Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik

One Woman's Solo Misadventures Across Africa


By Marie Javins

Formats and Prices




$13.99 CAD




ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around May 20, 2009. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik is a spirited African adventure of a solo woman traveler whose overland excursion across the continent includes challenges, inevitable mishaps, and more than a few debacles.

Author and world traveler Marie Javins is an unflappable narrator, who takes even the most bizarre and patience-trying situations with a dose of good humor. Javins fell in love with Africa when she traversed the continent in 2001 as part of a larger world tour. She later returned to spend half of 2005 revisiting the people and places that had so impacted her on her first trip. Javins was struck not by the desperation of Africa, but by its hope — the dignity of its people, the vibrancy of its cities, and the inherent adventure that is inherent it offered.

Stalking the Wild Dik-Dik is a funny and compassionate account of the sort of lively and heedless undertaking that could only happen in Africa. Javins’s brushes with wildlife are punctuated with more serious dilemmas. Through it all, Javins’s experience of Africa is life-altering, and her witty observations make for the best kind of travel literature which takes its readers into the heart and soul of the continent.


For my mother, Linda Walcroft,
who is always left holding the bag–
or, in this case, the goatskin lunch box–
while I'm off traipsing around the world.

In January of 2001, I believed that intimacy and codependence were the devil. They'd sneak up, perhaps through a few clever jokes. The jokes would turn into dates, and dates into weekends, time spent getting to know the other's family and friends. I'd seen it happen to many of my friends, one by one. They'd think someone was cute and next thing you know, they'd be moving to the suburbs with a spouse, two children, a dog, and an SUV. They'd once had other plans, but they couldn't recall them. They hated their jobs—who didn't?—but they'd be chained to the career ladder for life, for the kids, for the mortgage, for lack of a more imaginative approach to living.
I'd been on a lot of first dates though the last several years but not on a lot of second dates. I was adamantly independent, had other things on my mind, and dates were just the tempting bait in life's cleverest trap. I had a little travel problem, almost an addiction, that didn't leave room for life's trap. It wasn't about the destinations—it was about my reaction to new situations. Traveling made me improvise, think on my feet, and keep my mind wide open. Thanks to a tolerant boss and a freelance contract, I was able to work extra hard for ten months a year, getting ahead on my contract and taking two months off to visit exotic locales.
Problem was, I was slaving away miserably—mindlessly coloring and editing comic books as I had for more than a decade—for those ten months to enjoy the two months abroad. Something was obviously wrong with this.
I'd started to email travel diaries in '96 when I'd been in Central America, and I expanded to an ambitious website in '98 with an eight-week trip across the Asian subcontinent and Middle East. This was with preblogging software, before the term "blog" even existed. I'd code the HTML in Notepad or SimpleText, upload it however I could, and add a few jpegs from photos hastily scanned in an Internet café. Digital cameras were not yet common.
Keeping an online diary meant I didn't have to bore friends who were not interested with the stories of my travels. Only those who genuinely wanted to see my holiday photos would look. Many people listen and look only to be polite, as they are more interested in their own lives than in mine (funny how that works). But there are others—total strangers—who relish tales of faraway lands. People I knew started forwarding my emails to people I didn't know. I started getting responses from strangers. The readers who enjoyed the stories the most were the ones with no hope of ever leaving home, the ones without passports or money, or they were people who used to travel but who were now disabled.
