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Published: July 28th 2006
Who could fail to be intrigued by the romance and mystery in place-names such as Kaokoveld, Damaraland, Sossusvlei and Swakopmund, Windhoek, Otjiwarongo, Etosha and Marienfluss? By a country that boasts its own ghost town, and whose ports are all wedged uncomfortably between the desert and the South Atlantic? A country much of whose coastline is known as the Skeleton Coast after the multiple shipwrecks it has seen, and where diamonds could once be collected as easily as shells on a beach?
Namibia has been high on my travel-target list ever since I saw photographs of some of its highlights when Colin and I were invited to go on an overland trip there out of Johannesburg. As it happened, we’d had to decline because the time commitment was just too great for two stressed City lawyers to contemplate. However, once I had escaped the constraints of an office job, Namibia reappeared high on my list, not only because I wanted to explore the places whose names had entranced me years before, but also because of the conservation opportunities it could offer. More of those anon. Suffice to say that I found myself with commitments in Namibia in August and September, and
therefore the excuse to travel around the country and explore.
The first question was HOW? How could a single traveller best see as much as possible of the country most safely and, ideally, most economically (my cashflow being somewhat one-way at the moment)? Through a convoluted chain of connections (thank goodness for email!), I was introduced to the delightfully named Wild Dog & Crazy Kudu Safaris who operate a trip that seemed custom-built for me: the 14-day “Namibian Experience” which, effectively, follows a figure-of-eight route whose starting, cross-over and finishing points are in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. By running this as a combination of two 7-day trips, the “Northern Adventure” and the “Southern Swing”, Wild Dog stands more chance of getting the trips properly filled and we, those customers doing both parts, would have a change of travel companions, guide and camp assistant half-way through - lest we be getting bored with the first set!
As it happened, we had a superb collection of folks for the “Northern Adventure” in the first week, as well as a permanently cheerful guide - even when the vehicle encountered problems only an hour up the road on our first day (proving, yet
the Northern Adventure route
(my thanks to Wild Dog for this map)
again, the adage that I learnt during my first overland trip on this continent, “Africa always wins”) - and an extremely diligent camp assistant (I still don’t know how he managed to put up six army-style tents single-handed our first night).
With me in the sightseeing end of the bus were a young Danish/Finnish couple on their honeymoon (she had been born in Swakopmund and lived in Ovamboland for the first ten years of her life; much to the bemusement of the Himba people we met half-way through the week, she clearly retained more than a smattering of Ovambo), a young Austrian family (if some of our hearts sank at the sight of two little boys joining the trip, those organs quickly moved back to their rightful places when we got to know the children better: the somewhat silent and serious Till, and the lively, cheeky in-vehicle-entertainment that was Leon), and five other single travellers: Tony, a Chinese-American working in Hong Kong, Nikolaj, a Danish languages teacher, and the three that were to join me on the “Southern Swing” as well: Yvonne, my tent-buddy, from Devon, Lisa from Leighton Buzzard, and Veerle, a languages teacher from Antwerp. I couldn’t
technical hitch at Okahandja
a less than trusty steed, we feared
have asked for better company for the two weeks than those three and the partings in Windhoek last Saturday were, on my part at least, just a wee bit emotional.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the trip itself. We covered at least 2,000 km during the first week…, but I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account lest I lose myself a large number of my acquaintance in one fell swoop (and I’m not sure I can afford many more beers after using that line as an incentive for an earlier blog entry!).
You’ll already have picked up that we encountered a technical hitch early on: this was at Okahandja, only about 40 minutes north of Windhoek, but at least we had already intended to stop there to visit the craft markets, so the troops had some distractions and, speaking personally, my outlook on life was infinitely improved when I persuaded someone in the garage shop to sell me a Savanna (a refreshingly dry South African cider… yikes: I sound like an advert!), even though it was a Sunday when the sale of alcohol is, technically, verboten. Our bus-load remained in remarkably good spirits while wheels
lunch at the side of Namibia
imagine this in central England!
were taken off, serious-looking garage people stood around, serious-looking garage people disappeared, nothing seemed to be happening, wheels went back on, then off, turned round, put back on… Such laid-back folks were a far cry from some Hyacinth Bucket types that I’ve encountered in the past… It boded well for the week.
Ronnie, our guide, then motored up the road, allowing us a fleeting stop at the side of the road for lunch. That said, the chairs were still taken out, the table was assembled, salads carefully prepared, hotdogs heated up - but the feeling that we were munching at the side of Namibia’s equivalent of the M1 made it a somewhat curious lunch-stop.
The first few days of the trip were to be nature- and animal-focussed: overnight at the Africat Foundation at Okonjima, then two nights at different camps in Namibia’s equivalent to the Kruger, Etosha National Park. And what a way to start off: visiting Africat’s habituated leopard and lion at feeding time. We were briefed before entering the hide from which we would watch Waahoo, the leopard, as he is a somewhat temperamental kind of guy. Brought up by the Foundation since he was a
cub and, from what I could gather, treated like an oversize pet cat, he started considering humans to be a threat as he grew older. He was therefore moved into fenced accommodation, but, after he’d successfully jumped 2.2m fencing, he is now safely - we hope - behind even higher barriers. Nevertheless, he is a stunning animal and it was a privilege to watch him being fed.
