A Travellerspoint blog

10. Botswana and Chobe

A short blog for a short visit

We leave Namibia after spending 15 days there. We feel that we have come to know the country a little and to enjoy its assets a lot. By way of contrast, we have just two days in Botswana, visiting a small slice of the north east corner. Formerly called Bechuanaland, it became independent in 1966, renamed Botswana. It is notable for its flat landlocked terrain, its sparse population of 2 million, its stable democratic government and its fast growing economy.

In spite of our morning team talk session when Jan gives us our instructions, the first thing we do on our way to the border is to turn right instead of left out of the camping ground. As we go, I question Martin as to whether we are travelling in the right direction, but neither of us are sure. When we arrive at the Zambian border 10 minutes later, we know we have taken the wrong direction. A number of national borders meet close to each other here – Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Angola is also not far away. We back track past the camping ground to the Botswana border.

There are no problems with passport control, but we fail when we come to the food control check point. The lady official searches our vehicle including the frig and finds offending plums, pears and grapes which we hoped to have for lunch. Standing at the check point we chat cordially to her while we eat some of the items and then we hand over the rest. There is no point in being annoyed about it, for she is only doing her duty and though she wants to take our fruit, she does it with the most amiable of manners. When we are asked to wipe our feet and drive the vehicle through a depression filled with water, I wonder if the exercise is effective against foot and mouth disease. The water is so dirty.

Our destination in Botswana is Chobe National Park, well-known for its impressive herds of elephants. But we have to be content with the likes of puku, impala, kudu, buffalo, giraffe and a range of birds. Apparently Chobe hosts the largest surviving elephant populations in the world, currently estimated to exceed 120,000. The problem is that they are migratory and during the wet season from November to March or April they gather in the south east of the park, a good 200 miles away. We are in the north in early April and obviously it is still the wet season with overcast skies, cool temperatures and intermittent showers. I don’t think we see even one solitary elephant. Well, I will just have to come again, perhaps during a September!

We have two incursions into the national park. The first begins in the dark and cold at six in the morning. We bump along on the back of a safari land cruiser on the rutted and pot holed dirt track and I am soon suffering motion sickness. There aren’t enough animals to keep my mind off my discomfort, but I endure the cold and damp of the three and half hours game drive without disgracing myself and recover back at the camp site with a good breakfast of scrambled eggs and a sleep.

The second visit is more pleasant and more entertaining. At three o’clock we are off on a cruise on the Chobe River. The large river boat chugs along the banks, stopping whenever we spot any wildlife – giraffe, warthogs, monkeys, hippo, impala. But it is not the animals that provide the main entertainment. The action of stopping and starting doesn’t do the boat battery any favours and eventually it refuses to start. We are marooned. The passengers grin at each other, unworried about our situation. After all, we are only a stone’s throw from the shore. Some gather around the driver and his aide as they lift the floor to expose the two large engines and the one very small battery. They wait expectantly for the driver to produce his tool kit, but he has not a single one. He stands up and gazes around his passengers.

‘Has anyone got a Leatherman?’ he asks. A young woman produces a multi-tool from her hand bag and hands it over. He screws and unscrews various motor parts, including the motor cover but he achieves no results. He then produces a piece of rope and winds it around the fly wheel, pulling it to start the motor. I am reminded of our boating days on the Tauranga harbour when Martin did similar operations with temperamental engines. Still the river boat remains silent and motionless.

We continue to enjoy the little theatre, but as the afternoon darkens into early evening, we wonder how long we will be there. It is time to get help. The men decide to call their companion boat some distance away. When it arrives and manoeuvres alongside, they produce jump leads, sling them over and restart our motor. At last we are on our way, late for dinner at the camping ground restaurant, with amused memories of absent tool kits and faulty motors rather than the wildlife of Chobe.

At dinner I meet a young New Zealand woman who, as part of a group, is cycling from Khartoum to Cape Town. It puts our expedition in perspective; sometimes I am tempted to think we are adventurous and bold in our choice of travel, but she and her group take the prize for bravery and energetic enterprise.

Posted by rhinospin 02:24 Archived in Botswana Comments (0)

9. Northern Namibia

Caprivi Strip and Bwabwata National Park

We continue north. The roads are empty, long and straight. At first we pass large European cattle holdings. But then the countryside turns to indigenous land use and subsistence farming - thatched huts, rural villages, plots of maize and millet, small herds of cattle driven along the wide road sides by men or boys. There are more people about, walking, bike riding, chatting on the road side. Women carry babies on their backs and containers on their heads. Simple churches are numerous, but I note the shape of many of the windows, like European ecclesiastical buildings, domed at the top. Curious in an African setting. The landscape is different from the Namibia we have seen in the south. We are entering the ‘real’ Africa.

In Rundu we make purchases at Shoprite and eat our lunch on the street outside beside the vehicles while Jan continues his search for a land rover window. We arrive at the beginning of the Caprivi Strip or Panhandle, a narrow neck of Namibia wedged in between Angola and Zambia to the north and Botswana in the south. Our time in Namibia is nearly over. We camp at Divundu right on the Okavango River, full of crocodiles and hippos. It’s the first of a number of rivers in the panhandle - Kwando River half way along the Strip becomes the Chobe River that forms a border between Namibia and Botswana, and then there is the great Zambezi River, fourth largest river in Africa and famous for the Victoria Falls.