I'd just returned home from Southeast Asia in March of 2000. I sat with my mother, uncle, and aunt at a picnic table outside a restaurant. We talked of the trip I'd just had, my dissatisfaction with my ten-months-on, two-months-off lifestyle, and of my plans. What, we wondered, could I do on a grander scale to get me out of the repetitive job I was in once and for all?
Perhaps, I mused, I could go as far away on earth as I could. To the opposite side of the planet from New York City, which was Australia. Then I'd have to get home by any means possible but would be forbidden to get on an airplane. That could be a good story to have up on the website. Surely that would be good enough for some articles and maybe even a book.
I started to research ships to see if it were possible to get out of Australia or if my plan would be a bust from the beginning.
What this research told me was that it was tough to leave Australia heading west but easy to get there from the east. So easy, in fact, that I could cover half the world in one Amtrak journey from New York to Los Angeles, followed by a ship voyage from Long Beach to Melbourne. Why do half the world when I could go around the whole thing simply by adding an extra month of easy travel?
And so was born. I'd go around the world in a calendar year, and I'd do it live, on the Internet. I'd go without airplanes, but I wouldn't stubbornly stick to that in emergencies. I'd send readers souvenirs from their virtual tour, and readers could vote on my route and excursions.
Richard Starkings of Comicraft liked the idea and offered to host my site. His designer, John "JG" Roshell of Active Images, was game. Friends contributed artwork and some travel outfitters offered discounts (and a few freebies). I sold my East Village condo, bought when the neighborhood was considered dicey and sold at what seemed then to be its trendy height. I'd have to live out of a backpack—and by my wits—for a year, across Australia, Asia, Russia, Europe, Africa, and North America.
The plan was to get across Australia, Europe, and North America as quickly as possible. Things running smoothly and easily is not the stuff of good travel stories. No one wants to read about taking a walking tour of Rome's Colosseum or viewing the Rockies from a train window. No, the good stories happen when things go wrong. The more horribly wrong, the better the story.
I sleepwalked through most of Asia, having been there just one year before. Russia went smoothly, but Central Asia was a challenge. Uzbekistan was particularly difficult. But Africa—I loved Africa. So much so that I went back there to live for half of 2005. Parts of Africa look like what they call "aid porn," those starving-children-in-huts images we've seen on TV that tug at our hearts. But what these commercials don't show you is the dignity of the people living in the huts, how they live their lives with the same hopes and dreams for their families as those in the "developed" countries of the North. The images don't show the vibrant cities of Cape Town, Kampala, or Nairobi. They don't imply that much of Africa also features flushing toilets, shopping malls, and gas stations just like in Ohio, or that genuine human concern for life is found in villages made of mud and sticks, the kind of concern that is lacking in the hypersocieties I'd lived in.
Parts of Africa are a hassle to navigate on public transport. Touts can be relentless in tourist areas, and tribalism often ruins otherwise healthy political systems. Crime rates are infamous in South Africa, people are starving from politically induced famine in Zimbabwe, and populations across the continent have been devastated by HIV. But life can also be a grand adventure in Africa, and while challenging, it can also be a rewarding place to live or travel in.
Crossing Africa in that year of 2001 taught me a lot about myself, and somewhere between Cape Town and Cairo—when I'd eaten my 250th meal of the year alone—I started to grasp something. I had met some fantastic people during the year. Some of them had enhanced my adventures and broken through my invisible barrier of solitude. Maybe—just maybe—it was possible to let my guard down. Maybe dates didn't have to turn into the ball and chain of a traditional life. Maybe I'd had it all wrong, and opening up to other people didn't automatically equal a miserable life of routine and a desk job.
But it would take me several more years of alienation and hard lessons—followed by months of living in Uganda, Namibia, and South Africa—before I fully understood this.
May 2006

