No two sets of five kilometres are ever the same. That's something you very quickly learn when you're driving in southern Africa.
Five kilometres can take a few minutes to negotiate, or it can take a few hours. When you're staring at a map it's impossible to tell. All of the roads look the same: squiggly lines on a page.
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Maybe those next five kilometres will be glorious flat-topped highway, the sort you often find in South Africa. Maybe they will be the rough, potholed bitumen that's common in Botswana. Maybe they'll be gravel tracks, or deep sand, or a rough clearing through scrubland that probably shouldn't be referred to as a road at all.
That mystery is part of the adventure. In fact, it is the adventure. What does today have in store? What will the next hour bring? There could be wild animals, or tiny, dusty little towns. There could be busy highways or endless, empty space.
This might just be the best holiday I've ever been on. It's a month-long road trip around southern Africa with my girlfriend, Jess, an outdoor adventure that we've been planning for the best part of a year. It's danger, it's excitement, it's surprise.
We're on a self-drive safari through South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, flitting from campsite to campsite, game park to game park, tackling a large swathe of this beautiful continent with the help of a kitted-out Toyota Hilux, a tent, a GPS, a few hard copy maps, and a rapidly dwindling supply of biltong.
You want adventure? This is adventure. It's us against the world, us against the potholed roads and the lurking lions and the sketchy food supplies and the monkeys who steal anything that's not bolted down. It's a journey that takes us everywhere from the big bad city of Johannesburg to the vast beauty of the Okavango Delta, the natural riches of Etosha National Park to the deep isolation of the Ugab River.
This is the best way to see Africa. No tour bus, no safety net. In fact this is the best way to see any part of the world: behind the wheel of your own vehicle, tackling the experience on your own.
There's been so much about this trip that has been unexpectedly thrilling, a thousand tiny challenges and surprises that have made up every single day. Things like wandering into a supermarket in the town of Grootfontein in Namibia and seeing what they have for sale. Or poring over a map in the evening and deciding on the next day's route. Or the sight of what we think were lion tracks by the side of the road. Or realising that we've just driven 50 kilometres on dirt road with a dozen eggs loose in the back of the ute.
You find excitement in such simple chores on a trip like this, in something as routine as setting up camp each afternoon somewhere new, of getting the chairs arranged around the fire, pouring a gin and tonic and watching as yet another spectacular African sunset brings the day to a close. Brilliant. Unforgettable.
Our itinerary is a circular one, 7800 kilometres that begins and ends in Johannesburg. That's where we picked up our kitted-out Hilux, ready with tent and camping equipment and 4WD supplies, before driving down through the Cape region of South Africa and turning north, making our way up along the coast of Namibia, into Etosha National Park, around the Caprivi Strip and south into Botswana, calling through the Okavango Delta before heading back towards Jo'burg.
Every day has tossed up a new challenge. In South Africa we had to drive 10 hours straight to get to Port Elizabeth. In the Western Cape we had sea fog rolling in, giving the scenery there an eerie glow, obscuring the traffic and the trees. We chased a troop of baboons away from our tent in the Namibian town of Aus. We packed that tent up in the dark to see dawn in Namib-Naukluft National Park. We lay awake in the night in Etosha listening to the sound of lions roaring nearby. We tackled a section of road near the Ugab River at walking pace, petrified of blowing a tyre on the sharp rocks in this lion-infested area, worried about rolling the car into a ravine and never being heard from again.
We heard hippos snuffling around outside our tent in Caprivi. We saw a honey badger searching through our bins at a campsite near Maun. We almost got bogged in sand in the Okavango. We made friends with hornbills in southern Botswana. We listened to Toto's song Africa almost every morning as we pulled out of another campsite.
It sounds amazing, right? It sounds like a truly great holiday, one of the very best. And it is.
But there's a problem I'm having, a frustration. When you return from a trip like this you want to spread the word, to inspire other people to do the same thing, to get your friends to appreciate what a great journey it was, and to get them on the plane and over there.
