1971 – After Africa —
Where To Next?

There they are, in a small alcove in the entrance hall to our house: the bow, quiver and arrows given to me in exchange for my food pack by the Ovambo hunter.

When I look at them, scenes from South West Africa flood my mind. The hot winds of the karoo; Herero women in outlandishly colourful garb walking the stark streets of Windhoek, carrying mind-boggling loads on their heads; Usakos, where I was swarmed by butterflies, and Karibib, where marble is mined and I succumbed to heatstroke and diarrhea. I remember Swakopmund, too, hemmed in by the dunes of the Namib on three sides, and on the fourth facing the waters of the Atlantic, perennially chilled by the Benguela Current. I’ve heard that the beaches are now frequented by surfers from far away. When I was there, they were as deserted as the town. I was the only visitor to the museum, taking in a curious hodgepodge of colonialist exhibits, ranging from miniature models of bushmen to a collection of German uniforms. There was no mention of the elimination of eighty percent of the indigenous Nama and Herero tribes, in what was the 20th century’s first genocide—nor did I expect any.

And, finally, there are my memories of Walvis Bay, where Portuguese and Japanese fishing vessels lay at anchor, the docks cluttered with piled-up copper ingots, bundles of animal skins, and sleeping tribesmen who’d sought out the cool breeze. Not far away, I came across large colonies of sea lions and thousands of flamingos, who’d come here from the vast dried-out salt pans of Etosha, in search of water. Then my mind turns to the steam engine that stood somewhere to the side of the windswept road, looking a bit like a huge canon—a deplorable piece of junk, providing stunning contrast to the vast sandscape and the endless ocean.

A badly rusted plaque attached to its bulk revealed its story. It was brought here in 1892 by First Lieutenant Troost of the Imperial German Army, in his attempt to cross the Namib. Judging by the huge hole in its steam compartment, it exploded, an event that the signage dismisses as technical failure. The locals, it says, call it “Martin Luther”.

There are other recollections that crowd in, hundreds of them, all from my six-month journey through Africa. The flamingos of Walvis Bay bring me to Ngorongoro in Tanzania, where approaching Lake Magadi, I mistook what I saw for a vast strip of pink sand. Only when my Land Rover got uncomfortably close did the first bird lift off, before thousands of its companions followed and soon soared above me, blocking out sizeable pieces of dawn sky.

The memory of the Ovambo hunter brings on flashes of other encounters with natives in Swaziland, Kenya and Ethiopia, some heart-warming, choking me with gratitude, and others leaving me disoriented, wondering how I could have been robbed or perhaps murdered had I answered a question differently or refused an invitation to participate in a celebration by villagers, leaving my vehicle and all I owned unattended for the night.

I’ve wondered to what extent I should report on my voyage in these pages. Over the five decades since, I’ve bored some people with my stories and fascinated others. Some vignettes meet with wonderment. Describing the small and rickety wooden raft on which my Ugandan host poled me down a lazy tributary of the White Nile, massive half-submerged crocodiles with wide open mouths lying near the shore a few meters away, and a hippo coming up for air nearly toppling us—well, that always gets people’s attention. Having a rhino take my Land Rover for an enemy and chasing me through the savannah at ridiculously high speed does it too. But what I’ve come to notice is that if I recount several of these episodes, the listener’s attention soon wanes. Perhaps I’ll devote an entire book to Africa one day, but for purposes of this story—a self-exploration— I’ll keep the timeline moving forward.

I learned a handful of things from my trek through the continent. In places like the Serengeti plains, Olduvai Gorge and the Ngorongoro Crater, I witnessed nature the way it must have been thousands of years ago. To dwell among unimaginably vast herds of zebras, antelopes and gnus, or passing groups of feeding elephants, giraffes and rhinos, their predators never far away and sometimes as conspicuous as the odd Maasai warrior clad in his red garb and carrying a spear walking through their midst, was an enormous gift. Observing this incomparable spectacle made me realize that this was what creation was meant to be—a place where no living thing took more than it needed and where there was such abundance that each species could prosper. What humanity, driven by its perceived need to accumulate, has lost, is immense.

