July 25th to 31st
From Ghanzi, we made our way towards the Namibian border. Our six days in Botswana where drawing to a close. We spent our first night in Namibia in the country's capital city, Windhoek, which is located about half way up Namibia. We stayed in a hotel for the first time since we had left Malawi. and very much appreciated sleeping in a comfortable bed. We also had our own room which was a great blessing - our own private space at last. Earlier that day we had wandered into downtown Windhoek only to find most shops closed as it was a Sunday. I had been hoping to find an internet café so that I could post this blog, but again my plans were foiled!. We did, however, find a craft market in the middle of Windhoek and were able to have a quick look around the stalls there. Sitting on the ground at one of the stalls were some bare-chested women who were completely covered in red ochre; their hair was smeared with the ochre in such a way that large clumps of it had accumulated at the base of their braids. I had heard about the women's tribe, the Himba, from a young couple whom we had met in Botswana and who had visited one of their villages in northern Namibia. When I heard about the couple's experience, I knew I, too, wanted to visit a Himba village, but I could not think of any way to fit such a visit into our itinerary. Our overland trip went within 50 kms of the Himba villages, but there was no way to make a side trip and still remain on the trip. Anyway, it was amazing to see these women and their babies just sitting there. I ended up buying some bracelets from them, making sure I bought one from each of the women. I wondered what it must be like for them to come to the city for a month or two and everyday sit there trying to sell their handicrafts. I decided not to take photos that day as I was sure that I would somehow get to a Himba village. As things turned out later in our stay in southern Africa, it would have been too crazy for us to spend three days getting there, so, unfortunately, I don’t have any photos for you.
Being in Windhoek was a bit of a shock for me as it is so westernized. Everything was clean and most buildings looked very new. Also, most of the people I saw had white skin. As Namibia had been a German colony until the end of World War 1, much of the signage is still in German, so this was the first time in Africa that I could not identify what all the shops and buildings were. I found this a very odd experience, and began to wonder where was Africa. In fact this sort of wondering was to continue in my mind for much of the rest of our trip.
Later on that evening our group was going out for supper and Chris and I decided that it would be best for us to join them. As always it really was not our scene as we went to a pub that was incredibly noisy and busy; noticeably, there was not a black face to be seen! We left early and went to the hotel to enjoy our beds!
From Windhoek, we headed north to a place called the the Waterberg Plateau, where we camped for the night. The plateau itself is very impressive as it is huge and rises out of a very flat landscape. Once our tents were up, Chris and I headed off to hike to the top of the plateau. We explored the top, following a trail and almost tried to descend using another route, but realized that it was likely a more difficult trail. We greatly enjoyed exploring the area.
The following day, after watching the sunrise from the top of the plateau, we headed farther north to Etosha National Park. It’s known for its salt pans which are large dry salty areas that are lakes when there is enough rainfall. Upon arrival, another disappointment - no game drive though it was clearly stated in the itinerary and we reached the camp area in the early afternoon. Chris and I went to the “waterhole” near the campground to see if there were any animals visiting. We spotted a jackal and a wildebeeste, but what most impressed us were the thousands of birds that swarmed to and fro in the early evening. They all ended up landing in a small area of reeds at one side of the waterhole. We were entertained for quite a long time watching them. As it turned out, the water hole did not have many animals visiting it that night so we crawled into our tent early and got a good sleep.
Most of the next day was spent doing a game drive through the park toward our second destination in Etosha - a campground near the southern entrance. As Etosha does not have much grass, it was very easy to see animals there. We saw herds of wildebeeste and zebra and then encountered a whole herd of elephants. Amongst the highlights of this park are the waterholes where, each time stopped at one, we saw elephants, greater kudu, springboks (a variety of antelope) and a jackal or two.
