A dose of luxury...

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Africa » Namibia
September 3rd 2006
Published: September 24th 2006
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As you might have noticed, I have been very happy to put up with, shall we say, a variety of accommodation arrangements in the last few months. (I described one type of overnight arrangement as "basic camping", promting the question from one friend, "what's more basic than camping?".) However, I could not really expect Colin to enjoy other than a reasonable amount of luxury when he flew out to join me in Namibia for a snatched nine-day vacation at the end of August. And, it must be said, I didn’t resent the five-star treatment too much - though I found it interesting how much less comfortable I felt in the company of the majority of my fellow four/five-star guests than I had with my co-travellers and co-volunteers in Namibia to date.

The trip started and ended with a night at the Hotel Thule in Windhoek. A new-ish hotel on the top of one of Windhoek’s many hills, finding it requires some luck and/or a good set of instructions. Luck was in short supply, and I only realised we’d been given a decently detailed map in the travel agent’s pack that we’d collected at the airport after half an hour of driving around and when tensions in the car were already running fairly high! Still, nothing that a Tafel or two - one of Windhoek’s main two local brews - on the hotel’s balcony couldn’t fix! And the accommodation was quiet and spacious, though I might have quibbled about the alleged “view over the hills”: given that Windhoek is built on hills, these hills were not exactly urban-free.

I’ve been told that I haven’t said anything in my blog to date about Windhoek itself -the city that is effectively my home for five months or so, after all - so I thought I’d take this opportunity to remedy the omission. It is quite unlike any other African city - and, if I’d had any doubt about the veracity of this popular opinion, that doubt was obliterated by my brief sojourn in Luanda where Africa lives and breathes, in some ways, all too visibly, audibly and olfactorily in the streets. Windhoek is very clean, very organised, very well-maintained; the people are well-dressed, and poverty seems - in the tourist areas at least - to be at a minimum. Over in Katatura, considered to be Windhoek’s Soweto, I’m sure the situation is different, but that is an area I have yet to explore, bar a dozen blocks or so when we inadvertently missed the turning to the B1 when we were heading north the next day.

Windhoek is reminiscent of South African towns thirty-plus years ago, according to Colin. Architecturally, it is a curious mixture: largely modern, but with some monuments and buildings that date from earlier in the twentieth century, such as Tintenpalast, now the parliament building, in its gorgeous gardens; Alte Feste, the National Museum of Namibia, and Christuskirche, the German Lutheran church, impressively-sited on a traffic island at the top of a hill. Independence Avenue is the main drag through town and, when it passes through the tourist area, it is home to a number of designer, curio and clothes shops, as well as banks and a surprising number of chemists (three in one block, for some reason that is not quite clear to me). Just off the middle of Independence Avenue is Post Street Mall, a pedestrianised street where vendors lay out slightly varying selections of southern African artefacts - priced more reasonably than Windhoek’s curio shops, but not as cheaply as the markets up the road in Okahandja - and an assortment of shopping arcades perch between the Post Street level and the roads two storeys’ below, waiting to confuse the unwary.

In my somewhat limited experience, Windhoek’s restaurants are good. We sampled the much-vaunted Joe’s Beerhouse on Colin’s first night. A Windhoek classic, it is now located off Nelson Mandela Avenue and can apparently seat around 500, but manages to do so subtly, the various seating areas hidden from each other behind low-lit trees and pools, although you do sit school-dinner-style at long tables. As well as our taste buds being entertained with an impressive array of game dishes (and a few fish dishes to keep the non-carnivores happy), our other senses were amused by a colourfully-dressed a cappella septet who serenaded each table in turn, but whose repertoire proved to be a little limited when we heard the same song being sung to the tables either side of us. We also tried the less sophisticated La Marmite, a West African restaurant further out of town along Independence Avenue. Here the service was minimalist (the food and drinks turned up fairly promptly, but the waitress didn’t exactly indulge in any excess verbosity - no “My name is ___ and I’ll be your service attendant this evening….”, for example), but the food was excellent and unusual. And for a daytime meal or drink, Café Zoo is delightful. Perched above the curiously-named Zoo Park (well, there are a few bronzes of different antelope, but no live animals other than homo sapiens that I could see), this is an Italian-run outdoor restaurant that is infinitely more chi-chi in its demeanour than I would have expected in this part of the world.

