Ben – Sooooo…. We crossed into Namibia at Muhembo, a border post that drops you immediately into a national park and onto one of Namibia’s excellent gravel roads. We’d been in the country no more than 2 minutes when from nowhere a fairly sizable elephant seemed to “jump out” from behind a small bush. I braked hard, very hard, raising a big cloud of dust. I remember a sharp intake of breath as I feared we might “nudge” the big-fella, but he was running! Well he was to start with, then once we’d stopped, so did he, thinking for a moment “you nearly ran me over you b*****d”, then turning and doing the Big-Ear flap and snorting a bit, we were already going backwards! The ele’ calmed, gathered his thoughts, then wandered back into the bush. It was an incredible intro to the country, and a sign of the great animal viewing to come. I slowed down.
My calendar tells me 3 weeks have passed since then, incredible, it has flown by, Namibia really is exceeding expectations, and they were very high indeed due to so many people telling us how incredible it is. It’s a country the 4 times the size of the UK with just over 2 million inhabitants, it ain’t busy! It is full of wildlife and desserts and mountains and the occasional German-colonial town interspersed with some truly stunning tribal outfits.
I’ll warn you now, this is going to be a long long update, you might want to make a cup of tea and raid the biscuit tin (bourbons of course) if your gonna carry-on.
From the border we took a few days to drive west to Etosha National Park (NP), we had very high expectations from Etosha as we’ve met so many people with incredible story’s from the place. It’s a big park, over 200km wide and nearly 100km tall, and the action is centred around a large salt pan that covers about a fifth of it. We barrelled up to the office at one of the main entry points, Namatoni: “We’d like to camp here tonight, then in the 2nd camp Halali tomorrow, then at the 3rd, Okaukuejo the day after please”. “Sorry we’re fully booked” came the reply! Fully booked is something we’ve not encountered in 10 months on the road, in fact having anyone else in the camp site is unusual, we were perplexed, then we learned – it’s the South African school holidays for the next few weeks, and it seems that SA empties into Namibia during this time. The place is over-run with Toyota’s of varying types sporting roof tents like ours and all the camping gear you can possibly imagine, including microwaves and satellite TVs. Fiombee, the Namibia Wildlife official behind the desk started by being as unhelpful as everyone had told us Namibian Wildlife officials would be, but when we told her we’d driven all the way from the UK over 10 months “just to see the worders of Etosha NP” she mellowed, made some phone calls, argued with some people down the phone then ‘found us’ some camping space in each of the camps but all bumped by a day into the future. Thank you Fiombee. We promised not to use all the hot water in the showers or use any electricity and said we’d be back the next day, heading out to posh Onguma camp site outside the park to wait for the night.
Jen: Onguma was a luxurious lodge who let grubby overlanders like us use their facilities for about a tenner – fantastic! We really enjoyed sitting on some huge comfy sofas with a beer, overlooking a little waterhole and taking in some African Geographic magazines, although I found watching the goings on of the other well to do guests as entertaining…
Etosha Day 1 – Park gates opened at sunrise, 6:28 I think it was, we were ready and waiting, Fiombee and friends looked surprised we were so keen, but booked us in, we headed straight off on a loop north of Namatoni. If we hadn’t found our new love of the birdlife we might have been slightly disappointed on this first morning, but sighting Crimson Breasted Shrike, Lillac Breasted Roller, Khorhans, Eagles and much more kept us more than happy.
Jen: We’ve also now upgraded our bird book as there were a few too many that were unable to identify!
Remember the Kori Bustard from the last post? the worlds heaviest flying bird that we spotted in Botswana and thought we were so clever for spotting, well
A) We now only refer to them as “Cori Bedfords”, a guy I vaguely remember as swimming champion from school (other nick names we did have for the Bustard bird were less kind) and
B) They are common as muck in Etosha, we felt a little disappointed!
Highlight of the morning was a kill! We stopped, engine-off, to watch a lovely Lilac-Roller, who went-on to swoop into the bush beside us, catch a big-bug of some kind, then land in the road right in-front of us and bash-the-bug on the road until it stopped struggling and could be a tasty brekkie.
