2014: Zimbabwe

1 – 14 November 2014

We’d heard a few horror stories about the border process for entering Zimbabwe – especially if you hold a British passport – so we were fully prepared on approaching the border with our list of digital equipment complete with serial numbers and a potentially lengthy wait. However, as with every other border crossing and encounter with authorities on our travels, we were going to take things as they came and not go in with preconceptions on how we were likely to be treated. And, as we’ve found in pretty much all cases, we were treated with nothing but respect, with friendly greetings and didn’t even need the list of devices and serial numbers. We don’t doubt that this might not always be the case, and I’m sure there are a few jobs-worths out there, but aren’t there everywhere? We’ve always found that if you go in with a smile, ask how the person’s day is going and be patient, you will generally walk away having had a pleasant encounter.

From the border we headed straight for Mana Pools National Park. The guide books generally say that you need to book in advance through the office in Harare, but we’d also read reports that you can still go as a “walk-in”, which is what we did. We didn’t have any problems getting the park permit or a camp for the night, however (at least for us), we weren’t able to get a reduced last-minute.com rate for any of the “exclusive camps” or even the river-front spots at the main Nyamepi Camp. We still had a nice view of the river though and there were very few other campers around us, so it was nice and quiet.

Mana Pools’ USP (unique selling point in case that doesn’t mean anything to anyone) is that you’re allowed to get out of your vehicle and walk around the park at your leisure … and own risk. We decided against utilising this new-found freedom when we were told of some lions down by the river and to “just park over there and walk in”. However, we did book ourselves on a guided bush walk for our second day.

On the way back from our first morning’s game drive we were driving past a couple of vehicles and Marcello commended them on their matching outfits. On closer inspection to the truck closest to us, he was more impressed by the fact that they were all enjoying a beer at 8.30am! They immediately offered us a couple to enjoy with them and we found out that they were a group of friends, mostly from Tzaneen in South Africa, who camp together regularly and come up to Mana Pools every year. They had one camp and their 20s-something kids plus friends had another (at a respectful distance away from them!). We agreed to call in on them later and, before we knew it, we had an offer of brunch with them the following day.

When we arrived, we couldn’t believe their set-up: they were certainly doing it in style! There was a three-tonne truck complete with several fridges, crates of beer, cider, vodka, gin, a water-filtration system to filter water from the river, a gas-powered shower, not to mention their own cook. We were blown away. But we weren’t just blown away by their set-up, we were also struck by their generosity and great banter. It was so nice to see a group of friends away with their kids, having such a great time together, clearly with a shared love of the bush. As soon as we arrived around 11.30am, they plied us with booze and good stories, not forgetting a delicious cottage pie for lunch. We had such a great laugh with them and left several hours later, encouraged that we’d still be enjoying such adventures in the years to come.

As well as new friends, Mana Pools also gave us close encounters with two of their three packs of wild dogs – which we did brave on foot. It was wonderful to see them all playing like ordinary dogs, the pups play-fighting to determine the pecking order amongst them. We also had some up-close experiences with kudu, ellies and hyenas wandering through our camp, as well as getting as close as we dared to a bull elephant on our bush walk (no lions unfortunately).

We certainly enjoyed our time at Mana Pools, and the option to walk in the park is fantastic, but I did feel it was all about the exclusive camps: very little of the waterfront is available to you unless you’re staying in one of them. At $150-200 a night, you really need to go as a group to make it affordable, but if you can get them, the views are stunning. So for the most part, it was the people we met that made our time there so enjoyable. As well as the group from Tzaneen, we also met a great couple of friends in our camp who’d come away with their respective mothers, who we had a good laugh with over drinks around the fire.

After three nights in the park, we set off for Harare. Here we did the usual capital city thing: catching up on chores and grocery-buying before heading somewhere else. Whilst we didn’t go into the city-centre, we could see from the shops and shopping centres how far behind Zimbabwe is in terms of investment. It seemed worlds apart from Lusaka, despite it being so close.

Our next destination was Great Zimbabwe. I must admit to never having heard of these ruins until very recently. Perhaps I’m not the only one? We’ve all heard of the pyramids in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but did you know there was an ancient city in the middle of Africa? The city is the largest stone structure to be built south of the Sahara. The first structures were built in 1100AD and the city was the base for kings, their wives and advisers for four centuries. It’s the city that eventually gave Zimbabwe its name. It wasn’t until 1906 that it was proven that the city had been built by Africans – before then, Europeans couldn’t believe that Africans could have built something of such complexity! Even then, the findings were dismissed for some time afterwards.

The city is made up of three main areas: the Hill Complex, the Valley Complex and the Great Enclosure. The Hill Complex is where the kings spent most of their time, with access cleverly restricted by steep hills on most sides and with increasingly narrow steps leading up to the main entrance. From here, the kings would have had a magnificent view over the surrounding area, as well as of the Great Enclosure, where his wives resided. The walls were built in a similar way to dry stone walling in the UK, with stones carefully placed on top of one another, with no binding materials to hold them in place. In the Great Enclosure, the outer walls are up to six metres wide at its base. It was quite something. We had a guide to show us around and explain the history to us – very worthwhile – and I was particularly impressed when we met him as I saw he was wearing a Wisconsin t-shirt (where my US family is from)!

From here we drove to the Matopos hills, just south of Bulawayo. It’s here that Cecil Rhodes’ grave is (notably one of those who dismissed the findings that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans). We can see why he fell in love with the landscape here, calling it the “View of the World”: the hills are made up of huge granite boulders, varying in size and balanced on top of one another. It reminded us of a larger scale Giant’s Playground (Namibia). Stunning.

After a night in the hills we set off for Hwange National Park. By this time, we’d spent a lot of time in National Parks, so we were curious about what this particular park would have to offer. One thing it certainly had a lot of was bugs, but more on that later. Here, we did manage to benefit from the walk-in discount on the picnic sites. Usually these are a minimum of $150, but if they don’t have a booking for that night, you only pay $25 per person: great if there are just two of you.

The first night, the only picnic site available was Jambili. I’d read that this was in the main wilderness area, so that all sounded good. However, we saw absolutely nothing on the way over there, not even an impala. We didn’t let it cloud our opinion though and set off in the evening for a short game drive before we had to be back at camp. This time we saw three kudu – an improvement! We decided to go as far as the next waterhole before turning back to camp and we were very glad that we did: as we turned the corner we saw around 20 elephants all drinking and bathing there. They were having a whale of a time. Then, as I was looking around, I spotted another herd on their way through the bush. We couldn’t believe how excited they were when they saw the water – running, ears flapping, with the youngsters giving a little trumpet – it was lovely to see.

After a fairly quiet night, we set off the next morning around the rest of the looped drive towards Main Camp. Again, there wasn’t much activity. It was only really when we got to the Ngweshla loop that we started to see a few zebra and then wildebeest and a few buffalo. Then, we spotted a lone lioness well hidden under a bush. When we got to the Ngweshla picnic site, the people staying there had seen two male lions walk past their camp and there were also another three lionesses out there as well. This site has been voted the top site to stay at and they said they were leaving that day, so we may have a chance to stay there for that night. Luckily, when we got to Main Camp, it was indeed free, so we made the booking quick-smart.

Unfortunately we couldn’t find the lions again on that evening’s game drive, but we did see hundreds of very excited ellies. In the Ngweshla loop there are various waterholes, especially as they’d had some rain a few days before, so each herd was going from waterhole to waterhole like they were on a pub crawl. We’d never seen so many excited runs and heard so many trumpets before, it was really comical. Apparently they hadn’t been around for about a week, so this was probably the first time they’d been back to water since.

