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Published: October 26th 2009
It’s a very cold night and we’re sleeping in our car. I'm beginning to realise exactly how small this Citigolf actually is as leg cramp sets in. Blanketless, its all about wearing as many clothes as you can put on, and snuggling up. We both look a bit like manatees. I feel like I missed something in the paperwork - nobody warned me that Africa could get cold like this. At least we have enjoyed a big braai (bbq) of chops and boerewors, and have Castle Beer warming our veins. This tiny town is called Solitaire. I say town but I think there are more springbok than people. Namibia, I’m told, is the world’s second least populated country. It has two other world seconds - second largest canyon, second oldest desert - but the country certainly doesn’t feel like a runner up, to any extent. We have already seen the plains of tall cream coloured grass, the craggy, clefted Naukluft mountains and earth that sparkles with minerals. After months of trees and jungle that appears lifeless from bush meat hunting - knowing the animals are out there, but that man has scared them off - we are suddenly seeing big baboons
running across the road, and warthogs snuffling in the grass. Seth has been here before; when he worked in Zimbabwe for a year, he visited Namibia with his brother Baz. He knows what its like to see elephant, rhino, giraffe, lions… for me it’s the first time on this journey that such sightings may be possible, and I’m beyond excited. We have planned to stay in Etosha National Park. I feel like I’ve earned it, like a little African safari is a good reward for the hardcore travel we have just completed through the Congos and Angola.
Public transport in Namibia and Botswana is scant. Locals hitch, but it takes too much time, and we both feel we’d rather wrestle a hippo than join a bus tour. We figure by hiring a car we can reach our alphabet letters R, S, T and U, take a loop around Namibia and Botswana, and take in the desert, the canyon, the Okavango delta and all the adventures in-between. Unfortunately our car doesn’t like us very much. We have called it Pumba, lovingly, after the warthog in the Lion King. It does grunt like a warthog but it roars like a lion.
The radiator whirrs like the car itself is about to take off, the breaks squeak, the gears grind and the alarm system is impossible to decipher. Whenever we leave her parked up, she waits for us to walk a significant distance then starts beeping the horn at us continuously, flashing her lights, shocking passers by and utterly destroying the classic serenity of sweeping Namibian landscapes. We take it in turns to run back, shame faced. We’re hoping to tame her soon.
In the morning, we are both creaky and bleary, sleep having proved elusive. It will take something very impressive to wake us up, so we hit the road for the famous sand dunes of the Namib Desert, at Sossusvlei. The first treat is a gang of ostriches running across a field. I have never seen them before and grin from ear to ear. Beyond their bulbous bodies and gangly legs, a world of red comes into view - the dunes have begun. We drive past springbok and oryx, walk out among the dunes to what is known as ‘Dead Vlei’ - I have seen photographs of this strange, desolate clay pan with its dead trees (too dry to
rot) a thousand times, and I feel like I know it already. Seth has been here before, and yet we are compelled to wander for a long time, absorbing the place. We last saw desert back in Mali; the Sahara, three months ago. The dunes there were creamy coloured, smooth. These in the Namib are much redder, and are so huge that photographs don’t do them justice. We crane our necks trying to take them in. Some are said to be 300 metres tall. My head can’t quite process the idea, even as I stand there.
Hoping not to sleep in the car again tonight, we head south and east. The map seems to promise mountains, the word ‘Pass’ filling us with hope, but the absorbing beauty of the dunes allowed the day to while itself away; it will soon be dark. Two small bat-eared foxes cross the road around dusk, and disappear into the grass, their large ears giving away their location as they slink off into the night. Seth is doing all the driving. I have a license but haven’t driven in nine years. I also don’t have an international driver’s license for the trip, so sharing
the burden is impossible. I try to make up for it by navigating, scouting for wildlife, room-hunting when we overnight in towns and sandwich making, but the guilt is there.
