Yesterday, we bounced out of the Kalahari Desert into South Africa: The only country in Africa considered part of the first world. A land of fine wine, tough biltong, rugby, beautiful scenery and Charlize Theron. Even twitching is a cool pastime here, and the animal count includes everything from lions and rhinos to penguins and orcas.
A helpful overview… Purple is Ambi’s tracks, Blue, our air miles.
Triumphant as we feel to be within a stone’s throw of the cape and our final destination, this post will perform its designated role and cast back to our frolics in Namibia. After leaving Botswana via Ngoma Bridge we traversed the Caprivi Strip to Rundu, the point at which the Okavango River flows south into Botswana before spreading into its spectacular delta. Then we made for the Hoba Meteorite and the mining town of Tsumeb on the way to Etosha National Park before heading for Outjo and some friendly cheetahs near Kamanjab. We then tracked North into Kaokoland, home of the Ovahimba, and struggled along the Kunene river road from Ruacana to Epupa Falls. By recommendation of a great French couple we met in Opuwo, we headed west into the desert via Orupembe and Purros, to Sesfontein and eventually, via Springbokwater to the Skeleton Coast. We followed seals down the coast to the colony at Cape Cross and carried on south to Swakopmund where we parked ourselves for a week or so, seeing to Ambi’s needs and revelling in hassle-free antique shops, restaurants where you get what you ordered and the refreshing sea air. Woah! This is going to be a long one… From Swakopmund we explored the region to the South and Southeast; spying unexpected creatures in the Namib Desert, gazing over the ‘moonscape’ and hunting Welwitschias. We then took the road to Sossusvlei via the Kuiseb Canyon where two revered German men and their dog hid (and survived!) for two years during WWII. We camped in the dunes at Sossusvlei, took in the grandeur of the Namibrand Reserve and then darted East to leave the country via Mata Mata into the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. After finally spotting wild cheetah we crossed into South Africa and here we are today, only 8 hours drive from Cape Town.
Phew! Now for more detail! I’ll try to handle the highlights in bite-size chunks so that you can dip in and out/grab a coffee or more popcorn in between…
Metal From Space
The border crossing from Botswana via Ngoma Bridge and over the Chobe River was as beautiful a way as one can find to leave a country and after such an interesting stretch of our journey in Botswana, the Caprivi Strip in Northeast Namibia seemed comparatively dull. The area, ceded to the Germans by the British to give them access to the Zambezi, consisted of essentially one long straight road surrounded by a seemingly unchanging flat landscape of Mopane woodland and gravel. Thankfully the mind-numbing road was taking us somewhere interesting…
Harry suitable poses with ‘Teach Yourself Geology’
After chilling out at a lazy backpackers on the Okovango River, we were lucky to notice, courtesy of that denizen Lonely Planet, that the biggest meteorite in the world resides in Hoba near the copper mining town of Tsumeb. It is, unsurprisingly, a massive lump of metal (60 tonnes!) mostly comprised of iron (84%), some nickel and a few traces of other metals. Its dark shine was unlike that of any substance I’d ever seen. It felt a little bit magical, so we camped next to it for the night.
To Etosha: Life in the Salt Pans
Namibia’s most visited National Park, Etosha, is a unique and surprising place to view such an array of wildlife. Dense mopane forest borders vast saltpans yet it also plays host to one of the healthiest rhino populations in Africa. The Okaukuejo campsite reminded me of Centre Parcs – an entire village with a petrol station, gift shop, huge restaurant, pool etc. – the total opposite to our preferred minimalist unfenced campsites in the bush. The one benefit of staying in a place like this was that someone had come up with the ingenious idea of erecting floodlights over a busy waterhole; the only waterhole in a 20mile radius. This resulted in a strange stadium-esque atmosphere where people would sit out late at night on tiered benches in silence watching the animals come to drink, (seemingly unfazed by the bright lights: but then again, they have no choice…)
Blessed with astounding late night stamina, we were the last people remaining around midnight, and by that time six rhino including one mother with a baby had come to the waterhole. It was astonishing enough to see rhino: We could not believe our eyes when we saw a solitary White Rhino earlier in the day frozen in the middle of the salt pan – we thought it might be a statue. But to see such a number of rhino interacting with each other was truly remarkable. It was surreal. These prehistoric creatures remind one of the many evolutionary twists and turns life on our plant has undergone, they are reminiscent of the dinosaurs and appear as old as the rock.
