Under the African Sun

Mesmerizing journeys through South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

By Chuck Graham

Photo by Chuck Graham

A gemsbok silhouetted against the deep orange light of the rising sun makes for a memorable sight. This large species of antelope is depicted on the coat of arms of Namibia.


uring my first trip to Africa, I was a narrow-minded 20-year-old whose thoughts wandered no further than the surf. It was 1985 and I was part of a U.S. National Team of surfers competing against the Springboks, the South African National Team. The experience widened my mind beyond the next wave.

At the time, apartheid still gripped the country with an iron fist. Events were held in Durban and along the Wild Coast. National team members stayed with host families, many of whom had immigrated to South Africa from Germany and England.

The team had a one-week break that was spent surfing the famed, long point break of Jeffreys Bay. When we arrived in the morning it was flat. One hour before sunset it was 6 to 8-feet and the Super Tubes surfing event was kicking off. Between surfs, I found myself walking in the small beach town, where I witnessed a young, black South African boy taken away by the police. They stopped, grabbed him and threw him in the back of a car and drove away. He seemed to be minding his own business . . . and then he was gone. 

At this time I also discovered the South African author Wilbur Smith, becoming hooked with the first page of The Leopard Hunts in Darkness. Since then I’ve read well over 20 of his novels, each as captivating as the last.

The two sons of my host family in Cape Town took me surfing. Many of those surf spots didn’t have names, and no one was around. One day they took me on a hike to the Cape of Good Hope, near the end of the continent. My mind widened further. We were walking amongst herds of wildebeest and Cape mountain zebra and troops of busy baboons. The rugged, daunting, wave-battered coastline was magnificent. I was utterly entranced. I told myself, the next time I return to Africa I’ll bring a camera. Fourteen trips later and counting, I’ve kept that promise.

An Encounter in Savuti
It had been a long, teeth-rattling rodeo in a seasoned Land Rover. I desperately needed to get out and stretch my legs, and did so once I reached a tented camp in Savuti, Botswana. My tent was situated beneath a canopy of acacia and sausage trees, and after dropping off my gear, I strolled through the forest beyond the tented camp.

As large as the African elephant is, it can be just as stealthy as a lurking leopard and, at times, equally well-camouflaged. I was shocked when I nearly walked directly into the hindquarters of a large tusker hidden behind three acacia trees. I had startled the beast (an older elephant missing most of its tusks) as well when I stepped on a fallen branch. The crackling, splintered limb forced the elephant to react, doing a dramatic 180 in my direction.

I slowly stepped away as it displayed its dominance: the repeated tossing of its enormous head, ears flared and flapping, plumes of dust (stirred up by its long trunk) engulfing us both. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. I turned tail and fled the short distance back to camp with the elephant in hot pursuit. 

Another Savuti camp visitor happened to record the encounter. The elephant got so close that the videographer also had to ditch his camera and run, the elephant knocking over his tripod. The elephant halted its chase once we reached the tents.

Later that afternoon, we relived the moment and watched the video, observing just how close the agitated elephant had come. In the recording I emerged from a thick, billowing cloud of dust with the elephant right on my heels.

That evening I slept soundly until I was awakened by the heavy pitter-patter of rain pelting the roof of my tent . . . or so I thought. Within my sleepy haze I noticed a brilliant full moon, shafts of light filtering through the tall trees. I checked my watch: 3 a.m. Then I heard what sounded like rain again. I sat up, watched and listened.

Silhouetted in the moonlight, its massive rump casting shadows where I slept, was an elephant standing at the entrance of my tent. The tent was situated under a large sausage tree, and the elephant was shaking its limbs while pods rained down from above. The tusker would then use its handy trunk to sweep the roof of the tent, heaving tasty pods onto the ground for quick consumption

I noticed its lack of prominent tusks, and it occurred to me that this might be the same elephant that had chased me earlier in the day. I already knew that elephants were one of the most intelligent creatures on the planet. Could it be that this tusker would remember me? 

