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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002 - Johannesburg, South Africa - After a very long, but reasonably comfortable, flight from Atlanta to Cape Town, we've arrived in Johannesburg for a eight hour layover before our final leg to Windhoek, Namibia. Favorable winds over the South Atlantic cut more than an hour off our flight time from the U.S.A. and we arrived in Jo'burg early also. Neither of us slept much on the transcontinental leg, we instead exhausted the plane's video-on-demand selections and played video games. Since we were tired and had eight hours to kill here, we rented a room in the international terminal transit hotel for six hours to take a long nap and shower. We've been hanging out in South African Airways' Business Class lounge since about 4:30 pm reading and drinking cappucinos.
Friday, Oct. 18, 2002 - Windhoek, Namibia - We arrived in Windhoek last night around 9:30 pm, picked up our car and drove the 40 kms into town. The drive was a little harrowing since, during the first ten minutes on the road from the airport we had to dodge a kudu and two smaller antelope along the side of the road. Our travel agent here in Windhoek had warned us about driving at night, that animals seem to want to play chicken with cars. She was right!
We spent a hot night at Rivendell Guest House, sleeping only a few hours. Our jet-lag had us awake at 2 am this morning. We had to wait for Avis to deliver a spare tire for our car since we had discovered that the one supplied with the car was just a rim without a tire. We passed the time planning our route with Rachael (the owner of Rivendell and Cardboard Box Travel Shop in Windhoek) and watching the weaver birds building their nests in a tree next to her office.
Saturday, Oct. 19, 2002 - Kulala Desert Lodge, Sesriem, Namibia - The drive from Windhoek to Kulala Lodge took about five hours with most of the driving on dusty, gravel roads. On the way the landscape changed from flat plains spotted with scrub brush, grasses and low trees to boulder hills and gravel plains to mountains and finally the red dunes of the Namib Desert. We took a short detour over a breathtakingly scenic mountain pass to see the view across the desert gravel plains to the rugged Naukluft Mountains which border the northern reaches of the Namib.
We found Kulala quite nice. Perched on a small hill is the main lodge with its thatched roof and panoramic veranda from which one can gaze out across the plain and Sossusvlei riverbed to the towering dunes beyond. The guests' bungalows are situated lower on the hill and are partially constructed from adobe and canvas.
We went on an evening drive through the grass plains nearby, ending up on top of a mountain with an awe inspiring view across the Sossusvlei River flood plain. The pale, yellow grass blankets the land like carpet and is spotted with 'faerie circles' - small, roughly circular bare patches. It seems no one knows for sure what causes the 'faerie circles', though there are various theories: termites, grass-killing fungus, aliens. It was up here that we had our first 'sun-downer', as they are called. As the sun set behind the dunes to the west, its warm light painted the mountains to the east a fiery red and set the grasslands aglow. South African sparkling wine topped it off nicely.
As for animals, we saw a lone spotted hyena running across the grass at the foot of the mountains. I nearly stepped on a baby horned adder - a deadly, though not especially aggressive snake. We also saw a yellow mongoose, two bat-eared foxes and scores of oryx and springbok.
After dinner (I had a very nice eland steak) most of the indigenous Namibian staff - cooks, servers, maids - came out to the veranda and sang traditional Namibian songs to the delight of all the guests. This was our first experience hearing some of the native languages, several of which include some dozen or so clicks and pops. We have since heard many of the local tribespeople speaking in Nama and other click-peppered languages.
Sunday, Oct. 20, 2002 - Camp Mwisho, Namibia - This morning we rose before dawn and drove to the dunes with another American couple who were staying at Kulala (most tourists here are from Europe, incidently). Our destination was the dry lake bed called Sossusvlei, surrounded by massive red sand dunes, the highest in the world at over 1000 feet tall. The low dawn light casts dramatic shadows across the dunes and as the sun slowly rises the color of the dunes changes from deep reds through oranges to coral pinks. Apart from our guide getting the Land Rover stuck in the sand for a few minutes, we spent the better part of the morning exploring the dunes and hiking to Dead Vlei, an ancient dry lake bed a few kilometers from Sossusvlei. The floor of Dead Vlei is dried white mud, as hard as bricks and cracked by years of baking in the sun. Dozens of dead acacia trees still stand in the pan, preserved for decades by the bone-dry air. As noon approached and the temperature soared to 95 degrees in the shade, we hiked back to the truck and had a fine brunch under the shade of an acacia tree.