That evening we’d invited the site custodian, Mandla, to join us for dinner. The day before we’d been plagued by small mopane flies (which apparently are actually bees) that make a bee-line (ha ha) for your eyes and nose. They are the most irritating things and we were glad when Mandala said that they didn’t have them there. What he did warn us about though, were butterflies. Seeing as he said they came at night, we figured he meant moths. And boy were there moths – they were huge! Not only were there moths, but there were also flying ants, so we had to switch off our head torches and try to do everything in the dark.

While we were braai-ing Mandla suddenly jumped up and said something had bitten him: he’d been sitting on a table and had slightly squashed something when he put his hand down on his leg. We searched around with the torch and soon found it was a huge spider. We’d first seen these spiders in Mana Pools, when I’d given Marcello the fright of his life asking “is that a scorpion?” whilst looking close to his feet. We’ve since Googled them and think they’re camel spiders: they have huge fangs, a big beige body and particularly long front legs (and are also known as wind scorpions). Anyway, despite sources saying they’re harmless, Mandla got a gradual pain all the way up his arm and struggled to move the two fingers close to where he’d been bitten. We didn’t know at the time what it was, so were really worried about him. Anyway, from this point on we were all very jumpy, checking around our feet and getting a fright when various beetles, grasshoppers and cicadas flew into us. After seeing another of these spiders, as well as a poisonous millipede, we ate up as quickly as possible and headed to the safety of our respective beds!

The following morning we were relieved when we saw Mandla surface. He was still in pain, but it hadn’t got any worse. After a quick chat with a passing researcher, we were even more relieved when he confirmed that there aren’t any seriously venomous spiders in Zim, so he would be fine.

For our last night in the park we managed to get a camp at Detema Dam. This turned out to be a real gem, although we were a little put out when we first arrived in the area. We first went to the picnic site and there was no water, the loos were disgusting and no one was in sight: not what we’d come to expect from these camps where, there are showers, flush loos and firewood. Luckily we didn’t high-tail it out of there, as we were tempted to do, but drove a bit further around to the actual Dam, where we found a very nice temporary camp with a hide. We found out the next day that they’re waiting for funding to do up the picnic site, at which point they’ll move camping back there. A big shame if you ask us, as it was a lovely spot by the water and we were able to watch the impala, kudu, zebra and various birds come to drink whilst eating our supper. We were also left to our own devices for the night, as the custodian and ranger’s digs were back near the picnic site 1km away.

All that night, and the following morning, we heard the lions calling very close to the camp. Then, when packing up, we saw a lone male walk past us about 200 metres away (we’d obviously missed the others as the calls got further and further away). It was a very cool morning greeting and goodbye from Hwange. Although on leaving the park we realised that we’d actually seen quite a range of animals: ellies, lions, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, sable, roan, reedbuck, impala, tortoises, a European roller, lilac-breasted rollers, blue and red waxbills; we were surprised by how few in number the animals were, other than the ellies. We’d been told it was likely to be down to the rains, so the animals weren’t as reliant on the waterholes as they might otherwise be. So, whilst we had a nice time there, it wouldn’t be a park we would prioritise over others.

From here we headed to our last stop in Zimbabwe: Vic Falls. Marcello’s friend, and former boss from his waiting days at Andy’s Bistro, Andy Falk, had moved there several months beforehand, so we were looking forward to catching up with him. He’d also very kindly offered to put us up at his pad for a few nights. Even better for me, he’d opened up a Thai restaurant, Nam Took, with some friends, so I was going to be able to satisfy my Thai craving!

We had a great few days with Andy, Marcello catching up on what he and some of the old crowd had been up to over a whisky or two, and me hearing some of the stories from the Andy’s Bistro days. We had some delicious meals at the restaurant – I could have easily eaten there for every meal! Marcello was pleased to have the opportunity to cook for Andy for a change on one of the evenings though, conjuring up his fab paella potjie. We also really enjoyed sitting in Andy’s garden and watching the wonderful birds that come to peck on the offerings he leaves for them – the paradise flycatcher and the grey-headed bush-shrike being two of the many (yes, we’ve quite got into birds!).

Of course we couldn’t be in Vic Falls without visiting the Falls themselves. It had also been some years since Andy had visited them, so it was great to have him along with us. To say we were shocked is an understatement. The difference seeing them at low water (now) to what they were like at high water when we were in Zambia on our main trip was incredible: a huge section of the Falls were completely dry. It was fascinating to have seen them in such contrasting conditions, but we’d definitely like to come back to the Zim side when they’re at full flood, as you do get to see a much larger section from this side.

All too soon it was time to move on. We’re very grateful to Andy for his wonderful hospitality and will definitely be visiting again before too long. From here we winded our merry way back to Botswana.

2014: Caprivi and Zambia

25 – 31 October 2014

We’d decided to enter Zimbabwe close to Mana Pools via Zambia. Rather than cross to Zambia directly from Botswana, we decided to go via the Caprivi strip from Katima Mulilo: why do things the easy way eh?! Actually, as we were so close, we’d thought it would be rude not to call in to see Dan Stephens at Mavunje/Mashi River Safaris just outside Kongola. We’d stayed at his place twice before and love it there and were looking forward to catching up with Dan again, having last seen him in Cape Town in January.

As it turned out, Dan was actually staying in Katima that night and suggested we meet up at his friend’s camp instead. It was on the Zambezi river’s edge and had quite the party atmosphere. From the afternoon well into the night, the locals drifted in a few at a time, the music was pumping, drinks were flowing and kapana, was cooking on the braai. (Kapana is a dish originating in the townships of Windhoek of cubed braaied meat, which is dipped in chilli and spices before eating it.) It was a bit of a change of pace for us, but it was great to see such a mix of people enjoying the chilled vibe together.

Dan, never one to keep still for long, was helping out behind the bar and DJ-ing, despite having the weekend off. It was great to catch up with him and witness his jean-splitting dance moves, although we did miss visiting his camp and the Babwata. (We’ll just have to come back again …) He also took us into Katima to show us some of the local bars and play some pool – not too unsimilar to some of the pool halls in Essex I’d say!

Luckily us oldies were reasonably sensible, so we were up the next morning to head to Zambia without much of a struggle. Despite Zambia being one of our favourite countries, this trip we were mainly transiting through. We stopped in Livingstone for a couple of nights where we caught up on a few chores. It seemed a bit strange to be there and not to be visiting the Falls, but we plan on going to the Zim side in a few weeks. We didn’t see the Zim side last year and, at this time of year when the water is lower, it’s meant to be more spectacular from there. Unfortunately the bush babies that we were looking forward to seeing at our camp, Maramba River Lodge, were no longer there. Although we were treated to an ellie across the water from us, as well as a grazing hippo in the camp on our last night. It’s strange how this doesn’t seem such an unusual or nerve-wracking occurrence anymore.

From Livingstone we were just planning on heading up to Lusaka, stocking up on a few supplies and then driving to the border. However, Dan had mentioned to us that it was getting to the right time of year for the bat migration up at Kasanka National Park, north of Lusaka. We checked out their website and the bats had been arriving early, so we decided to take a “short” detour.

After resting for the night in Lusaka, we set off on the 500+ km trip to see the bats. Each year, around the start of the rains, up to 8 million fruit bats descend on this National Park. They all roost in one area of the Mushitu Forest and just after sunset they take to the skies to feast on the musuku, mufinsa and other wild fruit that grows across the swamp. When we’d looked online, the latest count had been 1 million on 21 October. By the time we arrived, on 29 October, the count was up to 2.5 million.

That evening, after checking out our camp and enjoying a bucket shower, we headed over to the treetop hide to view the spectacle. Just as the sun was setting, we saw the first of the bats emerge from the forest. They were so big, they actually looked like large birds … until they got closer and you could see through the wings. Soon the sky was filled with bats – everywhere you looked there were thousands of them. We thought we’d got a good idea of how many there were, until we looked through the binoculars: then the density of them really hit us. For a good 20-30 mins they just kept coming. It was a spectacular and unique experience and truly exceeded our expectations. Definitely worth the detour, particularly as the likelihood of us being in this area at the right time again is pretty slim. We can’t imagine what it would be like when the full 8 million bats have arrived!

