“Take only pictures, leave only footprints” – Namibia and Botswana Jul/Aug 2017

Namibia:  

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Namibia

Situated north of its more well-known neighbour South Africa, Namibia extends over an area that’s about 2 times that of France but with only ~2.2 million inhabitants.

Awarded with two UNESCO World Heritage sites – The Namib Sand Sea and Twyfelfontein – it’s also home to a vast array of other spectacular landscapes, majestic wildlife and welcoming people – some of which we had the privilege to visit during this trip.

Botswana:

Botswana
Botswana

Situated north of South Africa and east of Namibia, Botswana is known as an exclusive and luxurious travel destination. The government has taken an interesting approach to tourism which includes limiting the number of visitors to preserve the environment.  In contrast to its neighbouring countries (Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), Botswana has outlawed trophy hunting and (to ensure illegal hunters can’t use it as a cover) any shooting of animals (see BBC article here).

Botswana has an interesting history, and if you want to get a better understanding of whats behind its independence from the UK in 1964, I’d recommend watching ‘A United Kingdom’ released in 2016.

Awarded with two UNESCO World Heritage sites – Okavango Delta and Tsodilo – it has a number of other sites on the tentative list.  While the visit to Botswana was only a small part of our trip, it was definitely one of the highlights, and we’ll hopefully return one day to see more of this beautiful country.

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Windhoek – Ghanzi – Okavango Panhandle – Okavango Panhandle – Okavango Panhandle – Kavango – Onguma Game Reserve – Damaraland – Swakopmund – Sossusvlei – Windhoek – 17 Days / 16 Nights

 

Special thanks to Wild dog Safaris, Namibia Car Rental and our amazing friends

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Wild Dog Safaris is a full member of the Tour and Safari Association of Namibia

WILD DOG SAFARIS:  We couldn’t start going into the details of our adventures without first thanking Anja at Wild dog Safaris for making this trip possible.  Anja worked with us to put together a personalised trip based on our preferences: From selecting the lodges, organising the length of the stays based on activities and travel distances, organising the car rental, pick up and drop off at the airport, payments and some of the activities.

NAMIBIA CAR RENTAL:  

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Great service and a great car. Howard and his team provided essential tips for a safe trip!

Howard and his team at Namibia Car Rental were professional and friendly and gave us all the tips we needed to safely start our trip.  The car, a Ford Ranger, equipped with a double fuel-tank (80 + 70 L), fridge-freezer, water tank, folding chairs and table was still big enough to comfortably fit our luggage and the 4 of us (although it has to be said that we removed the sleeping bags in addition to the roof tents).

In total, we drove for over 3500 km over 16 days, stayed in 10 different accommodations, travelled across 2 countries without a single problem.  Considering this and that it was probably the best holiday we’ve ever had I can only but highly recommend these 2 amazing countries and the people that made it possible: Anja and her team at Wild dog Safaris and Howard and his team at Namibia Car Rental.

Last but not least, we have to thank our amazing friends T&D.  This holiday has probably been the best we’ve ever had, and this is also thanks to you!  Now that you’ve shown that you can endure our company 24/7 for 16 days in a row (who would have said?) who knows where our next destination will be? 😉

 

Day 0 – Windhoek. Where our adventure begins…

Here we go!  After over 15 hours’ flight including a stop-over in Johannesburg, we land in the capital of Namibia, Windhoek.

Having picked up the car from Namibia Car Rental, observed the mix of German-African street names and architecture we enjoy the atmosphere and game food at Joe’s beer house.  Joe’s comes highly recommended and is popular with locals and tourists alike.

We fill up on supplies from the local supermarket (surprised by the variety of food from all over the world), have a relaxing evening at Rivendell Guesthouse and an early night – a pattern we continue throughout the trip to maximise the hours of light, beautiful dawns and winter sunsets.

Day 1 – Windhoek to Ghanzi.  The Kalahari desert and the San people.

At breakfast, we meet three anthropologists that share part of their adventure with us.  After two months of research, they are returning to Heidelberg to analyse all the data collected.

Having packed and refuelled the car, we head off east on the Trans-Kalahari highway.  The Kalahari desert spans across Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and is, in reality, a semi-arid savannah scattered by acacia trees and other plants, supporting animal life including antelopes such as the oryx (Namibia’s national animal) and various big cats including lions, leopards and cheetahs.  It is also home to the San (or Bushmen) people who are considered to be among the indigenous hunter-gatherers inhabiting southern Africa. This is the longest journey of our holiday but also on one of the best-kept roads.