I say ‘camp’ at Divundu. But in fact we upgrade to a chalet where we will be for two nights. Sleeping in the tent is no problem at all. I like it. But it is nice to enjoy a queen bed, to have the ensuite three steps away and to have extra free time instead of putting up and taking down your tent. We are on the Okavango for the purpose of visiting the Bwabwata National Park. Have you heard of that one? No, I hadn’t either. It was formed in 2007 from several game reserves and is unusual in that about 5,500 people live in the park and the main Caprivi road runs through it.

We have a problem with time. Daylight saving ended in Namibia several days ago, but Botswana and the Caprivi Strip, though in Namibia, run on South African time. So does the camp site, unbeknown to us. The result is that we are just getting out of bed when we receive word that the game cart is waiting for us, ready for the morning drive into the national park. We rattle our dags (NZ rural lingo for ‘we really hurry’) and rush off to the waiting game cart. This time Martin and Graham as well as Judy and myself are being driven and they can give their full concentration to the wild life. Timo, our black African driver has an excellent understanding of the bush, the bird life and the animals. He points out several of the less common antelopes, such as the kudu, roan and puku, which are all new to us. It is great to watch a group of three elephants playing in the river, squirting dirt and water over themselves and their companions. We stop for a drink and a walk beside a gigantic Baobab tree with elephant markings on the thick grey bark.

In the late afternoon we take a boat ride on the Okavango River to view the Poppa Falls and the wild life – lots and lots of hippos. The human activity is interesting too. Two children fish along the river in the early evening sunlight and on the other bank a man fills up large yellow drums with water from the river and loads them into his vehicle. I wonder what he will use the water for. Is it drinking water? Not far from him the hippos blow air bubbles as they submerge and rise again. Back home, someone is complaining on Radio NZ about the quality of our river water and I think of the man on the Okavango; at least I don’t have to collect it in yellow drums or drink it untreated.

In the morning, our group all try their electronic gadgetry in order to contact home. The internet and emailing have been intermittent and frustrating, so I am jubilant when I get into my emails without any problem. We have news from the family around the world and from friends at home. That’s so good when you are away for an extended time.

Back on our travels we stop when we meet two people walking in the middle of the deserted road hauling a large wooden cross on small wheels.

“What are you doing this for?” I ask

“We are just one group of a number who are walking the length and breadth of our country. We are praying for Namibia and asking God to bless it,” one of them says. A support car pulls up with two more of the group and they join our discussion. I ask if I can take a photo of them and I jot their names down - Eddie, Lynda, Cherelle and Adelaide. Shortly they will meet up in a central location with all the walkers from around Namibia.

We stop at Kongola and visit several markets. The first is a village bazaar selling cheap made-in-China goods like clothing and household goods. It seems that the market is held frequently, for there is a large concrete pad, a permanent corrugated iron roof and concrete platforms for the goods. We wander along the stalls, feeling conspicuous as mzungu, white people, in this completely African setting. Used in Central Africa, this Bantu term literally means "someone who roams around aimlessly"; that’s exactly what we are doing! Rather than the merchandise on offer, I am more interested in two women walking past, their posture stately as they carry heavy sacks on their heads. One has a baby in her side bag, the tiny foot poking out behind her; the other carries a grass crop over her shoulder as well as a full shoulder bag around her back. African women are the burden bearers.

The other market down the road is Mashi Craft Trading Post, a co-operative venture, selling a number of well-made and well exhibited indigenous items. I decide to support their work and I purchase a carved wooden map of the African continent – it’s a relief to see quality African items rather than shoddy imported goods. I discuss the price with the shop attendant and I am shown the record of the item in their ledger. I am impressed with how beautifully it is set out and with the great detail along the long line of the record – the item, the craft maker and their number, the retail price, the profit and so on. A plaque on the wall indicates that they have received funding from America to upgrade their facilities. I hope they are successful in their enterprise.

We spend our final night in Namibia in Katima Mulilo, camping on the banks of the Zambezi River. The grounds of the camp site are immaculate with trim grass edges, clipped shrubs and neat thatched buildings. I recall a scene from a few days ago as we leave Okakuejo in Etosha. The area where an overland bus has spent the night is strewn with plastic bags, drink bottles, food containers, rubbish of all descriptions. They must have left their rubbish bags out in the open at night for the jackals to tear apart, and then they had departed without cleaning up their mess. Not a good look; not a good advertisement for that overland outfit.

Two women come by the tent and ask if I have some washing to be done. Yes, I have just enough Namibian dollars left to pay for it. In the evening we sit around the fire pit enjoying the glow of the embers and the light on the river. The silence of the night is broken by the flip flop of frogs, the slash of fish and the grunt of a passing hippo. Tomorrow we will cross the border into Botswana.

Posted by rhinospin 02:18 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

8. Etosha - cheetahs, elephants and rhinos

Thumb nail sketch of Namibia

We are heading towards Namibia’s tourism crown jewel, Etosha National Park. But let me pause and ask you what you know about Namibia. I knew very little before we undertook our trip. I had a vague idea of its location and its former name, South West Africa. I also had hazy recollections of the conflict between South Africa and the freedom fighters in Namibia. I have filled in a few gaps now. With a population of just over 2 million people, Namibia has one of the lowest people densities in Africa. There are 11 main ethnic groups, the Owambo people being the largest. The white population makes up about 6%, relatively high in sub-Sahara Africa, except for South Africa. It’s 825,615 square km in size; that’s a little larger than France and roughly four times the size of New Zealand.

It came into the colonial hands of Germany in 1884, and though that nation had the territory only for just over 30 years, they left a heritage of pleasant German architecture and the memory in ethnic minds of some dreadful atrocities. After World War 1, control moved to South Africa, which from 1948 imposed its apartheid policies. From the 1960s South Africa found herself at war with the guerilla forces of Swapo, determined to bring about Namibian independence. This was gained in 1990, and today the country is a reasonably stable parliamentary democracy, with an economy based on mining, agriculture and tourism. The aids epidemic continues to be a major problem.