The next day, after checking out a hippo and the endemic black letchwe next to our camp, we headed back towards Lusaka, stopping just north of the city at a working farm called Fringilla. Marcello was in heaven as they had an on-sight butchery where he could stock up the freezer and even specify the thickness of the chops he wanted. We were also treated to a full display by the resident peacocks and I managed to frighten some sheep, who weren’t expecting me to start doing jumping jacks in front of them.

Whilst checking out the butcher, we also met the owner of the farm. This is another occasion where we were humbled by the generosity of those we have met on our travels. Within five minutes of talking to us, he invited us to join him and his family for the weekend at another lodge he owns across the river from Mana Pools. It was to be a “working weekend” setting up for a fishing competition they hold there, but basically all we’d need to provide was our own booze. Sadly, after much deliberation, we decided we needed to try and stick to our schedule: we didn’t think it would go down too well if we didn’t get back to Cape Town in time for Christmas! We have definitely ear-marked to come back to Zambia and pay them another visit though.

From here we drove into Lusaka and stocked up on groceries. We’d forgotten how well stocked the supermarkets were in Zambia, with far more varieties of fruit and veg as well as good quality meat on offer, so we felt a bit like kids in a sweet shop. (Ooh, mixed salad leaves rather than just iceburg!)

After filling our boots – or fridge/freezer – we drove down to the border with Zimbabwe, Chirundu, and camped at the Gwabi River Lodge. We’d noticed the temperature ramping up each kilometre closer to Zim, so we had big grins on our faces when we spied the lovely swimming pool overlooking the Zambezi. This had just been a convenient stop for us so we were close to the border for the following day, but it was a great spot. With river cruises and safaris on offer, we will certainly be adding it to our ever-increasing list of places to return to. We were also surprised to see some albino guineafowl there, something we had no idea existed until then.

Next up, our first new country, Zimbabwe …

2014: Botswana part 1

19 – 25 October 2014

We left Nunda Lodge early and relished the trip to the Botswanan border, which is through a park: elephants and our first Roan antelope of the trip bidding us farewell. The border formalities from Namibia into Botswana were straight-forward and friendly. Although as we were leaving, we were waved down as our back door was open. It turns out the lock had given up the ghost, so ratchet straps were employed to get us on our way again.

It’s a pretty long drive from the border to Maun, but as it’s all on tar we were making good time. That is until about 40km out when we spotted a Land Rover, with three young lads who were volunteering at a school close to the border, broken down on the side of the road. They were there with very few tools, and not much knowledge of an engine, so Marcello offered to take a look for them. This resulted in a change of fuel filter and several attempts to pull-start them, but unfortunately we couldn’t get them going. We did comment that this was the first time we’d had to tow a fellow Land Rover! Feeling defeated, we towed them to a garage where their school’s director arranged for a mechanic to meet them. We forgot to get their contact details, so we hope they weren’t stranded there for too long!

Driving back into Maun, we re-familiarised ourselves with lay of the land and where we would need to come the following day to book for Khwai and Chobe. We did attempt to be more adventurous and try a new camp, but having looked around the Island Safari we decided that Audi camp, where we’d stayed before, was the better option.

Our first stop the next morning was to see Chris, the mechanic that had helped us out with a place for Marcello to service Charlie last year. It was great to see him again, plus he got one of his guys to work his magic on our back door lock: no replacement necessary.

Next was to check availability for Khwai Community camp. We’d really enjoyed our experience here last year: unfenced and with elephants, hyena and wild dogs coming to pay us a visit. We’d only spent one night before and had wished we could have stayed longer, so we were looking forward to going back. Luckily there was plenty of availability, probably due to not everyone enjoying the lack of facilities. However we weren’t as lucky at Savuti or Ihaha in Chobe. Initially we were told they were both fully booked, but thankfully on checking again later, there had been a cancellation at Savuti for a night. That’s the only thing about travelling on a pretty flexible schedule; you’re not quite sure where you’re going to be when, so can’t really pre-book anything. Anyway, all’s well that ended well, so we stocked up on groceries, water and fire wood and were ready for the off.

Our anticipated three hour drive to the Khwai Community Camp turned out to be a lot longer. First off, we ignored the GPS and followed the signs to Khwai, meaning we hadn’t avoided Moremi as we’d intended. Luckily the park attendant took pity on us and let us transit through without incurring the park fees. Then, once we got to the Khwai Consession, we remembered what trouble we’d had finding the right roads previously. They obviously change due to the rains and, on arriving at various water crossings, we weren’t keen to attempt them unless we knew we were heading in the right direction. And we didn’t exactly want to wade through to check the depth for fear of the crocs!

Anyway, after taking the plunge (excuse the pun) and a couple of successful river crossings we headed in the general direction of the camp, albeit not on many roads our GPS knew about and made it just after lunch. With ellies grazing in the river in front of us, we settled in for whatever awaited us … what we certainly didn’t anticipate was what we will refer to as the “mouse saga”.

As we were having a drink in front of the fire with another couple who had joined us, I heard some rustling in our rubbish bag nearby. When I turned to look, I saw the end of a tail inside the bag. Marcello jumped up and chased it away and we chastised ourselves for not tying it off the ground somewhere. Well, no harm done … or at least that’s what we thought.

The night was fairly quiet, albeit with the sound of hippos grazing and hyena and lions in the background. We were awake and packed up early although, we discovered, not early enough to avoid the onslaught of hundreds of flies as the sun rose: horrible, annoying things. Then, when I got our rusks from the back of the car for our game drive breakfast, I noticed that the packet had been nibbled through and the rusks munched. On closer inspection of our crate of fresh goods, corn on the cobs and a red pepper had chunks out of them, then we found a bag of pretzels had also been nibbled. We had a good look around the car, but couldn’t see anything other than a few droppings, so decided that it must have been the mouse that was in the rubbish bag, prior to our discovering it.

After a pleasant day, with sightings of giraffe, hippos, buffalo, letchwe and a brief glimpse of the resident leopard’s backside, plus ellies in their usual spot in front of the camp, we settled in for another night. After dinner, including what was left of our corn on the cob, I went to get something from the front of the car. As I opened the door, I caught sight of a mouse poking its head out from under the driver’s seat! Here-in follows a comedy scene of us running from door to door, trying to catch said mouse as it ran under seats, behind the fridge, around walking boots etc etc. After a good 15 minutes of this we didn’t see it anymore, so we assumed (hoped) that it had got fed up and jumped out.

The next morning, we unpacked everything from the car and had another good look around, but didn’t see the mouse again, so felt reasonably safe in the assumption that it had in fact gone. Another chilled, but fairly quiet day. We did enjoy having an ellie walk right past our camp, along with impala and waterbuck grazing very close by though. In the evening, after our bush-shower (the photos say it all!), I started to prepare a couscous salad for supper and asked Marcello to grab an onion from the crate in the back. I then heard a shout of “the bastard’s right in here” and low and behold, the mouse had decided to start his snacking early. This was his downfall as we had daylight on our side. After emptying everything from the car again, with me on one side and Marcello on the other, each equipped with tongs, we finally cornered him: Marcello managing to grab its tail between the pincers. Unfortunately I was too late with the camera, but Marcello said it was like the mouse knew its vacation had come to and end as it didn’t even squeak or struggle as it was unceremoniously flung from the car into the bushes.