At lunch time, we stopped in another campground and, as usual, Chris and I went off to explore. We quickly found ourselves heading toward the nearby waterhole and, as we drew close to it, spotted the first elephant. Once there, we found that there were at least twenty or thirty elephants - big bulls, females and youngsters - drinking and bathing. I was in heaven! For ages we had been wanting to see greater kudus, large antelopes, which have gorgeous long spiral horns (the males) and are taupe in colour with white markings. Enter stage left, the kudu - the males and the females. Could it get any better? We must have sat there for an hour and a half watching. We knew we would get the last of the group's lunch, but it was worth it. As it was, we found it hard to pull ourselves away. I had seen postcards of waterholes filled with, and surrounded by, numerous animals, but I thought that this was probably a rare occurrence. Clearly my thought was untrue.
We made it back for lunch which - as usual - was not a very interesting meal, especially as we are both vegetarian. Our lunches mostly consisted of the equivalent of kraft cheese slices and bread and, sometimes, salad, which I was a bit hesitant to eat that as the lettuce, tomatoes and other constituents were not often properly washed and even when they were, the water purity was questionable. Chris and I eventually got smart and started to buy our own cheese. That made lunches much more bearable. In general, the food on the trip was pretty unimaginative even though Andre herself was vegetarian. The problem was she never really ate, so I guess it didn’t matter too much to her what the vegetarian food was like.
Our safari through Etosha continued into the afternoon until we arrived at the southern campground. Once again we set up our tents. One of the sweet things about that campsite was that we happened to be right beside a group led by a Congolese guide who was now living in Namibia. I had a long conversation with him while setting up our tent. I remember thinking that if I wanted a guided trip in Namibia he would be a great person to show me around. One of my real delights in travelling is the very spontaneous connections I make with people along the way.
We didn’t know when we arrived at this campground what a fabulous location it was. As soon as we our tent was set up, Chris and I went exploring. We quickly discovered the waterhole, which already had three elephants there as well as some springbok (aptly named as they leap high when running, seeming to have springs attached to the bottom of their legs). We stayed until the last minute before supper and then headed right back to the waterhole as soon as we had finished eating. In the first part of the evening, two huge bull elephants had a bit of a standoff with each other in an elephant sort of way. After about an hour, one of them wandered away into the distance, only to be replaced by more.
I can’t tell you how many elephant families came to the waterhole that night. It was so much fun to see them wandering in from the distance. Then the first two rhinos arrived. Rhinos are not as easily seen so this was really exciting for us. The other lovely animals that were at the waterhole most of the evening were the giraffes. For any of you that don’t know, giraffes need to splay their front legs right out to the sides so they can lean their necks down to drink water. It’s quite a sight! So there are the elephants, babies through to older adults, the giraffes, the rhinos, the inevitable jackals wandering around in the background, the springboks and the occasional greater kudu. It really is quite a scene. I felt like we were watching the kind of reality TV that interests me. Chris and I were so captivated that we didn’t really notice that it was rather cold that evening. Successive individual or pairs of rhino came to drink. I think that by the time we left, we counted eleven rhinos, including a young one who was suckling on its mother. We also watched two male rhinos having a stand off for quite a long time. It never amounted to any charges, but one rhino ended up staying on the far side of the hole, while the other one walked over to the near side and came very close to the viewing area where we were sitting. It was fabulous to see him so close (though nowhere near as close as we had been to the rhino in the park near Livingstone). He then was able to drink from the waterhole in peace. Over and over again as we animal-watched, we saw males having power struggles with each other. At one point in the evening, I felt I had to go back to our group to let them know what was happening at the waterhole. Hard to imagine that they were missing all this wildlife activity even though it was just minutes away from where they were sitting chatting and drinking. At about 10:00 p.m., we started hearing lions roar in the distance, but they sounded very loud even though they were far away. It was interesting for us to see the impact the roaring had on the other animals. We could see the giraffes became quite nervous and turned to face the direction the roars were coming from. Even for us, it was quite a formidable experience hearing that roar from such a powerful animal, yet really so small compared to the size of a rhino or an elephant. We kept hearing the roars for thirty minutes or more, but no lions came into view. Just as we stood up ready to go back to our tent, Chris saw two lions approaching the waterhole, so down we sat again and watched as two male lions came down to the water. Amazing! This was the Icing on the cake. I tried to take a photo of it, but it was a forlorn effort given there was only a single spotlight lighting up the scene. We went to bed very happy that night. That evening continues to be one of the major highlights of the overland trip.