Namibia takes its name from the Namib Desert that stretches along the coast from the South African border north into Angola. It is the geographical area that we spend much of our Namibian travels in – to our great enjoyment. The other is the wetter Bushveld in north eastern Namibia along the Angolan border and in the Caprivi Strip to the Victoria Falls. We miss the Kalahari Desert along the eastern side of the country – there’s an excuse for another visit to Namibia!

To resume our story. On the way to Etosha, Jan has a mishap with the driver’s side window of his land rover. As he winds it down, the pane hits something inside the door and smashes into a thousand small pieces. He is left without a window and without security for the vehicle. In each town we pass through, he whips around the streets, locating the panel beaters, vehicle wreckers and spare parts vendors, all to no avail, in spite of his optimistic expectations. It is Toyota Land Cruiser territory and the days of the rule of the land rover are gone in this part of Africa. Jan ends up eating his break snacks and his lunch seated in the vehicle and at night sleeping snuggled up beside it on the ground, black polythene over the window space to stop any moisture. He has no intention of letting an opportunistic burglar raid his domain. A week later he is still searching for the elusive window and it is nearly 10 days later in Zambia that he has the window fixed.

Etosha is our first major national park. We have two nights camping inside the park, the first at Okakuejo on the eastern end of the Etosha Pan and the second at Namutoni on the western side of the park. We have three game drives, all self-driven in the land rovers. On the first afternoon we go out at 4.00pm for several hours, the best time for spotting game. The following day we shift camp and spend the day driving the length of the park, with a swim at Halali at lunch time. On the final morning we take a short early morning circuit near Namutoni.
The wild animals include zebra, wildebeest, springbok, red hartebeest, impala, jackal, dik-dik (small antelope), oryx, warthog, giraffe. But we don't see as many as we have anticipated. Our expectations are conditioned by the panoramic television nature programmes back home and the informative coloured brochure on the park we purchased in the town of Outjo, as well as by the reputation of Etosha. Part of the problem is the recent rain that the country has enjoyed. The animals have plenty of water in the bush and they do not need to congregate around the water holes where it is so easy for tourists like us to enjoy of the visual feast of African fauna. After dinner at Okakuejo, we wander down in the dark to the well positioned floodlit water hole and sit in the silence with other campers, waiting for the elusive animals to arrive. None come and we retreat to bed disappointed.

But we are grateful for what we do see and there are some special highlights. We stop beside some other cars and find their occupants are gazing into the scrub at a cheetah and her cub. They – the humans – glare at us, hoping to have the cheetahs all to themselves and afraid we will scare the duo away. As Martin maneuvers to get a better view, they shift to block us; nevertheless, we do get an excellent view. They – the cheetahs – gaze around, sizing up the possible danger of the vehicles. They are truly beautiful; we get a full view of the sleek tan and black spotted mother standing in the undergrowth; all we can see of her cute cub is the little head and eyes peering over her back from behind her. We are privileged to witness this unusual sighting, for cheetahs are shy creatures and no longer common, having a ‘threatened’ conservation status.

I see my first wild African elephant at Etosha, in fact just after we enter the gates of the park. He is old and alone and without tusks, but that doesn’t diminish the thrill of coming within metres of this giant creature. At Chudop, near Namutoni, at the end of the second day, we meet another elephant, again solitary but with his tusks in place. He strides about 20 metres in from the gravel road, slowly and deliberately, huge, grey and leathery, lifting his massive feet and swinging through the white feathery grass, curling up his long trunk, intent on some unseen destination ahead. From the safety of our vehicle, lined up with the other observers, we watch in admiration and wonder.

Just as we are leaving Namutoni, Eddie and Jan call us over the radio and alert us to the presence of a rhinoceros on the road side. Excited at the opportunity to see one at close range, we join them and watch as the animal browses among the shrubs and bushes. The rhino is a strange creature with its over-large head and two horns on its nose, the smaller between the eyes and the larger further down the beak. He seems to be aware of the vehicles, but his eyesight is poor; perhaps his keen sense of smell alerts him to us.

“What type of rhino is it?” I ask over the radio. That’s the advantage of travelling with a guide.

“It’s a black rhino,” Eddie replies. “You can tell by the mouth and the way it eats.” He proceeds to give us a natural science lesson. The white rhino is certainly not white, as both species are similar variations of black, brown and grey. The main difference between the black and white rhinos is the shape of their mouths – white rhinos, the more numerous, have broad flat lips for grazing, while the endangered black rhinos have long hooked upper lips for browsing and eating foliage.

“So how did the white rhino get its name?” I want to know.

“Most people think,” Eddie says, “that ‘white’ is a misrepresentation of the Afrikaans word ‘wyd’, describing the white rhino’s mouth.” Our Etosha rhino is not the first one we have seen on the trip. One day we spotted a white rhino in the wild, but because they are so vulnerable to poaching, we decide the less said about it and its location the better.

Near Grootfontein we visit the Hobas Meteorite, the largest known meteorite and chunk of iron on the earth’s surface, estimated to weigh more than 60 tonnes. In the town, the landies get a well-deserved soap-up and wash-down to rid them of all the desert salt and sand that has accumulated over the last 12 days. It costs $10N for the Romanians and ours. That’s as cheap as we paid in China in 2011 for the two Nissans!