Admittedly a stolen photo – but taken at the same waterhole!
Thankfully all of the rhino that we saw in Etosha were still endowed with their beautiful long horns. It saddens me to realise quite how realistic the prospect is that our grandchildren will never see a live rhino and only know them as an interesting extinct creature like the Mammoth. However, unlike almost anywhere else in Africa, Namibian Black Rhino populations are on the up.
The huge creatures don’t do themselves any favours: the female can only birth once every five years and is very picky when choosing a mate. Many of the countries we have visited have a shoot-to-kill policy on catching poachers and I am starting to understand and agree with this short shrift attitude.
Etosha’s Salt Flats
In the park one morning we came across an Ostrich family with an impressive brood of twelve twittering chicks huddled safely in the shade of the proud mother. We also spied a few sleeping lions and have since considered that there really are a lot of lions in Africa compared to the other cats. Etosha is also home to the rare Black-Faced Impala and a good population of Brown Hyeana which have been scarce (and highly endangered) everywhere else. There were the usual elephant, this time looking rather white from the salty mud and many species of antelope. Even though we looped around the ‘cheetah territory’ a few times with hopeful eyes we still did not spy the elusive spotted cat…
Up Close and Personal with the Ferraris of the Animal Kingdom
Reluctant as we were for our first cheetahs not to be of the totally wild and free variety, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stop off at Otjitotongwe Lodge and Campsite (24km from Kamanjab) where the owner has four domesticated cheetahs running around the grounds of his house and a further eight in ‘semi-wild’ environments. A little bit dubious at first, we learnt that the family had initially captured two cheetahs that were threatening their livestock, and intended to release them into Etosha. For some reason the government would not sanction the release and they ended up keeping them. One soon had a litter of cubs and these were raised entirely in captivity, now fully domesticated. The owner did not offer much information to why he had at least a further six in expansive enclosures that were dependent on his feeding them everyday, but one presumes they were captured on other farms where they posed a threat.
Cheetahs actually make great pets: Unlike other big cats, they can be easily domesticated and do not have a tendency to ‘turn’ on their owners as they reach adulthood like lions do. It was a real joy to scratch them behind the ears and play chase around the garden (it is obvious who won…) just like pet dogs. They even had a tough little dog-brother who joined in with their games! One took a liking to the feathers in my hat and stole it from my head a couple of times: Utterly delightful animals. We agreed that if we ever live in Namibia, we will have pet cheetahs. They seemed to have an easy, happy life like any other well-loved pets, although it is sad that they have lost the need to do what cheetahs do best: sprint at up to 80kmph.
Along the Angolan Border
Having read that the Northern reaches of Namibia are the least travelled, have the worst roads and are home to one of Africa’s most traditional tribes, we decided we had to go. We drove North to Ruacana, once famous for its’ waterfall now diminished to a trickle due to the subterranean hydroelectric dam that provides almost all of Northen Namibia’s power. Loaded up with as much petrol as we could carry (this was the last town with a shop and fuel for a while…) we decided to attempt the treacherous road to Epupa Falls along the Kunene River which forms the natural border between Namibia and Angola.
Rocky and steep in parts, it initially wasn’t as bad as we had expected and we enjoyed a peaceful stop 30km along at the Kunene River Lodge. The owner, Peter, was a bird expert and took us walking to try to locate some of the regions’ endemics, particularly Cinderella Waxbills. It was not our lucky day but we found the landscape remarkable: there had been a drought in the region for two years and it was painfully dry.
After discussing the road onward to Epupa with Peter we decided to go for it. It is always hard to judge what a road will be like by someone else’s description: Their standards may be very different and their 4×4 far more or less capable than Ambi. It was awful. There were five big climbs up boulder strewn scree slopes at drastic angles. I got out to film some of it and once again thought that the top-heavy weight of Ambi was going to topple over the cliff edge. Harry’s now fine-tuned skill at coaxing her through the tricky sections was admirable, although he still turns red and shouts during the process. Of the rocky variety, this was probably the worst “road” we had attempted. We had to rebuild parts of it and use the sand ladders to bridge some gaps.
