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Published: June 18th 2008
On A Knife Edge
The smooth flanks of the massive red sand dune, abruptly gives way to a sharp boundary line, where the wind blown grains continue on upwards in their relentless journey, carried aloft in the hot turbulences to add yet more material to a hungry neighbouring dune standing close by. This is the Namib Desert's slow but relentless march in action, as it gains control over the Skeleton Coast in Namibia.
There is a beautiful place on this planet, with the power to take your breath away, hidden away from mainstream tourism's eyes.I'd heard such amazing stories from the very few people that I had met that had visited some of the remote areas of Namibia, that it fired my imagination and I made a mental note to put it into my own personal "bucket list", (things to do before I kick it) as one of the top places to visit on the planet. I was also surprised at how many people I spoke to, who did not even know where the country was and looked at me with surprise and commented, "why are you going there?", as if I was doing something so extraordinary! Well, I can tell you, this amazingly beautiful country and it's people was extraordinary and it more than surpassed all my expectations and I hope that anyone who doubted my travel intentions to venture here,will look at this place with the same kind of awe I experienced.
It had been a long, cramped, sleepless overnight flight from London Heathrow T5, so the brief respite breakfast stop in Johannesburg to stretch our legs in the transfers lounge
Dead Tree Moon
Blood red full moon rises through the dusty Etosha plains.
came as a welcome break, before getting back onto yet another plane with my two friends Kevin and David for the final relatively short two hours sector to Windhoek in Namibia. We were now a lot less cranky and in better spirits and filled with fresh coffee and good food and that kind of anticipation and excitement that only travellers know of, something that had been an idea floating around in our minds for a long time and on scraps of paper in the planning stages, was now rapidly becoming a reality.There really is something mysterious about the process of travelling that makes the heart beat faster, we set off emboldened with the prospect of a visit to a new land and the adventures that awaited us there.
The approach to Hosea Kutato Airport came sweeping in low over desert scrub with absolutely no signs of human habitation visable at all, just miles upon miles of flat dusty ground, this shouldn't have surprised me as I heard that this vast country only has a population of about 1.8 million, but it did! I am more used to looking out of the aircraft window and seeing farms,roads and houses passing
below me.The shadow of the aircraft loomed larger over the rocks and sand beneath and it was with some relief that I saw my first signs of life, as the airport perimiter fence sped past me and the runway started and I heard the reassuring thump as the wheels renewed contact with our shadow once again and Namib Terra Firma.
On the first day in Windhoek we were very tired from all the travelling, so after we checked into the Villa Verdi guest house, we dumped our bags and spent a quiet afternoon getting our bearings and checked out the city, which is very European in style, having been a former German colony. The city itself is very friendly, clean and modern and a great starting point to embark on my travels around Namibia.
The following day started early as we got picked up by the team from "Wild Dog and Crazy Kudu Safaris" who were to look after us so well for the next 10 days on our camping expedition. We met our band of fellow travelling companions from the UK,South Africa,Australia,France and Estonia. Boarding the bus which looked like Scooby Do's "Mystery machine", we headed off
Shadows deepen and dunes shine red in the late afternoon sun.
out of the city through a shanty town of corregated iron and recycled wooden huts, again met everywhere by smiling faces and waving hands and children running alongside our bus, a feature that was to become a very common sight over the next few days.