The elephant circled the tent and began shaking the sausage tree on the opposite side. I quickly dressed, unzipped the tent and briskly walked toward the kitchen. By this time dawn had descended over Savuti, and the camp staff began to stir. When I reached a small clearing in the trees, I turned and peered over my shoulder. The elephant and I locked eyes. Its dull, stubby tusk was barely visible, but its loud, ominous trumpet signified its mighty stature in the bush.

Driven to Distraction in Deadvlei
I normally drive slowly in Africa, never wanting to miss a thing, especially with such diversified flora and fauna at every bend in a rutted road. This time, though, I was chasing the dawn: First light is everything in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia.

Home to a section of the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, along with the tallest sand dunes in the world (some towering to 1,000 feet), the park also features another natural wonder — the dried, cracked salt and clay pans of the Sossusvlei. The nearby Deadvlei hosts a forest of dead, 500-year-old camel thorn trees surrounded by sheer walls of red, pink and orange wind-driven sand.

Sossusvlei has several meanings. The road to this region of the park hits a dead end, so “sossus” in the Nama tongue means “no return.” Vlei is an Afrikaans word meaning “marsh.” The water that rarely collects there has no outflows and becomes trapped, evaporating in those desert environs that seem so harsh, yet so starkly beautiful.

First light is optimal in Deadvlei because the colors can be mind-blowing. Driving there, however, requires much discipline. 

I would be fishtailing through the desert, gravel flying off the Jeep’s tires, when suddenly I’d spy a majestic gemsbok in the foreground of the dunes or ostriches tiptoeing in the African bush. 

Another distraction is the sheer beauty. There may not be a more epic, romantic landscape in all of Africa than Sossusvlei, with its perfect, wind-groomed dunes.

After getting stuck in the soft sand and trying to ignore too many photo opportunities to count, I finally found myself in the middle of my destination. I may not have made first light, but the road to Deadvlei did not disappoint.

Cederberg Mountains
Leaving beautiful Cape Town for the 300-kilometer drive north along the Western Cape was a welcome diversion from what had become a crowded destination at the southern end of the continent. 

The Cederberg Mountains beckoned. It is a land where rare and endangered wildlife still hangs in the balance and extraordinary rock art can be observed. Left by the San Bushmen, the Cederberg’s rock art dates back 10,000 years and is hidden on smooth sandstone caves and overhangs clustered throughout this breathtaking mountain range.

I stayed at the posh Bushmans Kloof, an award-winning resort in the northern Cederberg Range. This ecological oasis has over 130 rock art sites and is a South African Natural Heritage Site. Around 750 plant species can be found, and wildlife still abounds: over 130 bird species, including the striking malachite sunbird, and over 35 mammal species, such as the Cape leopard, caracal, the endangered Cape mountain zebra and bontebok. The night life is equally impressive, with aardwolf, African wildcat, bat-eared fox, Cape fox, porcupine and other nocturnal species foraging under the cloak of darkness.

It didn’t take me long to locate a malachite sunbird. There was no denying its beauty against the native flora right outside my chalet along a flowing creek. It was a male, whose feathers are a shimmering metallic green during breeding season. Its vivid color only intensifies in the bright sunlight. 

A fitting symbol for the color, drama and majesty of the myriad landscapes and creatures that reside under the southern African sun. 

Jeffreys Bay, South Africa
+27 (0)42 293 2923

Camp Savuti, Botswana
+27 21 712 5284

Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia

Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve and Wellness Retreat, South Africa
+27 27 482 8200


Male malachite sunbird, a shimmering metallic green during breeding season.

San Bushmen rock art dating back 10,000 years in the Cederberg Mountains.

Up close and personal with an elephant in Botswana. Centuries-old camel thorn trees in Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Southern Africa is home to both beautiful wildlife and landscapes of stark, surreal beauty.


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