“The Kalahari desert spans across Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and is, in reality, a semi-arid savannah”

We stop at Gobabis and in the small café there’s a sign saying ‘Don’t leave this kitchen without a smile’.  The poster on the wall is full of quotes including ‘Be happy for this moment – this moment is your life.’; ‘Success is getting what you want. Happiness is liking what you get.’; ‘Happiness is your own treasure because it lies within you’.  This is only the first encounter with a recurrent theme and philosophy that we experience throughout our trip.  In line with this philosophy, in Namibia and Botswana, it would be considered rude not to greet the people you meet along the way, ask them how they’re doing and genuinely being interested in the answer.

‘Be happy for this moment – this moment is your life.’

As we cross the border and enter Botswana the number of animals along the road increase; cows, donkeys, goats, birds and more.  Despite the many kilometres already travelled, the sun is already starting to set as we drive into the ~8 km long gravel road to Dqae Qare San Lodge.

The lodge is run by the San (Bushmen) people and is set up as a local enterprise supporting the local community.  The San are only one of the people that speak a type of the Khoisan click languages.  I won’t try to explain the characteristics and complexity of this language here as you could write a whole book on it – but it’s spoken by using four different types of clicks when using the click consonants and is very fascinating to listen to.

The room is clean and cosy, and we happily switch from the electricity-run lamps to lighting the candles before the electricity supplied from the solar panels is shut off.  Dinner is prepared and served by the San people from food sourced from the farm.  The creamy butternut squash soup is delicious and among the best dishes of the trip.  It’s followed by a goulash, vegetable and rice and a yummy apple crumble with tonnes of vanilla sauce.  It’s new moon, and before going back to the rooms, we admire the stars and the stunning milky way that we haven’t seen this clearly for many years.

 

Day 2 – Ghanzi to Guma Lagoon.  Potholes, fun 4×4 driving in the sand and arrival at the Okavango Panhandle.

We leave without having participated in the many interesting activities offered by the lodge such as the San History Tour, cultural San Experience, Craft Making, Bush Walking and many more.  If time had allowed it, we would have definitely stayed another night.

However, we have a lot of kilometres to cover and are excited about our next destination: the Okavango Panhandle. After kilometers of potholes – ranging from small to big enough for half of the car to fit in them – we refuel at Gumare, having failed to find the petrol station in the small town of Sehithwa.  We stop along the road, open the back of the car and have lunch with bread, biltong, and cheese (the enormous quantities of which would haunt us for the duration of the journey).  At Etsha 13 we turn off the main road into a gravel road and the most fun driving of the whole trip: 45 min of 4×4 driving in the sand (needless to say that it was far much more fun for the driver than the poor passengers in the back-seat).

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Along the way we met several donkey carts in addition to people travelling by foot

The tented huts at Guma Lagoon Lodge and the restaurant all have beautiful views facing the Okavango Panhandle.  The Panhandle is a permanent wetland created from the water from the Okavango River.  When the rainfall in Angola surge in January and February each year the Okavango River feeds the Panhandle until the water eventually floods an area of 15000 km2 to create the seasonal Okavango Delta.  The Delta transforms the otherwise arid Kalahari Desert into an oasis and becomes a sanctuary for wildlife.  This UNESCO world heritage site is one of the main attractions in Botswana and is home to a dense concentration of plants, birds, fish and mammals such as elephants, hippos, buffalos, wildebeest, lions, leopards, cheetah, wild dogs, hyena, zebra, rhinoceros, antelopes and an almost endless list of other animals.

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Cute Velvet Monkey playing and jumping around in the trees
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The Delta transforms the otherwise arid Kalahari Desert into an oasis and becomes a sanctuary for wildlife

In the evening James brings us out on a night drive and as we glide over the water we see the landscape dominated by papyrus, the glowing red eyes of the crocs (as they reflect the light from the torch of our guide) and some birds who’s name I have by now forgotten.  As James answer our endless questions we finally take the time to admire the stars, identify the southern cross and the south before heading back.  At the lodge, we get introduced to the almost domesticated owl (or maybe I should say completely domesticated as it would allow itself to be petted by visitors).  We have a delicious 3-course meal with a glass of wine, and the freshly baked bread is so good we decide to order 3 loafs for our camping trip the next day.  Before we go to sleep, we sit around the fire for a chat – something that almost became a ritual throughout the trip.

“as we glide over the water we see the landscape dominated by papyrus and the glowing red eyes of the crocs”

Day 3 – Okavango Panhandle. Crocs, papyrus, water lilies and hippos.

In the morning we take off for our 2-day mokoro trip with mixed emotions of excitement and fear: This will be amazing – beautiful and wild! Was this a bad idea? Will we survive the crocs and the hippos? Have we got enough food and water? OMG does everyone take this much stuff with them when camping? The local guide James takes us out for half an hour drive northeast into the Panhandle covering approximately 15 km.

