Real Life Adventure
Lost in the Kalahari

Our Real Life Adventures follow some of the most thrilling chapters of Wilbur's life, delving into the experiences that inspired his novels. Join the journey – and find out how truth really is stranger than fiction.

Wilbur and his wife set out on a spontaneous trip across the Kalahari desert in search of mysterious ruins, but find themselves, in Wilbur’s words, ‘never lost – but occasionally unsure of our exact whereabouts’.

Wilbur Smith

I look upon the deserts of Central Southern Africa as my personal playground, for they are part of the dwindling wilderness where one can still find solitude under the blue void of the Kalahari sky.

We were slightly off course in a light aircraft on a flight to Maun, where I had left my Land Rover, when we spotted what looked like man made ruins below us, so we circled and went in low for a closer look. On the edge of one of the vast silver pans that swarmed with pink flocks of flamingos, a low kopje had been fortified. We could clearly make out the stone walls around the summit of the hillock – while the grove of the huge baobab trees on the lower slopes was laid out so regularly as to suggest that it had been planted by men.

That night my wife and I sat late discussing the advisability of trying to reach the ruins alone.  Although the Land Rover was fully equipped with everything from the long range fuel tanks to camping and survival gear, the terrain we would have to negotiate was formidable and the fix that I had on the hillock was only a pencilled cross on my map.  We made the ‘go’ decision at midnight and were on our way before dawn the next morning, running Southwards on the dusty corrugated road towards Gaberone.

That afternoon I found a rough game track that crossed the road and meandered off in the general direction which we wanted.

To delay the moment of commitment I proclaimed a tea break and while we sat under a camel thorn tree and sipped the brew, I paraded all the last ditch reasons for not going – and predictably my wife torpedoed each of them and they sank into the ocean of her contempt.

The game track kept heading South and West and soon I was having difficulty measuring mileage and accurate direction.  The desert scrub limited visibility and the track jinked and twisted with the terrain – but by mid afternoon I knew we were too far to the North and we would be forced to abandon it and strike away Southwards.

The first few miles were onerous and I had to wrestle with the LandRover’s heavy steering, at places backing up to make the turns between the trunks of the closely packed thorn trees.  The heat was crushing, the metal of the cab too hot to touch, and the thorn forest pressed in suffocatingly upon us.

Then abruptly we broke out onto the edge of one of the open pans and we climbed up on the roof of the Land Rover and gazed out over the perfectly smooth pale surface, five miles or more to where the trees on the far side danced on the silvery clouds of mirage.

There was a small evening breeze across the pan, the air was blood warm, but by contrast to the heat of the thorn forests we found it a blessing and our spirits were further uplifted by the splendour of the purple and orange sunset.

Now we saw game, huge herds of zebra and maned blue wildebeest galloped ahead of us and then wheeled off to stand and watch us pass as we skirted the edge of the pan.

That night, as I fell asleep beside the coals of the campfire, I heard a pride of lions roaring at the northern end of the pan. It is a sound I love, the deep voice of Africa, and I knew that they were miles off and would stay close to the zebra herds we had passed earlier, so cuddled down into my sleeping bag.

I woke to find myself in the act of being deserted. My wife had rolled her sleeping bag and was heading for the Land Rover.

‘You are snoring’ she accused. This is an indictment of long standing – but nonetheless both groundless and unjust. I never snore, but I let her go and feeling martyred returned to my silent slumbers.

I woke again to find myself standing bolt upright, still in my sleeping bag, with every hair on my head and neck erect, my eardrums still aching from the blast of sound.

The next morning I paced it out.  The lion had been standing six paces from my head, when it let drive with a full blooded roar. Holding the sleeping bag up under my armpits, I broke the Olympic record for the sack race as I went to join my wife in the LandRover, and my chagrin was intense when my efforts to open the back door were strenuously resisted from within.

“Let me in!” I howled, and a sleepy voice replied.

“Go away! You snore.”  She had slept through the lion’s performance, and awakened only at my frantic hammering on the door. The close proximity of the man eating lion, for at that stage I was convinced that was what he was, focuses the mind wonderfully and my entreaties were poignant. I nearly tore the door off its hinges and landed in a heap on her head.

By noon the next day I had forgiven her, for the shock had worn off and I had other matters to occupy my mind.

‘You are lost’ my wife put in a nutshell, and I smiled at her haughtily. In the African bush an old hand like me never gets himself lost.  Occasionally I may be unsure of my exact whereabouts – once this state persisted for four rather unpleasant days – but me, lost? – never.

‘Don’t be silly’, I said, and took another sweep around the horizon with the binoculars, just to check my dead reckoning again. There is justice in this naughty world – for this time I picked up a faint pink cloud floating above the tree line on the far side of another of these confusingly identical open pans.  ‘We will be there in less than an hour – you have my written guarantee on it.’

So the flights of the flamingo that I had noticed from the air led us in the last few miles to the ancient hill fortress.  It rose out of the shimmering mirage, the only prominence in all that hot flat landscape.

We left the Land Rover at the foot of the kopje, and went up between the bloated reptilian trunks of the baobab trees, scrambled over the outer walls of the tumbled down rock and in the sunset stood on the summit and embraced each other in a ecstacy of excitement and achievement.

Two days we camped below the Kopje, and we explored the ruins and the regular mounds on the plain behind them, which we convinced ourselves was the burial ground of the ancients.  At night we sat beside our campfire and spun fantasies around our ruined city.

Probably it was not very ancient, no more than a few hundred years at most.  It was not nearly as extensive as the ruins at Great Zimbabwe and the workmanship of the builders was rudimentary.  The inhabitants were not slavers or gold seekers or the lost tribe of Israel – they were almost certainly a clan of Tswana people, and the walls were probably built for the mundane purpose of penning their cattle – and now that the ruins have been discovered by others and visited regularly by the commercial overland safari companies operating their shoestring tours.

However, for us it was an adventure, and we still refer to it as our own lost city.

Wilbur A. Smith

© 1st November 1985