How a 5,000-km African Road Trip Forged a Father-Daughter Bond

Forming a father-daughter bond during a 5,000 km journey.

As COVID-19 continues to limit our travel plans, I find myself recalling some of the most memorable trips I’ve taken. Traversing Africa more than five years ago with my father Gordon was one of them.
Bumping along the highway, strapped into my seat aboard the tour group’s converted truck, I was marveling at my surroundings. Flame red desert dunes rose on the horizon and ostriches loped along in the distance as a deep blue African sky stretched straight up to heaven.

The scenery wasn’t the most amazing part. What truly stunned me was that I was traveling through southern Africa with my 87-year-old dad. The last time we had traveled together was 40 years ago on a family camping trip to the Canadian Maritimes. Our relationship was prickly back then. I was a petulant teen who slept and complained a lot.

This time, I was wide awake.

After volunteering in Swaziland for a year with an agency that dealt with gender-based violence,  I was in need of a vacation. Dad, based in Toronto, had never been to Africa and since my mother had passed away he had only taken vacations in North America. I suggested he come over for a visit.

I was a tad nervous. I didn’t want him to be bored. Plus, were the hotels going to be nice, was the food going to be OK, would we see enough animals, would we get along? I made sure to pick a guided tour with a full itinerary.

We met up in Cape Town, joined our tour group and boarded the customized truck that would take us through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe for three weeks. We were a total of 20 and our fellow travelers came from Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the United States. Pilani was at the wheel, our driver/guide from Zimbabwe.

Reaching Namibia a day later, we stayed overnight in a guest lodge along the Gariep, or Orange River. This waterway was renowned for propelling diamonds all the way from Kimberley’s famous volcanic pipes to Namibia’s Atlantic coast.

Sitting in front of our cabana, we gazed out over the river dotted with egrets and herons and indulged in nip of duty-free scotch dad had tucked in his bag. “I had a chance to come and work with a mine in Namibia once,” he said.

Dad’s career had spanned mining engineering and then, after law school, he became general counsel for a mining company.

“Another fellow was assigned the post. I’ve wanted to come here ever since.”

I was glad I had helped make it happen. Our nightly drams made conversation easy. We chatted about everything from what we had seen that day, to career choices, and family feuds. I had been nervous about the trip because I had not spent this much time with my father since I moved out of the house to go to university. But, as each night passed, my fears were quelled. Something was growing beyond the usual parent-child connection. Friendship.

Driving through the arid, mineral-rich landscape we made our way to the Fish River Canyon. Second only to the Grand Canyon in size, the Fish River Canyon’s main waterway is dry much of the year. Was it mistakenly named? “Catfish nestle deep in the mud of the dry riverbed, waiting to come out during the rainy season,” Pilani explained.

Perched on the rim of the canyon, we peered down at the bone-dry riverbed. “They are sleeping there right now,” Pilani said with a chuckle.

Our first sightings of iconic African animals were at a rest camp. Oscar and Wilde were two cheetahs that had been born to a mother captured from the wild by a local farmer. Now 12 years old, they lived at the camp and visitors could enter their enclosure for a guided walk.

The young German guide stayed perfectly still and Wilde came out of her hiding place, lay at the guide’s feet and started purring. Curious, Oscar watched us carefully from a distance. They had never had the chance to run, the guide told us, and my heart broke as I saw Oscar sidle up to the edge of the fence and stare out into the wilderness.

I was much happier when we reached the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Flying over the world’s largest inland delta–15,000 square kilometers–I could see groups of elephants standing knee deep in swampy water lazily munching on green delta grasses. The area is home to at least 200,000 large mammals. After reaching our island lodge, dad and I set up on the porch of our stilted cottage, a permanent tent complete with bathroom and outdoor shower. We had reserved the afternoon for reading and napping, but the snoozing didn’t last long.

Waking up to a racket of crunching and crashing, we saw a huge elephant stride by, in search of the island’s tastiest grasses. One of the lodge’s guides was walking after him clapping his hands loudly. “Out, out,” he shouted and the pachyderm trotted off like a deer caught nibbling carrots in the garden.

Lots more wildlife was to come. In a canoe ride among water lilies we sighted crocodiles, Cape buffalo and hippos. On a walking tour a warthog started shadowing our group, and curious baboons watched us from the tops of deserted termite mounds.

Another highlight was Chobe Park. Known as “Land of the Giants” the 11,000 sq. km reserve was teeming with elephant families spraying each other and playing in the river. Pods of hippos, disguised as rocks, floated by our jeep and monitor lizards kept careful watch for prey along the shore.

Our last day was spent at Victoria Falls. Dad and I were mesmerized by the thundering water, or Big Smoke, as it is known locally. Although there was plenty to do, from bungee jumping to river cruises to helicopter rides, we opted to stay put. Gazing at the rushing water from a number of lookout points, we got soaked to the skin from the spray.

Thinking back on it now, it felt a bit like a baptism. A rite that confirmed our bond.

That sulky teen of 40 years ago was now a grown woman who had just travelled 5,000 km with her dad. And loved it.

“Great trip, eh honey?” said dad, giving me a hug as we stared at the falls.

“Not just a great trip,” I replied. “The best.”

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