Happy to never be in a hurry, we broke up the journey and camped at a sandy spot by the river. We were hot and flustered and only had enough water for cooking and drinking. Harry gallantly scrambled down the steep riverbank to fill a bucket while I threw rocks into the water to scare crocodiles away. I’d never appreciated a bucket of cold murky river water being poured over my head so much.
The Himba of Kaokoland
Fortunately, we were visited by some of the people we had come to this region to meet. The Himba women looked elegant and beautiful; their skin smeared with red ochre (hence their nickname: The Red Tribe) and their arms and legs adorned with copper and leather creations. By contrast, the Himba men we met seemed to be drunk and an embarrassment to their women. We gave a woman a 10kg sack of maizemeal for her family and she was very grateful; her father or perhaps grandfather carried on asking us for food and cringing, she tried to shut him up and point at the heavy sack. One man shared a cup of tea with us in the morning and when we offered him a piece of biltong he made off with the whole bag.
The Fall of Epupa Falls
Arriving in Epupa was initially an anti-climax. The town, if one can call it a town, was littered with empty beer bottles, animal bones and scraps of plastic. We found a good campsite and enjoyed a swim in the pools at the top of the falls, but were surrounded by very large Germans who all drove hired white Toyota Hiluxes: a different breed to us entirely. We left with some disdain that the nearby lodges and camps could not be more proactive in removing the coke and beer bottles from the waterfall area.
Near the falls, we enjoyed laughing and haggling with the Himba women selling their handicrafts and I wondered if they minded that I did not have my breasts out too. The following day I traded a no-longer-needed bag of clothes with them. We then took a rafting trip along the Kunene that was to my delight, infinitely more gentle than the white water rafting in Uganda. The highlights were the falcons following us down river and a few very big (4-5m) crocs skulking back into the water out of sight.
Cows can swim? – The Kunene River
Thankfully there was another road from Epupa down to Opuwo, somewhat better maintained than the river road. On leaving the area, Harry remarked, “I’ve never seen so many breasts in such a short space of time in my life!” Shortly after, we had our first flat tyre since northern Kenya. It would have been an easy switch to our spare if the new jack had raised Ambi’s buttocks high enough. Digging a hole around the tyre in the stoney gravel required an axe and at least half an hour of sweat and frustration. A friendly French couple stopped to check if we needed help and we thanked them but waved them on.
Escaping Opuwo to the Desert
We arrived in the dirty, smelly town of Opuwo: a convergence of many cultures: The Herero (a tribe whose women imitate the early German missionaries by sporting traditional Victorian dress and large hats that made them resemble colourful hammerhead sharks), tourists heading North and numerous desperate Himba whose family herds had been devastated in one of the many droughts. ‘Opuwo’ is a Himba word that means ‘the End’ – end of the road. In this case it was to mark the furthest north that the South African administration could move into Himba territory.
At the only respectable lodging in town, up on a hill, we were greeted by the French couple that had stopped on the road. Jean-Marie and Francoise had started a new travel company ‘Aventure & Vous’ and were in Namibia for the fourth time, now on holiday after guiding their clients for a fortnight. They had the low-down on what to do in Namibia, were very entertaining and forced us to practice our French.
Jean Marie, Harry et Moi
They suggested that we take a route through the desert towards the Skeleton Coast Wilderness area instead of going straight south to Sesfontein. We took their advice and initially cursed them as we struggled hilly gravel tracks and mountain passes, but then the landscape opened out with imposing slate mountains and pure stretches of sand between, hosting herds of Springbok, Gemsbok, Giraffe and many Ostrich. We had one of our best wild camps in this area close to Orupembe, and a memorable sunset hike across sand dunes up one of the slaty mountains. The main joy was that it was cold, we were closer to the sea and the heat had finally waned. We also had our clearest sighting of the two Magellan clouds, in fact galaxies, which are visible in the Southern hemisphere.
From this epic camp, we drove towards Purros Canyon and the shocking realisation that there was no petrol available. It dawned on us then that we would not make it to Sesfontein… Thankfully the French caught up with us at this very moment and kindly offered to escort us onwards. I am sure they regret the decision. 10km into our onward journey we had another flat tyre – the tyres were finally giving up on us: fair enough after what we had put them through. Jean Marie helped Harry replace it with the dodgy tyre that we had only repaired the day before.