In the afternoon we drove a short loop east of Namatoni. This time we narrowly missed the kill. The Kudu (a really beautiful and I can report tasty with peppercorn sauce antelope) was already dead. The lion who had killed it was resting in the bushes near-by and about 100 meters from us, preparing to gorge himself on the beast. Later his friend turned up and together they picked up the carcass and carried it into the shade, just out of our sight (so I’m unsure if they had a peppercorn sauce or not). We returned to the camp. The 3 main camps in Etosha have waterholes with flood lights where you can sit all day and night if you like. I headed down there, Jen headed to get a couple of beers for sundown. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I walked up to the waterhole, a huge White Rhino was stood drinking right in front of the viewing platform, I urged Jen to arrive quickly, and struggled to get the camera out without disturbing Rhino and spectators.
Jen – it was quite tricky trying to run silently along the old rickety boardwalk (complete with beers in my hand) so as not to disturb the fellow wildlife spotters who would have looked at me in utter disgust when I scared off everything worth looking at. As I arrived he was just wandering off but I managed to sneak a glimpse.
My photos were poor, but it was my first Rhino ever, and on Etosha day 1, just brilliant.
Etosha Day 2 – At sunrise we were about the first car out of the camp gate, heading straight back to the location of the Lion spot yesterday, on the way we stopped to watch a big group of Jackals and Hyenas for a short while. At the Lion spot from yesterday there was nothing so we headed back to the Jackals and Hyena’s. From this direction we could see what we’d missed on the way out, the reason that all the Jackals and Hyenas were loitering like naughty school boys. Another huge male lion was finishing his breakfast, we were close enough this time to hear him crunching though the bones, we were first on the seen and sat engine-off in wonderment at our Etosha luck. As some other vehicles passed and stopped breakie was done, the cat stood up (covered in breakie blood) and took no more than a stride before the Jackals were fighting over the left-overs with Hyenas trying to muscle in too. All this before 7am, and our own breakfast, we had muesli and Yogurt, not Kudu.
A couple of hours later we reached a spot overlooking the salt-pan, and were getting a bit presumptions. I commented that the stunning landscape just needed a big-cat striding across it to be perfect. 5 mins later as we left, there it was! It wandered directly between us and some south Africans coming the other way, they told us they’d followed it down the road for 3km. It was funny that despite the camps being rammed full, during the day we didn’t see too many other cars, I guess because the park is 100 x 200km.
Etosha Day 3 – In the morning we saw no cats, and fewer birds, but some huge herd of Zebra and Springbok and Wilderbeast and our favorite antelope, the Oryx (or Gemsbok).
The second half of the day just got more and more incredible…. As the sun started to drop we were at the waterhole with 3 or 4 other vehicles watching 3 large elephants taking a very photogenic and smelly mud-bath. As we watched Jen was scouring the horizon for other action. Suddenly Jen shouts “a lion, lion over there”, she leans out of the window toward the car close(ish) by, “Hello, HELLO, theres a lion over there, just there, look!!!” . I’m not sure this strictly adhered to game-viewing etiquette, but the cars occupants soon looked very happy indeed. This time a large female lion wandered over to the waterhole and started to drink, this sparked an interesting encounter. The closest ele’ adopted a stance a bit like the one one I almost ran-over, it said “This is our water buddy, p*** off”. The Lion certainly didn’t argue to much, but she did saunter only about 20 meters before lying down with her back to the trunk-bearers, an action that said “Alright big-chap, your water for now, but I’m having ago later”, and indeed she did.
We headed back to the camp for sun-down, and oh-my-life, what a sight greeted us. There must have been 20 or 30 elephants, big small and tiny, playing in the camp-site water hole. Some were swimming, snorting water all over the place and seemingly doing backflips, some were drinking, some feeding and trumpeting, and some having dust baths. The dipping sun, the dust in the air, the noise and the sheer number of ele’s made for a fantastic atmosphere, and some lovely pictures, some of my favs of the trip.
Later in the evening, maybe 8pm, we took our chairs and some beers back to the waterhole and sat with a few hardcore animal watchers to see what turned up (most people were busy in the camp with BBQ and chit-chat). At first we had a solitary Giraffe for company, and time ticked by. By 10pm we were thinking we’d had our luck for the day and maybe nothing else was gonna show, but then….. 2 White Rhino, then 2 more, then a fifth. We watched for ages as they drank, quite cautiously. I thought Rhinos would be fearless and majestic, a bit like elephants, but it seems not, they’re quite stocky and a bit more like the Mitchell brothers out of Eastenders!
