U.S. Fulbright

Breakdown in the Kalahari

June 22, 2015

Daniel Koehler, 2014-2015, Fulbright National-Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow to Botswana

Want a window into the day-in-the life a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow? Read 2014 Fellow Dan Koehler’s account of how he deftly handled a truck breakdown in the middle of the Kalahari desert en route to doing some filming for his project.

Interested in learning more about the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship? Attend the webinar, Fulbright-Nat Geo: Introduction, this Wednesday, June 24 at 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. ET.

Live in the Washington, DC area? Come hear the first five fellows share their experiences on Tuesday, June 30 at 1:30 p.m. ET. For more information on how to attend this even, click here.

Mosodi shut the hood of the truck. “It’s the gearbox.”

Earlier that morning, we had departed New Xade for another round of filming in Metsiamanong in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Shortly after passing the border gate into the reserve, the engine of our truck started making a loud clacking noise.

Now, it wouldn’t even start.

“How far to Molapo?” I asked.

“Around 45 kilometers.”

Molapo was the nearest San settlement in the CKGR. Cell service doesn’t extend into the reserve so calling someone wasn’t an option. We could either wait on the rarely used road in the hope that help would arrive or we could seek it out in Molapo.

Trips into the reserve are expensive and difficult to organize, and I felt pressure to be as productive as possible during my two-week visit. The idea of burning days waiting for something to happen rubbed me the wrong way.

I grabbed my raincoat and water bottle and shamelessly pulled a line straight out of the Fellowship of the Ring:

“I’ll go, though I do not know the way.”

Kitsiso jumped out of the back of the truck and decided to join me. I ran the numbers in my head. If we walked three miles every hour, we had nine hours of walking ahead of us.

And so we departed on our epic journey across the Kalahari plains. In the back of my mind, the Blood Diamond “hike” theme song played on repeat.


A raincloud in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve

We saw all kinds of wildlife. Antelope – gemsbok and steenbok – paused their grazing and looked at us curiously as we passed. Small squirrels emerged from their burrows only to retreat back into them. A fox darted in and out of the long grasses. We even saw a giant green mamba slither across a tree branch. It was a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the sprawling beauty of the CKGR without my camera in hand.

We walked the first five hours without stopping, driven forward by the knowledge that lions and other dangerous animals are more active at night. During our first stop, we downed the last of our water supply. We were at least halfway to Molapo by then, so turning back didn’t make sense. We had to press forward.

Luckily, it had rained earlier in the day. We eventually found a puddle that hadn’t dried under the sun, got on our hands and knees, and drank. Kitsiso taught me that the trick was to gently blow the surface of the water to clear the dirt before taking a sip. We satisfied our thirst, sat in silence for a few minutes, and then set off again.

We continued like that, briefly stopping here and there, until we arrived in Molapo later that night. It was probably the longest and most difficult journey of my life, but the triumph I felt when I collapsed in front of a warm fire in Molapo was worth it. We had made it. Rather than resign ourselves to doing nothing, we flexed to change, drew up a plan, and put it into action.

I write this story because I enjoy it, but it’s also a testament to an important lesson I’ve learned time and again in Botswana: flexibility is crucial in everything, including filmmaking.

Plans inevitably change, and being able to adapt to a situation is important. This applies beyond logistics to the realm of storytelling, too. I have to listen to my characters. I should go into production with a plan but be open to having that plan challenged and changed. Often, real life is more compelling than any narrative I draw in my head.

I’m reminded of an interview I read with documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman. He was asked about the best career advice he had ever received: “If you end up with the story you started with,” he said, “you weren’t listening along the way.”

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