Jean Marie helps out…
To reward ourselves we had a lovely little lunch under the shade of an enormous acacia tree before setting off again. 80km later and 20km from Sesfontein, we ran out of petrol. We tried to switch over to LPG, having known since Turkey that we still had an emergency reserve of about 25litres, but it would not fire up. Perhaps it had been so long that Ambi had simply forgotten how to use LPG. We were quite embarrassed at Ambi’s performance – she had been doing so well! Feeling that it was their fault for recommending this route, the French sped off with a jerry can while we waited in the midday sun. We enjoyed their company over an interesting meal (bright green custard!?) at Fort Sesfontain then headed for the Skeleton Coast…
Reaching the Atlantic
Knowing that Ambi was not entirely content, burdened as she was with a plethora of slow flats that needed topping up every 50km or so, the most direct route to a town where she could be medicated happened to be straight down the Skeleton Coast. We came south through Palmwag and then tracked West via Springbokwater towards Torra Bay, a little apprehensive about what permits would be required after gleaning contradictory information from different guidebooks. In the end it was a breeze. We filled in a form, were given a (free!) transit permit that allowed us into the Skeleton Coast National Park area on condition that we left the same day. This was the only time in Namibia that we actually obtained a permit for one of the many roads that you are told requires one… Driving directly West felt cooler by the minute, the chilly sea mist rolling towards us. It was only then that I realised that growing up in England, one is never far from the ocean, and it surprised me how much joy and relief I felt to see it after such a long time. For Harry it was even more significant. It was comforting, and nice to have to put a jumper on.
South of Walvis Bay
I cooked bacon and eggs huddled in Ambi sheltering our little gas hob from the wind and we sat on a concrete wall, legs dangling, sipping our Yorkshire tea feeling right at home. I thought I saw something in the water and it was confirmed when Harry excitedly exclaimed that there were Bottlenose dolphins in the far breakers and numerous seals traversing the shallows. After a few more minutes gazing it was indeed clear that I had not imagined it: There were seals everywhere, and curiously, they popped their heads up in between dives to check what we were and, I’d like to think, to say hello. We took a bare-footed walk in the cold sand, being pleasantly surprised when it turned out that not all the seals slouched on the beach were dead, some of them dashed back into the waves as we drew close. On rounding a corner to reveal a green lagoon, four flamingos took flight and circled over me like flying pink pencils, before resuming their position. This surprised me, I had imagined flamingos as more lake birds.
We ruffled the dense fur of a very recently dead infant seal and marvelled at just how soft the fur is beneath the waxy sheen. We followed jackal spoor from one carcass to another, and found a few planks of driftwood from a now invisible shipwreck. It was a memorable morning and such contrast to the dusty, sweaty weeks in the desert. It did not feel like Africa, but I liked it.
For once, we exited the area on time, dutifully handing our permit in on the gate south. We were bemused to have not been asked to get a permit for the next area, a ‘Recreation Reserve’ that attracts a lot of fishermen, and drove along the stunning coast towards the campsite at Mile 108 (108 miles from Swakopmund). It was desolate, a concrete yard and sad looking building housing the lonely young watchman and a fenced area for camping beneath big water tanks. We bought some water from him and decided we would make our own camp a few km back up North. We found a spot right by the sea, partially hidden from the track by a sand dune: Perfect.
The Skeleton Coast
Not so bright or early the next morning, we carried on to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, where one of the biggest breeding colonies of Cape Fur Seals is to be found. We had been warned to take clothes pegs for our noses as the stench of seal poop can be rather invasive, but it wasn’t as bad as we had imagined. The colony has about 250,000 seals, most of which were in the water hunting out of sight, but we had arrived at a good time of year to see lots of babies and male seals on land for the breeding season. The birth cycle for seals is somewhat extraordinary: The females, after mating, postpone the development of the foetus for four to five months and then undergo a seven month gestation. They birth at this time of year, October/November, and then are impregnated again five days after giving birth. Madness: They are pregnant the whole year round aside from the five days spent recovering from giving birth.
We laughed at the big males ‘Ow ow owing’ their spot and lording their status over each other, and pined over some of the babies who looked to be quite abandoned in the hot sun while their mothers were out fishing. At such a young age they were blind and helpless and it was quite a task for the mothers to attempt to drag them in their jaws towards the cool water. The mortality rate for baby seals each year is over 30%, largely due to over-exposure to the sun and not enough fish.