After returning to from Sossusvlei we packed up and drove south to Mwisho ballooning camp. We had arranged to take a hot air balloon flight over the desert the next morning. We went on a sun-downer drive through Mwisho's property, spotting many animals. Their property lies on the edge of the red dune fields and here the low, rolling dunes are overgrown with tufts of yellow grass. We were joined on this drive by a couple from Austria. The husband had such a keen eye for wildlife, even picking out an oryx with only one horn and another with a missing tail from several hundred yards away. We later learned that he was a hunter and often came to Namibia to shoot these animals for sport.
Monday, Oct. 21, 2002 - Zebra River Lodge, Namibia - Today we were up before dawn again to make our hot air balloon flight. The weather was a little uncooperative at first. The strong winds the day before had filled the air with a haze of dust. Despite the reduced visibility, however, our flight was spectacular. I hadn't realized how still and quiet it could be floating in a balloon. Since the balloon travels at the same speed and in the direction of the wind, to the passenger, there is no wind at all, and aside from the occasional blast of flame from the burners, there is no noise. We floated for about an hour across the gravel plain near Sossusvlei, landing softly near some small dunes. A ground crew had followed us along a dry riverbed in their trucks and set up a fantastic Champagne brunch for everyone next to the dunes.
This afternoon, we drove to Zebra River Lodge, which is 30 or 40 kms from Sossusvlei in some nearby canyon lands. It turns out that there are three Americans working here right now. Steve is a recently graduated geologist and he and his girlfriend are working for six months as guides, and Gail is a rather free spirited woman working at the lodge for a few months and doing massage and accupressure.
Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2002 - Swakopmund, Namibia - Today we hiked up a canyon to Fig Tree Springs where we had a picnic lunch. The weather was perfect for hiking - cool and a little overcast. We saw dozens and dozens of Rock Dassies, which look a little like large guinea pigs. Strangely enough, their closest genetic relatives are elephants.
After returning from our hike, we packed up and set off for the coastal resort of Swakopmund. This little town at the southern end of the Skeleton Coast has a very German feel, complete with half-timbered buildings and streets with German names. Our hosts at the Sea Breeze Guest House are Oscar and Giovanni, an extremely nice Italian (gay) couple. It seems that Giovanni likes wearing cardigan sweaters and his little Jack Russell terrier wears a matching one!
Tonight we ate at a fantastic restaurant - De Kelders. I had probably the best, and largest, fillet mignon I've ever had, and it was only about USD $8. In fact, our entire bill, which included two starters, soup, a salad, two entrees and a bottle of good wine was only around USD $30. We've actually had very good meals every day on our trip, but De Kelders had been the best food so far.
Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2002 - Swakopmund, Namibia - In the early morning we drove south to Walvis Bay, a fishing and sea-salt port, to go on a seal and dolphin cruise. A German couple we had met at Kulala gave it rave reviews so we asked Oscar to make a reservation for us, and we were lucky that they had room for us this morning. Oscar recommended the cruise as well and claimed that the seals jump right up into the boat with you. As dubious as this seems, not more than ten minutes out into the bay, and completely without warning, a huge cape seal flopped up out of the water, over the transom and onto the bench beside me, nearly knocking me over! Everyone fed him fish, took a few photos of one another hugging or kissing him, and then he heaved himself overboard and was off to swim with his friends.
We toured around the bay and up the coast for a few hours watching dolphins, seals and sea birds. The South Atlantic Ocean along the Skeleton Coast is quite cold and the chill waters combined with the warm air mixes to form a daily fog. Offshore winds eventually clear the air around 10 am, though and we had some sun and blue skies by brunch time. Yet another Champagne brunch (Namibians love their South African sparkling wine, it seems) with fresh local oysters finished our morning on the ocean.
Thursday, Oct. 24, 2002 - Mowani Mountain Lodge, Twyfelfontein, Namibia - On our way to the mountains of Damaraland, northeast of Swakopmund, we stopped for a couple hours at Cape Cross to see the large Cape Seal colony there. We had only intended to stay for a half hour or so, but the weather was so nice and the thousands and thousands of seals were just so fascinating to watch. There are jackals here too. They lurk around the perimeter of the seal colony, waiting for a young pup to stray or die by other means, then they pounce.
The drive from the coast to Mowani Lodge took us through some amazing landscapes, from completely flat, featureless sand plains with nothing in sight in all directions to scrub and grass lands to slate rock hills and canyons to red granite boulder mountains. Mowani itself is nestled atop one of these mountains which looks like giant piles of round, red boulders. The lodge is quite stunning and we really wish we had more time here than two nights. We sleep in a large canvas tent complete with shower, bathroom and a king sized bed with a view out across the plains below to the mountain ranges beyond.