Now, confident that we were mouse-free, we finished packing up and headed towards Chobe. We’d heard that some lions had killed a buffalo the day before and, in fact, we’d heard the poor buffalo’s screech without realising what it was. However this time we didn’t find them. The drive towards Savuti, our camp for the night, was fairly uneventful, mainly the bouncing around of the sandy track to keep us entertained. We started to think we wouldn’t see much at all, but as we got closer to the marsh, about 10km from the camp, we noticed a few cars parked up and discovered a pride of two mature males, around five or six lionesses and about the same number of cubs all dozing under the bushes. By this time it was late morning, so we decided to leave them to sleep and come back that evening.

The evening’s game drive turned out to be one of our best so far. We got back to the lions just as they were rising from their slumber and watched them walk off into the distance, unfortunately too far away for us to see much of them. We then drove closer to the marsh, where we’d spotted a huge number of elephants earlier that morning. Wow, were we in for a treat. As we drove around the marsh, we realised quite how big a gathering it was. There must have been in excess of three hundred elephants, all drinking and grazing in the dusk. There hadn’t been any rain yet, so all the animals were staying pretty close to where the water was. We hadn’t seen a gathering of elephants like this since we were in the Babwata park in the Caprivi the year before. It was amazing to see such huge numbers and to see them so chilled with each other, and us. Then to top the evening off nicely, we came across a leopard dozing under a big tree. What a perfect, and very special, last evening in Botswana … for now … we’ll be returning in a few weeks’ time. Next up: a fleeting visit to the Caprivi and into Zambia.

2014: Namibia

1 – 18 October 2014

After a busy couple of weeks back in Cape Town catching up with family and friends and getting Charlie ready for the off, we hit the road again on 1 October. Our first few days were fairly long drives and whilst crossing the border into Namibia we got a bit of a surprise: as we were waiting to clear immigration a couple walked into the office and after a few seconds of placing the faces, we realised it was the couple who owned Peponi Beach Lodge in Tanzania. They had the lodge/camp up for sale when we were staying there. They had now sold it and were driving to South Africa to set up a new home in Napier. What a small world to bump into them after all this time.

With a quick stop in Keetmanshoop our first main destination was Windhoek to pick up Marcello’s parents, Hanne and Peter, on the Sunday. Despite Marcello’s parents having lived in South Africa since they were young children, they’d never been to one of the big game parks, so we wanted them to get a taste of life in the bush with us. We picked them up early and started the drive up to Etosha, where we were to spend four nights with them.

Hanne and Peter certainly got a good welcome into the park. Within a few minutes we came across three very young lion cubs that had been left under a tree by their mother, presumably while she went to hunt. Then not long after that we saw two elephants grazing in the bush: this on top of the usual suspects of springbok and impala which, whilst always in abundance, are still cool to see.

Marcello’s parents were going to be camping with us but, when we were packing up all our gear in Cape Town, it soon became apparent that there was no way we were going to fit in a tent, mattresses and stretcher beds in addition to two extra people with luggage on top of everything else we were carrying! Luckily we were able to book them into a room at the various camps and they were still able to enjoy sitting around the fire under the stars with us in the evenings.

We had some fantastic sightings while we were in the park, so we were really pleased that Hanne and Peter were able to see so much. There were plenty of elephants, zebra and giraffe, as well as gemsbok, springbok and kudu that came to drink at the Okaukuejo waterhole. We also saw several rhino and a lioness drinking there on our first night, but sadly that was after Marcello’s parents had gone to bed after a long day travelling.

However in the coming days, we saw rhino close up and were also treated to a pride of lions feasting on a poor giraffe they’d caught the night before. We’d actually heard them squabbling amongst themselves for the best bits in the night, with the hyena whining that they wanted some in the background, but we weren’t sure if we’d be able to find them. Thankfully, due to Marcello’s instincts, we found them very quickly and were the first ones there. We watched in wonder, with lions’ heads stuck right inside the body cavity and coming out with blood all around their faces and had the sight to ourselves for around five or ten minutes before all the game drive vehicles started to arrive.

It was lovely to share this time in the bush with Hanne and Peter and for us to see the joy in them of seeing these wonderful animals up close and in the wild for the first time. We also hope that it’s put their minds at rest a little about what life on the road is like: it’s not all creepy crawlies, bad facilities and definitely not bad food! It was also fun for Hanne and I to sit back with our glasses of wine and enjoy the battle of wills between Marcello and his father … two peas in a pod!

We dropped Hanne and Peter off in Ondangwa the following Thursday lunch time to catch a flight to Windhoek and then onto Cape Town. We think they were a little nervous as we were driving through the fairly typical African town, wondering if a town of that size actually had an airport and, if so, what the state of the planes would be. However we know they made it back safely, so it can’t have been that bad!

From here we headed north towards the border with Angola. We wanted to drive the river road from Ruacana to Epupa, so we were hoping we’d at least make it to Ruacana that night, which we did. On approaching the town we were treated to an amazing hilltop view of the Angolan mountains across the river, with the tree-filled valleys on the Namibian side of the Kunene river leading up to them. Stunning.

We set up camp at the Kunene Islands Campsite and soon after met Braam, a Namibian who was there with his two Swiss friends. They’d been travelling in the Caprivi and this was their last “day trip” before flying back to Europe. Marcello had been a bit concerned as Charlie had been losing water and, by luck, or the grace of God, Braam was a mechanic with a particular love of Land Rovers. He could see Marcello checking in the engine, so came over to take a quick look and, both figuring it was something to do with the water pump, suggested we come to his workshop in Oshakati the next day.

After a peaceful night by the river, crocs thankfully staying away (we’d been told a Chinese man had been taken by a croc a few days earlier, although he had somewhat stupidly decided to go into the river for a dip!), we packed up and headed back, almost to where we’d dropped Marcello’s parents off the day before. If nothing else, we wanted peace of mind before hitting a pretty remote and bumpy route. It’s a good job that we did as, after trying various fixes, it was apparent that the pump that Marcello had fitted recently was faulty. Thankfully Braam was able to arrange for a new one to be delivered for the following morning.

As events unfolded, I had a quick look at what accommodation Oshakati had on offer, however Braam was having none of it and insisted that we stay with him for the night. Wow: it never ceases to amaze and pleasantly surprise me how hospitable and generous people can be to pretty much complete strangers. Braam is an experienced overlander, and has even done some mapping for the founder of Tracks4Africa, a friend of his, so he explained that he could tell right-off that we were like-minded people; but still. He wouldn’t even let us buy him dinner! What a kind, salt-of-the-earth, guy. We really enjoyed chatting with him and his brother about their travels and hope to be able to hook up on a trip in the not too distant future.

The next morning the new pump was fitted, tested and we were safe to be on our way again. For anyone with any need for a mechanic in northern Namibia, Braam’s your man. (Braam Ellis, Northern Auto Repairs, Main Road, Oshakati +264 65 221802.) Just don’t turn up on his doorstep looking for a place to stay 😉

We made it back to Kunene Islands Campsite in time for a quick lunch and then hit the road again. We’d intended to wild camp that night and had discussed stopping off at the Kunene River Lodge for a quick beer on the way past. However, when we got there after a very hot and dusty afternoon of driving, the call of their swimming pool got the better of us and we decided to stay. It was one of the most refreshing swims we’d had in a long time!

We were warned that the river road between the River Lodge and Epupa was hard going but, as we said to everyone that looked at us somewhat questioningly when we said we were driving that route, we weren’t in a hurry so if we needed to stop and wild camp, that’s what we’d do. It was a hard day’s drive, particularly for Marcello, driving in low range with difflock engaged more times that he can remember, but it was worth it for the scenery. We went from deserted arid rock and dust roads, with bare-branched trees to lush palms and green foliage as we got closer to the water … it was never hard to spot where the river was!

We arrived in Epupa 87 kilometres and seven and a half hours later ready for a beer and a cold shower. The water in the falls was a lot lower than when we were there previously, with areas around them that had been gushing streams and rock pools now completely dry. It was nice to be back, although we did miss our travelling companions, Freddie and Joel, from our time there before. I was also disappointed that “Camp Dog”, our little black and white Jack Russell friend was nowhere to be seen. I suspect someone else had the same idea I’d had before and decided to take him home with them. We were warmly greeted by one of the other Jack Russells though – particularly when the braai was started.