Our first stop was to the Africat Foundation in Okonjima. AfriCat provides a home, food and care for over 100 animals that currently cannot be released back into the wild. These are mainly cheetahs and leopards, but also lions, caracals, spotted hyaenas and wild dogs, that are unsuitable for immediate release or sadly require permanent captivity. There are many reasons as to why these animals have had to remain in care with Africat, the primary one being orphaned cubs that would be dependent on their mothers for food and protection and are too young to cope on their own. These cubs have either been captured without their mothers or their mothers have been killed. Many of the cheetahs and leopards that have been taken in, have been in captivity elsewhere for a long time; they have become habituated to people or become completely tame, making them unsuitable for release back into the wild. These
animals are either no longer wanted or have become too expensive to care for, or have been confiscated by the authorities for being held illegally or with improper care. Most of the cheetahs and leopards that have suffered injuries have been returned back into the wild after recuperation, but in cases where the injuries have been too extensive, the cats have had to remain in captivity. We had a short tour around the complex in an open sided bus and drove into the Leopard compound,we got off the vehicle and headed quietly to a small wooden hide and took our seats inside, filled with expectation at the open windows and were instructed that we were not to place any cameras or arms over a painted line on the table in front as the leopard was about to be released from it's enclosure and if necessary a heavy protective screen might have to be hurriedly released from above if the big cat decided we looked more tasty and made a bound for us. The Leopard was magnificent as he came leaping out into the sunshine and deftly climbed a tree digging his claws into the bark and clambered up to where
some meat was hung. He was totally unconcerned at our observations and crunched his way through all the flesh and bones.
We reluctantly said farewell to this amazing creature and boarded our vehicle again and moved on through locked gates into another enclosure which was home to a group of Cheetahs. At first I didn't see anything as I looked into the tall grass and glare of the setting sun,but once the animals felt confident to show themselves the perfectly camoflauged Cheetahs simply strolled up to us to have a closer look, or more than likely, to see if we had brought any food for them to eat! The calmness soon evaporated as a few of the Cheetahs sensed something lurking in the undergrowth beyond on the otherside of the high compound fence. A large male Kudu walked out into the open then set off galloping along the perimiter. The insincts of the Cheetahs quickly kicked in and they showed their wildside and set off in hot pursuit along the fence too, but with never a hope of catching their prey.
The Great White Place
Etosha, meaning "Great White Place", was somewhere I had wanted to visit for as
long as I can remember,but it should have been renamed for our time there "Great Wet Place" as the massive mineral salt pan which dominates the area was totally filled with water stretching to the distant horizon, it was like an inland sea. This was the moment I had been waiting for. Our guide told us that he had never seen it so filled up like that before as it had never flooded as bad for at least four decades.An old San legend about the formation of the Etosha Pan tells of how a village was raided and everyone but the women slaughtered. One woman was so upset about the death of her family she cried until her tears formed a massive lake. When the lake dried up nothing was left apart from a huge white salt pan.
As we travelled around this incredible landscape, the shout went out from the front of the bus,"LIONS!"....there was an almighty scramble as everyone jumped to their feet excitedly and stood on the seats, heads popping out through the viewing holes in the roof. I found it difficult to steady my camera for my shot as I was jostled from all sides.
I eventually gave up and returned to my seat. Later on, close to the roadside, we came across a sleepy pride of lions that were just stirring into life for another night of hunting out on the plains, as the sun rapidly sunk towards the horizon. We sat there for ages in reverential silence just watching the "king of beasts" I was quite excited at that moment, fulfilling a life long dream I had for many years. I realized I was there, in one of the most amazing places on earth, within metres of the big cats of Etosha, where the thin boundary line between being dead or alive is just too easy to cross. Me and the lions, such an incredible memory! As dusk drew close and the wildlife became more active, we headed out of Etosha to our campsite at Halali. I still had not got my fill of seeing Africa's animals so spent a few hours at a floodlit waterhole observing from a raised viewing area. I was very fortunate to see a white Rhino come out from the cover of darkness and creep cautiously down to the water for a drink, a magical moment. I fell
Road Block Leo Panthera
As dusk falls across Etosha, a large silhouetted male lion lies across the road barring exit from the park.
asleep that night contentedly to the distant sounds of roaring. Awesome!