There is very little traffic on this gravel road, and we come to a ditch filled with water. I climb out to test its depth and to guide Seth and Pumba through to the shallowest part, but as I do so I feel suddenly very uncomfortable, as though there is a presence behind me in the bushes. Instinctively I turn and nothing, nobody, is there. There are goosebumps on my forearms as I climb back in the car. It is fully dark and we are crossing the pass. This place looks more like the bleak moorland of Yorkshire than the terrain we are used to.
‘That felt really creepy out there, and I’m not sure why’, I confess.
‘I know what you mean,’ says Seth. ‘There’s absolutely no one on this road.’
I look at the map. The town of Maltahohe, where I’m hoping we will find a hotel, is still a long way off. Around us the silhouettes of lumpy hills look across the terrain. Suddenly
there are headlights in the distance behind us. It adds to the creepiness. When the car overtakes, we see black fumes belching out of its exhaust.
‘That doesn’t look good,’ says Seth.
‘What would we do,’ I ponder, ‘if a few miles down the road, that car pulled over, and the driver tried to flag us down. Would we stop?’
I’m only thinking about it because I’ve read somewhere that it’s a trick carjackers and bandits use to get you to slow down. The spookiness of the place is starting to get my imagination working.
‘Do people do that?’ wonders Seth, but he doesn’t elaborate because both of us are distracted by what we see ahead in the road. The car with the black exhaust fumes is at the side of the road, the hazard lights switched on. There are people sat inside and one who is stood by the car, waving us down. This person has their hood up. It is hard to see in the dark whether it is an adult or a child. We slow a little, but instincts and split-second decision making make us err on the side of caution and we keep
driving, on the grounds that it is late and dark, that it is a known trick, and that the coincidence is too creepy to be ignored. We know that the breakdown is probably genuine, but instinctually stopping feels wrong. A mile on we see a farmhouse with lights on, and it makes us feel a little less guilty. After securing a draught beer, a cosy room and a hot dinner in Maltahohe, I tell Seth there are not many places in Africa that have made my skin crawl the way that bleak wilderness did.
Fish River Canyon lies in the far south of Namibia, just above the border with South Africa. We’re not yet ready to delve into that country - we want to travel through Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique first - so a trip to the canyon is way off our route. We do it anyway, driving for multiple miles and hours and roaring onto the splendid scene an hour before sunset. Seth runs from point to point with his cameras and tripod. I gaze at the great sloping depths of the canyon. The Fish River winds through, thin, almost a trickle, totally dwarfed by the stupendous
walls of stone that surround it. Glossy black birds with orange eyes are roosting here at the viewpoint, and they try to ignore us unless we get too close. Pumba waits for us to get a suitable distance from her then shatters the gorgeous peace with her penetrating beep-alarm, the sounds of the horn echoing through the canyon and disturbing the handful of fellow visitors we are sharing the spectacle with. The birds eye us crossly. I run back to Pumba, cursing her, and battle to stay awake as we drive back to Keetmanshoop and cook the sleepiest braai in history. It is a wonder that neither of us falls asleep in our burgers.
Our next destination is Botswana. We’ve got a long way to go to reach it. On the first day, we break up the driving by visiting a Quiver Tree forest and Seth manages to get lost at a group of rock formations called ‘The Giants Playground.’ For almost an hour, I baby-sit the beeping Pumba, wondering how to explain that I’ve lost my husband among a giant collection of rocks that look like super-size rabbit droppings. If there’s a record for grumpy sandwich eating, I
break it on this day. I’m unsympathetic when he finally arrives panting, telling the dramatic tale of his disorientation. There is hardly any traffic on the back roads as we head north. Pale chanting goshawks perch on telegraph poles and huge sociable weaver nests hang in the trees, home to hundreds of birds. We spend the night in an empty hotel in a deserted town, and as we eat dinner the resident grey parrot attacks Seth’s bag and bites his shoelaces under the table.
Alphabetically, we are doing well. We got our ‘R’ in Rehoboth, a quiet town south of Windhoek. We want our ‘S’ to come from Botswana, and can see a couple of contenders near the Okavango Pan Handle. The border crossing is easy, one of the quietest we’ve ever had.