From Epupa we travelled south to Opuwo, another former haunt of ours and, like Epupa, to our amazement they remembered us. After stocking up on supplies and a few odd jobs, we decided to go and visit Robbin and, hopefully, some desert elephants in Purros. Robbin was the guide that had taken us to see the Himba previously and ended up coming with us to help Freddie arrange some photo shoots with them.

Although we remembered the Kaokoveld and its landscape very fondly, we were still taken aback as we were driving towards Purros through the area of the “fairy circles”. Suddenly there are vast plains of grasses, with mountains in the background and everything is a hue of sand beige, red and tinges of green minerals. There wasn’t another person or vehicle in sight, just the odd ostrich. Then before you know it, you’re driving through riverbeds and surrounded by trees. It still amazes me how there is so much vast nothingness in Namibia, and yet, the landscape seems to change every ten minutes or so.

We caught up with Robbin that night over a braai and decided to take him with us the following day to drive back to Sesfontein via the riverbeds. (If you need a guide in the area, contact: Robbin Uatokuja, Robbin’s Moon Valley Nature Camping, robbinuatokuja@hotmail.com or +264 8171 62066.) We were surprised after setting off in the morning at how much water there actually is around Purros and soon after setting off we saw three, and then another two, of the six desert elephants that currently live in the area. After a period of time, we turned off towards the Hoanib river bed and on the way spotted two bat-eared foxes in the distance. We managed to get fairly close, but they soon legged it off into the distance, every now and then turning around and getting a fresh fright at the sight of us.

There are far greater numbers of desert elephants in the Hoanib, which seemed surprising as there appear to be far fewer resources for them. After some time, we started to think we had seen all the ellies we were going to when Robbin spotted some ahead of us. We saw a total of three herds of four or five, all with little ones (nice to see that they’re reproducing). You can definitely notice the longer legs that the desert elephants have compared to their other African counterparts and it was good to see them looking so healthy considering the environment they live in.

Having bid farewell to Robbin in Sesfontein, we headed further south to Palmwag. Along the route we saw more giraffe, zebra, gemsbok and then two elephants grazing close to the road. There’s something I particularly like about seeing them in this part of the world: not only are they surviving in pretty harsh conditions, but they’re just part of the natural habitat and not in a national park.

From here we were kind of transiting through to Botswana, or that’s how it felt as we were, and had, only spent one night in each place since Opuwo. After Palmwag we stopped in Tsumeb and from there we went into the west side of the Caprivi back to Divundu and one of our favourite camps, Nunda River Lodge. We’ve found that we’ve been creatures of habit, opting to return to camps that we know and liked. I guess this is particularly so as we’ve packed in some long days in the car. Well, we are trying to fit in a lot to the time that we have … Next stop: Botswana.

2014: On the road again

October 2014

Where does the time go? Our last blog entry was for the final part of our big trip across Europe and Africa, which finished at the end of June 2013. We’ve just hit the road again, this time for a shorter trip back into Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, into Zimbabwe for the first time and then back into South Africa via the east coast. We plan on being back in Cape Town just before Christmas.

So what have we been up to since we arrived in Cape Town last year? Well, before I (Karen) give you a rundown on that, I’m just going to mention that for this set of blog updates, I’m going to write in the first person. I don’t think that anyone was under the illusion that Marcello was writing any of these entries and, quite frankly, it just feels weird to refer to yourself in the third person! Before I get into trouble though, Marcello does read over the blog to make sure I haven’t forgotten to include anything, and the majority of the photos are his, so his contributions are invaluable!

Right, so just what have we been doing in all this time?

We spent a fantastic nine months in Cape Town between June 2013 and March 2014. During this time we enjoyed so much of what Cape Town has to offer, including lots of amazing dinners and braais with friends, regular walks on Table Mountain, a couple of rugby games, Marcello went fishing several times, we went to see a production of the Rocky Horror Show, enjoyed lots of good wine and therefore needed lots of trips to the gym. We were also honoured to attend the beautiful wedding of our friends Barry and Theresa.

In addition, we were lucky enough to enjoy some weekends away in Cape Infanta, Hermanus and back at Nick and Petra’s farm in Velddrif. On our first visit to Cape Infanta, the Southern Right Whales were in abundance for the mating season and it was a very special experience to watch them breeching the water, especially from the comfort of our balcony.

At the end of August we drove up to Namaqualand to see the spring flowers. We’d had a taste of these on our way down through the Northern Cape on our main trip, but wanted to see them in full bloom. They didn’t disappoint. When we got close to Skilpad, we started to see huge blankets of, mainly, orange daisies. The closer we got, the more we saw, until for as far as the eye could see were fields of orange. When we got up close, we could also see beautiful smaller white, yellow, pink, blue and purple flowers interspersed amongst them. It was spectacular.

In September (2013), we planned a trip back into the bush, to the Kgalagadi, and we were both excited at the prospect of sitting around a fire under the stars and going on some game drives. We got everything booked, packed up Charlie and headed north. Around 20km out of Cape Town we hard a snap and whooshing sound and suddenly lost power. We pulled to the side of the road and, after Marcello had checked things over, called “7 Landies” for help. In the meantime a cop pulled up in front of us and asked what had happened. When we explained, he asked if we were armed. My initial, very English, thought was that he was doing a random check for illegal firearms, but he then went on to say there had been a lot of robberies along that stretch of road, so to get out any weapon we may have on us to protect ourselves with. Right, not nervous at all now then?!

Anyway, we made it back to Cape Town, via a tow, in one piece and it was confirmed that the cambelt had snapped. Much as we were bitterly disappointed about having to cancel our mini trip, we did reflect that Charlie had got us all the way through Europe and Africa with only minor problems and it was better to break down just outside where you’re living than in the middle of the bush surrounded by lions!

Over the next few months, I went back to the UK for a couple of months to visit my family and friends, while Marcello picked up some contract work and enjoyed a bit of peace (!). Christmas was spent with Marcello’s family in Cape Town and we had a fantastic New Year in Cape Infanta with friends Marco & Louise and Roland & Kirsty and their families. Here we enjoyed many a braai, chilling in the sun and the boys caught us plenty of delicious fish to eat. Bliss.

In the New Year, we decided to rebook for the Kgalagadi and managed to get ourselves a nice variety of camping spots for a couple of weeks away in March. When the time came, we kept our fingers crossed as we drove past where we’d broken down the previous time. Sighs of relief could be heard as we sailed past. However, this was slightly premature as further up the N7 Marcello noticed the temperature gauge heading towards red. We stopped and Marcello checked things over and added some water to the radiator. Shortly after we set off again, we heard a noise and as we pulled over, all the water in the radiator shot out. Argh, were we to be duped a second time??? Thankfully we had a lot of water with us and we managed to make slow progress towards Springbok. After a consultation with 7 Landies, all that was needed was a new radiator cap and we were all set to continue our journey the following day.

We had decided to enter the park via Namibia and the Mata Mata gate, so we stopped off in Keetmanshoop and visited the Quivertree Forest Rest Camp on the way through. We did get a comment from the customs officer at the Namibian boarder to make sure we didn’t overstay our welcome this time!

Having now spent time in the Kgalagadi, we can safely say it’s one of our favourite parks to date. We mixed our camping between the fenced, managed camps and the wilderness camps. The wilderness, unfenced camps are definitely our preference, but it’s nice every now and again to be able to have a proper shower and a dip in a pool.