Our brief time at Etosha came to an end all too quickly, but we still had the incredible experience that is Brandberg Mountain and the White Lady rock paintings to come. The approach to the mountain was quite stunning as we came off the plateau and the higher elevation and headed down into the start of the Namib desert that hugs the Atlantic coast. The vegetation noticeably changed from the rich grasslands and trees of the game park to scrubby bushes and more sand. The features started to disappear into flat plains and long straight dirt roads that went on for hours. From a long way out, I could see on the far horizon a bump which gradually got bigger, rising out from the flat desert all around the isolated massif could be clearly seen from hundreds of kilometres away. I spent the next few hours looking out of the bus window at the hazy apparition starting to gain form and size and could see why this was such a spiritual place for the San people and for that matter anybody who sees it for the first
I waited quietly for hours down at the waterhole in Namibia's Etosha National Park, with just the African night sounds for company and was just about to put my camera away and head back to my tent, when I became aware of a shadow moving slowly undercover of darkness and then out into the moonlight.To my amazement and immense joy, I saw this magnificent huge White Rhino come creeping down to the water's edge for a drink.
time. It had an almost hypnotic effect as I drifted off and suddenly realised that my mind had wondered slightly and we were nearly there.
The giant stone poking from the desert was huge,It is composed of a single mass of granite that rose through the Earth's crust some 120 million years ago.At over 2500 metres high,making it the highest point in Namibia. We arrived at our campsite set up our tents and after a brief rest, headed up into the volcanic granite massif for a hike to the rocky recess where the white lady paintings can be found under an overhang, still perfectly preserved after thousands of years. The mountain is also known as the "mountain of the gods" and "fire mountain" and with the setting sun shining on it's golden flanks I could see how it got it's name.Quite spectacular!At another stop we met the Himba people who welcomed us into their village. They are a proud nomadic trip who live an almost stoneage life, fiercely resisting the forces of the 21st century around them. We asked our guide Ndaheye if we could bring anything for them and he told us that part of the money from
the cost of our trip was going to them. I felt a lot better I didn't want this to be some kind of human safari. We gave bags of candy to the village elder and it was to our great amusement that the children put a well rehersed routine into action. The smallest child at the front could only have been a few years old and stood his ground as they all shuffled and jostled behind trying to decide who was taller or shorter.Once they were all happy the great confectionary give away started.It was really nice to see the kids having such a good time laughing and dancing for us.
The drive out over the vast flat expanse of desert wilderness from the Brandberg to the Atlantic coast took a couple of hours. It was a relief to see up ahead a thin sliver of silver glinting on the horizon beconing us onwards. At first I wasn't even sure if this wasn't yet another trick the desert was playing on us,but this was no mirage,this was my first sighting of the Skeleton coast and the route we would be following for the next few days. We arrived shortly
Beach Of Seals
Tens of thousands of Cape Fur seals breed at Cape Cross on the Skeleton Coast.
afterwards at Cape Cross where centuries ago the first Europeans set foot in Namibia and headed down to the easily accessible Seal reserve at the waters edge.There is a short walk from the car park to a low walled wooden decked walkway viewing area that separates the seals from their human observers. The seals didn't seem to notice us watching or just simply chose to ignored us completely and just got on with what seals do best. As you walk over, the smell and noise became stronger and more pungent. The noise is a bit like sheep and lambs on steroids. The smell is, well, overpowering! You really have to experience it for yourself! There are many thousands of seals hauled out onto the beach sunning themselves, just on the other side of the wall. At most times of the year there can be as many as 100 000 breeding seals which makes this a remarkable location.
Skeleton Coast And The Namib Sands
This most famed and feared stretch of coastline has a wonderful name and a terrible reputation. The unpredictable currents and sandbanks combine with impenetrable fogs to make this a graveyard for ships and whales alike, whilst the
Two dominant bull fur seals jostle for supremacy on Cape Cross beach.
unforgiving desert hinterland makes this one of the worst places in the world to be marooned.
We approached the town of Swakopmund out of the furnace-like hot windswept expanses of the Namib Desert and were greeted by the booming of the surf on the notorious Skeleton Coast,which is an ever-present reminder of the treacherous and icy Atlantic Ocean beyond. This was to be our 2 day pit stop for a welcome rest from all the travelling out on the hot dusty road. But I cannot be still for an instant, so spent the rest of my time here planning how best to spend my hard earned cash on creating new memories.My friends and I settled on a bit of desert quad biking through the dunes, sandboarding down them and the absolute highlight for me was a three hour scenic flight over the Namib desert over mars-like terrain with the lengthening shadows of sunset and back up the Skeleton Coast. I recommend this to anybody considering visiting Namibia.