On our way, James skillfully locates a small crocodile on one of the branches along the bank. It’s about 80-100 cm long and James estimates it’s about 2 years old. Further into the Panhandle, we find a large crocodile of over 2 m hiding beyond the papyrus. The 9-10 years old croc seems undisturbed by the approach of our motorboat and to our relief continues to lazily rest on the ground without moving.

Upon arrival to the small island, we say goodbye to James and are greeted by our 3 mokoro guides Richard, Thabo and Mundo. We set off in 3 mokoros (a type of canoe); one with the tents and equipment and one for each couple. Mokoros used to be dug out directly from trees such as ebony but are nowadays made out of fibre-glass to preserve the trees. This also makes them lighter and more durable. As we silently and peacefully glide through the water I’m surprised to notice that the water is crystal clear and as we relax and listen to the sound of the water we take in the beauty of our surroundings. The depth of the panhandle varies between 5-7 m and it’s covered by papyrus, grass and water lilies.

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An example of Mokoro, nowadays made out of fibre-glass
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OMG does everyone take this much stuff with them when camping
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The panhandle is covered by papyrus, grass and water lilies

After a 2 h mokoro trip, our guides identify a suitable island – 2-months’ old dried elephant dung scattered everywhere, colourful yellow birds and the grunting of hippo’s as a background noise – and we set up our tents. We get the fire going, have a light lunch and after having been reassured that the hippos won’t invade the island and attack us (they stay in the water during the days and come up at night to graze) we go for a nap waiting for the heat of the afternoon sun to wear off.

In the afternoon we relax in the mokoros. As we glide through the narrow channels through the papyrus we hear the grunting of hippos getting louder and closer. As we exit the channel into the open water of a lagoon we find ourselves in plain view of over 12 large hippos – statistically among the most dangerous and aggressive animals. As the hippos continue to stare at us, grunt, submerge and yawn, fear is eventually replaced by excitement as we realise they’re not going to attack. Our muscles start to relax and we spend a good 5-10 minutes admiring the wild hippos bathing in their natural environment.

“As we glide through the narrow channels through the papyrus we hear the grunting of hippos getting loader and closer.”

After some exciting moments, we head off and ‘park’ the mokoros for a sundowner. We sit there far away from civilization, the only background noise being the water, singing of the birds and the distant grunting of hippos. As the bright red sun sets behind the trees, grass and water we understand why people say there’s something special about the African sunset.

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Not bad as first sundowner in Africa
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On our way “home”…

As the temperature quickly drops we wrap up in our jumpers and silently head back. At camp we bbq over the open fire, stargaze and then get ready for our first night sleeping in the tents.

“As the bright red sun sets behind the trees, grass and water we understand why people say there’s something special about the African sunset.”

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After a long day in the wilderness, we bbq over the open fire while gazing at the stars… we could not have asked for more.

Day 4 – Okavango Panhandle. Charged by an elephant.

We wake up frozen and stiff, gather around the warm fire and watch the sunrise. After some hot coffee (made from very well-boiled water from the Panhandle) and some breakfast, we head off for another mokoro trip.

As we approach one of the islands Richard tells us to be silent. For a moment we’d been chatting away almost forgetting we were out in the wild. As we approach the island Richard points towards the bushes and we suddenly realise there’s an enormous elephant behind the trees – how did we not see that before? We distance ourselves a bit and park in front of an open shore of the island no longer seeing the elephant. Just as we thought we might not see anything else, an angry wild elephant of a few tons trumpets and charges towards us at great speed.

We suddenly feel very vulnerable in our low small mokoros – where we’re sitting without being able to move. As the bull stops at the edge of the water, only a few meters away from us, the terror is replaced by awe for this magnificent and beautiful creature.

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Just as we thought we might not see anything else, an angry wild elephant of a few tons trumpets and charges towards us at great speed

As our guides push the mokoros away from the shore – the elephant defiantly looking at us and adrenaline pumping through our bodies – we are told it was “only a mock charge”. Apparently, in a real charge (which is usually preceded by a mock change) the elephant flattens its ears against the body, raises the tail and lowers the trunk between the legs.

Back at the camp we have a light lunch and a snack. As Richard rests, Thabo and Mundo play a game, show us how to lit a fire with a stick and some elephant dung and we have a go at steering the mokoro.

In the afternoon we go for a walking excursion on one of the larger islands. We get a flavour of the life of the locals in the Okavango region, the flora and the fauna. The Panhandle is dotted with islands – most of which originate from termite-mounds. As the mounds grew many of the birds would rest on them. The birds’ droppings fertilised the land and eventually trees started growing and islands were formed.

“The Panhandle is dotted with islands – most of which originate from termite-mounds. As the mounds grew many of the birds would rest on them. The birds’ droppings fertilised the land and eventually trees started growing and islands were formed.”