Chapter 1
Curse of the Hippo
No, not that bump. Please don't drive there. I was sending mental instructions to my boda boda—or motor-scooter taxi—driver, who was cheerfully ignoring Kampala's potholes. Not this bump either, please, no!
I was sick and miserable. I'd woken up two nights ago with diarrhea, vomiting, fever, joint pain, and a host of other less-than-pleasant symptoms. My stomach felt as if I'd swallowed a hot-air balloon. I'd worried briefly about the proximity of the night clerk, whose office was next to my bathroom.
No one should have to listen to this, I thought.
But there was no time for regrets between my frequent visits to the bathroom that night.
Did I have malaria? Every faint flulike illness must be treated with great seriousness in Africa. Especially as I was on doxycycline as a prophylaxis, and this would mask many symptoms—although nothing seemed masked at the moment.
I spent the day as a sick day should be spent—lying on the sofa in front of the television. My stomach looked like the bloated stomachs you used to see on kids on those TV ads asking viewers to sponsor African children, the ones some cynics call "aid porn."
Finally, there was nothing left in my system save a little flat Coke that I'd been consuming. I was in Bbunga, a village on the outskirts of Kampala. When I'd rented this inexpensive long-stay corporate apartment far from the city center, it seemed a sensible financial decision. After all, I was in Kampala only half the time, and I spent the rest of my three-month stay in Uganda with my Bavarian boyfriend, who was working on location at an international-development assignment in Murchison Falls National Park, near the border of Congo. Now, the expat clinic and international hospital both seemed terribly far away. I didn't think I could make it to either without my guts exploding.
I gingerly walked up the road to a tiny, rundown clinic in the center of Bbunga.
"I'd like a malaria test, please."
A slow, sullen Ugandan man pricked my finger and dropped the blood on a slide. He went into the lab and gave it to an older man in a lab coat, who was busily playing computer solitaire. The door shut and I sat on an old chair in an unlit waiting area.
"You don't have malaria." The younger man came out with a piece of paper with a handwritten statement stating exactly that. I paid the fee of $1.20 and slowly, painfully began the short walk back home.
The next morning, I swallowed two Immodium tablets and braved the potholes. I had to see a doctor. A film canister was passed across the desk to me.
"Can you give us a stool sample?" the doctor asked.
"I took two Immodium," I responded, shrugging hopelessly.
He took back the film canister and suggested food poisoning as the culprit. I thought back on the carpaccio I'd picked at a few nights before at an upscale Italian restaurant in Kampala. And then I thought about Kampala's rampant power outages. Perhaps carpaccio had not been the wisest choice of starters. I hoped I'd be better in a few days. Herr Marlboro—the nickname I had given my boyfriend when I'd first met him years ago—was coming to Kampala. I was moving out of my accommodation and returning to Murchison Falls with him. We'd be parting for a while starting next week, when I'd head to Namibia and Cape Town before returning home to the States. His contract would keep him in Uganda for three more months. We'd had an idyllic summer together so far, our time split between the national park and Kampala. I didn't want to ruin our last week together by spending it lying on the sofa.
But I needn't have worried, as my food poisoning was low on the list of reasons my lover suddenly lost interest in me later that week. When he arrived in Kampala, he surprised me with a few tense discussions. But I had faith that things would work out—and he didn't know what else to do with me—so a few days later I was in Herr Marlboro's Toyota pickup truck on my way back to our national park home. We drove in near-silence, communicating only in strained, monotone sentences.
"Pull over," I said excitedly, breaking the mood with sudden enthusiasm.
He pulled up at a fruit-and-vegetable stand, where I wandered around buying tomatoes, pineapple, potatoes, onions, and bananas from pleased sellers. Once we were in the park, it was a long drive to the nearest large town, Masindi. I wanted to stock up on some of Uganda's plentiful fresh vegetables.
Happy with my purchases, I got back in the truck. H. M. turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. Well, something happened. Smoke rose from the fuse box under the hood.
The vegetable sellers watched as H. M. opened the hood and took out his mini-Leatherman multitool.
"Look," said H. M. as he pointed to a burned piece of plastic and metal. "Someone used a bridge and it's gone bad."
I nodded my agreement—pretending I understood—and left him to his work. I was a comic-book colorist and editor, but before he went into international development, H. M. had been a master auto mechanic near Munich. He was able to reroute a mystery cable from elsewhere to the starter. We could drive.
Unfortunately, the mystery cable turned out to charge the generator. We couldn't stop the car, as we didn't know if we had the battery power to start it again, and we had no lights. Murchison Falls is the largest national park in Uganda. Once we entered the national park boundaries, it was still another hour and a half to our three-bedroom house above the Nile. And the park is full of animals—baboons, lions, owls, crocodiles, hippos, chimpanzees, elephants, giraffes, gazelles, and antelopes—and we wouldn't want to hit any of them because we were driving in the dark, plus it's illegal to go around driving into national park animals. We could not continue until morning.