But this trip? No one else wants to do it. No one else even considers it a possibility. Everyone thought we were crazy before we left, and everyone thinks we're lucky to be alive now.
I tell people stories about Jess and I driving ourselves around on this grand adventure and I see their eyes glaze over. They say things like, "Oh yeah, that sounds cool." Or, "Wow, that's great." But they don't want to do it themselves.
I tell them southern Africa is actually really safe. That the roads are pretty good. That you don't need a lot of experience or knowledge to do a trip like this. That everyone you meet is extremely friendly. That this would actually make an ideal family holiday. Kids would love it.
But no one is listening.
It's frustrating. It's also a little ironic that, as a travel writer, the best trip I've ever been on, the one I've enjoyed the most, is the one no one else is all that interested in replicating. I paid for this trip myself, too; I have no barrow to push. I just want other people to experience it.
Maybe it's Africa that seems too far away, and expensive. Maybe it's the danger factor of driving around in wilderness you're not familiar with. But that's the way foreigners look at Australia, and we know how frustratingly unwarranted that is.
Australians don't seem to understand that about southern Africa, which is why I have to deal with the fact that none of my friends seem too inspired to go. Even though I rant about the thrill of the open road. Even though I wax lyrical about no timetables, no schedules; about getting up and just going; about stopping wherever you want, taking detours, finding yourself in the strangest places talking to the oddest bunch of characters. About the wildlife, and the scenery, and the sunsets.
There are very few holidays I've been on that I actively miss on a regular basis, that I still want to be on right now. I often miss being in Rome, and in San Sebastian, and in Tokyo. And I know that very soon I will miss driving a car around southern Africa. Every time I see a Hilux drive past I'll get a pang of jealousy, like that could be me behind the wheel, only in Africa, where you can spot elephants out in the distance, and you camp under acacia trees and lie awake at night listening to rustling coming from the bushes and you don't know what it is.
I truly hope that someday, someone I know will take a trip like this. If for no other reason than it will give me a chance to pass on the knowledge I picked up along the way. Because there are plenty of hard-won gems out here for the uninitiated.
You learn in southern Africa that your GPS is your best friend. You learn that just because you think you've booked a campsite, doesn't mean you've actually booked a campsite. You learn that biltong is delicious and disappears without you even realising you've eaten it. You learn that two spare tyres is an excellent idea.
And you learn the most important thing of all: that around here, no five kilometres is ever the same.
HOW TO (SAFELY) SELF-DRIVE IN AFRICA
If you don't have experience with 4WDs, it's best to do a training course before you leave. The writer did a one-day course with Australian 4x4 Driver Training (Australian-4x4.com.au) near Lithgow. A beginner mechanics course could also come in handy – try the City East Community College (cityeastcc.com.au).
Roads in southern Africa vary wildly. Use Google Maps from your desktop to gain a rough idea of how long it will take to drive from point to point, and plan your itinerary accordingly, leaving a few hours of daylight spare each day in case of emergency. To navigate once you're there, use Google Maps on your phone, plus buy a hard copy map book and a Garmin GPS, which can be loaded with the Tracks4Africa app, a guide for any 4WD tracks not covered by the Garmin (see tracks4africa.co.za).
It's important to hire a reliable 4WD that's decked out with everything you'll need for off-road driving, as well as a tent and all camping supplies. The writer used a South Africa-based company called Bushtrackers, which delivered a great car and excellent customer service. See bushtrackers.co.za
Many popular campsites in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa book out well in advance in high season. Though campsites in Namibian national parks can be booked direct through nwrnamibia.com, places are often snapped up by outside agents such as madbookings.com. For information on booking in Botswana and South Africa, see getaway.co.za
There's little to fear from wild animals while you're driving in southern Africa, particularly outside of the game parks. Just give plenty of space to any animal you see, and keep all of your food locked up so it can't be raided.
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