An elephant highway leads us across the island and past some enormous baobab trees.

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Elephant highway in the baobab island

Baobab trees are among the largest ones in the world and can live for over thousand years. Their soft bark is eaten by elephants. Along the way, we see mokolwane palm trees, the leaves of which are used to make woven baskets and the sap from the trunk for alcoholic beverages. Other trees include the rain tree, camphor tree (which white soft flowers can be used as filling for pillows) and the sausage tree. The large fruits of the sausage tree (which give it its name) feed many animals including antelopes which is why you’ll often find leopards resting on its branches. Here in the Panahandle – in contrast to the Delta – there are however no leopards. While we were initially sad to miss out on some of the mammals we quickly changed our mind and counted ourselves lucky not to be surrounded by other tourists and to be able to enjoy the pristine environment by ourselves.

We enjoy another beautiful sundowner, tasty bbq and good company around the camp fire and this time (having learned from the previous night) we wrap up in almost all our clothes before getting into the sleeping bag.

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On our way back to our second sundowner, sunsets are getting better and better…

Day 5 – Okavango Panhandle. A helicopter ride above the vastness of the Panhandle.

Our last morning camping. Not only did we survive – we thoroughly enjoyed it! With a smile on our faces we dismantle the tents, pack and enjoy our 2 h mokoro trip back. Back at the main island we say goodbye to Mundo and the rest of us get into the motorboat with James and the others from Guma Lagoon.

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On our way back we see a large female croc, about 2.5 m long – probably 9-10 years old. We check in, enjoy the first shower since we left Guma a few days ago and relax in the sunshine.

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On our way back… a large female croc, about 2.5 m long – probably 9-10 years old

“After a brief safety instruction (we now know where to find the first aid kit and water should we crash – but are left wondering how to fend off the crocs) we take off in the door-less helicopter.”

Just before sunset Daniel, a South African helicopter pilot, takes us out for a ride. After a brief safety instruction (we now know where to find the first aid kit and water should we crash – but are left wondering how to fend off the crocs) we take off in the door-less helicopter.

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Flying on a doorless helicopter is not the best thing if you are afraid of highs…

This was unlike any other ride we’ve done – the sense of freedom and agile movements are far more liberating. Daniel is highly skilled and experienced and we admire the stunning vastness of the Okavango extending below us as far as the eye can reach. From here you could be fooled into thinking that there was almost no water – in reality, it’s just hidden below the tall papyrus and grass.

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We fly above herds of elephants (and ironically get charged for the second time in 2 days – although this time from a safe distance), hippos, crocs, and antelopes who study us before elegantly jumping away among the grass. We hover next to an eagle that’s resting on a tree-top and as it takes off we fly side by side with almost the same agility and freedom.

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…this is what happens when you ask to fly low for a picture! Be mindful!!
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Holding on tight in our doorless helicopter…

After an exhilarating 30 min we’re back at Guma Lagoon and have a delicious 3-course meal with a glass of wine. Before going to bed we sit around the fire chatting to some other guests from Münich while Daniel tells us about his life as a pilot.

“We hover next to an eagle that’s resting on a tree-top and as it takes off we fly side by side with almost the same agility and freedom.”

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Day 6 – Okavango Panhandle to Rundu. An unexpected trip through the Mahango Game Reserve.

We hit the road at 0830 h towards Namibia. As we stop at Shakawe for fuel and a trip to the local supermarket we see a wedding celebration on the other side of the road. From what we’ve heard anyone is welcome to join the celebration – but we have a long journey ahead and proceed to the border control which was quick and painless. As we enter Namibia the road takes us through the nature reserve Mahango Game Reserve.

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To my amazement, during the short journey I spot my first giraffe and it was love at first sight (well, at least for me) – it was the cutest baby giraffe, curiously but cautiously looking at me (ok, the vehicle and the crazy think leaning out of it to take photos) while munching on the leaves. What was supposed to be a short journey turned into a rather long one as every few meters one of us would shout ‘Stop! Stop!’ to our friend who was driving; Kudu! Giraffes! Elephants! Baboons! Zebras!

We leave the reserve and head to Rundu (the capital of the Kavango-East Region). On our way we stop at Papa Falls. We were surprised to see a large grey cement entrance with barriers saying ‘Papa Fall Resort’. While the falls were nice we were quite underwhelmed. Unfortunately, from the viewpoint you could only see a very small part of the falls which stretch across 1 km. On the plus-side there were picnic tables, a restaurant and toilets.

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By 1600 h we arrive at n’kwazi lodge (n’kwazi meaning fishing eagle) and were pleasantly surprised by the community run lodge. The lodge is on the kavango river facing Angola and after another beautiful sunset and delicious meal we enjoy a tribal dance by the people living in the local community.