We checked into a worn-out hotel in Masindi. Our little room was stiflingly hot and H. M. had a headache. He took a malaria self-test that came up negative. I knew that it was not malaria that was bothering him. It was me. His sickness was due to the stress of not knowing what to do about me. He carefully slept on his own half of the bed, while I stared at the ceiling fan. When I finally did sleep, I dreamed that my sister gave me a tiny St. Bernard puppy. I named it Masindi and took it for a walk downstairs from our hotel room. But I didn't know how to care for Masindi. I was careless and placed the puppy on the ground without a leash. A snake spied an opportunity and suddenly shot out of a hole in the ground. His jaws opened wide and he ate the puppy, while I stood there, helpless.
My final days at Murchison were not pleasant. We slept under a mosquito net on our screened veranda, as we always had. We listened for the hippo, which would come out of the Nile and into our yard at night to eat grass and flick his dung at our screen as he marked his territory. The park generators went off at midnight every evening, and then we'd look at the stars and listen to the frogs. But now, instead of taking pleasure in the incredible privilege of living in a national park in East Africa, we argued.—my yearlong Internet-based trip around the world in 2001, with its lovely romantic evening on the Nile where we'd first met—played out its final chapter on the veranda one Tuesday night in late 2005. It wasn't a very nice ending.
I got up early and made breakfast for H. M., as one does when faced with cohabiting with someone right after everything has gone to hell. This set a more normal tone, but I was still surprised when he invited me on a game drive in late afternoon. Celsius—the park's electrician—was at the northern gate on the other side of the Nile. He needed a lift. We'd look at some animals en route. Celsius had been away for a few weeks, hosting his father's funeral. His father had been killed by LRA rebels north of Pakwach a few weeks ago. Killings were unfortunately a frequent occurrence in northern Uganda, where guerrillas calling themselves the "Lord's Resistance Army" have been murdering people and abducting children for indoctrination as soldiers for twenty years.
We loaded up on camera gear and off we went. But it was too hot for animals to be out in the sun. We saw nothing but a few gazelles.
After picking up Celsius and two others who were also hoping for a lift, we headed toward the ferry that would take us back across the Nile.
A hippo was eating grass in broad daylight at the ferry landing. Hippos usually stay in the water during the day, and I'd never seen a lone hippo grazing near humans. This large bull was covered in fresh scars, most likely from a territorial battle with another hippo. Maybe he'd wagged his tail and flicked his dung at the wrong spot, one already claimed by the shit of a bigger hippo.
H. M. grabbed his digital Canon and headed over. The hippo seemed used to people. Ranger cabins sat about fifty yards away and tourists were getting on and off the ferry. H. M. got closer than he normally would have. The hippo is the number-one human killer in Africa's animal kingdom. It is vegetarian but it has four-inch teeth, its mouth gapes 150 degrees, and it can run faster than a human. We liked having our yard hippo at Murchison Falls, but we respected it, just watching and listening when it came to visit us at night. But we'd also never had a chance to clearly photograph a hippo on land during daylight. H. M. hadn't been chomped yet, so I followed suit with my film Canon.
"Click, whirr," went our cameras.
Then, through my 70-300 mm zoom lens, I saw the hippo stiffen and look up, his eyes looking directly at my camera. His face changed from "I like to eat grass" to "I will kill you, tourist." He charged. My shutter clicked.
H. M. and I turned and ran as one. Neither of us looked back or at each other. We were lucky to have twenty to thirty feet on the angry hippo as he could easily have outrun us. I cradled my camera and was about to leap up on the pickup bed, while H. M. had circled around to the other side of the cab. But the hippo had made his point. He'd slowed down and returned to eating grass.
Celsius was laughing at us from a distance. We joined in, full of adrenalin. We didn't really think the hippo could have killed us as we had been close to the truck. But the awareness of death-by-hippo statistics was running through my head as I ran and I thought, Stupid, Marie, very stupid.
For a moment, all the tension of the past week was forgotten. Herr Marlboro and I laughed together as we crossed the Nile on the ferry. We touched for a moment, posing midriver while Celsius—holding the camera crooked—used up the last shot on my roll of film. I still had vain faith that things would work out. How could they not, I believed, with all of our history, romance, and similarities? Four years ago, we'd met in a most unlikely place as we both traipsed the back roads of the African continent. There's no way it's ending with so much anger and disappointment, I thought, after such a romantic beginning, so long ago, at the end of a marathon journey from Cape Town to Cairo.