Waterhole night photos - not the best images but they give some idea of what it was like
The next morning we headed out of the park earlier than we expected because we thought we would be doing another game drive as mentioned on the trip's itinerary. Andre decided, however, that we needed to get going to Twyfontein. By this time, I was getting very frustrated with this kind of unilateral decision-making, and Chris was as well. All in all, the trip was a great teaching in a) letting go of expectations based on descriptions we had read on the Gap website, and b) experiencing the pain of clinging, which affected me over and over again in both smaller and larger ways.
Driving in Namibia is really an amazing experience as the landscapes are incredible. So many different kinds of desert. I found myself falling in love with the desert and was perfecting the art of taking photos at 1/1300th sec! Amazingly some of them actually are OK.
Scenery at Twyfontein
Twyfontein is one of the places where there are ancient rock paintings. After we set up our tents we headed off to where the rock paintings are. We were quite impressed with these paintings which were mostly etchings - on rock - of birds and animals such as ostriches, giraffes, elephants, oryx, kudus and lions. The paintings were apparently made by shamans, and very much had a spiritual meaning. I was amazed at how well they are preserved.
That evening, a group of local people sang and danced for us in the little restaurant at the campground. It was really lovely to experience this. The evening's action included our having to sing for them - the best we could do was Frere Jacque in four languages!
We camped in the desert that night and were able do without a flysheet on our tent, which is just net so we had the beautiful view of the stars and the moon. Upon waking, we made another early morning start as we were driving to Swakopmund which was a long drive.
Driving through the desert that day was amazing. It is just so barren. The dunes did not start until after Swakopmund so there were vast flat landscapes with just sand. Often on this trip I was frustrated by the presence of power poles running alongside on the roads - they are such a distraction for photographs - but here, they actually added to the photograph!
On this day (July 30th), we encountered the Atlantic Ocean for the first time since we had arrived in Africa. There were miles and miles of deserted beach in both directions (northward and southward). This shore is called the Skeleton Coast as so many ships have met their demise there. A thick layer of fog is commonly present, helping to make the ocean very treacherous - hence the name. I actually saw one of the shipwrecks as we drove by. We arrived in Swakopmund on schedule. We were staying for two nights, and again had beds as we were accommodated in large cabins instead of camping in our tents. By that time, I was actually wishing that we were camping, though I have to say the luxury of having a bathroom so close was pretty nice. Swakopmund itself was a rather strange experience for me. It is totally surrounded by barren desert and ocean and yet it is so modern and almost looks like a movie set. I wondered where the Africa I had known up until Bostwana had gone?
Around Swakopmund, there are again lots of “high adrenaline” activities going on such as sandboarding, riding quads on the dunes, skydiving and such. Most of the people on the trip opted for the sandboarding, but we weren’t really so interested in this. We managed to organize a kayak trip with a local guide. Once again, we were lucky enough to be the only people on it. The kayaking was on the ocean but in a fairly protected place (Walvis Bay) near a seal colony and also dolphins. I cannot tell you how delightful that day was. First of all to be on our own was a huge relief. And then to have both seals and dolphins coming up to our kayaks was just lovely. The dolphins would come to the front of the kayak and if we paddled fast they would race with us. Oh what fun! There were also flamingoes which I was really delighted to see. Apparently at some times of the year there are literally thousands of flamingoes at Walvis Bay. It made me want to be there then. Our guide was really knowledgable and passionate about the area so it was very enjoyable to be with him. He and his wife also ran a fair-trade shop in Swakopmund so we visited there upon our return from kayaking.
We will continue on with our journey in the next blog.