I see a Herero woman in traditional dress including the impressive cow horn headdress. Rhenish missionaries of the past introduced Victorian dress, which the tribe adopted and gradually added to, for example the hats. My lady seems to be wearing hybrid regalia, for as well as the long frock she has a jacket made of Masai fabric of which we will see plenty in Tanzania further north. I smile at her. She comes over to the vehicle and I compliment her on her headdress.

“May I take your photo?” I ask. She agrees and I proceed with my camera.

“That will be $5,” she says. Wow, it took two men half an hour of hard physical work to wash one car for that money. She has found an easy way of earning her keep. She must do well in the high tourist season. Next time I will negotiate before being so keen with my camera.

Posted by rhinospin 01:46 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

7. Swakopmund and Twylfelfontein

Skeleton Coast, seals and petrified wood

Two days in Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast provide time to take our washing to the laundry, to do some site seeing on foot, and to have a rest from driving. The red and white striped lighthouse, the waterfront with its breakwater and jetty, and the very German Woerman House provide interest to our wanderings around town.

The best fun is at the craft market not far from the waterfront. There are a dozen different stalls, each with its own vendor desperate to sell his products. They’re offering similar merchandise – beaded jewellery, models of elephants and rhinos, wooden bowls, stone ornaments, facemasks - spread out on the concrete under the sun to attract idle tourists like ourselves. I wander along the row of goods, hoping to survey the range before I make my choice. The grandchildren at home, of course. But none of the vendors want me to view their competitors’ products and they are experts at the art of emotional salesmanship.

‘You are my first customer of the day, Mama,’ one says, not leaving my elbow, as I try to look at a neighbouring stall, ‘so I will give you a special price.’ His eyes implore me to buy his trinkets.

‘Make me a happy man and buy from me; I will give you the best price,” another enters the peddling process.

‘I’ve come such a long way to sell my products – buy from me,” a third man pleads with me.

‘Mama, what is your name?’ another asks. In my innocence, I tell him and before I know it, there it is, my name, carved onto a wax sphere the size of a walnut, alongside the other carved items: an elephant, a giraffe, the word Namibia and the year 2014. I am obliged to buy it, now it has my name on it. I hang it on my hand bag by its leather toggle, proof of purchase to all the other would-be sellers marketing the same items.

We extricate ourselves, laughing and refusing to buy anything more. But we are now richer by three elephants, two key rings and a stone family group, poorer by 240 Namibian dollars. That’s just over $25NZ. We could have bargained harder but I’m happy with that for 40 minutes entertainment, especially as I have a few gifts to take home. Later we try conventional shopping where you know the price from the start. Martin buys a jacket and I a tourist T-shirt. We chat to the shop owner who tells us that Afrikaans is the most widely spoken language there, though the official language is English. We are getting used to hearing Afrikaans around the camping grounds, for white South Africans and Namibians seem to love camping.

The food is good in Swakopmund. Near the waterfront, the museum café serves wonderful waffles with ice cream and cherries, great to eat sitting in the warm autumn sun. In the evenings we eat twice at Erich’s, within walking distance of our motel. One night I try the local kinglip fish and another night oryx steak – 40mm thick and as big as a saucer, served with mushroom sauce, peach garnish and red cabbage. Superb; afterwards, I can’t eat another thing. No wonder we don’t lose any weight in Africa!

The cavalcade of land rovers follows the Skeleton Coast north of Swakopmund. The salt and sand road stretches straight for many miles. Its surface is hard and smooth, and our guides warn us to drive with care, for it can be slippery if wet. According to Wikipedia, the name Skeleton Coast was coined by John Henry Marsh in 1944 as the title for his book about the ship, MV Dunedin Star I, its shipwreck and the perilous conditions that the survivors faced after landing on the desolate shore. The designation become so well known that the name stuck, even as the official name on most maps today.

There are over 1000 wrecks along the Namibian and Angolan coast. Several short detours over the sand takes us to two of them; the first went aground in 2008 and sits in the water beyond the beach, unbroken as yet by the violent seas. The other is much older, the wooden remains half buried in the sand like the back bone of a large whale skeleton. We walk down onto the beach in the sunshine, aware that very different conditions were responsible for this and the many other wrecks along the coast.

But it is a great place for seals. I step out of the land rover at Cape Cross Seal Colony and the smell hits me. Hundreds of seals - mothers, babies, young cubs, older males. They are along the beach, on the rocks, in the water, sunbathing, suckling, swimming, shuffling back and forth on their flippers. I brave the odour to walk along the boardwalk, obedient to the sign requesting that one shuts the gate to prevent the seals taking over the walkway. I’m sure they would, given the opportunity. Fascinated, I forget the smell, watching the moving carpet of living creatures revelling in their natural element.

Cape Cross is also the site of a stone pillar erected by the fifteenth century Portuguese explorer Diago Cão to mark his second voyage along the coast. He is the first known European to sight the west coast of Africa. The monument is in fact a granite replica of the original taken by the Germans back to Berlin. The words on it read: ‘In the year 6685 after the creation of the world and in 1485 after the birth of Christ, the brilliant far sighted King John II of Portugal, ordered Diago Cão, knight of his court, to discover this land and to erect this padrão here.’ I am struck both by his confidence in the scheme of his world and by his unabashed flattery of his king and master.

Past the string of small make-shift stalls selling salt crystals, we turn east and travel inland. We camp at the isolated Sringbokwasser, the only campers there. I decide to forgo the showers as there is cold water only. We are many miles from the nearest town but in the darkness a truck arrives at the camp office house and loud conversation and camaraderie fills the desert landscape for several hours. At last the truck drives away and the desert returns to its silence.