Etosha Day 4 – We took our morning tea back to the camp waterhole, but nothing much was going on, so we packed up quickly and headed north along the pan for our cereal and yoghurt. It was pretty but not much action so we headed back to the Ele’ and Lion scene from yesterday, and the place was buzzing. Zebra, Oryx, Ostrich, Giraffe and Springbok. The Springbok were going a bit crazy doing this weird bouncing thing they do (as their names suggests I guess). With all 4 legs rigid they bounce forward, going high in the air with heads low to the ground, its quite amazing.
We left the park a bit dazed by our time there, just a great place (like everyone had told us). We headed to Kamanjab and a camp called Oppi-Koppi that we’d heard was “overlanders friendly”, and our Etosha days just got better still. When we arrived I was asked “I see your number plate, have you come overland from Europe? If so you can camp here for free for as long as you like and the wifi is free too, all we ask is that you buy a drink at the bar and that we can take a photo of you and your car to put in our Overlander book over here….”. That is friendly. As if that wasn’t enough, we camped up and headed back to the bar to find the owner Vittel sat watching the British Grand Prix on the satellite TV, I ordered a drink and joined him immediately, (Better still Sebastian Vettel didn’t finish and Hamilton was on a late recovering charge chasing Alonso to a very exciting finish). In the evening we sat with another Dutch overland couple Sonja & Jerone and enjoyed a delicious zebra steak with roast potatoes, and more than a couple glasses of wine. (I must point out though that this is definitely an arduous and challenging overland trip, and in no way a fantastic year long holiday, absolutely not!)
On leaving Oppi-Koppi we were directed by Vittel to his butcher (Jen: the clue was probably in the name – Impala Butchery) at the end of the road where we decided the Giraffe Steak was too big (I think it was neck steak, not joking!), Oryx is too lovely to eat, so we took some Eland (another not quite so lovely Antelope) steaks and the biggest pork chops you’ve ever seen. The Eland was the most succulent meat I think I’ve ever eaten, the chops were incredibly tasty, but the fat on them had huge flames lapping out of our Cobb BBQ, and sent a massive fire-ball into the air when I took the lid off.
Having stocked-up we headed North (wrong way again I know) to the remote north, Kaokoland and Damaraland, first stopping at the lovely community run “Hippo Pools” camp site in Ruacana (no hippos seen), then onto Epupa. Epupa had been in our minds since Klaus (the fantastic German guy we met on his 4th trans-africa trip) told us all about it back in Egypt/Sudan. The drive up there was great, back into semi-desert. The roads are fantastic, good gravel that you can rattle along pretty quickly, well maintained I think for the SA holiday makers. The scenery was as good as we’d been told, the kind of harsh-barren but beautiful place that no photo does any justice. The falls were impressive too, not Victoria falls obviously, but pretty. We spent a day lazing there.
The Himba tribe for which the area is so well know are a real reminder you are in Africa, in most places recently people are dressed in T-shirts and jeans, but the Himba (Ladies particularly) with there bare-breast, skin painted with a butter-ochre mix, clay braided hair, and traditional skirts and jewellery are striking. I wanted so much to take some pictures, but after feeling like I’d intruded so much doing so back in Ethiopia’s Omo valley, I left the camera in the bag and just enjoyed being there. Here’s a picture nicked off t’interweb
From Epupa south we’d been asking people about options and kind of decided that we’d “do” the Van Zyl pass out to the west. In classic travellers tales style one guy we met had told us it was “a piece of cake, the road out there is more difficult”, another had said “Blimey, I did that a few years ago and it ranged from tricky, to dangerous, to very dangerous”, written accounts had it as the “Most difficult pass in Namibia, but doable”, we met people who were heading that way, we decided to give it a go.
The first guy was right in that the road out there, Etengwa to Otjitanda, is pretty lumpy, we made it to the Van Zyl junction then both decided the pass was an adventure we didn’t need, so turned left to Etanga. It seems in doing so we’ve missed a special place in the north-west, but as is typical of this trip, it meant we had a fantastic encounter that wouldn’t have come our way otherwise. We Bush-Camped up next to the track, and got dinner going. As we did a young Hibma lad wandered past, then up to us, he was on his way from school to his home in the village, and he was such a fantastic boy. He was fascinated by our vegetables, really amused by our Cobb-Oven (his English brilliant) “in our culture we make real fire”. We asked if he wanted to stay for food, he said yes. Watching him battle politely with a knife and fork for a while was fun before Jen said, “you can use your hands instead if you like” , he looked much happier polishing off his roasted veg like that. We talked about his life, our trip and had a Himba language lesson before he said thanks and carried on home to his village which we could just hear in the distance. We hoped he wasn’t gonna return with a whole village of people asking for dinner, and he didn’t. In the morning we got up with the sun and were away by 6, no hassle at all.