‘Did you notice the Botswana flag?’ says Seth as we stroll out of immigration with our stamps.
‘No,’ I admit, ‘I was too busy looking at that painting of the tiny village with the giant chickens. Either the artist has a few issues with perspective or villages in this country are going to very interesting…’
It seems a very bad omen when a
small deer, a duiker, runs out in front of us and we knock it down. Seth is absolutely mortified. We are driving slowly, in the dark, and it appears at the roadside, dithers, then suddenly shoots out in front of us. It is not until we are at a garage in Ghanzi the next day, having the broken headlight re-fixed on the ill-fated Pumba, that Seth begins to cheer up a little about the whole sad incident. We have come to Botswana in the hope of seeing wildlife, not killing it. The creatures of Botswana seem especially suicidal, and we spend much of our time shrieking at shrews, owls, hornbills and rock dassies that scuttle into the road as though they have death wishes.
We overnight in Sepupa, but decide it will not be our ‘S’ on account of experiencing only a waterside camp on the Okavango river, where bored South African teenagers on holiday amuse themselves by throwing stones at our tent.
‘Ignore them’, Seth advises sagely, as he rests his aching arms and legs after a full day’s driving, ‘they’ll get bored.’ They don’t. I can hear these boys giggling and sneaking up with the stones.
I’m getting annoyed. We didn’t just travel through the fricking Congos to be targeted by spotty fourteen year olds in a bloody campsite in Botswana. A big lump of hard mud smacks the top of the tent and shatters into pieces. Muffled hysterics from the bushes outside. That’s it.
‘F*ck’s sake, stupid children, grow up! Why can’t you do something interesting? Get a life, go and play somewhere else! This is so BORING!’ Absolute silence. Seth looks scared. My speech seems to echo around the camp ground - I think I’ve even surprised myself a bit. But the kids shut the hell up and there are no more stones all night.
Seth decides that the best way to give a little something back, having received so much kindness from strangers as we’ve traveled through Africa, is to pick up hitchhikers. I agree with him in principle but sometimes feel lazy about it - making sure the back seat is tidy, that I’m dressed decently and not being able to mess around and sing puts me off slightly, but he’s right - every time we do it, we feel good. Memorable are the old couple with the incontinent dog, an old
man on his way to the doctors and a lady who worked on a farm who we drove out of our way to drop off especially. When she gets out of the car she says, ‘Thank you; you have taken our roads as though they were your own.’ Seth and I look at each other. It’s a poignant moment.
We drive to the Tsodilo Hills on our way up the Okavango Pan Handle. Seth has seen the place on the map and urges me to read about it in our guidebook. I find the description underwhelming but as soon as we arrive in the area, I’m under its spell. In the car park there is a gang of velvety grey birds with fluffy tufts on their heads. They are Grey Louries, ‘Go Away’ birds, silly and fabulous in equal measure.
The hills are sacred to the San people of the Kalahari, who believe this is the place of Creation. We walk for hours with a guide called Summer, visiting ancient rock paintings of giraffe, lions and rhinos. There is a special air to this place and I feel excited and inspired the whole time I am there. The ancient
hills and crags are layered with foliage and the rock is almost rainbow coloured in parts. Seeing such old art, depicting familiar African creatures, it is strangely comforting to know that there have always been artists; that human beings have always wanted to externalize and share.