OK, end of restaurant review. In short, the centre of Windhoek is welcoming and easy to walk around; although there are a scary number of signs around the Chameleon Backpackers’ about the inadvisability of carrying ANYTHING into town (“Want to lighten your luggage? Take it into Windhoek”), I have not heard or experienced anything untoward, even on the odd occasion that I have inadvertently been heading home after dark. The people are straightforward in a Germanic/Afrikaans-type fashion - no excess verbiage or over-the-top superficiality, but pleasant and helpful when asked - and I have developed a particularly good relationship with my local internet café’s management who kindly give me huge discounts on printing, CD-burning, and internet-time costs, given the not insignificant amount of time I spend there (on one occasion, I was there for 7-8 hours in one day!). In VERY short (having realised that the last section has gone on a bit), I feel at home in Windhoek.

The next day, we extracted ourselves from Hotel Thule - almost smug about the route now, having driven to and back from Joe’s the night before - and, after aforementioned inadvertent brief detour into Katatura, hit the road north, our destination, Ongava Tented Camp, one of three sets of private accommodation in the 30,000 ha private game reserve that sits on the edge of Etosha. The camp consists of ten tented chalets, each of which has a spacious balcony, comfortable sleeping area and outside en suite facilities. There is something special about showering under the stars, but we were warned to leave the loo roll inside each time we left the accommodation, otherwise the local squirrels would have a great time turning it into confetti! Watching the local avarian population enjoying the remainder of the shower water while I was dressing in the next room, was an added delight.

Meals were taken school-style round a long table which meant somewhat pot-luck about one’s dining companions. The first night, we were hugely entertained by a lively namesake of mine, but this Elizabeth was pure English country in her manner and background, and clearly well-healed, well-travelled, and in the process of getting well-oiled (though she was generous in buying drinks for us to keep her company!). We were intrigued that she seemed to be travelling with her own private guide, an interesting European Namibian called Caesar. He and I exchanged notes on personalities and gossip in Namibian tourism, which made me feel very much at home in my (temporarily, at least) newly adopted country. On another night, we met a delightful Scottish couple with their well-spoken teenage children who lived in the south-east of England, prompting talk of home, schools and football. However, some of the other guests were not quite “our cup of tea”: a louder-than-life German with his dolled-up French wife and daughters, looking and sounding more than a little out of place; an English couple who talked about seeing “bison” here, to name but a few. But on our first full day we met the best of the whole lot: a delightful trio of young Spaniards with whom we got on extremely well.

On the first day, we spent a long morning in Etosha. I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account, just the highlights: two lionesses and a male lion already crashed out in the early morning sunshine at a waterhole, presumably having fed during the night; a large bull elephant at the Okaukeujo camp’s waterhole who seemed to be just perfect in every respect - his untorn ears, splayed-out and even tusks, and evenly-hairy tail (the three features from which one identifies elephant) would have triggered a “Mr Perfect” accolade on the desert-dwelling elephant project; a large variety of buck, including the non-native waterbuck in Ongava’s own grounds (so out-of-place and alien to my Namibia-accustomed eyes that it took me a while to identify them, although I know them well from travelling in Botswana); a lilac-breasted roller showing off for us by flying down from his tree to an insect on the ground so that we could admire his iridescent wings; an imperious-looking secretary bird; the Okaukeujo waterhole positively heaving with game. And not forgetting the verbal highlights in our vehicle: the Spanish guy’s comment on seeing two monitor lizards mating, that they were “making baby monitors”; and our driver, Rio, explaining animal tracks as being between the waterhole and “Graceland” (I loved the image of zebras, etc., in Elvis costumes conjured up by his actual words, even if he probably meant “grazing land”).

