the little kids seemed a little more than any of us could bear!). Rundu sits at the western end of the strip where the Okavango River begins its descent into the world’s largest inland delta. Here we found a lovely little lodge by the name of N’Kwazi that was situated directly on the riverbank and seemed the perfect stopping off point on our way to Etosha National Park. Little did we know it would be the site of our very own Caprivi nightmare.
We arrived just as the sun was beginning to set and as such didn’t have much time to scope out the grounds. We set up the tents in a location appointed by the lodge manager and fired up the braai (barbeque) for another one of Tom’s delicious homecooked meals. After playing with the lodge dogs, taking a brief swim, and visiting with some young men from the town, we went through our usual nighttime camping routine of eating, cleaning, and grooming before collapsing exhausted into our tents.
As Dax and I washed the dishes, I noticed a menacing machete lying on the table next to the sink. Next to it was the jacket of the security guard, Bonnie, whom Tom had met earlier in the evening. “I sure hope he’s on our side,” I thought to myself as my eyes ran up and down all 24 inches of the rusty blade. When I got back to the tent, I asked Tom just who Bonnie was supposed to be protecting us from–animals or people. “People,” Tom replied. I knew theft to be a rampant plague upon Southern Africa but had no idea how Bonnie intended to stave off thieves in the night with this particular weapon.
We fell asleep peacefully, once again admiring the beautiful African sky and thanking our lucky stars we could be in this captivating place as a family. Around 12:30 I awakened abruptly to the sound of drums beating in the distance. “What on earth could that be?” I wondered. We were in such a remote location and it was so late, I couldn’t imagine anything respectable was afoot. Was there some sinister midnight ritual going on? One of the locals had tried to explain to me the workings of Angolan black magic and how the last queen had been killed a few years earlier by witchcraft. Could human sacrifices be involved in the drumming? Would the drummers or whomever they were beating out a rhythm for be coming for us?
I dismissed the racings of my mind as paranoia and fell back asleep only to be awakened a few minutes later by an equally unnerving noise–growling. Transfixed by fear, I listened as an unknown animal slowly made its way around the perimeter of the tent sniffing, panting, and groaning with a raspy, guttural exhalations . I immediately realized that all that stood between me, my three youngest children, and this creature was a thin sheet of blue nylon sheeting. The sound abated and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was still too worried to fall back asleep and was horrified a few minutes later when I heard a few of the lodge dogs yelping and running away. Something had frightened them and given the noises I had just heard, perhaps eaten them as well.
Not two minutes passed before the creature returned to our campsite. This time it sniffed around my tent and then headed over to Dax and Tom’s tent just 10 feet away. I heard movement in the tent and knew that Tom’s parental protection radar must have awakened him too. When it sounded like the animal had moved away I whispered as loudly as possible, “What do you think it is?” “I don’t know.” “A bushpig, a hyena, a lion?” “What should we do?” “I don’t know.” “Do you think we could make it to the car?” “I don’t think so.” “Where’s the guard?” “I don’t know.” “Should we call for him?” “I think we have to.” “Let’s wait and see if it comes back.”
We could hear our invisible predator rasping in the distance and figured we had to do something to ensure it did not return. Clearly we were holding its interest; since we hadn’t left any food out, we could only assume it was considering us as a meal.
“OK, I’m going to yell,” Tom whispered. “OK,” I agreed.
“Guard. Help. Guard,” he shouted quickly, deeply, and loudly.
The plea brought a terrifying result. Immediately the beast, not the guard, came running. Instead of scaring it away, Tom’s yelling had brought it hurtling back to us. By this time Dax and McKane had awakened and picked up on what was happening. When another minute or so passed with no response from Bonnie, Tom yelled again, “Help. Guard. Campsite. Bonnie. Campsite.” All the while Dax heard the monster breathing its evil, throaty growl just inches from his head. In my tent, McKane, always the worrier in the group, planned with me how we would shield Kieran and Asher should it decide to crash through the fabric wall that separated us.
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably more like three minutes, we heard Bonnie’s voice cautiously approaching. “Hello?” he queried. “Over here,” Tom called. As a groggy Bonnie arrived, wielding both flashlight and machete, Tom emerged from his tent and I popped my head out of mine. “Animal…big animal here,” Tom explained.
Bonnie looked confused and Tom went on in halted, please-understand-me English to give an account of the animal’s repeated visits, including the unearthly noise it made. “Dog,” Bonnie said. “No, big animal. Not dog. Sounds like this,” Tom corrected as he once again tried to replicate the rasp. “Yes,” Bonnie agreed and made the same noise.
“Wild dog? Hyena?” Tom asked. “Dog, not dangerous,” Bonnie replied.
Obviously we weren’t making any headway and Bonnie was not understanding the gravity of the situation. We all clambered into Uncle Vito and decided to wait and see if our demon creature would return. Bonnie shook his head and said, “It’s safe. You can sleep in tent.”
“We’re just going to stay in the car for a while,” Tom countered.
10 minutes passed with no sign of the beast. Bonnie returned every few minutes to shine his light around the campsite and assure us it was ok to return to the tents. Finally, Tom, who has braved bears and wildcats in the American West, and Dax, who fears nothing except final exams, decided to return to their tent and brave out the rest of the night. By now it was 2:30 and we were desperately craving sleep. McKane and Kieran filled in the back rows of Uncle Vito while Asher and I took the front bucket seats. I kept the window cracked and spotlight primed in case Tom or Dax hollered for help from the dark.
After four hours and much tossing and turning, we watched the sun rise and ventured from our metal and nylon cocoons, still stunned from what had happened in the night. After a little detective work, we pieced together the puzzle of what had happened. The drums that had awakened me emanated from a neighboring lodge that throws late night parties and is currently the bane of the N’Kwazi owners’ existence. Something–probably a wild dog–had ventured into the lodge and scared the owners’ many dogs, with the exception of one–a massive, hulking Bull Mastif with a respiratory affliction. We couldn’t believe a dog could have made the deep-throated sounds we had heard but the English-speaking guard insisted on taking Tom to the “big dog” and sure enough it was our own demon dog, who the guard assured us is quite mean.
As best we all could figure, the demon had scared off the wild animal that made the other dogs yelp and then patrolled our site in an effort to protect us. Misinterpreting his sounds and his size (waist high on Anne and over 150 pounds), we had been terrified rather than comforted by our ailing defender.
Whether the wild creature meant us any harm, we’ll never know. What we do know is that we now quiz lodge proprietors on the presence of animals, both wild and domestic, and make sure we scope out an area fully before setting up camp.
The moral of the story: as parents, we would do anything to protect our kids, but doing so is often a thankless task. Dax and Kieran keep reminding us that we were scared of a…..ha ha…big dog….ha ha…and Asher bursts out into cries of “Help! Campsite!” in a husky voice at least five times a day. Embarrassing? Perhaps, but our night of terror on the Caprivi Strip is actually what this trip is all about. On this one night out of the 350 we are spending together, we shared an experience that brought us together and that we will remember and laugh about for the rest of our lives. I’m the first to admit we’d prefer the memories come without fear, but having survived our night in Rundu, we feel a camaraderie and sense of accomplishment only adversity can bring. …..final line?