Again it is a pleasure to emerge from my tent at dawn and gaze out across the empty landscape, silent except for the singing of the birds. Though we are 40 kilometres from the sea, I am told that the coastal mists can reach this far inland, but today the air is still and clear and the horizon lined with a glow of soft pink and deep blue. It’s great to be alive – until my misdemeanor later in the day.

As we drive, the desert landscape becomes tinged with green, the result of recent rains. Tiny plants and thin spears of grass poke up through the rocky surface and the taller indigenous white feathery grass waves above. We spot a few springbok, surely gleeful about the provision of their new pasture. We stop to take a photo of a black backed jackal slinking along the road side and Jan tells us that he came this way a few months previously, only to find it was totally brown and barren.

On the programme for the day are two visits. The first is to Twylfelfontein, a World Heritage site and location of a group of ancient rock drawings. With the temperature over 35° I find it very hot out in the full sun and eagerly retreat to the shade of a tree when available. Our articulate young black guide, Elizabeth, is delightful as she leads us from one piece of rock art to the next through the contrasting red rocks and green vegetation. As we climb up the cliff face and the man-made viewing platforms, I feel light headed in the heat and fear I will faint.

The ruins of David Levin’s mud brick house sit starkly nearby. He was a German Jew who arrived there to farm in 1948 after World War 2, giving the spring its name as he was doubtful as to whether it had sufficient water for the family to survive on. Though barely adequate, he battled to stay on the arid land until it was handed back to the local people and he moved elsewhere. Back at the park centre we recover from the heat with cold drinks and inspect the intriguing construction of the building – it’s all made of rocks and 44 gallon drums.

The second visit is to the Petrified Forest; the official site, that is, for there seem to be lots of home-made signs advertising forest sites along the road. I get myself into hot water there and feel thoroughly embarrassed. As we wander among the rock-like tree trunks littered over the ground, I bend down and pick up several pieces of petrified wood. Later as we sit at the table eating our lunch, I play with them, tossing them back and forward in my hands. Little do I know that one of the park attendants is watching me with hawk-like eyes and when I walk to the land rover with one of the pieces still in my hand, he is on to me. Not directly, for he has more diplomacy than that. He has a word to Eddie, who is also a master of tact. He waits till I am in the vehicle and then quietly, without drawing attention to my theft, he asks if I have taken a piece of wood. Red faced, I confess and hand it over. Oh dear, that was a stupid no-no.

Posted by rhinospin 14:22 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

6. Sesriem and Sossusvlei

Towering sand dunes and desert landscapes

The road north, graveled but mostly well maintained, takes us through a series of wide valleys ringed with rugged mountains. It reminds me of the Maniototo in NZ’s Central Otago, with its arid landscape and sparse vegetation cover. The early morning scenery is fantastic – clear and unspoiled, the eye able to travel to the furthest mountainous horizon against the cloudless blue sky. No other vehicle disturbs our peace by sending clouds of dust into the still air. The road forms a straight dark line across the plain, accompanied by a single row of telegraph poles, where occasionally the sociable weavers have built their nests using old insulators. We see a solitary oryx, then a small herd of springbok, but the vast desert is mainly empty; desert landscape on a grand scale.

But ahead there are signs of human habitation - a lone petrol station and a café. We stop for coffee and Martin talks to a local farmer. His farm is 150,000 hectares in size, with a stocking rate of 40 hectares per cow!

“We are not here for the money,” he assures Martin, “it’s the lifestyle we are after.” Martin regrets that there isn’t time for a longer chat. We begin to meet other vehicles on the road, like a yellow overland truck with ‘London to Cape Town’ splashed on its side. Trucks, large Scania-type rigs with huge hoppers, make their presence felt.

Then a kamikaze South African Toyota Land Cruiser with a trailer behind and a back seat full of children tears past, trying to outdo the springboks. We furiously wind up our windows but it isn’t fast enough to prevent clouds of dust pouring in. Later Eddie makes a sardonic comment about his countrymen and their disregard for the rules of common sense and safety. At the camping ground, he hears of a group of 27 who drove all night from their home near Pretoria to reach their holiday destination in Namibia. He considers night travel, with the possibility of hitting a wandering wild animal, to be very unsafe and he is not amused. Perhaps it is some of the same crowd that passed us in the clouds of dust. In the evening, the large group takes over the bar and Jan has difficulty buying a drink. He also is not amused.

Though it’s all desert, there is variation: a vast plain scattered with tufts of coarse grass across the red and brown earth, grazed by a smattering of cattle and oryx; a smaller valley where the grass grows more lush, the green and white seed heads waving in the breeze, the result of recent rains; rocky red mountains studded with huge boulders and the occasional scrubby trees; another broad plain, this time a brighter green and grazed by goats and cows; a shallow valley heavily dotted with acacia trees, their long lethal thorns a deterrent to any human passer-by.

Infrequent windmills indicate water below the ground and the presence of farming activities. A narrow gauge rail line appears beyond the power line, with here and there a sign board indicating a former railway station, but there are no buildings or habitations.

“Who has lived out here to catch a train or send their products to market by rail?” I wonder. We drive through another conservation park, the NamibRand Private Nature Reserve, one of the largest private nature reserves in the southern hemisphere. Its aim is to develop a sanctuary free of fences, so that the wildlife can once again roam their habitat unhindered. The presence of numerous wild zebra indicates the success of the programme.