While the start was a bit stiff, the dancers and guests quickly warmed up next to the fire and we all had a nice uplifting evening filled by the drums of the musicians and the bamboo on the dancers’ clothes.

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Yet another amazing sunset from the south bank of the kavango river, looking at Angola

“The lodge is on the kavango river facing Angola and after another beautiful sunset and delicious meal we enjoy a tribal dance by the people living in the local community.”

 

Day 7 – N’kwazi lodge to Onguma Game Reserve. Community walk.

One of the highlights of our trip was the community walk at n’kwazi. It was a private one-hour tour in the local community where we had the chance to chat with our guide (the chief) and get a better understanding of the community and the life of the locals. The local community has a say in the opening and running of the lodge and work with the government. The village has about 3000 people in total and each family lives in a cluster of houses.

Day 6_ - 1 (2)The locals smile and greet us (it’s again considered rude not to smile and greet people – a nice change from busy London). The younger generation speaks English as well because all the classes in school are in English. Education is very important and the kids often live a few years at the school rather than at home to ensure they can dedicate time to studying rather than working.

Marriages occur when the boys are 17-18 and girls 16 years old. They live with the girl’s family for about 2 years to support the pregnancy and new-born (proof that the boy has become a man). They then live with the man’s family for about 10 years after which they usually start living on their own.

“One of the highlights of our trip was the community walk at n’kwazi.”

The community seems well run, there’s a formal structure in place with a chief and other community representatives. Next year the chief is travelling to Sweden where there’ll be a forum and training session about managing resources including harvesting energy from manure. While the houses are very basic and people are poor, teenagers have solar powered batteries for their phones and the chief leaves us his email address and phone number so that we can keep in contact on whatsapp – it’s a bit of a wake-up call from the idea that I had as a naïve westerner.

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At the same time, the stereotype of women and kids working while men do relatively little seems to be true. We see women and kids with large buckets on their heads fetching water, boys collecting firewood and bundling it to be sold, and women and girls milling under the sun to prepare an alcoholic drink. All while the 16-17-year-old boys sit with their phones and the elderly men sip their beverage while watching the women working to ensure more of the alcoholic drink will be available in another couple of days.

On our way to Etosha we stop at Hoba Meteorite. Hoba meteorite weighs about 50 ton and is mainly (>80%) made of iron. It’s over 3 m long and struck the earth about 80 000 years ago.

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At the site we meet a Dutch family; the grandparents had moved to South Africa a few years ago and now they were travelling for 5 weeks with their kids and grandkids. They tell us that while the meteorite is described as the largest known in the world it is thought by some that the Black Stone or Kaaba Stone of Mecca is a meteorite and that it’s expected to be the biggest one.

As we need to arrive at Aoba Lodge before sunset we have a quick lunch and then skip the visit to lakes Otjikoto and Guinas. After a few hours of driving we enter Onguma Game Reserve just in time for a beautiful sunset with a massive heard of zebras grazing far away under the red sky.

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Fittingly, Aoba means “when the sun goes down” and after a welcome drink in the beautiful reception and dining area we’re taken to our rooms which were the most luxurious ones of our whole trip. Following the alfresco dining with spinach ravioli, tender eland steak, lemon cake and red wine we sit down around the fire with the other guests: a group of 8 friendly Austrians that are also heading to Etosha the following days.

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Day 8 – Onguma and Etosha National Park. Bushwalk, a taster of Etosha and sundowner.

Day 8_ - 3We wake up early for a 0600 o’clock bushwalk at Onguma Game Reserve. Our guide Erik drives us out into the middle of the park where we see giraffes and zebras from a distance as we exit the car.The focus of the bushwalk is to see all those things you normally can’t see from the car, Erik explains as he loads his rifle (which he confirms he’s unfortunately had to use in a past occasion when working elsewhere). During the walk, we learn about how to recognise and distinguish foot-prints and droppings of various animals. While we see some kudus, wild boar, springbok and jackals from a distance there’s relatively little encounter with wild-life – to compensate we learn a lot about termites. While more interesting than expected we get into a state of termite-information-overload and having underestimated how cold it would be we are happy to return to the lodge and savour a tasty breakfast.

Day 8_ - 1 (1)We’re told Onguma Game Reserve has all the animals that Etosha has except white rhino. But, as you’re not allowed to self-drive in Onguma and there are far more animals in Etosha we decide to head into Etosha National Park around 1100 h. Despite it not being an ideal time for spotting wildlife (due to the heat around midday) we get incredibly lucky.

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As we arrive at Chudop waterhole we’re stunned by the number of animals and can only count ourselves lucky to have been in the right place at the right time. A wildebeest (gnu) lay still resting on the ground, while a heard of more than 30 elephants refresh themselves at the waterhole before slowly leaving behind the matriarch.