And yet, I also learned a lot about human generosity and mutual trust. As I drove through the unknown, sometimes spending the night parked in the middle of nowhere and sometimes at the outskirts of a town or even a city, I often took comfort from Marco Polo’s story. What he and his entourage carried across Asia with them must have seemed riches beyond compare to those he encountered. And yet, he arrived in China, and back in Venice, alive. And so it was with me. Imagine the value of my Land Rover and my belongings in the context of the life of most locals. The gasoline-filled jerry cans strapped to my vehicle alone were worth many times the value of their monthly income.

Regrettably, that’s changed in much of Africa. When I look at my trip from the perspective of today’s reality, I recognize that I was lucky to have travelled in the early 1970s. Idi Amin had already toppled Uganda’s government, but the era of child soldiers and renegade armies was still a few years off. Anyone contemplating the kind of voyage I undertook today had better think twice.

Probably the most valuable lesson I learned about myself was that I could do it—it being whatever I’d think of next. Friends and acquaintances have commented on how courageous I must have been to have undertaken such an endeavour, yet here, as with my initial decision to leave Switzerland, courage is the wrong label. Once again, struggle had led me to empowerment—this time, the struggle of needing to break away from South Africa, especially after my near run-in with the federal police. The alternatives were to return to Switzerland or try something else. I chose the latter.

A few months later, with my Land Rover miraculously having survived its trek of nearly 10,000 kilometers, I sold it and most of its contents in Djibouti. I took a last look at my loyal companion and reflected on what we’d gone through together. Its roof and hood were covered in so much dust I couldn’t tell they were green, and the bumpers and fenders were caked in slabs of ochre mud. From the worn cot I spent so many nights on, I took my belongings and moved them to the room offered to me by the Arab who’d bought my car. I laid them out: tribal masks and artifacts ready to be shipped home, my backpack and its contents, the airline ticket, and finally, the smallest item, a plastic folder containing the sum I’d received for my vehicle and converted into travellers cheques. I’d be able to keep going for several more months and still have enough for my eventual fare to Switzerland. Then I went to a hole-in-the-wall travel agency and bought a ticket to Bombay.

When I think of what came next, I feel like I’m sitting on that terrace overlooking the Djibouti airport once again, waiting for my flight to be announced. The humidity is inescapable. My shirt has been persistently drenched since I got up, and every few moments I wipe my brow with the red and white keffiyeh I bought at the bazaar. If I don’t, sweat gets into my eyes and irritates them. As I write down my parents’ address, tiny beads of moisture keep finding their way onto the postcard. Sometimes I have to retrace a word two or three times. I realize that I experienced the same thing during my first stopover in Africa, at Luanda’s airport. It gave me something to write home about, back then.

Now, at the point of my departure from the continent, I’m destined to write a different kind of message. The postcard in front of me says “Ville de Djibouti” and is badly faded, as though the photographer succeeded in capturing the curtain of mist that softens both the harsh daylight and the starry night sky, here at the Horn of Africa. My thoughts are shrouded in mist, too. I’ve postponed writing to my parents several times. Now it can’t wait any longer. Having told Mami and Papi that I would be home by spring, I feel guilty that I’m changing my plans. It’s an affliction that is to accompany me through most of my life: people have expectations of me and it is my duty to meet them.

But I think I know where my destiny lies. I’ve grown to see Switzerland as a place of limitations, geographically and mentally. Perhaps, the two are even related. Maybe geography dictates how people think, narrowly in steep valleys and liberally on seemingly endless plains. Every now and then I challenge that belief. Does it really make sense to cut my ties with one of the world’s most stable and prosperous countries? Surely, I’d find great opportunities there if I only gave it a try— quite apart from being reunited with the family and friends I’d left behind. Then I dismiss such thoughts, letting imagined scenes of my journey into an intriguingly unknown Asia envelop me.

Flipping the postcard back over and glancing at the small space next to the address, I realize that my update will have to be condensed into two or three sentences. I write that I’ll keep travelling for a few more weeks (adding in brackets that it could be months, as well) and invite my family to write to me care-of the New Delhi general post office. I feel like a fraud, because I know it will be months, if not years.

On the airfield below me a dull-looking Air France plane revs its engines, whipping up a cloud of reddish dust that remains suspended like a curtain far too long. I wonder what’s really behind my decision to keep moving. Am I so afraid of returning to the known that I’ll keep going ever deeper into the unknown?

Excerpted from Peter Cavelti’s memoir “Moments In Time: The Experience Of My Life”. Volume 1, Legacy Editions Ltd., copyright 2022. Reprinted with permission.