Our ‘S’ becomes Seronga, a tiny town at the bottom of the Okavango Pan Handle, on the Eastern side of the river. Our trinket is a metal cow bell, and we take an overnight trip into the topmost part of the famous delta to see what all the fuss is about. Our guide, C, is also our boatman, and the three of us glide through the marshes in a fiberglass mokoro boat. The reeds and grasses that grow in the delta are tall and strange spiders fall in our laps. C stands at the back, paddling, pointing out kingfishers, egrets, elephants. We set up our tents on Kau Island, beneath some trees which have had their bark stripped by elephants. Big piles of elephant poo nearby confirm the popularity of the place. Before sunset we venture back out in the mokoro, in search of hippos. Loud gruntings and snufflings come from among the
tall reeds and I start to feel slightly vulnerable as I realize the sounds actually surround us. When we paddle suddenly into a clearing - a large pool surrounded by reeds - what we are rewarded with is fantastic as well as alarming. Three hippos - two parents and a baby - are at the opposite side of the pool, their heads visible up to the nostrils above the water. The three of us stare at the three of them. They are about twenty metres away. Suddenly the father decides we’re not welcome. I thought hippos could only really charge on land, but I am proved wrong. After a few huffs and puffs, he rears up like a bucking horse and plunges head first into the water. There are ripples where his body has hit the water but he is nowhere to be seen - because he is under the water, coming for our boat. My heart is somewhere in my throat, like I might choke on it. Seth is saying, ‘Shit. Shit. We’re dead.’ C is rowing like a madman. For some reason all of us are smiling too, and laughing, if nervously. It’s like we know if we
have to die, death by hippo is at least a fairly interesting way to go. A spider has chosen this same moment to crawl up onto my stomach and raise its front legs at me in a threatening posture. At any other time, it would disturb me greatly. Right now I brush it aside, thinking, ‘yeah, whatever, hold that thought.’ We pull in behind a little wall of reeds and see the male hippo emerge right beside the point where our boat had been. He sees us behind the reeds and snorts. We wait and he waits. The sun sinks lower. When he has swum away and it is safe to move, we make a race for home against the dying light. For me this Okavango sunset, out on the water, is one of those African moments I am going to keep with me for life.
By the time we return to land the following day, I have seen my first herd of zebra and wildebeest. Our sleep has been disturbed by the groaning of hippos in the bushes by our tent, and I suspect the noises have inspired all three of us to remember the haunting image of
the diving hippo. To me, it seems like a whole new side to Africa is opening up; the continent has been peopled and landscaped from the start, but only now am I encountering it’s famous wildlife on a daily basis. It’s dark when we re-enter Namibia. Our Botswana jaunt has been brief, too brief, but in my memory I know I will go walking in the Tsodilo Hills often.
The loop we have driven with Pumba is nearing completion. We head to the town of Tsumeb, our T, and meet an unusual, hyperactive woman running a coffee shop, who puts a bright red blob of strawberry ice cream in Seth’s coffee. She also owns a large cat with a grand, triple barreled name, and she charges us an extortionate amount for our drinks, though we hardly notice under the fire of her incessant talking. We emerge, dazed, but she is really the most interesting thing about the sleepy town. We head to bed early after buying supplies for our trip to Etosha National Park the next day. We plan to leave very early the next morning, before the sun comes up. Tiptoeing softly out of the guesthouse so as
not to disturb the other guests, we creep into the car park, slide open the gate and reverse softly out of the driveway. Pumba, ever the trouble causer, beeps loudly and randomly as we pull away. How can our hire car hate us this much?
Within an hour I have seen my first giraffes, and my first lion, a hunting female prowling through the grass. There are hornbills and rollers in the trees, and Seth is overjoyed when we find a group of elephant playing at a waterhole. The rotten water stinks like off-chicken as the gorgeous big beasts roll in it, but it’s impossible to care. Animals in this park are so used to cars that we sit unnoticed for an hour while babies run around their mothers’ legs, splashing in the mud and showering themselves with dust. A little later, we drive Pumba down a road littered with sharp thorns, thinking her wheels will be tough enough, and ruin one tire entirely.
‘Great,’ says Seth, changing the tire outside the petrol station in Okaukuejo camp as I stand by, impressed, the picture of the useless wife and the macho husband, ‘who said hiring a car wouldn’t be
an adventure?’ Later that day, we stop to help some American tourists who are stranded for the same reason. Their spare tire is the wrong type, sunset is approaching and they are outside of their car beside a waterhole - and in an area known for lions. Worried about them, we give their daughter, Michelle, a lift back to camp. She carries the punctured tire on her knee and three of us are treated to the sight of a pride of lionesses walking through the grass as we rush back to camp. It feels like the lions are a nice reward for helping this sweet family out. Pumba, too, positively thrives in such circumstances and behaves herself like a good Citigolf should. Perhaps our travels with Pumba are teaching us something?
