Stranded in the Kalahari

Highly commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece was highly commended in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find the full list of long and short listed entries – including the winner – here.

Beneath the rubber soles of my well-worn Blundstones, the Trans-Kalahari Highway ran for 800 miles across Africa’s second largest desert. The single-carriage road travelled like a vein of grey tar through some of the continent’s most barren and uninhabited lands. Roughly 200 miles to the west of where I stood it would eventually lead to my intended destination: the city of Windhoek. I just needed to find a way to get there, and more importantly, to find a way out of the desert.

“Are you heading west? Could you give me a ride?”

The words escaped too quickly. They tumbled over one another, wrapped in a cool tone of desperation that laid bare the truth of my current predicament. I took a deep breath to calm myself, knowing that nobody would pick up a hysterical stranger, especially not here, in the middle of the Kalahari Desert.   

The Buitepos Border checkpoint sits in the middle of a vast, arid wasteland between the nations of Botswana and Namibia. There are no golden rolling sand dunes or tales of Arabian Nights to be found in this desert. Instead, there is just an endless stretch of dirty yellow earth and dust as far as the eye can see. Low shrubs emerge crooked and bent from the parched land – skeletons clawing their way out of graves beneath the ancient earth, desperate to quench their eternal thirst. The bustle of the

checkpoint is all that breaks up the monotonous terrain.

I had been both complacent and foolhardy when I had persuaded the fretful Dutch mother and her handsome son to drop me, alone, at the border earlier that day. 

“We can’t just leave you here! Please, come with us to the hotel”, she had pleaded. 

I waved them off with a naive grin and watched their four-wheel drive vanish in a cloud of dust, bound for a luxury desert camp where they would celebrate the end of his medical residency in Africa over fruity cocktails.

The border crossing itself had been straightforward. First came the procedure of departing Botswana, then a short walk across no man’s land, and the official entry into Namibia. Nobody asked what I was doing here, alone in the desert.  I emerged from the dark immigration office into the bright African sunlight, confident about tackling the task at hand: hitchhiking to Windhoek. As a solo female traveller, safety was paramount, and both judgement and caution were essential. The morning’s strategy was to approach vehicles containing other women and children, and politely request a seat in the back among the luggage. 

Several hours passed. The sun moved across the sky. People came and went. I sat down on the curb outside the immigration office with only my giant blue backpack and tattered red tent for company. The gradual descent of the afternoon sun became an ominous reminder of the increasing urgency of my situation. As the heat of the day faded, judgement and caution became luxuries I could no longer afford – I had to escape this 350,000-square-mile desert before darkness fell. A new companion appeared by my side: panic. 

From my seat on the curb and with a sense of determination, I now called out to each person that left the immigration office, “Are you going to Windhoek? Could I get a ride?”

Until finally, the answer I had been waiting for.


I looked up into the face of my desert emancipator. Before me stood a tall, scrawny man with a shaved head and a mouth devoid of almost all teeth.  It was impossible to discern his age – he seemed neither very young nor very old and yet, somehow, he could have been either. His clothes hung loosely from his emaciated frame, and it was hard to tell whether his skin was dirty or just baked brown from endless hours of driving under the African sun. A chilling aura of misery and suffering hung about him. He spoke with a thick South African accent that was accompanied by a severe stammer – it was obvious that his life had not been an easy one. 

The stranger motioned to his chariot – a gargantuan twelve-wheel articulated lorry with a white cabin that towered above the road. A few hours ago, the notion of travelling into the African desert with this man would have been unthinkable. Now, I looked from the juggernaut back to the driver. There could be little more than an hour of daylight left before the desert and I would be engulfed in darkness. Time was ticking. Should I take the risk? Could I relinquish a lifetime of judgement and put my faith in humanity by accepting the apparent kindness of a stranger?

Slowly, I reached up and hauled myself aboard. 

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year Competition, head to our competitions page.