Silicon Insider: Notes From a Distant Node

I went camping in Botswana with my family and brought C.S. Lewis to the Himba people, not in a calculated fashion. Nope.

Technology brought the writer to the people.

First off, let me say, I'm an old Eagle Scout, so camping to me is a pretty sacred business. I believe in minimum gear, leaving no trace, few creature comforts, and no electronics.

This may explain why I don't like camping that much anymore.

When my wife and I planned our third trip to Africa with our two sons -- this time to Namibia, Botswana and Zambia -- we agreed to buy each of them one piece of electronics.

Tad chose a video iPod. Skip chose a Sony PSP portable game player.

Even though I agreed to buy these gadgets for our trip, I grumbled that they'd spend more time looking at displays than at the wonders of Africa.

What I didn't expect was that rather than becoming just a distraction or nuisance, there were moments when these little pieces of high-tech would provide moments of happiness, relief, and, in one extraordinary moment, even history.

We arrived in Namibia a day after Brangelina left, sparing us the sight of Hollywood movie stars disturbing an entire nation's daily life.

After getting our polio vaccine in downtown Windhoek -- you probably read about the outbreak -- we spent our usual two weeks staying with old friends, the Metzgers, on their ranch looking at all the wildlife: warthogs, kudu, eland, zebra, giraffe, gemsbok, leopards.

Then we hopped a small plane north for a weeklong camping trip in Damaraland and Kaokoland, the wild northern mountainous areas of the country near the Angolan border, the scene of guerrilla battles in years past.

We spent a night at an extraordinary lodge, Grootburg, perched on the edge of a vast Grand Canyon-like Valley.

The elegant rooms overlooked a ravine where rhinos hid in the riverbeds far below. Just for fun, I borrowed Tad's iPod and watched the sunset over this magnificent landscape while listening to, at his suggestion, Guided by Voices' "Girls of Wild Strawberries."

It proved to be an almost religious experience.

So much for my resistance to technology in exotic places. That night I talked with the owner of the lodge about the Web site he had developed for Grootburg and the dish he'd installed for satellite access.

My newfound appreciation of the "digital developing world" only grew deeper when we headed into the deep wilderness the next morning.

In a caravan of two 4x4s, we sped into a desert landscape of mesas, river canyons, and vast expanses of yellow grass, acacia bushes and camelthorn trees.

This is the land of the desert elephants, and we followed their famous journey -- 50 miles across open desert between two rivers -- that they must cross in just 48 hours or the baby elephants will die of thirst.

We ran into a family of these elephants in one of the riverbeds, not far from where lions had made a kill a few days before.

As they passed, just a few yards from us on their way to a noisy mud bath, I filmed them with a digital movie camera while my wife snapped 50 quick shots on her digital camera with the 500 mm lens.

Six years ago, on our first trip to Namibia, we had no video, and my wife, with an analog camera, had to take along 30 rolls of film. She had to skip the big lens to make room for so much film.

The road was 300 miles of axle-breaking, rock-strewn dust tracks winding through the strangest landscape imaginable.

Herds of springbok, ostriches raced our trucks, huge rock walls twisted from millions of years of geological megaforces, and native people living in tiny huts and shacks, walked long stretches of empty road or rode in donkey carts.

Nights we spent camped in the woods, sometimes a few yards from elephant or leopard tracks, near rock cliffs that likely served as home to scorpions and puff adders -- one reason why we never set up tents directly below trees.

The fires we cooked attracted at least one very fast, pale, tarantula-size spider that was especially unnerving.

I also found I had no problem letting Tad watch an episode of "The Office" and for Skip to play a video game in their tents to help them forget the night noises and drift off to sleep.

In the deepest part of Kaokoland, we entered the region of Ovahimba, the supreme cattle herders of Southwest Africa.

You've probably seen photos of them because they are popular subjects of journalists traveling through Africa.

The women are especially striking. Wearing only an animal-skin skirt and some bracelets and anklets, they braid their hair long and top it with curls of mud-stiffened leathers.

Most memorably, their entire bodies are painted red with a mixture of cattle fat and red ochre, the rancid smell of which they mask with intense cardamomlike spices.

Wearing iron jewelry and carrying at least one baby on their backs gives Himba women, young and old, a posture and a gracefulness while they walk that reminds one of a dancer.

One night, deep in the mountains of Kaokoland, we camped in a riverbed under a cliff of shalelike rock that looked as if any second it might all tumble down upon us. As we were finishing dinner, a figure came out of the darkness and joined us at the fringe of the firelight.

It turned out to be a small group of Himba. A young woman, probably no more than 16, but already with two toddlers and a baby, as well as two boys about 10 or 12.

As Benjamin, who assisted our guide, Hans, soon learned, the local Himba men had gone off for a week or more taking cattle to market, and had left the girl in charge of all of the young children, including her own.

They had seen our fire, and curious, had come down for a look -- and perhaps some food.

For a half-hour, I watched in amusement as Skip and the two boys eyed each other from across the fire. Finally, Skipper went to the truck and pulled out his Sony PSP. He asked Hans whether it would be all right if he let the Himba boys see the device and perhaps watch something on it.

"Sure," Hans said. "They've probably never seen a movie, much less something like that."

Within minutes, as kids do, the three had made friends and for the next two hours, they huddled on a rock in the stream bed, staring over each others' shoulders, watching the little screen. Soon even the girl joined in, her baby silently asleep on her back.

Skip first showed the boys the game Grand Theft Auto: Pursuit Force.

Its speed dazzled them, as did my son's nimble button-work on the controls. They especially marveled at the city skyline in the game. Having seen only one or two little villages in their life, they marveled at the giant skyline.

That was only the beginning, however.

Next, Skip inserted another tiny UMB disk. This one was the recent film version of "The Chronicles of Narnia."

The Himba boys rocked back on their heels. There was so much for them to take in so quickly. They had never seen snow before, and here was a world of it. An ice castle. A talking fawn. Sleighs and evil wolves and a host of other creatures they'd never seen, even in pictures.

Most of all, a lion, the most feared creature in their world, larger than life, talking with children instead of eating them. They were both terrified and thrilled. They giggled and shouted in fear.

Benjamin intervened to tell the boy and the older girl that this was a story in which the Lion was like a god who helped people fight evil witches and spirits in as good a summary of "Narnia" as I'd ever heard.

They sat there on a rock in a riverbed in the middle of Kaokoland, three boys, one from the far side of the world, two from just over the next hill.

It grew very dark, with the Milky Way arched overhead and the three excited little faces lit by the glow of the display.

I thought to myself: what an amazing journey.

After World War II, an Oxford don reads a medieval bestiary manuscript, a religious tour guide to exotic animals in places like Africa, turns it into a best-selling series of children's books with a hidden Christian allegory.

In the early 21st century, Hollywood picks up the series and uses state-of-the-art computer graphics to create a blockbuster film, which in turn ends up in a handheld Sony game machine, shared by three little boys -- two of them animists -- under a camelthorn tree in the dark in one of the most remote corners of the earth.

There really are still miracles in this world.