Friday, Oct. 25, 2002 - Mowani Mountain Lodge, Twyfelfontein, Namibia - This morning we went on a game drive along a dry riverbed in the valley below Mowani. Our goal was to find the often elusive Desert Elephant, and luck was on our side as we found an entire herd of them, probably twenty in all, in small groups of four or five walking along the river. These elephants are smaller than those found in northern Namibia and they have adapted to live in the drier desert and mountainous regions of the country. We even got to see the latest addition to the herd, a baby of about three months.
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2002 Okaukuejo Camp, Etosha National Park, Namibia - This morning we drove out to the sandstone mountains and mesas of Twyfelfontein with Justice, the assistant manager of Mowani. He took us on a hike up the mesa to see the engravings and paintings that Bushmen left here thousands of years ago.
After our hike, we lounged around Mowani, had lunch and packed to drive to Etosha National Park. We hadn't realized that the gate to Etosha closed at 5 pm until the manager, Ryan, told us as we were settling our bill. It was about 2 pm and the drive to Etosha would take at least three hours if we headed there directly and as fast as possible. We made it through the gate at 4:50 pm!
We stayed in a bungalow at Okaukuejo our first night in Etosha. Here there is a huge water hole right next to the camp that is flood-lit at night. After dinner we went to the water hole and sat for a couple hours watching the animals take their turns coming to drink. During the dry season, which is beginning in September and October, most of the water available to animals dries up and can only be found in a few water holes spread throughout the park. Tonight we saw elephants, black rhino, zebra and lions drinking at Okaukuejo.
Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002 - Namutoni Camp, Etosha National Park, Namibia - Etosha is a very large game preserve, dominated by the Etosha Pan, a normally dry lake bed filled with white salt deposits. Around the pan are various zones of forest, grass lands, desert and such. Visitors to Etosha can drive around the park and visit the wate holes, but outside of the three camps, one cannot leave one's car. It feels a little like visiting Yellowstone National Park in the USA, except that, like all the roads in Namibia, you can go for hours without seeing another vehicle.
Today we saw too many animals to count: zebra, wildebeest, springbok, gemsbok (oryx), elephant, lions, jackals, giraffe, and on and on. It rained most of the morning and on and off in the afternoon which made the game viewing cool, but since the animals suddenly had an abundance of water to drink, from small pools and puddles, not many came to the permanent water holes and springs. We basically drove all day long, slowly making our way to Namutoni Camp on the eastern side of Etosha.
Monday, Oct. 28, 2002 - Namutoni Camp, Etosha National Park, Namibia - Today we had good weather and most of the surface water had dried up, forcing the animals to use the big water holes again. We went on a morning game drive, then came back to our bungalow for lunch and then went on an afternoon drive. Again, we saw many, many animals of all sorts.
Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2002 - Okonjima Lodge, Namibia - We got up early this morning for a short game drive since it was our last in Etosha. We were very lucky this morning. Just half a kilometer or so out of the camp we saw a leopard walk across the road in front of us so we stopped the car and watched as he climbed up a tree about twenty yards from us and sat in the early morning sunshine. Above him was a fresh kill, a springbok. We must have spent an hour or two watching him rest, then climb up to the kill and feed. After twenty or thirty minutes, we had the largest crowd of cars and trucks we had seen in Etosha parked around us, six or seven in all. The crowd didn't seem to bother the leopard in the slightest. Seeing a leopard in the wild is quite rare, and seeing one feeding on a kill is rarer still. We talked to a guide in a van next to us who said that in his ten years of guiding people around Etosha he has only seen leopards seven times and never with a kill.
Afterwards, we drove a short distance down another road and and saw two huge male lions resting under some thorn trees about twenty feet off the road. Seeing three big cats this morning was great luck and a perfect birthday present for Nicci whose 30th was today.
We left Etosha around 10 am and drove south to Okonjima Lodge, home of the Africat Cheetah Rehabilitation and Conservation Center. Africat takes in orphaned cheetah cubs and wounded or trapped cheetahs and leopards. It is legal in Namibia for farmers and ranchers to shoot 'problem' cats, those that hunt their livestock, and many times an adult female is killed leaving her cubs orphaned and doomed to die without the help of groups like Africat. These folks are also trying to change the way farmers deal with the cats - asking them to trap the animals and relocate them rather than shoot them, or better still, find ways to protect their young livestock, which the cats sometimes hunt instead of their natural prey.
During our brief stay at Okonjima, we went on a couple game drives to see their leopards and cheetahs, though finding a radio-collared leopard wasn't as exciting as seeing the one in Etosha. The cheetahs, however, were great fun to see. Several of the ones we saw were orphaned before they could be taught by their mothers to hunt and so have to be fed daily by the Africat staff. Seeing one of these beautiful creatures leap up onto the hood of our Land Rover to be hand-fed by Andy, our guide, was a real thrill.
Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002 - Windhoek, Namibia
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