The Serenity of Swakopmund
From Cape Cross, via the uninspiring sight of Henties Bay, we gleefully arrived in Swakopmund and felt warmly welcomed at the Scottish-owned B&B, Brigadoon. Ambi was in for a treat; Harry returned from the first trip to ‘LR Parts’ with a grin on his face reporting that manager Albert was sorry he did not have all the parts we needed but could get them from Windhoek in a day’s time. Wow! We remembered being told in Addis Ababa that we would have to wait two months for a part to ship from Dubai; this was not the Africa we knew.
We arrived in Swakopmund with two shredded tyres, a buggered viscous fan that transpired to be from a TDi engine not a petrol V8, a leak to the front diff, a leak to the transfer gearbox and shredded bushes. To top it off, whilst in town sorting out parts, the clutch master cylinder gave out. Thankfully Albert at LR Parts is a legend and the mechanic Quakie knew land rovers like the back of his hand. Anyone passing through who has similar problems should seek them out.
As we wandered the streets we were amazed at the apparent efficiency, cleanliness and charm of Swakopmund. In comparison to other African towns it was surprisingly hassle-free. There were ‘car watch’ assistants ready to guard your wheels for a small set fee, a distinct absence of homeless people, very few hawkers and at night, it was totally silent and empty. We did something we had not done since England: we went to the cinema. The popcorn was stale and the film awful but I was transported out of Africa for a couple of hours. On the way back we saw a young bare-footed boy running from one dustbin to the next scavenging for food. I thought this place was too good to be true – it was all a bit too perfect and I imagined something like Twin Peaks where under the surface, darkness is lurking. It was as if crime and suffering was suppressed and dealt with somewhere dark and undergound: every shop had a remote-controlled iron gate across the doorway and the presence of the car-watch men spoke of a problem solved.
Flying Flamingoes near Walvis Bay
My favourite couple of hours spent in Swakopmund were at Peter’s Antiques. It occurred to me that as a child, I abhorred my parents dragging me around yet another ‘anti-queue’ (as I pronounced it) shop as I did not yet appreciate the value or significance of random old objects, but they will be glad to hear that this has changed. Peter’s Antiques is full of artefacts from all over Africa, some that we recognised such as Maasai spears, Turkana head-rests and Congolese masks and others that we curiously grilled Peter on. His knowledge and experience was outstanding: he not only remembered something about every item and where it came from, but had witnessed many tribal ceremonies himself and had seen these objects in traditional use. My imagination whirled as I imagined the wooden eagle headdress being held by a grass-skirted dancer, the young boy wearing a moulded pregnant-belly before being circumcised and the skilled fisherman aiming the long barbed spear at a small, slippery fish…
On returning to Ambi, we found a note in French on the windscreen: our friends were in town. It being a small town, we found their car rather quickly and were writing a note to leave on their windscreen just as they strode up to us. We proceeded to share sundowners at The Tug restaurant, on a small pier over the water and enjoyed their company once more. They roped us into agreeing to go quad biking in the dunes with them the next day, which. Was. Excellent. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t opted for an automatic: it set the speed rather slow for everyone else and my bike also started spurting hot engine oil at my leg about half way through (perhaps because I’d had the throttle on full consistently for almost an hour!?) At that point the guide put me on the back of his bike so we could all go faster for a bit. I modestly held on to his hips and thought it forward of him to move my arms round his whole waist, but I soon realised why… The force at which he turned corners on a vertical dune thrust my helmet up over my eyes so I couldn’t see anything, and I am surprised that I did not choke him as I held on for dear life. Overall it was great fun and a thrilling way to see the dunes, the reception also had two blue and yellow Macaws who were a delight to meet.
Taking it slow on Tommy’s Desert tour East of Swakopmund
Back in Swakopmund the next day, we took advantage of various shops with knowledgeable managers. We had to accept that our faithful Lumix was not going to work again till she had been through a service in the UK, so if we were to post any more photos, we had to buy a camera. We were told that the whole of Southern Africa had stopped selling Lumix cameras, as they are very susceptible to dust (Oh…) so Harry’s hope of replacing the camera with the same one was thwarted. I managed to persuade him to move one step up in the camera world and get the compromise between a point and shoot and an SLR: a Sony with a 50x lens. I couldn’t wait to try it out on animals.