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As the elephants leave, more and more giraffes start approaching the waterhole (they had obviously been waiting for their turn to access the water). While I have a soft spot for giraffes many would find it difficult not to agree that giraffes are adorable when they drink. Due to their very long legs they have to stretch out their front legs laterally and bend their knees to reach the water.

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The waterhole and surrounding brims with life as springbok, zebras, wildebeest and wild boar join the giraffes – truly magical!

“A wildebeest (gnu) lay still resting on the ground, while a heard of more than 30 elephants refresh themselves at the waterhole before slowly leaving behind the matriarch.”

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Ecstatic after a few hours in Etosha we make our way back to Aoba Lodge. As we exit the park the friendly guard that let us in seems to want a bribe. The papers she had given us when we entered (and we’d only checked after reaching Namutoni where you pay) said there were 3 South Africans in the car (while we were 2 South Africans and 2 Europeans) meaning that we were charged less than we should have. Now, at our exit, she seemed to want the difference. After a friendly discussion she eventually lets us go when it becomes clear we’re not paying her a bribe.

In the meantime, the other guard confiscates a drone from two Dutch guys that are also exiting the park. While the two guys declared it when asked, and probably were acting in good faith, poaching is unfortunately still a problem in Etosha and poachers are making use of more and more technology, including drones, to locate the animals before then breaking in and killing them.

Back at Onguma Game Reserve Erik takes us out for a sundowner. While wildlife is still sparse we enjoy the scenery and the sunset as we have a drink with the other guests including a couple from Tasmania travelling Africa for 3 months. Before going to bed we enjoy another delicious meal, bottle of white wine and a glass of amarula.

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Day 9 – Etosha National Park. A unique self-driving Safari experience.

At 0630 h we’re already at the von Lindequist gate and this time we scrutinise our papers before proceeding after the other 5 cars that had been in the cue before us.

We pay the entrance fee according to the papers which are correct this time and then we head off for our self-drive. Most waterholes are relatively empty but as we drive through Dik-Dik Drive I spot something behind a log.

As we reverse I’m very excited as I thought I saw something spotted and hoped to see a leopard. (If your main aim is to look for leopards and cheetahs these are apparently more frequently found in the east part of the park. Unfortunately, we only discovered this at the end of our trip.) What I had seen was not a leopard but a spotted hyena (also quite difficult to see as they’re nocturnal) and she has 3 beautiful pups with her.

After a morning drive we have lunch at Halali where we come across the first victims of not-sufficient-planning while driving in Namibia. Two cars have run out of diesel and due to the high demand the petrol station at Halali has run out of fuel. New fuel will only be available from the next morning and rooms for the night are fully booked.

As we start the afternoon self-drive we come across our Austrian friends from Aoba lodge. They’ve just spotted 6 lions at Nuamses. We thank them and immediately do a U turn and drive through a road full of holes. After 30 minutes we arrive at Nuamses to an empty waterhole. Then, suddenly we see some movement in the high yellow grass next to the bushes. As we reposition the car we get a glimpse of 3 lions laying down in the grass under a tree. Lions sleep or rest for about 20 h a day so it’s unlikely to see them active during the middle of the day.

However, every now and then annoyed by the flies, they raise their heads and reposition themselves. Eventually we count 6 lions in total and after 40 minutes we start making our way to Okaukuejo to ensure we arrive to the enclosed lodge before closure of the gates. We stop by the Etosha pan viewpoint and some mainly dried up and empty waterholes. At Okaukuejo we met the next victims of not-sufficient-planning while driving in Namibia: an overturned car inside the national park that needs to be retrieved.

Okaukuejo has its own waterhole and we make the most of it both at sunset and after dinner. We see 20+ elephants and giraffes and eventually some white rhinos are brave enough to access the waterholes. An adult white rhino weighs well over 1 tonne but next to the elephants they look surprisingly small.

As we silently sit on the benches behind the fence surrounding the waterhole we hear the deep roar of lions. Knowing that lions often come to this waterhole but will only do so once the elephants leave we patiently leave.

While the scene was spectacular it was like watching a movie in slow motion – eventually, after hours, we went to bed while the last elephants were still resting next to the waterhole.

Day 10 – Etosha National Park to Damaraland.  Lions, canyons and red round boulders.

Today we’re due to leave Etosha but we decide to first do a guided morning drive.  At 0600 h the air is cold and a lonely hyena quickly crosses the road in front of us.  Engine switched off we enjoy a spectacular sunrise from the safari vehicle.  The zebras have a pinkish colour in the sunrise.  As the sunshine floods the grassy plains we spot 2 beautiful lionesses slowly walking in the distance away from our car. 