The Kgalagadi is known for its abundance of cats and we weren’t disappointed. On our first morning’s game drive we came across a mature male lion, with his distinctive Kalahari black mane, and lioness with four very young cubs in tow. By the time we left the park, we worked out that we had seen cats on each day, be it lions, cheetahs and even a leopard (spotted whilst I was brushing my teeth on the edge of our camp!). We had some amazing experiences with fairly large prides of lions right by our car and we finally got to see meerkats up close! We also met a lovely English couple, Will and Jubee, who we shared a braai and a few drinks with for a couple of nights whilst we were in the same camps.

On returning from the Mabuasehube area we had booked into Nossob for a night. It was here that my world came crashing down around me. Marcello decided to fill up with diesel before we headed back out for another quick game drive. He got chatting to the attendant and introduced himself. It was then that he looked at Marcello strangely and said that he had a message for him. It turned out to be a message for me that my Step-father needed to speak to me and when he managed to get through to the camp office, that message was that I needed to come home. My mother had been undergoing chemotherapy for the past couple of years and devastatingly they had just found out that it had spread to her liver.

We jumped back into Charlie to start the drive to Twee Rivieren and hoped to make it as far as Upington, the closest big town, that night. At this point the heavens opened, so we were driving as fast as we could for the conditions and got a few strange looks as we drove straight past some cheetahs with a kill, hardly giving the sight a glance. Luckily we were able to make it to Upington and I managed to book a flight from there to Cape Town the following morning and from Cape Town to London the following night. I am eternally grateful to Hanne, Peter, my Step-father, my father and my god-mother, Mon, for doing such a sterling job at tracking us down in the middle of nowhere.

I made it back in time to spend my birthday, Mother’s Day and several weeks with my wonderful Mother before she passed away on Good Friday. I can’t even begin to describe how much I miss her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I lost my Grandmother four weeks later. Life certainly can be cruel at times.

I won’t dwell on the circumstances, but the months between returning to the UK and now have been somewhat of a blur. I am extremely grateful that Marcello has been with me in the UK and we did manage to fit in some down time, with a trip to the Lake District, Cornwall and also to see my family in the States (with a side visit to Vegas and Vancouver).

As well as catching up with many past friends, we also touched base with a few from our trip. We had a fab braai with Dale & Laura who we’d met in Aswan and then bumped into again in Nairobi, dinner and drinks with Lisa and Ollie, who we met in Tanzania and we were lucky enough to attend the wedding of James and Anna, who we met initially in Aswan and then travelled through Ethiopia and into Kenya with.

At this point in time we still haven’t decided whether it will be in South Africa or the UK when we finally do settle down. We’re therefore keeping the dream alive for that little bit longer and spending time in both.

So that’s a whistlestop catch up on the last 15 months – we’ve only included a few photos from Namaqualand and the Kgalagadi as we don’t have them all with us unfortunately, but this will give you a taste. We arrived back in South Africa in September and set off on 1 October. We are super excited to be back on the road, but more on this in the next update…

 

South Africa: the final stretch to Cape Town

16 – 23 June 2013

Slightly delayed (!), but here is our update for the last leg of the trip …

So, having narrowly avoided being locked up in Namibia and 11 and a half months later, we were in our destination country. Rather than hit the accelerator and hot-foot it down to Cape Town, we took a detour around the Northern Cape in order to visit Marcello’s second mother (their retired maid) Renee in Carnarvon.

We decided to cut across the north of the Northern Cape, primarily because Marcello has always wanted to go to a small town by the name of Pofadder (Puff Adder in case it wasn’t obvious). Thankfully we didn’t see any of these snakes while we were there! The scenery was very similar to that we’d left behind in Namibia: open expanses of farmland, but with very little wildlife around. However, as we turned onto one of the gravel roads, we noticed more and more small purple and yellow flowers all over the ground. We stopped at the side of the road to make some sarnies for lunch and get a better look; when we got out of the car, we couldn’t believe the floral scent that hit our noses. It wasn’t yet the full spring flower season, but there had obviously been a bit of rain, prompting the arrival of these smaller specimens. It certainly gave us some idea of what it would be like in the flower season and we were extremely lucky to have had a taste of it.

For the first time in a long time we had no idea where we were going to stay that night. Having been incredibly well prepared throughout the trip, the one thing we didn’t have was a guidebook for South Africa. This is probably because it’s Marcello’s home country, so you don’t necessarily think you’d need one. Anyway, we took a look at the map, picked a decent sized town (Kakamas) and once we got there checked Tracks4Africa for campsites nearby. Our luck was obviously in, as it turned out to be a lovely spot on a wine estate right on the Orange River. Even better was that it was only 100 Rand (approx £6.70) for the two of us to camp for the night. We watched the sun set over the river while we set up camp, then made a fire with the old vines they brought us – definitely needed as it was a chilly night. We then toasted what was to be our last night sleeping in the roof tent. It was a sad thought as, more often than not, we’ve preferred sleeping in the roof tent than anywhere else. It also seemed to mark the forthcoming end to the trip. However, the nights were getting pretty cold so the thought of a warm(er) room was quite welcome.

We set off early the next morning for Carnarvon and made it there around lunchtime. After a bit of a goose-chase, we finally found Renee’s house (the GPS refused to find the street). It was wonderful to see/meet her – especially for Marcello, who hadn’t seen her for two and a half years. We got the grand tour of her house, which brought a lot of memories back for Marcello as there were many pieces of furniture and knick knacks from his childhood there.

After a couple of hours of catching up, “talking kak” and Renee promising to teach Karen Afrikaans when she comes to stay in July, we were on the road again. It was another case of finding the largest town on route and hoping for the best and we found ourselves in Calvinia (first spotting of an aardwolf along the way). We were encouraged when we arrived as the sun was setting and saw the welcome sign declaring it the “home of red meat”. We stayed in the aptly named Calvinia Hotel and enjoyed a fantastic steak that evening. It was actually a real treat to be in a hotel as, for once, it was a very comfy bed. It was also nice not to have to climb down the ladder if we needed to pee in the night!

After stocking up on some Springbok and Gemsbok at the butcher (yup, Karen did feel a little guilty buying the meat of what she’d recently been looking at in the field), we headed West towards the coast. We were staying in Clan William that night, but first drove to the seaside town of Lambert’s Bay so Karen could get her first taste of South African fish ‘n’ chips. Luckily for us the day’s linefish catch was yellowtail and snoek. It was delicious, and the sight of the blue sea in the background only added to it.

From here we were somewhat killing time. Marcello’s best mate since childhood, Marco, had been hoping to come and meet us for a weekend of camping at some point during our trip. However our timing just never quite came right. He’d then suggested that we meet for the weekend somewhere north of Cape Town … co-ordinates for the destination to be provided. So, the following morning we drove further south down the coast to a fishing village called Paternoster. It has to be said that there are definitely worse places to kill time!

Paternoster is still relatively unspoilt. There’s clearly been a fair bit of development, but it’s in the form of housing in the fisherman’s cottage style rather than large, unsightly hotels. We stayed in the Paternoster Hotel – the draw of the “panties bar” was what sold it to us! As the name suggests, the ceiling is adorned with hundreds of pairs of knickers and the bar with various provocative posters and decorations.

While there we enjoyed a walk along the beach, checking out the biggest mussel shells Karen has ever seen, some delicious seafood and a fun 4×4 trail along the coast behind the dunes to St Helena’s Bay. It’s a lovely spot and we can only imagine how busy it must get in the summer months.

After a couple of very chilled days and a quick lunch in Langabaan, we plugged in the co-ordinates and set off to meet up with Marco and, we imagined, his wife Louise and their two kids. We’d been given clear instructions to arrive at 3pm: no earlier, no later. Marcello figured that we were probably going to be meeting him at a farm where Marco goes hunting and, after two and a half years, was really looking forward to catching up with them, as was Karen to meet them.