It is a long day, 365 kilometres. Once the coolness of the early morning has passed, it is hot and dusty. Our destination is Sesriem Camp Site, just inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park. We are allotted a camping kraal, a circular area ringed by a stone wall in which we can sleep and eat; the stone wall recalls past days when protection from wild animals was necessary.

Judy and I do not need much encouragement when the men offer to put up the tents while we go for a swim in the Sesriem camp pool. Yes, the camps may be rudimentary, but some are civilized enough to have swimming pools, most welcome in the desert heat. Our swim is just a little respite before another journey of 65 kilometres out to the spectacular dunes of the Sossusvlei.

From the Sesriem gate, we take the sealed road, unusual in the desert of Namibia, through the national park and to Sossusvlei proper. Both the road and the salt pan are surrounded by some of the highest dunes in the world, as tall as 325 metres. Sossusvlei roughly means dead-end marsh, ‘vlei’ being Afrikaans for marsh, and ‘sossus’ Nama for dead end. After good rains, which fall on rare occasions, the pan fills with water and become part of the ephemeral Tsauchab River. Another source of moisture comes from the morning fogs that drift in from the Atlantic Ocean, allowing some plant and animal life to exist.

At the end of the sealed road, we continue onto the heavy sand tracks, our 4 wheel drive land rovers allowing us access to the last six kilometres. Much of the white salt and clay pan is covered with sand and there is no evidence of any river. Martin and Graham relish the opportunity to demonstrate to Jan and Eddie their driving expertise in the sand, for the guides have cautioned them to drive slowly and carefully. Martin puts his foot down, speeds up and passes Graham, who snatches at the challenge and overtakes to be in the lead again. The guys are in their element and pleased when it is the heavier guide vehicle that gets stuck in the sand.

The towering sand dunes are impressive. They look as if they are stable and always in the one position, but the customary wind (not blowing on our visit) ensures the landscape is constantly changing. The dunes owe their red-pink-orange colouring to the high percentage of iron in the sand and the consequent oxidation process; the older the dunes, the more intense the reddish color.

While most of us relax at a recreational table with drinks and snacks, Martin climbs a nearby dune and watches some sand boarders trying to gather up courage to whizz down a steep slope. The setting sun deepens the burnt orange and golden red hues of the dunes and I take out my camera yet again. Eddie warns that we must be out of the national park before dark and we reluctantly pack up and return to the vehicles. We pass Dune 45 again, so called because it lies 45 kilometres beyond Sesriem. ‘The most photographed dune in the world’, its accessibility and iconic shape make it attractive for climbers.

Sesriem has an intriguing name, derived from the area’s history of wagons, cattle and ranching. It means six riem, with a riem being the length of a cow hide. It reflects the number of joined leather ox-wagon thongs needed to draw water from the bottom of the nearby gorge.

The following day is another early start and a long drive of 350 kilometres. But it is a pleasure to be up with the birds, for the rewards are great – the cool air is clean and fresh and the early morning sun is soft on the landscape. By midafternoon we will be hot and weary. At Solitaire we subscribe to large slabs of apple crumble, rejoicing in this aspect of the German influence. A sign tells us we are crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and we stop for the obligatory photo opportunity.

We pass through two gorges, the Gaub Pass and the Kuiseb canyon. In both there is water flowing in the river bed because of the latest rains. Eddie tells us that it is unusual and that he has seen water there only two or three times over the many years that he has travelled that way. Closer to the coast at Walvis Bay, the landscape becomes desert in earnest, just bare sand and no vegetation. Along the Atlantic, the weather is cooler and the sky cloudy. Our destination is Swakopmund, a town more German than those of Germany. We are to spend three nights there, with no tents to erect and a real bed to sleep in.

Posted by rhinospin 14:10 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

5. Fish River Canyon and the German Influence

Zebras, Sociable Weavers and Oryx in the desert of Namibia

We cross the Orange River, high in flood, passing out of South Africa and into Namibia, a country we know little of. The landscape grows increasingly arid, with the only green swathes provided by the irrigated grape vines along the river. Straw and corrugated workers huts cluster uneasily on the stony ground under the fierce sun. The hills turn barren and rocky, with few trees to provide shade. Sparse tufts of coarse grey vegetation grow along the gravel roads.

We drive into Gondwana Cañon Park, a private nature reserve formed in 1996 to conserve the semi-desert near Fish River Canyon, our destination. The reserve has grown in size to 100,000 hectare, resulting in substantial recovery of the former flora and fauna. It is there that I spot my first African wildlife in its natural environment, Hartmann’s mountain zebras, identified by guide Eddie over the radio.

“Quick, grab the camera,” I whisper in my excitement. They stand grouped together, their black and beige stripes acting as a camouflage against the surrounding grey rocks. They bend their heads and sharp eyes towards us in curiosity, but once they realise our land rovers are no threat, they lose interest and turn away, exposing their photogenic rounded rumps to us.

Fish River Canyon is about 10 kilometres from our evening camp site at Hobas. We stand on the viewing platform, overlooking the vast curve in the river and the immensity of the bare rock landscape. The towering granite faces and deep ravines, fashioned by countess years of water erosion, comprise the second largest canyon in the world (after the Grand Canyon), the largest in Africa and the second most visited tourist attraction in Namibia (after Etosha National Park). The river, in the full flow of late summer, shimmers silver in the early evening sun, winding a deep path through the gorge. We learn that the whole canyon measures 160 kilometres long, 27 wide and over half a kilometre deep.

We watch the sun go down on the horizon behind the canyon, the rays of light stretching across the harshly beautiful landscape. Judy has thought to bring glasses, drinks, cheese and biscuits, and we linger in the growing dark, enjoying our nibbles against the majesty of nature.