Both Halali and Okaukuejo camp have floodlit waterholes, and at both we watch the dramas of animal nightlife. A group of lions gang up on a lone black rhino, and for a while it really looks like a dangerous situation. I had expected such huge, armoured beasts to be tough and confident but the rhinos are nervous under the gaze of so many sharp toothed felines, and rightly so.
Just a few sips of water can be a life or death affair out here. The elephants behave like big bullies, the warthogs are comedians, the zebra and oryx fight among themselves and love to cool their bellies by wading deep into the water. Black backed jackals slink around the waterside, scaring off the guinea fowl. Giraffe are paranoid and run at the tiniest of sounds. You can watch these living scenes for hours, and we do, wrapped in blankets and sipping Castle Beer. It would be hard to be much happier.
As we leave Etosha, I know even without experience that it has to be one of the world’s best national parks. I am very happy to have seen a martial eagle, its chest speckled like a chocolate chip cookie, its brown wings huge as it sails away from our first waterhole. Seth is still bowled over by the lions:
Having slept in the car at Okaukuejo camp, we rise early and are out in the park for sunrise. A family of giraffe walk silhouetted against the glowing orange sky as we drive north to visit a remote waterhole. Wildebeest chase each other into the road and kick up the dust. A little way on we slow down, realizing we are driving alongside three large male lions. Our windows are wound down and it’s too late to really do anything about it without making any sudden movements. The nearest lion is three metres away. He looks at us with bright yellow eyes, briefly assessing us. He’s beautiful but I feel a shiver. I think to him, we look like potential dinner but in an inconvenient white tin. He licks his lips but keeps walking. The other males are his friends. As they pass one another, their tails curl around each others backs. Together they walk quietly through the grass. The ground is uneven and they stumble once or twice, even with those incredible large paws that we have just glimpsed close up. We drive slowly alongside them, completely in awe. It’s another of those moments. I realize someone might need to give me tranquilisers to get me on a plane back to the UK. I don’t see that I will ever be ready for it. There’s too much out here I want to experience, want to know about.
Having left the park, we try to stop expecting to see animals at every turn. We head towards the small town of Uis down a series of scenic roads, stopping for lunch in a bakery in the quaint town of Outjo. Inside the bakery, tourists eat expensive cakes and meals. Outside, a soldier with a massive rifle keeps an untrusting eye on the general public. This is a familiar sight in Namibia, along with fortified houses and hotels with mean looking fences. It's still new to me but Seth remembers such scenes from South Africa and Zimbabwe. It gives a lot of the little towns an edge of hostility than undermines their otherwise quaint features.
Seth almost falls asleep at the wheel and I try to help by fixing a coffee with sun-warm water. It tastes pretty bad. My singing does not help much either, but luckily the scenery near Uis suddenly becomes incredible. First a troop of elephant trample down a fence and cross the road, leaving us gawping and wondering if we really have left Etosha after all. Then the mountain of Brandberg appears in the distance, looking like a cross between Ayers Rock and Kilimanjaro, and turning a lovely shade of ochre in the dusk. Seth stands ankle deep in the soft grass, taking photographs. I look at the scene and think it couldn’t get any more picture-book-Africa if it tried.
We drive on to Uis, our ‘U’, check in to a cosy room and feast on noodles. Tomorrow we will return Pumba to her depot. We will miss her, however awkward she can be. We have tickets booked on the evening coach to Livingstone, Zambia, where we hope to see Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, (Victoria Falls), before heading on to Zimbabwe, currently a contender for the least likely tourist destination in Africa due to the horrendous year it has just had. I have no idea what state we will find poor Zimbabwe in, but I am very excited to see the country Seth fell so in love with ten years ago.
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