On a jaunt East from Swakopmund, we spent a couple of days looking for these rare two-leaved, everlasting plants that were made famous by David Attenborough’s Secret Life of Plants. We thought that ‘Welwitschia Drive’ might be a good place to start. We were somewhat distracted from our mission by the jaw-dropping ‘moonscape’ on the way there. It reminded us of Cappadoccia in Turkey, and we had to sit for a while and take it in before continuing our search.
We saw one lonely Welwitschia on the first day and it was one of the most unusual plants I had ever observed. Appearing to have bundles of thick green leaves surrounding a woody centre, it provided refuge from the African sun for some very colourful bugs. We came across a desolated campsite, without even a lonely guard to take money from us. It was hidden from the road so we parked up for the night. We took a pensieve walk down a dry sandy riverbed, trying to identify the numerous different animal tracks underfoot: The usual jackals, ostrich and what appeared to be very large porcupines.
We had much more luck the next morning and found many more Welwitschias, big ones, small ones and all hosting the same colourful bugs. We seemed to remember hearing somewhere about a symbiotic relationship between plant and bug but couldn’t find anything conclusive on t’internet.
It was quaint to see how people treasured these unique plants; we often found them encircled with stones and for one particularly big one, a heart of stones. I was mesmerised how something could evolve to be so successful in this one particular desert environment, and not exist anywhere else on the planet. The local name reflects this: ‘tweeblaarkanniedood’ – ‘two leaf can’t die.’
The Sheltering Desert
One of the must-sees in Namibia, and our next destination, was the red dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert, however on the way Harry had determined to trek into the Kuiseb Canyon to visit a site of particular interest…
Back at the Museum in Tsumeb, he had been recommended a book called The Sheltering Desert. It tells the story of two courageous German geologists, Henno Martin & Hermann Korn, who escaped internment at the start of WWII by taking refuge in the desert for over two years. They had limited belongings, and survived by hunting game and following game tracks to find water. Inspired by their story, Harry was keen to visit their first ‘home’, which was now accessible along a 6km track followed by a 2km walk.
Henno and Hermann’s Cave
Geologically speaking the Kuiseb Canyon is a wonder and the fact that these two men forged an existence there for so long, equally so. They called their ‘house’ Carp Cliff in honour of some very out of place (but very nourishing!) Carp that had some how found their way into a pool far below the cave. After relaxing a while in the shade of the conglomerate rock shelter I headed back to Ambi to make lunch while Harry followed game trails down into the canyon.
Sossusvlei has big credentials. Some of the world’s largest sand dunes stand imperiously over empty white vleis (valleys): a surreal setting you might recognise from numerous music videos and films including ‘The Fall’. As we tracked over the dunes to Dead Vlei on the evening of our arrival with one or two fellow wanderers walking along sand ridges to our side, it felt for a moment like we were making some sort of pilgrimage to a distant land. As far as the eye could see were rolling hills of red sand, blue sky and as we crested a dune, the brilliant white mud flat of Dead Vlei, punctured by lonely and long dead boughs.
Dead Vlei, Harry off to climb Big Daddy
It was hard to believe that any life survives here, but after our Namib Desert tour with Tommy, we knew that there would be many snakes, spiders and little reptiles hiding deep in the sand. Gemsbok, Springbok and Ostrich also paraded the area, and we looked curiously at their tracks up and over the dunes.
The restrictions on camping amongst the dunes themselves were tight. Cunning as we are, we decided to appear legit and pay for camping at the campsite near the entrance gate 60km back. If we could sneaky Ambi away behind a dune we could have the place to ourselves. As long as we weren’t caught before sunrise, we could then claim we drove in with early birds.
In the late afternoon hot sun, Harry took it upon himself to reach the top of the highest dune, Big Daddy. I slumped myself against a dead tree and watched the little white dot that was Harry get smaller and smaller. In landscape like this, I have now learnt that everything is a lot farther away than it looks, and what I thought would be a short hike up the dune took Harry over an hour. He had asked me to take a photo of him when he summitted, but did not realise that he would be so hard to find in the camera’s viewfinder even at full zoom. After the tough, impressive ascent he gleefully leapt down the 325m wall of sand in about 20 seconds and returned to me dripping with sweat.