An unexpected bonus was to meet “TJ” just outside the hide. Fortunately, we were back in the vehicles by that time as TJ is a truly wild leopard. Apparently, he is rarely seen, so this was a real treat and we were the envy of the other Africat staff when they heard about this.
The next morning, we met five of the habituated cheetah. As cheetah can’t jump as well as leopard and aren’t as aggressive, we were allowed to watch them from simply the other side of the fence. I was speechless. Having only seen these animals once in the wild, and then in the far, far distance - just-about-recognisable silhouettes even through my binoculars - I couldn’t believe that I was now standing so close to them: close enough
to see the spats between cats as they fought over morsels of their breakfast, close enough to hear them munching their food, and, best of all, close enough to hear their rumbling purr.
Of Etosha I had heard a lot. One friend of mine told me he hated it: wildlife too much “on tap” as you trail along the same road as everyone else, going from waterhole to waterhole: for the connoisseur it therefore lacks the excitement and unpredictability of the Okavango Delta, for example. Conversely, of course, it is a fabulous place to see a lot of game, particularly at this time of year when water is running short and the animals are increasingly dependant on the waterholes - mostly natural, a couple man-made or man-enhanced - dotted along the southern border of Etosha Pan itself. And it lived up to expectations. On our first afternoon, we met a couple of Namibian specialties, the black-faced impala and the Damara dikdik, and the Namibian national animal, the gemsbok or oryx, as well as a herd of elephant (prompting from Veerle similar cries of excitement and incredulity as I had uttered when I saw my first elephant in the wild:
delightful to hear from someone else as well!), several black-backed jackal, zebra and more giraffe than I have ever seen in one place before. The next morning, we watched a lioness crawling through the undergrowth towards a lone springbok in front of three junior lions, her attempt frustrated by a junior female who sought to mimic her mother’s actions, but in full sight of the springbok which inevitably took off. We saw red hartebeest, eland and kudu in greater numbers than I have seen before, the occasional warthog and ostrich, and representatives from the smaller mammals, ground squirrel and mongoose.
But for me, the highlights were at the end of the second afternoon and that evening. We had stopped as close to the vastness of the Etosha Pan as we were going to get - curious how one never gets a feel for its size as the surrounding country is so flat, and it’s only then apparent as a blue-green haze, somewhat confusing given how little water is in it even after Namibia’s record rains earlier this summer - and were just contemplating moving on to that night’s camp at Okaukuejo when a passing driver alerted us to the
elephant at Etosha
(OK, I reckon you'd have figured that one out, but I have to put something!)
presence of cheetah back up the road we had just travelled. I’m usually sceptical about this kind of information: not allowing myself to get excited as the animals may have moved on and/or been scared off by vehicles or have disappeared into the long grass by the time we found the right spot. But this time my pessimism was not justified: we spotted first one, then another, then a third, all about 50 yards away from the road - unphotographable, but just wonderful to watch through binoculars. I could have stayed there until the last rays of sunset, but reluctantly had to give way to the desire of the majority to set up camp before darkness fell.
And that would have satisfied me completely. However, we were told that the waterhole at Okaukuejo often attracted big game and we couldn’t exactly not visit it that evening. Unlike anywhere else I have been, each of the three campsites in Etosha has a waterhole close by, floodlit at night, and with a well-planned viewing area sufficiently (we hoped!) out of reach of visiting animals. The waterhole at Halali campsite, where we had stopped for lunch that day, had already produced a
fabulous view of a lone male elephant drinking and, to my mind, playing to the audience in the way that he swirled the water around in his mouth, swished his trunk and ambled nonchalantly around for the photographers. The waterhole at Namutoni the first night had attracted zebra and a few springbok, but was dominated by the chatter of what we later discovered were red-billed quelea in the reeds. But it was Okaukuejo’s waterhole that would take the prize that trip. I had remained behind at the campsite after dinner, waiting - of all boringly practical things - for my mobile to finish recharging and chatting to Ronnie and Kalib about life, the universe and everything, as you do, until Andi came back to check on Till and Leon. He told me that they had seen four rhino at the waterhole, that two had moved off, but that two were still there - at least they were when he had left the viewing area. I had only seen white rhino a couple of times and I had never seen black rhino: we didn't know from Andi which to expect. Like an overexcited kid, I ran off towards the waterhole, tripping
elephant at Halali waterhole, Etosha
beats watching the news as an accompaniment to lunch!
up on my way there over one of the kerb stones that inexplicably lines the roads in the campsite. Ignoring a holed knee - both in my jeans and in myself (how old am I?!) - I scuttled on, and was rewarded by the sight of two black rhino still mooching around beside the waterhole. In fact, I was so wrapped up in watching them that an elephant was nearly at the waterhole before I spotted him. It really was the perfect end to a couple of days’ game viewing.
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