That afternoon we were escorted on a walking safari by the knowledgeable Hein, a Botswanan former farmer. I always feel privileged to walk through the African bush, sharing the animals’ environment, and Hein made each step an education, yet without overwhelming us with information. A few nuggets: white-breasted sparrow weavers are the only birds that build nests with both a front door and a back door; red-billed quelea only get their red bills in the mating season - an avarian form of lipstick?; steenbok process their food so effectively that they never need to drink; and an African antelope’s horns are part of its skeleton so that if a horn breaks the animal suffers pain. But the most fascinating details related to termite mounds: what you see of a termite mound is the earth that’s been thrown up in constructing the nest underground; worker and solder termites are asexual; to maintain an average colony of three million termites, the queen has to produce about 15,000 eggs each day, and she is fed different things to produce workers versus soldiers (imagine the legions of accountants keeping track of what’s required!); to create a new termite mound, about 300,000 sexed termites are created, these have wings and fly off to find a new sight, creating a feeding frenzy for termite-predators and insectivores; and, on landing, the successful termites immediately lose their wings, breed and start building the new colony.

The next morning, Hein drove us round the Ongava estate, its hills and varied geology and vegetation a welcome change from the flat expanses of Etosha. This was not an ordinary game drive: we had a goal - to find rhino. We left the vehicle at a waterhole, and walked up a valley where rhino had been sighted recently. It was heading towards midday and the sun was beating down. Hein carried a gun: lion frequent this waterhole and he wasn’t taking any chances. He had told me that he’d only fired a gun once in his six years working at Ongava, and that was up in the air to scare off an overly-inquisitive lioness: I felt very secure walking with him... but there’s still nothing quite like seeing a fully-grown female rhino staring through the bush at you, less than twenty yards ahead. White rhino tend to be pretty passive - in contrast to their Black relations - I just hoped that this particular rhino was aware of this fact! She and her companions, another female and their respective year-old calves, bolted, thundering through the bush off to our right, and we thought that fleeting appearance would be our only sighting. But we hadn’t counted on Hein’s tracking skills and patience. Only a matter of minutes later, we were creeping cautiously through the bush towards the four rhino, each few-yard journey seeming to take an age under their scrutiny. I was keen to take a photograph or two, but dreaded the electronic chirping of my camera, particularly as it warms up. Hein gave me the go-ahead, but my heart was in my mouth as the mother looked up and flared her ears after each “click”. We probably spent about half an hour, nervous of our every noise and movement, in the company of these four rhino, perhaps thirty yards away from us. Without a doubt, it was the highlight of the week. When we got back to the vehicle, there was a moment of light relief in the euphoria of our recent experience. The herd of 12-15 giraffe that we’d seen on our way to the waterhole were lined up in the bush behind the vehicle, keeping all eyes trained on us, no doubt impatient for us to leave so that they could approach and drink.

The next day we drove through Etosha. One of the best moments was when we stopped to let a leisurely-paced springbok cross the road to join the rest of its herd… and then we noticed that all of the animals were looking in the same direction, over to our right. Sure enough, about 50 yards away, three lion were walking through the grass. Oh for a zoom lens: an elephant on the horizon and a gorgeous male lion strolling through the yellowing-dry grasses in front of him…. It looked as if all three cats were heading to the nearby waterhole but, after we’d turned off towards the waterhole, it appeared that they were walking past it, so we reversed rapidly and watched them approach the road, the two males ambling over and slumping down in the grass just below the edge of the road, their female companion almost certainly already resting in what one of my siblings, at a very junior age, once called a “tubicle waterbridge” underneath the road.

