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.

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