Chapter 2
Crazy Like a Kudzu
"You will like Cape Town," said the security guard at the container port. "It is a beautiful city."
It was August 2001. I had just left the container ship and taken my first steps into Africa. In my imagination, this moment had been monumental and romantic, the highlight of my yearlong trip around the world. I was like one of the great explorers from the 1800s . . . I was Stanley! I was Livingston! I was Speke! I was . . . a thirty-five-year-old Marvel Comics colorist with a backpack who'd slogged her way across the United States, Australia, Asia, and Russia before getting on the Africa-bound ship fifteen days ago in Europe. I'd faced off against corrupt police in Uzbekistan, had my bag slashed in Mongolia, and had been sexually harassed on the Trans-Siberian Railway. I'd marveled at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Great Wall in China, and the bronze Frank Zappa bust in Lithuania. All of this had given me great confidence and made me brave, but the truth is that I was a little scared of Africa, because I wasn't sure how I was going to get around.
Guidebooks listed bus routes in Thailand, train times in Russia, and ferry timetables for Indonesia. It hadn't been easy to go around the world by surface transport, but information had never been in short supply about popular tourist routes. The lesser-known places had been tougher, but the tough parts never lasted long before I was back on the well-trodden paths, most of them clearly documented in my guidebook.
Africa, meanwhile, had huge numbers of tourists visit parts of it every year. But most of these would go on safari trucks and overland tours, with good reason. You can't walk into national parks full of lions, and the public bus would get no closer to the Big Five—the vaunted sightings of lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and rhino—than the front gate. Most tourists go to Africa to go on safaris, not to catch minibuses that travel between cities.
Information was scarce for my trip northward by public transport. The south was easy—luxury buses plied the major highways of South Africa and Namibia, my chosen route on the way to Victoria Falls. But once I crossed the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls, everything would change. Listings in guidebooks and on the Internet were vague. "Daily bus leaves when full from lot by supermarket, except for buses that leave from dirt lot by T-junction." "Trains leave twice weekly and take between 36 and 52 hours." But one thing I'd learned from traveling the rest of the world was that in places where there are few private cars, people still have to get around. In theory, once I crossed the Zambezi, there'd be hundreds of local buses, the kind that leave when full. A string of these local buses would—I hoped—get me to Cairo in four months to catch my scheduled ship to Europe, where I—in spite of being a scruffy budget traveler—was scheduled to lecture on the December Trans-Atlantic QE2 crossing. I'd promised my mother I'd be home by Christmas.
"You're American, aren't you?" The container-port security guard either made a lucky guess or one of the freight workers had told him. "I collect foreign currency. My collection is missing a dollar bill from the United States. If you have one, I could put it on my wall."
Yeah, right, I thought. But I appreciated his brazen attitude, so I grinned at him—but offered nothing—as he buzzed me through the gate and into Cape Town. It felt more as if I were entering a pawnshop at home in New York than as if I were crossing the threshold of a new, exciting continent.
My Cape Town plans were no more exciting than my entrance. I needed to see a dentist for a dull ache that had started under a back tooth, get some vaccines, and buy camping gear. Cape Town is a city not entirely unlike the European cities I'd left fifteen days ago. I was eager to get out into less familiar environs. I flagged down a taxi and got in.
"How do you like Cape Town?" asked the driver.