Our destination was Mushara, a lodge on the other side of Etosha, and our dose of Brad’n’Angelina-style luxury. The lodge proper had been fully booked so we’d been forced to splash out on one of the “villas”. This was, without doubt, the most extraordinary place in which I have ever stayed - and, within minutes of arriving, we’d decided to spend the next day there and enjoy every cent we were paying for it! The villa is one of only two that the lodge has built, its internal area almost certainly exceeding the floor space of my house in London, but designed on a spacious open-plan basis. The bathroom itself could have been the venue for reasonable-sized parties, and the drawing-room - I couldn’t call it anything else - is probably double the size of the one in my mother’s Victorian Edinburgh house. Of course, we had an elegant balcony… and a plunge-pool, more day beds than I would have thought strictly necessary, and a “bush room” comprising a day bed and extensive canopy situated about 50 yards down the path. But, for us, the highlight was the “birdbath”. This had only recently been constructed and, to our delight, attracted a small family of kudu several times each day. Our regret was that it wasn’t floodlit at night, so we made do with straining our eyes on hearing the crack of branches in the evening. We were also enchanted to see dikdik and a large family of mongoose, perhaps 25 or so, on “our grounds” the next day. We really could have a safari without leaving the comfort of our accommodation. The lodge kindly served us both lunch and dinner on our balcony so we really could avoid our fellow human beings for almost our entire stay.

The final stop on this trip was Okonjima, the farm that is home to the Africat Foundation. We’d been intrigued by this place when it had appeared on the BBC’s “Wild in Africa” series on Namibia, but hadn’t realised that it took guests until our London travel agent had suggested that we stay there: without doubt, his best recommendation. This time
white rhinowhite rhinowhite rhino

..to give you an idea of how close we were..
we were staying at the mid-level accommodation (all things are relative, though: we weren’t slumming it by any stretch of the imagination), the Bush Camp. Here there are eight rondavels, once again, imaginatively designed with canvass “windows” that can be lowered or raised depending on the temperature and the wind. Rolled up, we had a near-uninterrupted view of the countryside and “our” birdbath. Unlike Mushara, this birdbath was more standard-birdbath-sized, sunk in the ground, but we’d been given a large pot of seeds and could therefore attract a wide range of birds to our doorstep - a lovely touch.

We were to spend two nights here, the perfect length of time to sample each of the activities that Okonjima/Africat has to offer. First up was leopard-tracking: looking for radio-collared leopard in a 10,000 ha enclosure. Leopards are too dangerous to track on foot, so we used a vehicle and were lucky enough to find two animals close to the road. The first was a young female that had recently caught a young gemsbok; the second was her mother who, we learnt the next day, had subsequently stolen her daughter’s kill.

Having been lucky enough to see a wide

..waiting for us to leave
variety of game when travelling in a number of sub-Saharan African countries, I found myself somewhat ambivalent about tracking radio-collared animals. Although it was amazing to be able to get so close to a leopard, a particularly elusive animal that I have not seen often, I didn’t like the predictability of what we were doing. Leopards are highly territorial animals, so there wasn’t an awful lot of magic to what we were doing - the chance of our finding at least one of the animals we were tracking was very high. I also objected (though, to my chagrin, not vocally) to the degree to which we appeared to be hassling the animal. Our vehicle and another went off-road to approach the young female, driving round and round the bush under which she was hiding, trying to devour her kill. Eventually, she gave up, dragged the carcass away, wedging it under a tree to secure it for consumption at a quieter time, and walked off.

The next day, we went looking for cheetah, also radio-collared, in the same area,. This time, we could approach the animals on foot and, my reservations about radio-tracking to one side, it was incredible to be able to approach Apollo and Artemis, two young males, to within twenty yards or so. Later, we walked further through the bush and found Mo, an older male and the last of a sibling group that included Eenie, Meenie and Miny.