As we got closer to the farm, there were a few “where are you phone calls”, prompting Karen to get a little suspicious, and when we rounded the corner we were greeted by not only Marco, Louise and family, but Marcello’s Ma, Pa and brother, GP, Marco’s sister Manuela, her husband Andrew and their kids, plus friends Barry, Theresa and Sarah with her son Tom. The kids were holding and waving South African flags and everyone was cheering – what a wonderful surprise. It was one of the few times Karen has ever seen Marcello speechless!

We were then treated to a weekend of bubbly, beer, red wine, huge amounts of delicious food, catching up/introductions, a game drive, clay pigeon shooting, more bubbly, more yummy food, a birthday party for Tom, rugby, tales, reminiscing and lots of laughs. The farm is owned by Nick and Petra, a South African and his German wife and they run a guest rooms there. Petra is most definitely the hostess with the mostess – the creations she continuously whips up are something else.

After a fantastic weekend and vastly expanded bellies, it was time to put the last few kilometres under our belt (or Charlie’s wheels) before reaching our final destination: Cape Town. We took the coastal route and it was a surprisingly short time before Karen got her first glimpse through the clouds of Table Mountain. It was only really at this point that the realisation dawned on Marcello that he’d just driven across Africa. Usually when he arrives home it’s a case of being collected at the airport: this time he was arriving by road. A very surreal feeling.

When we arrived at the family’s home, we were greeted by balloons and the barks of Bruno the dog. However, it wasn’t long until the barks turned into excited wagging and jumping … and that was just Marcello. The family’s home is in the City Bowl underneath the cable car station and Karen was blown away by the view over the harbour on one side, Table Mountain on the other and Lion’s Head to the side.

The next few days were a whirl of unpacking, visits, shopping for warm clothes and generally getting our bearings. We also caught up with Colin and Diana, the British couple we crossed paths with from Nairobi onwards, who’d arrived in Cape Town the day before us. It was great to see them at the culmination of our trip and have an obligatory story-swapping session as well as celebrate our arrival in Cape Town. They’re now on their way back North again … tempting!

So, what now??? That’s the big question. However we intend to enjoy at least the next few months in Cape Town/South Africa, so expect a few further entries as we experience life SA style.

A few stats for the trip:

Number of days travelling from London to Cape Town: 357

Number of countries: 23 (two (Turkey and Jordan) without Charlie!)

Distance travelled: 25,106 miles/40,404 kilometres

Litres of diesel burned: 4,167 – 10 litres per 100km in Europe, 10.8 litres per 100km in Africa

Average cost per day: €140 per day in Europe and $120 for Africa

Top fives … these are in no particular order and have been hard to pick as the whole trip was full of wonderful experiences

Countries:

  • Italy
  • Sudan
  • Uganda
  • Zambia
  • Namibia

Experiences:

  • Tasting tour of Emilia-Romagna in Italy
  • Chimpanzee tracking
  • Following wild dogs
  • The wilderness of the Kaokoland, Namibia
  • Wild camping: each and every time

Worst moments:

  • Customs in Egypt
  • Dodgy stomachs at various points
  • Not taking a guide to see the Mursi, resulting in an uncomfortable experience
  • Having to pay a bribe in Kenya (our one and only)
  • Nearly getting locked up trying to leave Namibia

Food/dishes:

  • Seafood pasta in Italy (particularly the dish we had in Naples)
  • Giros (Greece)
  • Rolex (vegetable omelette wrapped in a chipata: Uganda)
  • Zanzibar fish curry
  • Marcello’s braais

Most useful items – not necessarily the essentials, but made our life that little bit easier/more comfortable:

  • Fridge/freezer
  • Lifesaver jerry can
  • Tracks4Africa/Bradt travel guides
  • Espresso maker
  • Birkenstocks (of which Marcello’s just lasted through the trip … with a little help)

Camps (not including wild camping):

  • Palm Grove, Sudan (okay technically wild camping, but as it was on private land we’ve included it for its amazing warm well/bath)
  • Peponi, Tanzania
  • Croc Valley, Zambia
  • Mavunje River Camp, Caprivi
  • Khwai Community Camp, Botswana

Namibia: Windhoek to Ai-Ais

2 – 16 June 2013

It felt odd to be heading towards a major city after so long in the bush, so we eased the potential culture shock by staying at a camp in a private game park on the outskirts. When we checked in we’d seen a notice about a habituated, but grumpy, warthog that lives on the grounds. Soon after we’d got the tent set up and started to settle in we spotted him trotting around nearby. We had some old apples with us, so threw one over to him, but away from where we were camped to try and keep him at a distance. However he soon decided that he wanted to see if we had anything else on offer, so came running over to us. Well, grumpy doesn’t really begin to describe him as, rather than just checking us out, he started charging and trying to head butt us. Marcello tried to chase him away with a stick, but he just put his head against it and pushed back. He then started chasing Karen around Charlie … Karen desperately trying not to spill the G&T she had in her hand at the time as she tried to escape him! Eventually she found respite by squeezing on top of the fridge in the back. (Marcello’s most annoyed he didn’t manage to capture this on film!)

We thought we were safe when he finally got the hint and started wandering off, but when he saw Marcello walking towards the bathroom he saw his opportunity. He swiftly turned on his heal and cut Marcello off, trotting into the bathroom himself. After he eventually came out again, Marcello found that his ultimate revenge had been to pee all over the bathroom floor. Just to add insult to injury, he also did the same in the women’s. At this very park previously Joel had been challenged by an ostrich (sorry Joel, a lion), so clearly your life is in your own hands here!

After a very cold night (we were going to have to accept we were heading into winter), we went into the city to gather some supplies. From here we decided to get a headstart on our long drive down to Sesreim so we drove an hour south of Windhoek and spent the next couple of nights at the Lake Oanob resort. Here we had a fantastic pitch with a large deck overlooking the lake and had a chilled day off catching up on some much-needed laundry and other odd jobs. We can imagine it being extremely popular there in the summer but unfortunately it wasn’t quite warm enough to go for a dip in the lake.

We set off early the next day and managed to get to Sesreim by lunchtime. Sesreim is just inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park and where you stay to go and see the huge sand dunes at Sossusvlei: the ones that you will have seen photographs of and what a lot of people visualise when picturing Namibia.

The following morning we got up before sunrise to head into the park. On the advice of Nicky, Nick and Simon (who we’d met in Malawi) we kept driving past Dune 45 (the most climbed and probably photographed of the dunes) and went straight out to Dead Vlei. The majority of the drive is on a tar road, but this turns to thick sand for the last 5km. As we made our way through we came across a couple whose car was well and truly stuck. After some unsuccessful digging and pushing, Charlie and Marcello came to the rescue for the second time on the trip and pulled them out.

Once we’d got to the car park, and figured out where exactly the Dead Vlei was, we were extremely glad we’d taken the advice to head straight there. It’s an absolute visual delight. Dead Vlei is a pan of white fine mud where a river used to flow, but has now changed course. Within the pan are a number of “skeletons” of dead acacia trees. The colour contrasts of the white clay, dark wood, blue sky and red sand are stunning. We spent a long time wandering around, taking photos and admiring the varying contours of the trees.

We could have strolled around for hours, but decided to put our legs to the test and tackle the sand dune next to it. Boy was it tough work, but we eventually made it to the top. The wind was pumping and blowing the grains of sand over the top of the dune … and into our faces. It was remarkable to look around and see these huge mountains of sand all around us and the sharp edges that are formed by the wind. However Karen was slightly less impressed when the wind caught her camera, which then rolled all the way down the side of the dune. In hindsight she should have taken its lead and rolled down after it like she used to roll down hills as a kid …

After we’d returned to the camp and had a spot of lunch we noticed a familiar couple wandering past our pitch: it was none other than Colin and Diana! We’d briefly bumped into them in the supermarket in Opuwo a couple of weeks beforehand, but thought we’d gone in fairly separate directions. However, we did also have a sneaking suspicion that we were bound to bump into each other again along the way. It was great to catch up with them again and swap our various tales, sightings and recommendations and we continued this over dinner and drinks that evening. The couple on our neighbouring pitch also joined us and Dianna (made it easy to remember!), who is from Guatemala, taught us how to make tortillas.