Another evening we drive out into the desert to visit the rusted body of an old car, riddled with bullet holes from a dramatic western style shoot-out between a group of diamond thieves and the law. On the way we stop to inspect a whopping sociable weaver nest, hanging like a misshapen bale of hay in a desert thorn tree. Sociable weavers are as common as sparrows in this part of the world. As we look, a Cape cobra snake expertly winds itself up onto a branch, intent on invading the nest. They are known to readily climb trees and bushes, showing agility in robbing birds’ nests such as the sociable weaver. The snake disappears and we are left wondering as to the fate of the miniature occupants of their palatial nest. But that is certainly one snake to avoid, with its venomous poison.

The night sky in the desert is stunning, worth spending time just gazing into the heavens and enjoying the spectacle. Without the competing light of towns and cities, the stars glisten richly against the black velvet sky. It is great to stare at the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and the pot with its handle and realise that it is the same sky that we see on holiday at Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf.

Sleeping at night is another matter. At first I wonder if we are to get a decent night of rest. It isn’t the camp stretchers or our confining New Zealand sleeping bags which I haven’t used for many a year. It is the livestock and the human element. The first night the roosters in the trees above the nearby bathroom door start crowing to welcome in the dawn from 3.00am onward.

The second night, the overlanders don’t even bother to go to bed, it seems. Worn out, I fall asleep in spite of their noise, and but wake at 1.00am.

“They can’t be still at it,” I mumble into the pillow, trying to drown out their conversation and laughter. I drift off, only to be wakened again by the clatter their saucepans with breakfast preparation about 5.00am. Oh, to be young again and need no sleep. However I suspect they doze through most days of driving, all the way to the Victoria Falls.

In the African context, an overlander is not a train journey or a pair of shoes. It refers to someone who travels in an overland truck between London and South Africa, though today, trips are often limited to southern and central Africa. Once upon a time, they were all young but nowadays they come from all ages, with fewer numbers and perhaps less emphasis on the partying lifestyle. I suspect they may be our constant companions, but we don’t see that much of the trucks and their occupants. We certainly saw no other group like ourselves, privileged to be self-driving in a small group.

As we travel, our pattern is to make our lunch in the morning after breakfast, and to stop somewhere on the side of the road in the middle of the day. We find a shady tree if possible, getting our chairs from the vehicles and relaxing over our food and coffee for half an hour. In Namibia, we are likely to enjoy our lunch in the peace and solitude of our own company. Once we are in Zambia, a group of children materialize from nowhere within about two minutes and stand around, watching our every movement.

If Eddie and Jan know of a pleasant café on our route, we stop and purchase goodies, like scrummy apple strudel, from Namibia’s German heritage. The Canon Roadhouse, with its collection of fascinating old vehicles, and the Seeheim Hotel, built like an English manor house but surrounded by desert landscape, are examples of stopping places.

There in captivity, we see an oryx, also called a gemsbok. The large antelope, with pale grey fur and contrasting dark markings on its face and legs, prefers near-desert conditions and can survive without water for long periods. Like the springbok, numbers of oryx are relatively large, meaning it is not endangered, though in World War 2 days, when the ‘The Sheltering Desert’ was set, there were many more oryx wandering the Namib Desert. When I read Henno Martin’s book, I understood how lethal the long straight horns of the oryx were; for Otto, the dog, was wounded several times from his encounters with them, and was lucky to escape alive.

On our way back from Luderitz, a day later, we call in at the Garub Wild Horses reserve where a number of oryx mingle in with the wild horses, sharing their watering hole. Animals wandering freely in the wild are still a novelty to us and we spend time watching their antics through our binoculars. A trust has been formed to look after the welfare of the Namibian desert horses. Their origin is unclear, though one theory is that they have descended from German military horses from the early 20th century.

Another German relic from the same period is the ghost town of Kolmanskop near Luderitz. A young guide escorts us around the former diamond mining town, some buildings partially restored, others left in their dilapidated state. Rooms half filled with sand from the frequent storms give a neglected and eerie atmosphere to the remains of the town. In the social hall our guide sits down at the piano and sings a piece from a well-known opera and in the freezer room he explains the ice making process, done with factory-like precision. Those Europeans made sure they had all the conveniences of civilized living, even in the desert. We are fortunate to enjoy a calm sunny morning, but can well imagine the gritty sand in your mouth as the wind whips in from the sea.

Down on the coast, with its attractive harbour, Luderitz, by way of contrast, is a modern town; but its German heritage is still evident. There is the old custom house and other fine pre-World War 1 houses, like the former homes of mine and shipping line managers. The church, Felsenkirche, one of the oldest evangelical Lutheran churches in Namibia, has a prominent position on a hill above the town. The German Emperor Wilhelm II himself donated its stained glass windows.

On the deserted road back to our camp site at Aus, Graham and Martin stop to rescue a motorist with a flat tyre and a car full of dogs. She is driving, what to us seemed a vast distance, from her rural desert home to the vet in Luderitz to seek attention for her dogs. Her journey emphasizes the loneliness of the desert, the long distances between settlements, and the accepted inconveniences for the love of a chosen lifestyle.

Posted by rhinospin 01:56 Archived in Namibia Comments (0)

4. Cape Town to the Orange River

Jewish history, tent assembly and springbok

We sat around the table over Sunday breakfast sizing each other up. So these were to be my companions for the next eight weeks.