We have a short break in a small enclosed picnic area – didn’t really expect this but as quite a few people make use of the basic toilet facilities I understand the reason the guides schedule it in.  On our way back we see a large male lion running towards a waterhole.  We’re not the only ones to have spotted it and cars and big vehicles race towards the lion who now looks slightly less at ease. 

Our driver quickly drives the vehicle to the side of the road and skilfully places it in the perfect spot.  We’re positioned at an angle and there’s just enough space between us and the other cars to create an opening for the lion to cross the road just next to our vehicle. 

I would never have thought I’d be sitting in an open safari car just a few meters from such a majestic creature!  Excited but approaching the end of our guided tour we start heading back.  As we approach the camp we see the rare black rhino.  Its horn cut to protect it from the poachers. 

Back in our own car we leave Etosha, re-fuel at Outjo and head towards Madisa Safari Camp in Damaraland.  The road turns into a gravel road and we drive past valleys and mountains.  We take a detour to Vingerklip (a large rock formation looking like a finger pointing towards the sky) from where we take in spectacular views of the canyons and we take a break at the luxurious Vingerklip lodge with its beautiful views and interior design with wooden engravings.

The landscape transforms as we approach Medisa lodge.  The soil gets redder and there are curious red rock formations which are like giant round boulders.  The camp is very basic but the tents are nice and after the initial hesitation so is the open roof and low wall bathroom. 

The sunset makes this place even more spectacular as the soft light shines over the red rock and soil.  We have dinner (good but there’s only one option) outside with only our solar lamp to illuminate the table. 

We go back to our tents and sit outside having a chat under the stars and the moon.  Throughout the evening we hear noises which sounding like 2 stones knocking against each other (we presume this was from some animals but are not sure to this day).  As we hear the noise of a bigger animal nearby we freak out until the headlamp finally shines on a donkey.  We decide it’s probably about time we go back to our tents 🙂

Day 11 – Damaraland to Swakopmund.  Rock engravings, endless driving and the skeleton coast.

We start by doing a de-tour to Twyfelfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage site of ancient rock engravings and paintings. The road is straight but so bumpy that it feels like an eternity before we arrive.  At Twyfelfontein we do the guided tour under the scorching sun and admire the rock paintings and learn more about the history.  The guide wasn’t the best we’ve had but we still had a good time and we managed to get a very good view of the rock paintings.  We drive back on the bumpy road until we’re finally back on glorious tarmac again.  Who would have said I would have missed driving on tarmac so much?  We pass some small villages but the it then become sparser and sparser.

If there’s one thing I regret during this trip it’s not listening to the emotions I felt as we drove through one of the poorest regions of Namibia: Damaraland.  Along the road there were women dressed up in beautiful long colourful dresses, standing under the scorching sun, smiling at the few cars passing by, hoping that someone would stop to buy a souvenir from their stands.  Every few hundred meters there was another smiling woman with a stand along the road in the middle of nowhere.  Some women had over 5 kids sitting in the shade of the stand.  We drove through silently, everyone in their own thoughts, probably all taken a bit back and thinking about the unfairness there is in this world.  It was only after quite some time that we spoke, realised that everyone has felt the same thing and we regretted not stopping to give away the food we had and buying some souvenirs.  But by now it was too late to turn back.

The road towards the coast is long, straight, surrounded by flat land with only a few scrubs.  The landscape never changes and despite the speed and some potholes it feels like we aren’t moving at all.  We take a few breaks to get fresh air and change driver to avoid anyone falling asleep at the wheel.

We finally arrive at the skeleton coast.  It is windy, humid and cold.  But we get out from the car to look at the shipwreck (one of many along the skeleton coast – hence its name) and donate our leftover food to some very happy street vendors.  There is a line of Asian tourists with large cameras taking photos of the shipwreck.  And, for the first time during this trip it feels a bit touristy.

Day 12 – Swakopmund.  Skydiving, quad biking and relaxing.

We spend the day in Swakopmund.  A modern town well known to adrenaline junkies.  Our friend T goes sky-diving – but not feeling quite as courageous we go quad biking instead.  It takes some time to get used to driving the quad bike and it is more tiring than expected.  But it is great fun and our guide Manuel is really nice.  He explains how the winds coming in from the sea bring iron with them – hence the thin black powder that can be seen on top of the sand.  He collects it with a magnet and uses it to write us a nice welcome message.  Completely surrounded by large tall dunes in all directions, with only the sun to orient ourselves, we are happy to have a competent guide bringing us back to where we started.

We go to the highly rated Village Café (and weren’t disappointed) and for a walk in Swakopmund before going to dinner. 

Day 13 – Swakopmund to Sossusvlei.  The tropic of Capricorn.