We left the dunes behind the following morning and drove on to Klein-Aus Vista. It’s close to here that the world’s only known wild, desert-dwelling horses can be found. We drove out there in the late afternoon and watched as different teams of horses came down to the man-made watering hole to drink. In all honestly we couldn’t really tell much difference between these and domestic horses – there probably isn’t really one – perhaps apart from the fact that they were quite skinny. It was interesting to watch their behaviour though; one team moving on when another arrived and the majority having a good roll about in the sand once they’d finished drinking.

After another pretty chilly night under the stars, we drove back out to the coast and to Luderitz. We’d heard that in order to visit Kolmanskop, the ghost town nearby, we had to get our permit from one of the agents there. (This is another permit that we were then told by the guard on the gate that we could have in fact bought from him.) In any case, we treated ourselves to a room for the night as we had been warned that the wind was due to pump hard, so camping wouldn’t be much fun. That night we made the most of the location and tucked into a sizable seafood platter, complete with oysters, crayfish and huge prawns.

We headed out to Kolmanskop the next morning. This ghost town was once the main settlement for the local diamond industry. It opened in 1908 but was abandoned around 50 years ago. The majority of the buildings have been left exactly as they were when they were abandoned and are now slowly being consumed by the sand dunes. We were actually surprised by how fascinating it was wandering around. It really is a photographer’s dream location. Who would have thought you could keep yourself amused for so long just exploring deserted buildings?! You could tell that there was a lot of money generated there at the time as this small community had their own hospital, with the region’s first x-ray machine, and a large theatre amongst other things. We did keep an eye out for any stray diamonds that might just happen to be laying around, but with lots of warning signs threatening serious consequences for anyone found stealing from the area it’s probably a good job we didn’t spot anything.

Once we’d finished filling our SD cards with photos, we drove back towards Aus. We stopped in at the wild horses’ watering hole again on the way and found a large group of ostriches standing around nearby. It was funny watching them as they weren’t actually drinking, they were just kind of hanging out. When they finally did decide that they wanted a drink and started walking over to the hole, some horses came running down the hill and they hot footed it out of there again. On the way out we drove past at least a hundred horses on the fields nearby. Apparently there are anywhere between 90 and 300 at any one time, so this was a pretty big gathering.

From here we drove east to the Quivertree Forest and Giants’ Playground, just outside Keetmanshoop. Both are owned by a farmer and his wife who also run a restcamp and have rescued several cheetahs. After a quick sandwich we went for a wander around the Giants’ Playground. It’s essentially an enormous area of balancing basalt rocks. We could imagine children having a ball running around, climbing the rocks … we were quite restrained and only did a bit of this! We then headed back for the cheetahs’ feeding time.

When we got there the cheetahs were obviously hungry and getting impatient. The two female cheetahs were making a high pitched squeak/barking noise and were also hissing, both at each other and us tourists on the other side of the fence. When Coenie, the owner, took in the bucket holding the fresh meat, they each dived in to claim their piece very quickly. Coenie explained that when they’re feeding that is pretty much all they are concentrating on, so you can do more or less anything with them other than surprise them. This is how we were able to safely stroke the tamest of them, which he’s had since it was very young. It was incredible getting so close up to a cheetah – they’re so sleek, with surprisingly soft fur and have amazing amber-coloured eyes that seem to glow and bore into you. You could certainly see the power in their jaws as they devoured the horse meat and then chewed on the skin. It was a little nerve-wracking when first crouching down next to it, but the thrill of stroking a wild animal soon kicked in, evident in the huge grin across Karen’s face.

The Quivertree Forest is the one of the largest collections of quiver trees in Southern Africa. They’re a species of aloe and quite unique-looking trees; almost like a piece of long stemmed broccoli. We hadn’t seen any of them until we’d got to the Skeleton Coast and it was quite something to see so many of them in the one area, particularly with the sun setting in the background. The one disappointment with our stay here was that the usually resident meerkats had obviously gone on holiday as they were nowhere to be seen. Damn those meerkats!

Our last few days in Namibia were spent around the Ai-Ais National Park. We stayed at the Canon Roadhouse for two nights, a very funky camp that has plants and trees growing in/out of old classic cars all around the site and the main building is decorated with car-related memorabilia. A very cool place.

After checking in we took a drive out to the Fish River Canyon, about 20km away. The canyon is 161km long, up to 27km wide and at its deepest nearly 550m: Africa’s answer to the Grand Canyon in the US. We found a spot away from the main viewing point and took in the vastness of the canyon, carved out by the Fish River 50 million years ago and originally created by faults. It was quite something to behold; we just wished that we’d had more time to explore it further. Perhaps if we were feeling a bit fitter we’d have considered the four to five-day/80-90km hike …?!

Leaving the Roadhouse behind we ventured to the other end of the park to the Ai-Ais Hot Springs Spa. Here we took advantage of the surroundings and treated ourselves to a massage and a dip in the warm (rather than hot!) springs-fed swimming pool. Despite being winter it was still warm enough to lie in the sun during the day. We also had another demonstration of the Afrikaans hospitality, having previously been offered places to stay after a mere ten minute conversation. In the pitch next to us was Marius, the manager of the Klawer Cellars wine estate. Not only did he bring us a lovely bottle of their Merlot to try, he also brought us a local delicacy of what’s known as sheep’s’ ears (but isn’t) and then the following day a bottle of Muscatel. Incredibly generous of him and it was all delicious. (www.klawerwine.co.za)

This concluded a very chilled end to our stay in Namibia … or so we thought. We drove through yet more beautiful, sparse scenery on our way to the border post – our final border crossing before reaching our destination country. When we got to the desk the immigration officer asked us why we’d outstayed our visa. Admittedly we had realised a couple of weeks previously that, rather than the 90-day visa we thought we’d been issued, we instead had a one-month visa. We really should have made arrangements to have it extended, but seeing as you are allowed to stay for 90 days, we didn’t think this would be a problem. It turns out we were wrong. We claimed ignorance and said that it had been a mistake (which it had) and that we hadn’t realised, but after a few phone calls and posturing, the officer told us that she would have to detain us and we’d need to explain ourselves to a magistrate. There was a small amount of nervousness when she didn’t seem to be backing down, wondering if she really was going to be a jobs-worth. Luckily, after some nibbling of humble pie, she let us off with a warning and we were able to continue on our way. Sod’s Law that out of all the countries we’ve travelled through, we nearly came unstuck right at the end.

It is a testament to Namibia that we stayed well beyond our original plan of 2-3 weeks. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring this country of vast wilderness. In many ways Namibia was quite different to the majority of African countries we’ve travelled through. For example, once outside the Caprivi, there are far fewer people selling fruit and veg on the side of the road and wood became harder to buy away from the camps. However, Kaokaoland very much reminded us of Ethiopia and Northern Kenya: perhaps due to the remoteness, children running to the side of the road to ask for sweets and pens, and seeing tribes people for the first time in quite a while.

The Namibian countryside is really something to behold. Nowhere before have we experienced a country where, throughout it, you can drive for hours without seeing another person. Even when leaving the capital, Windhoek, within what seemed like only a few minutes we were back to driving between vast acres of farmland, with barely a building in sight. Don’t think that this would make for a boring drive though … quite the opposite. The landscape changes with surprising regularity, from the colour of the ground, to the type and frequency of the foliage, to the surprise of the wildlife spotted in the most barren of places.

Namibia is definitely a top five country from the trip, but more of that, along with a few statistics, coming soon in the next, and last, blog update.