Having now, as I write, spent three weeks at a rival organisation less than 100 kilometres up the road, the Cheetah Conservation Foundation (about which, more in due course), I can appreciate that predator conservation isn’t black and white. Both organisations aim to put back into the wild as many animals as they consider possible - but they have different views over where the line of possibility should be drawn. Africat tries to rehabilitate animals that have been in captivity for a period of time, forcing the cats to learn to hunt, but working on the basis that, if they were taken from their mothers at more than x months, they will have learnt enough to be able to fend for themselves. CCF sets the boundary higher, considering that cubs will not know enough about hunting unless they’ve spent the first 18 months with their mothers. Is Africat right? We heard of two cheetahs that didn’t make it: Zeus (brother of Apollo and Artemis) whose back was broken by a leopard stealing his kill) and Miny who was gored by a gemsbok. Would either cheetah have survived if it had had the benefit of the full time with his mother? Is it not kinder to the animals to habituate them completely and feed them daily for the rest of their lives, as CCF tends to do? Is it better to have a cat behind fencing, or a dead cat that has at least had his chance at life in the wild where, let’s face it, life is tough and merciless? Is the priority the welfare of the individual or the conservation of the species?

Each evening, Okonjima puts out the food scraps for the local animals and guests can watch who turns up from a spacious and comfortable hide. When we went out there the first evening, I was enchanted to see another animal for the first time: the honey badger. This animal has bad press: particularly vicious when cornered, it won’t hesitate to take on animals bigger than itself, including leopards, hyena and man. Nor is it as cute as its European relation, having a somewhat dirty-looking beige and black coat. But one individual entertained us. A crowd of porcupine had gathered round the scraps and, quills bristling, had managed to dissuade a number of honey badgers from pursuing their interest in the food. (If we’d come here before Mushara, seeing porcupine would have been another first for me, but I’d seen one scuttling busily past the villa one evening.) This little guy was more persistent than his friends, ducking under the forest of quills time and again to sneak a morsel out from under the porcupines’ noses. We discovered later that he had lost an eye - presumably from an unsuccessful encounter with his spiny adversaries - but that had certainly not put him off in the slightest!

On our second afternoon, we went to “do” the Africat experience. Here we learnt more about the work of the Foundation, but, education/sales pitch to one side, we also met a number of animals. First were half a dozen habituated cheetahs that live in a 45 ha enclosure. Clearly accustomed to tourist vehicles, they know to approach the vehicle when it reaches the centre of the enclosure and mooch around for photo opportunities for a while, safe in the knowledge that they will be rewarded with juicy chunks of meat at the end. It was incredible to hear their purring - in combination, a veritable engine rumbling away. The second set of animals was unexpected: a group of six wild dogs. These animals have an even worse press than honey badgers. Their kill rate is an impressive 98% (in comparison, the lion’s is about 75%, and the cheetah’s is down around 40%): they hunt in packs of a dozen or so, and start to consume their prey before it is actually dead. Unlike each of the big cats, there is no killer blow to the hunted animal first, hence earning wild dog a reputation for ruthlessness. In many areas, they have been shot out and the story of this family was not unexpected: a farmer had found the litter of seven and had tried to sell them. Discovering that this was illegal, he then buried them alive. Somehow Africat was alerted and managed to get to the burial site in time to save six of the animals. Although they have been with Africat since they were a few weeks old, they are still too dangerous for anyone to approach, unless that particular Anyone is happy to lose a limb or more.

Our final activity was a bushman’s walk in the early morning. One of the projects in this area is to try and capture the knowledge and skills of the San, the bushmen, before their way of life dies out completely. As ever with this type of experience, I was amazed at the resourcefulness of these people, and their almost complete marriage with nature and their surroundings: although undoubtedly a tough life, in many ways it seems somehow enviable in this day and age of consumerism and fear for the future of our planet.

Reluctantly, after another generous brunch at Okonjima, we hit the road to Windhoek for the beginning of Colin’s trip home and my next adventure.... of which more, hopefully, later this week.

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27



..and invaluable Bic biro for scale!

25th September 2006

Catching Up
Having just got Broadband out here (makes it sound remote and there you are in Namibia) I'm at last able to catch up with all your news from the past few months. Your photos are just fantastic. Had to smile when you went up Dune 45! The thing I recall about it most was the pain of the cold morning air in my lungs as I struggled through the sand. Have masses still to read - looking forward to it, except I seem to be devleoping itchy feet! We're both well. No news yet.

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