As the sun fell, casting ever-changing shadows, we plodded through the sand back towards Ambi and lay ourselves flat on the nearside of the last dune, watching the last tourists leave the area like spies with our binoculars. It was the most successful illegal camp we had mustered: In the stunning, warm light of sunset we walked barefoot back to Ambi and felt privileged to have this magical landscape to ourselves.
It meant rising early though… We had to be awake before any other tourists drove in for sunrise and make it look like we had done the same. We packed everything away and took our morning tea up onto a dune, looking over smugly at the early birds who thought they had arrived before anyone else. In hindsight, sunset was much more impressive than sunrise: the warmth in the colours of the evening made for much more interesting photos than the crisp pale morning sun.
Conservation at its Finest
Following another recommendation from a fellow traveller, we had booked to stay at Wolwedans who host a series of tented camps in the Namibrand. They are considered pioneers of eco-sustainability, land and wildlife conservation, and cultural preservation.
If Botswana had been our favourite country for wildlife, Namibia was top of the charts for its breathtaking geological marvels. The landscapes were vast, open and expansive, transformed in colour as the sunset drew shadows away from the mountains. The uniqueness of the Namibrand is that you feel like you are there alone and have all the beauty to yourself: it is such a huge area and the tented camps’ exclusivity keeps the peace.
Dancing White Lady Spider
We were appointed an excellent guide, Simon, whose knowledge of the geology, wildlife and conservation projects was unrivalled. He could dig a Dancing White Lady spider out of the sand dunes and also tell us how the land had been formed millions of years ago. He had a genuine interest in his work, and this was evident from his continued search to discover the secret of the ‘fairy circles.’ Appreciated much better from above, these mysterious circles are patches of sand that do not support life. Many theories have been put forward as to why they remain bare ranging from termites to underground gas vents to alien interference. Simon had even collected samples of the sand and grown plants in it outside his lodging, but the same seeds would not grow in situ within one of the circles. It was baffling, and possibly worrying, as they seemed to be getting bigger and spreading to cover the whole landscape.
The community-centred nature of Wolwedans meant that our dinner was announced each evening in a variety of languages, including the famous Damara-click languages that you might recognise from the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. This was presented as a form of light entertainment (slightly strange after three nights!) though the preservation of these fascinating cultures is also an intended by-product.
I was particularly impressed with the cheetah and leopard rehabilitation programmes that Wolwedans is involved with. A number of these endangered cats have been captured in areas where they pose a threat to farmer’s livestock before they are then released into the Namibrand area. Once there is sufficient funding for a tracking collar, the cats are released and researchers are able to keep an eye on their whereabouts. Simon told us that they hope to introduce lions soon as, whilst the Springbok population is now under control due to the presence of cheetah and leopard, the Gemsbok numbers are disproportionately high. To solve this problem (and to generate more funds), Gemsbok had been sold to a nearby hunting reserve. Introducing their natural predator would be a more sustainable approach.
A Quick Overview
We succumbed to temptation and took the opportunity of a day in the air over certain areas of Namibia we did not have time to visit. Our morning flight took us over the breath-taking Fish River Canyon and to the German mining town of Luderitz, where we had a couple of hours to explore Kolmanskop. Once a highly prestigious town built on the back of the region’s diamond rush, Kolmanskop has subsequently been swallowed by the advancing dunes.
Fish River Canyon
At one point diamonds could be found on the surface of the sand without any costs of excavation. As soon as this became known, the Germans built a town and instigated the strictest rules and constraints on their 800 Namibian workers. Life at that time in Kolmanskop was luxurious, they even had ice delivered each day to their kitchens by a little steam train that choo-chooed down the main street. After the emergence of richer diamond fields near the mouth of the Orange River the prosperity of Kolmanskop began to fade. By around 1950 it had been deserted, quite literally.
It was a fascinating place to explore, from the Kegelbarn to the swimming pool, and to see how, with money, it was possible to have whatever you wanted out in the desert. The most atmospheric buildings were the hospital and bachelor barracks, each room now piled high with sand almost to the ceiling and a few old paintings on the walls.
From Luderitz, our bright young pilot, Richard, flew us up the Skeleton Coast to catch a glimpse of the remote seal colonies and shipwrecks, notably the Otavi, a guano-carrying vessel that ran aground in 1945. He then dramatically rose up through the sea mist to the clear blue-sky further inland and pointed the nose towards Sossusvlei. We could see Big Daddy dune and Dead Vlei and got a lasting impression of how half the country is covered with bands of shifting sand.