I took off into perfect blue skies and I marvelled at the ever changing views and colours as they varied from ochre reds to mustard and golds,illuminated by the sun as
it dipped lower into the Atlantic. I sat upfront with our pilot as he pointed out various features of interest and one that made a lasting impression on me and kept my camera shutter clicking away, was a shipwreck we flew over. Stuck hard and fast in the sand for nearly a century at Conception Bay, some considerable distance from the wild oceans that first stranded it there, was what remained of the corroded hulk of the freighter "Eduard Bohlen". The ships' crew lost thier way in the infamous dense fog so characteristic of this area, like so many mariners before them. Their final voyage ended tragically here as it ran aground in 1909. This used to be the original shoreline, but over the years the sand has migrated nearly half a kilometre westward out to sea, trapping it in the desert to rust slowly away into the sands. This image for me personifies the loneliness and fragility of the human spirit in this harsh and unforgiving environment. I can only image the growing feelings of despair the survivors of the shipwreck must have experienced, when they thought they had found salvation from a watery grave, only to cruely discover
on climbing the nearest sand dune, an endless empty expanse of desert with not much realistic hope of shelter from the blistering sun or finding fresh water. This coast of skeletons is full of bleached bones and very aptly named.
A small group of us decided to climb the snaking ridge of the mighty Dune 45 before breakfast. Buffeted by the wind with sand stinging our faces, we trudged up to the top of the crest and watched in awe and reverential silence as the sun rose. The red quartz mist caressed the dune, dancing around our legs and flew off into the blue sky all around us. Turning our backs to the rising sun, we were thrilled to see our shadows cast onto the airborne migrating particles. Though we had grit in our teeth and in our underwear, none of us that day regretted our decision to experience the early wake up call and this place that memories are made of!
Dead Vlei was a revelation, it was like the surface of Mars.The wind whipped up the desert and any exposed flesh was sandblasted by the tiny grains. At one point we were enveloped in a swirling
Our happy band of campers watching natures free lightshow whilst grabbing a few beers at Camp Agama.Good job I didn't stand up or I would have blended into the background!
dust devil that blew out of nowhere and disappeared as quickly as it formed. After hiking for about an hour over a dry flat lake bed with concrete hard cracked mud, we climbed over a final sand dune and there it was spread out before us.This incredible landscape of blue skies,red dunes and white dry mud with centuries old sun blackened dead trees, still perfectly preserved in the waterless environment. It was amazing that in all those hundreds of years,it had never been swallowed up by the sands.That image is burnt into my memory forever!
Back at camp,all that was behind us and we faced the prospect of heading back home to "civilisation", but honestly I can say, I did not miss the trappings of our normal lives. It is sometimes good to get away from humanity en-masse for a short while, just so you can hear your own inner voice more clearly.I watched my fellow travel companions faces reflecting on what had been, as we sat around the flickering campfire,protected by an ancient tree that has probably witnessed many similar gatherings here over the years, they also seemed to share my mood and looked contemplative. Charles, Ndaheya and
Ruben, our Namibian hosts from Wild Dog And Crazy Kudu Safaris, who made our trip such an unforgettable experience, whom we met as strangers at the beginning of the journey and now consider good friends, finished cleared up the remnants and debris of our last evening meal. We each grabbed tins of beer to go say goodbye to the desert for a while and walked out of camp with a few other like-minded souls. Our "sundowners" session went on for quite a few hours as we watched the harsh light conditions start to turn red and soften and the shadows lengthen.The desert skies are vast and beautiful with an ever changing mood and after the stunning sunset finale they darkened to an amazing velvety black dotted by brilliant points of light. Charles enthusiastically gave us a guided tour of the mysteries of the universe, with a can of beer in one hand and a torch in the other, his beam shining skywards at distant constellations, talking animatedly about the "Southern Cross" and "Magellanic Clouds" as we watched shooting stars blazing their trail overhead. Magical memories!
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