“Driving will be quite different from what you are used to at home,” Eddie said. “You can’t afford to let you attention wander at any stage; nothing can ruin a trip more quickly than an accident.” We nodded in solemn agreement, determining to do our best to avoid mishaps. “Many of the bus and truck drivers are a law to themselves. If they indicate to you that the road is clear to pass them, don’t take their word. Only pass when you can see for yourselves that it’s clear.”

“Some of the roads are seriously pot holed once you get further north,” Jan said. “In some areas, the EU or China has donated funds for new roading, but in other places, there hasn’t been much upkeep since the British left. And you’ll have to watch out for the police, even in the small villages. They will be standing on the side of the road with their hair driers.”

“Their what?” I asked.

“Speed cameras. The Danish government,” Eddie laughed as he eyed my Danish husband, “donated a whole container load of them.”

“Oh dear,” I thought, struggling to keep my mind on the new subject of conversation, for we had moved on to the typical daily routine and the need to equip ourselves with snacks and drinks for the hours behind the wheel.

After the ‘team talk’, Martin and I agreed to accompany the Thomases to a local church service, suggesting afterwards we visit the South African Jewish Museum and the adjoining Cape Town Holocaust Centre. We had called there the day before, only to find it was closed; of course, we should have known, for it was Saturday, their Sabbath. We were glad of a second chance, for we had read the Lonely Planet’s comment: ‘although small, the centre packs a lot in with a considerable emotional punch’. They were right.

I have visited other Nazi historical sites – the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the new museum in Nuremberg, Krakow locations and Auschwitz itself, but the story never fails to impact, to send home with force the horror of it all. There was some sympathy for Nazi Germany and a degree of anti-Semitism in South Africa, so it was good to see the Jewish story told so poignantly and clearly. The centre included the old synagogue with display items and the newer working synagogue where a volunteer gave us some background to his faith and practice. The museums told the story of Jewish settlement in South Africa and the contributions of famous Jewish citizens to the development of the nation. They also documented Nazi activities in Europe including the concentration camps, and the stories of the few who escaped to South Africa. The smiling face of Anne Frank brought the fate of the six million Jews down to an individual and personal level, comprehensible to us all.

On our last day based in Cape Town, larger-than-life, vociferous Ferdinand guided the six of us around the Stellenbosch area, visiting centres for wines, cheeses and beers. It was an opportunity for the team for the next eight weeks to get to know each other. The best part was sitting at a large table on a pleasant lawn against a backdrop of hills and farmland at one of the wineries, engaging in much laughter and talk. One of the stories concerned an overland trip with two supposed vegan travellers who declared there was no way they could eat meat. The guides bent over backwards to accommodate their eating preferences, only to discover them eating some delicious steaks later in the tour. When the guides exploded in irate protest, the couple confessed they had decided to assume the vegan role because they feared the dangers of meat eating in Africa. I think, from memory, their eviction from the tour group followed.

On a more serious note, we discovered the inequalities of education in South Africa. When we observed a rural school from the mini-bus, we wanted to know more. Was that really a school? Was it a government school? Why did it look so poor? Why were the buildings so shabby and the playground so inadequate?

“Oh,” said Ferdinand, “that’s a farm school; that’s normal for South Africa. But I will take you to my old school. I will show you a really good school.” He detoured through the town of Paarl and into the grounds of his own former high school, with its fine buildings and well established grounds, a facility indeed to be proud of. There was quality schooling in his country, but other children also attended schools at the other end of the spectrum.

The next day we drove north from Cape Town towards the border with Namibia on the Orange River. The road was excellent, except for the frequent road works. The town of Clanwilliam introduced us to supermarket shopping for the trip, the number of unemployed aimlessly hanging around the town and the need to keep an eye on the vehicles while we lunched. By way of change away from the paved highway, we took a side track up the Olifants River along a mud road, great for 4 wheel driving.

We had two nights camping in South Africa, and on the first, we learnt to erect our Oz tent and to set up the stretcher beds. Very straight forward – remove the tent from the metal container on top of the land rover and from its bag, lay it out on the ground with the side arms pulled out, unzip the front door, hoist up the front portal and enter within, push the two aluminium frames down in place on either side – and hey presto, you have yourself a habitable tent.

According to the Oz web advertisement, you can do it in 30 seconds. Well, it’s not quite that quick, but it is pretty easy. All that remained was to hammer in the pegs around the tent and rope up the porch flap. Then you could settle down to relax with your travelling companions over a glass of wine or fruit juice and some tasty Fairview cheese purchased on the wine tour. The next day I bought two cheap red china mugs for the better enjoyment of our coffee and two wine glasses. You can’t enjoy a decent coffee or a pleasant cold drink from a plastic cup. Both mugs and glasses survived unbroken for the whole of the trip.

That night I had my first view of the gorgeous springbok, albeit in captivity. Most New Zealanders do know it is an antelope but they associate the name with the South African rugby team. It’s an Afrikaans term, ‘spring’ meaning ‘jump’ and ‘bok’ meaning ‘goat’. It must be among the most delicate and graceful of the African gazelles. Slender, medium-sized, with brown and white tonings, it is extremely fast, reaching speeds of 100 km/h, and heights of four metres. Springbok inhabit the dry inland areas of south and southwestern Africa as far as Botswana and are the most plentiful of the antelope family. We were therefore to become quite familiar with their elegant and flowing forms, though we never tired of watching them or aiming the camera to them. Springbok were just the first of many African animals we were privileged to see.

Note to the reader: from here on, for the flow and ease of the story, I have decided to write in the present tense.

Posted by rhinospin 02:34 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

(Entries 15 - 21 of 24) « Page 1 2 [3] 4 »