Maye Musk shares her 'crazy' childhood trekking through the African desert in search of a lost city

Maye Musk, in the pink shirt, sitting in the Kalahari Desert with her four other siblings.
Photo courtesy Maye Musk

Elon Musk is famously a maverick in Silicon Valley. And it seems the daredevil streak runs in the family. 

"When I was a child my parents were very adventurous," Maye Musk, Elon's 72-year-old mother, tells CNBC Make It.

Indeed: When Maye Musk was a child growing up in South Africa, her father, Joshua Norman Haldeman, a chiropractor, "was interested in looking for the Lost City of the Kalahari Desert" in Africa, she tells CNBC Make It.

Haldeman took Maye Musk and the rest of the family on yearly treks to search for the lost city every July for nearly a decade.

The lore of the Lost City of the Kalahari Desert started at the end of the 19th century, after Canadian adventurer Guillermo Farini traveled across the desert (which covers much of Botswana, parts of Namibia and regions of South Africa) and then published a book about his travels. The book alluded to a possible lost city: "A relic, may be, of a glorious past,  A city once grand and sublime, Destroyed by earthquake, defaced by the blast, Swept away by the hand of time," he wrote.

Musk's father was hooked. Every year, her mother — Winnifred Josephine Haldeman — would pack a supply of water, food and gas and the family of five children would set off with a map and a compass.

"We would go across the desert for three weeks," she says. Her father would tell scouts with camels to come looking for the family if they didn't emerge from the desert according to schedule. 

"Can you imagine doing that? I mean it's crazy," says Musk. "But they were adventurous and we went across this desert."

The family would travel by daylight, and then at night they would sleep on the ground in sleeping bags.

Musk remembers seeing lot of animals and meeting different tribes of Bushmen, some of whom by the late 1950s had never seen a car before. "They'd never seen other people and they were curious and we were curious," Musk says. Though, admittedly, "we had a language gap there."

Starting when Musk and her twin sister, Kaye, were about 6 to 8 years old, they would be assigned to walk ahead of the family's slow-moving car in shifts "to make sure there were no ditches or no old logs dried-out old logs" the car could hit and be damaged, she says.

Maye Musk's mother, Winnifred Josephine Haldeman, and her siblings Lee and Kaye on the Kalahari Desert.

"My twin sister was reminding me that [our parents] didn't seem too worried," Musk says.

"We were so independent and we were taught to be adventurous ourselves and to try all sorts of new things," she says. "My dad's saying was 'live dangerously — carefully.'"

That motto was passed down to her and colored the way she raised her own children, she says. 

When Musk grew up, she had three kids — Elon, now 49; Kimbal, 47; and Tosca, 46 — and raised them largely as a single mom. She was self-employed, juggling both modeling and a private practice as a dietitian.

The family moved around frequently ("Just moving to eight cities and starting my own business and having three children with me, that's considered brave," Musk says), and was often "financially strapped."

Because of her busy schedule, Musk's kids had to be self-sufficient from a young age, she says. 

"I was working long hours. They didn't see me much. … Fortunately, I worked from home. I always had my practice at home and they just knew they had to behave, they had to do their own homework, and they had to make their own choices," she says. 

But that was a good thing in many ways. "My No. 1 tip for raising successful children is to give them independence," Musk says. "Let them go their own way."

As her kids grew up, each did exactly that.

Elon got into physics, says Maye Musk, and became an entrepreneur, as did Kimbal. (At one point, they went into business together.) Tosca, became a filmmaker. 

"They had to get their own scholarships [to school], and their own loans because … I didn't have time to even read a contract," Musk says.

"They had to do it all themselves and that independence really helped. And look how happy they are now."

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