"I can't see it," I replied. "It's night."
"Ah. Well, it's a beautiful city."
For the next three days, I wandered the busy streets of Cape Town, caught the bus to the upscale Victoria and Albert Waterfront Mall, and made repeated trips to my shipping line's dentist—who gave me a list of his favorite places in Victoria Falls along with a filling. I caught the cable car to the top of Table Mountain to survey the expansive view of the mountains, the flats beyond, and the Atlantic Ocean. Three days later, I left the budget hotel where I'd been staying to board the overnight luxury bus for Windhoek. Maybe I'd see some elephants and rhinos in Namibia. Maybe I'd meet some Namibians. This was it, I realized. Finally. I was going to see something new and different, to immerse myself in cultures totally unknown to me, not just leaving a container port to enter a familiar urban environment.
"Did you enjoy your stay?" asked the front desk clerk.
"Yes," I said, knowing what was expected of me. "Cape Town is a beautiful city."
"Where will you go now?"
"I am catching the bus to Namibia."
He sighed dreamily.
"Namibia is lovely," he said. "Once you go, you must always go back. The sun is very bright there. It will shine right into your heart."
Sun was completely lacking at 5:30 AM in the central Windhoek parking lot that doubled as a bus station. Ephraim—the driver from the Cardboard Box hostel—was there, wearing a stiff cardboard sandwich board that advertised the hostel. He gave me a lift. I wasn't staying at the hostel, but the Crazy Kudu budget camping safari company had arranged to pick me up there at nine.
Namibia is a huge country—more than three hundred thousand square miles—that is populated by about two million people. By contrast, Manhattan has nearly as many people, but they are crammed horizontally and vertically into twenty-four square miles.
Public transportation in Namibia is limited to major routes only. The cheapest way to get into the desert and national parks is to bring friends and split the cost of car rental. But I didn't have any friends in Africa, so I'd done the next best thing and rented friends by signing up for the camping safari. I'd go around Namibia in a van with ten other people and a guide.
Cardboard Box was having a typically chaotic hostel morning. Dozens of people whisked in and out of the kitchen, some with wet hair, some in shorts, others in pajamas. Everyone was grabbing a different kind of breakfast from his or her personal stash of food stored in different lockers—toast, cereal, or eggs. In the common room, books were scattered about, and backpacks were piled in the corner. A couple came out of the shower together, hand in hand, as a woman in her seventies sat at the dining room table and sipped tea. She had a gash on her forehead that was just beginning to heal. I heard her describing a car accident on one of Namibia's many gravel roads to a college-age backpacker.
A stocky, thirty-something tanned man with sandy-blond hair and skinny ankles had just come alone out of a shower. He had a friendly, open face, and his wet hair was plastered onto his forehead.
"Are you Marie?" he asked.
"Yeah." I was startled. "How do you know that?"
"I saw your name on the list of people coming in this morning. My name is Shawn."


On Sale
May 20, 2009
Page Count
336 pages
Seal Press

Marie Javins

About the Author

Marie Javins is a writer and editor who left a fun-filled job at Marvel Comics to go around the world by local transport in 2001, blogging all the way on She is the author of Best in Tent Camping: New Jersey (Menasha Ridge Press, 2005) and a full-time freelancer who colors and edits for Marvel Comics, Gemstone Comics, and Kuwait’s Teshkeel Media Group. Originally from Northern Virginia, Javins considers herself a New Yorker but has lived in Australia, Barcelona, Uganda, Namibia, New Jersey, and Kuwait over the last five years. She can say “hello,” “thank you,” and “how much” in seven languages.

Learn more about this author