Although we’d missed the Van Zyl pass, we did stay out in some pretty remote areas, over the next few days we worked our way to Purros (home of the desert elephant), and along the Skelton Coast south to the western entrance of the Palmwag concession (as recommended by 4 South African “Butlers” we met in Purros. In 2 days we saw no locals at all, and only 3 other 4x4s, Namibians on an adventure together, it was bliss. The road was rocky and sandy buy no problem. The section south of Purros follows the river bed for 30km dipping in and out of the river continuously.
Jen: The drive was absolutely stunning, in the middle of the desert, the very dry rocky riverbed and beyond either side but we were driving through lots of water with lush greenery either side of the water. Clearly this attracted lots of different wildlife and a huge number of different birds. I remember saying to Ben “this is going to be one of those days of the trip that you definitely don’t forget…. little did I know what was to follow later….”
Given that Purros sits in Desert sand dunes this is astonishing, the only water for miles draws in all the wildlife although we didn’t see any desert elephant there unfortunately. However, the previous day we’d taken a walk of only a few km from the Purros community camp along the dry river-bed to watch the sun set from the top of a big sand-dune. On the way we’d wandered past 2 elegant desert giraffe feeding on the unpleasant spikey foliage they had on offer. On the way back past them I was trying to get some nice photos, edging as close as I could before they shuffled away. As I turned to catch up with Jen I saw a stunning desert elephant feed only about 100m away! From a car they look powerful, on foot they look a bit terrifying, but so exciting. The longer legs and bigger feet of the desert elephant clearly evident, I took a few pictures and we watched for a while before taking the longer route back to camp!
Between Purros and Palmwag is prime bush-camp territory, like I said we saw no one out there, and the landscape is ever changing and vast. We camped up, gathered some wood (in the dry river beds up-rooted thus dead trees and bushes are aplenty) and got a fire going. Out of meat by now Jen knocked up a tasty veggie-chilli. As it cooked on the fire and we enjoyed a cold Windhoek beer, I took my chance to ask if Jen might like to get married when we get home, being at least a day from civilisation she had to say she would, so that was nice. We’re now in the capital Windhoek sorting out an engagement ring !!
Jen: Ben rather took me by surprise in asking me to marry him, what a perfect end to a extraordinary day and I’d like to make a point that me saying yes had nothing to do with being a days drive from any civilisation :o)
Between then and now we’ve been out to see the ancient cave paintings at Twyfelfontein and the Brandberg (white lady) and the impressive rock formations at Spitzkoppe. We’ve also been down to Swakopmund, the adrenaline capital of Namibia wedged between desert dunes and Atlantic ocean. Whilst Toby and Sophie a British doctor duo from the UK that we met there spent a day Kayaking, Kite surfing and skydiving, we made do with just a morning Kayak, it was fascinating. The kayaking itself was easy, in a closed bay area so no big waves, but it is made so special by the seal colony we visited, they are everywhere! Hundreds/thousands on the beach, and the same in the water swimming all around you, under you boat, splashing you, nibbling your paddle if you leave it stationary for too long, and nibbling your jacket too if given chance (as Jen found out). Some actually swim up belly out so you can rub it. Jeanne who runs the trips and her company EcoMarine is fantastic too, loads of enthusiasm and info, and after 16 years doing it too, (you wouldn’t tire of that I don’t think).
Our morning on the water was in brilliant sunshine, which was really lucky, most of the rest of our time there was shrouded in the Atlantic fog for which Swakopmond and the Namib desert are renowned. We did spend a few days there and had a lovely night out celebrating the engagement with Toby and Sophie, who were celebrating there 2nd wedding anniversary too.
So now we’re in Windhoek, only about half way through our Namib adventure, its been brilliant so far, we hope part 2 will be as good, it’s a lot to ask.
Cheers for now