Otavi Shipwreck, and all those little black dots are seals!
Flying back over the Namibrand, we were happy to spot Ambi in the little sandy car park, so insignificant amongst the vast sweeping plains, dunes and mountains. It was mesmerising to see the thousands of fairy circles from above and to appreciate that as much as science has explained, there remains a great deal of mystery in the world.
The Kalahari Gemsbok Park/Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
Armed with the new camera, and an unfaltering enthusiasm for spotting game, we ventured east to lap up our last National Park experience. The Transfrontier Park is a sort of no-mans land between Namibia, Botswana and South Africa: we were stamped out of Namibia on entrance at Mata-Mata but not stamped into South Africa until we left via Twee-Rivieren five days later.
Finding his feet, a baby Springbok being encouraged by his mother
Perhaps we had got our hopes up too much. After hearing great things about this park we were a little unimpressed at the layout as compared with other parks we had visited. There was one long, fairly well maintained sandy road along the dry riverbed from North to South and only a couple of well-trodden loops off it. The most enjoyable times we have had in parks are where we can really get lost on little winding trails away from the main routes and find quiet shady spots to have a cuppa and keep any sightings to ourselves. It was also unbearably dry which meant that the area failed to attract the usual flocks of colourful waterbirds, although it was a very good place for observing raptors, particularly the Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk.
Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk
Nevertheless, after a sparce first couple of days, we were tipped off about a group of lions, two of which were repeatedly mating, and further north a cheetah displaying herself openly beside the road. Two firsts for us in one day! The mating pair were unashamedly doing their business again and again (what stamina!) right in front of the cars. We thought this a little strange, as two other females and a goofy male in the pride were lounging only a few metres away. A mating pair will usually take themselves away for a few days, to mate upwards of a hundred times with only about ten minutes break inter coitus; we stayed to watch the snarling liaison until the cock crowed thrice, voyeurs as we are, then broke away to find the cheetah…
Getting it on…
Looking into the distance for the spotty cat we slapped ourselves when we found her a mere metre from the road. Soon the two other cars left, eager to be back before the gate closed at 19.30. She got up, stretched, went to drink some water and walked right around Ambi a couple of times, seemingly sizing her up as an object to mount for a better view of the Springbok in the nearby valley. She was so elegant, silhouetted by the evening sun, with her focus entirely on the Springbok in the distance. We were sure she would soon hunt, but could not push the limit too far with being late back at camp. It was irritating as that is just the time of day when cats become more active. Sure enough, on the return south, we met the same group of lions mobilising for their evening endeavours.
Still, we felt satisfied that we had finally had a sighting of a cheetah, moreover a close-up view on our own. We watched her slinky form disappear into the dry grasses as she considered what she wanted for dinner, and reluctantly went back to camp.
The following days brought many great encounters with lion and a dramatic electrical storm during our night up at Garagab camp. Possibly our last notable National Park moment, of this trip at least, was in the campsite on our final morning. Failing to be up at the crack of dawn, as we often are, this time we had the benefit for being around when the mongoose family felt safe enough to emerge from the burrow with their babies. At first one little head popped up, eyes fixed on Mummy, perhaps hoping for a food parcel, then as we sat quietly and waited, two more babies came out for morning playtime. They were just about the cutest things we had seen, and unlike their close relations and neighbours, the Ground Squirrels, mongeese are ferocious hunters and strict carnivores.
Curious little Yellow Mongeese
We had a surplus of eggs, and wondered what they would make of one. The male sniffed it out and could tell that it was something interesting, but needed some guidance on cracking a hole in the shell. Harry tapped the egg with a spoon and straight away the mongoose was rolling it over, letting the juicy contents drip into his mouth. A baby came and joined the game, then they sat on their hind legs with full bellies positively beaming.
More often than not, small interactions like this are infinitely more rewarding than watching a sleeping lion in a line of other cars. We felt that we had had our fill of the park, and after five nights, ventured south into our final country, and along the excellent tar road to Upington, S.A.
And that is where we leave you for now! As you may have gathered, we are now in Cape Town! (30th November) We will be posting our last in a few weeks… This epic journey is coming to an end… For now!
Thanks for stopping by once again…