After 2 nights of rest in the nice Swakopmund Lifestyle B&B and Apartment we feel refreshed and ready for the long drive.  The road is in good condition and the landscape is nice.  We stop by the sign illustrating that we’re crossing the Tropic of the Capricorn – the southernmost latitude where, in December, the sun is directly overhead.  There hasn’t been any sign of human civilisation since we left the coast.  So, we gladly stop at solitaire; a small place along the road with some bedrooms and a fuel station.  With old cars and cacti as decorations it’s a very cute place.  And, to our joy it also had a very good bakery.

Before night we arrive to Sossusvlei Lodge in the namib desert, formed 55-80 million years ago and thought to be the older desert in the world.  The Lodge is large, very nice and has a swimming pool.  This is definitely the most tourist part of our trip – although for good reason as we’ll discover the next day.

Day 14 – Sossusvlei.  Big Daddy, Dead Vlei and Sesriem Canyon.

Early morning we get into the safari vehicle which we share with a family of 4.  As we drive on the gravel road we’re surrounded by larger and larger dunes.  As the sun rises we see some hot air balloons in the distance which is just picture perfect.  The dunes in Sossusvlei, in contrast to other dunes, don’t move.  The guide tells us it’s thought that the reason is that the base of the dunes are mountains.  Because they don’t move the dunes have been named based on their distance from the town of Sesriem.  Dune 45 (45 km from Sesriem) is the most famous one due to its elegant shape but mainly because it was the first one that tourists were allowed to climb.  The biggest dune is called Big Daddy and after the 350 m climb (compared to the 80 m of Dune 45) you find yourself immediately above Dead Vlei, an ancient pan that was once an oasis but has now dried up leaving the ground cracked and the trees desiccated and still standing after 900 years.

As we approach Dune 45 we see busses parked at the base and a long line of tourist climbing the dune.  We quickly decide that Big Daddy is a much better alternative and are glad that the other tourists in the vehicle also agree.  The driver drops us off close to Big Daddy and we head off under the hot sun.  It doesn’t take many meters of walking on the ridge of the dune, feet sinking into the sand every step we take, to realise this won’t be a walk in the park.  But, it’s certainly much more thrilling!  The scenery is spectacular, and we gladly use this as an excuse to frequently rest our aching legs and drink some water.  As we finally arrive to the top we see Dead Vlei on the opposite valley to where we climbed from.  It’s a beautiful view and we sit down on the warm soft sand, together with some other exhausted tourists, and admire the scenery.

There’s really only one way down to Dead Vlei and it’s definitely steeper than the way up.  Having seen a snake in the sand earlier in our trip we decided not to take off our shoes like some of the other tourists.  We ran down the dunes, which due to the steep slope was more like jumping down.  The sensation was liberating and so-much fun!  We laughed as we ran and as we watched each other almost crashing down the large sand dune.  Our sturdy walking shoes filling up with more and more sand as our feet plunged through the sand every step as we landed.

Once down at Dead Vlei we empty the sand from our shoes onto the hard and cracked ground.  The ground is white and was once the bottom of a river.  When the river changed course, the earth dried up and the acacia trees were desiccated so quickly that they never decomposed and now look almost like they are carbonised.  With the red dunes in the background it’s certainly a unique and spectacular landscape.

Our guide is waiting for us at the other end of Dead Vlei and we eventually head off.  However, we only drive a few minutes before we reach a fully catered table in the shade of a tree.  During the refreshing brunch in the shade we talk to the other 4 tourists travelling with us and discover that they live in Luxembourg and the father is originally from Italy.  It only takes a few questions and ‘me too!’ exclamations to realise we had friends in common.  It’s a small world!

Before driving back to the lodge we pass by Soussusvlei, the salt and clay pan that now gives the name to this whole region.  It’s very nice, although not quite as spectacular as everything we’ve seen so far.

On our way back, all of us tired from the walk and the heat, we’re lucky to realise that the driver is about to fall asleep at the wheel, probably after having worked non-stop.  We manage to keep him awake and we get back safely to the lodge.

In the afternoon, we go for a walk in Sesriem Canyon.  As all canyons it was carved out by water but is now completely dried up and the high walls on it’s side provides some shadow as we explore the area.

Day 15 – Sesriem to Windhoek. 

It’s our last full day of this trip.  Happy and satisfied we drive back to Windhoek.  It’s another scenic drive through the mountains, on steep but well-kept roads.  

We arrive at Windhoek in the afternoon.  We’re back to where we started 15 days ago.  Having driven for a total of 3540 km. 

I’ve been in many places, but this trip has been the best one I’ve been on so far and will be difficult to beat; beautiful and varied landscape, wildlife, a feeling of freedom you only get when travelling on your own and some excellent company 🙂

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