Childhood memories

Travelling through the North Western Cape has been like a trip down memory lane. Not that I’m suggesting the people and places are in any way ‘behind the times’ – not at all. It’s just that they have retained the history and traditions that I left behind 40 or 50 years ago.

Tuis-nywerheid (home industries) stores in every small outpost, stacked chockablock with goodies that Ouma used to make – vetkoek, koeksisters, melktert, soetkoekies, beskuit in half a dozen varieties… Not to mention the knitting, crocheted doilies and covered coat hangers!

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I even have become adept at ordering my wortelkoek in Afrikaans. Peter, surprisingly, has become heeltemal tweetalig… Falling easily into a conversation in Afrikaans with the garage attendant a few days back about the stukkende wiel!

People are genuinely amazed when we progress beyond “baie dankie”, leading to all sorts of questions about us and our lives. Genuine interest from lovely people.

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Our two nights in the Sophia Guesthouse in Garies did not disappoint.- though it was not without a few shocks (from the shower taps, real electric shocks!). With no electrician in town, I was vaguely tempted to “phone a friend” – I mean, I do know a couple of electrical workers- but in the end we just reported the fault, and used a hand towel to turn the taps on and off!

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The place itself was like the Kingdom of knickknackery, from the front door to the bathroom and beyond, run by the generous, bustling Elizna – a refugee from Johannesburg – who has clearly found a home for her vast collection of egg cups, teapots, flower bowls and general whatnots. Despite being the “self-catering” cottage, there was a full English breakfast every morning, and on the second night she announced they were cooking “lamb kerrie” for dinner, if we would like some served in the cottage. It came complete with peaches, jelly and custard for dessert – a long time since I’ve seen jelly made with ideal milk!

And yes, I was the annoying foreign person who scoured the store shelves of Garies for butter – and no, sorry people, but margarine is NOT butter! They have spreadable margarine, baking margarine, low fat margarine… But definitely no “egte botter”!

From there it was on to Clanwilliam – over the scenic route across the Cedarberg.  Another day of hindsight pronouncing that we should have hired a 4WD vehicle!

Two unexpected and special treats awaited – first our host who turned out to be an amazing quilt artist – check out http://www.enidviljoenquilts.jimdo.com – besides running a really lovely B&B. We loved the quilts so much we’re bringing one of them home with us!   This is just one of many gorgeous examples, this one hanging in our bedroom called Burning Desire.


And second that my cousin Belinda – who I last saw when we were literally children – actually lives in (or more correctly) on a farm remotely near Clanwilliam. Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, we not only connected but arranged for what Peter and I expected would be a quick drop-in for a coffee and hello before we headed on to our next destination.

What a treat awaited us. Belinda and her lovely husband Willie made us so welcome, showed us their huge and amazing rooibos tea farm, the wild flowers, the caves, the bushman paintings…


They fed us boerewors rolls for lunch before sending us on our way with a store of newfound knowledge about life on their farm, how the tea is grown, harvested and dried, how they grow lucerne trees to feed the sheep, and use donkeys (and an Anatolian sheep dog) to protect the sheep from leopards! Genuinely another world…

But most of all, I really loved reconnecting and talking about our mutual grandparents, and family members in general (though I have to admit a small problem on my part keeping track of which “Oupa” was which!)  A fantastic catchup… and not without its drama, when as we were about to leave, Peter discovered he’d dropped his cellphone somewhere out there on the farm. Willie and son Brendan sprang into action heading in different directions to search – found in the cave, where we crawled through the rocks! Many “baie dankies” to you all! It was SO lovely to catch up we may even return one day soon!

And thank you to you and to all the warm, kind Afrikaner folk we met along the way who reminded me so much of my childhood!  This part of the world is truly your place, as it has been for generations, and it is wonderful to be reminded that in some places at least in this rainbow nation, there are good people just getting on with their lives in mutual harmony.

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No words

There are no words to describe the beauty of the Kalahari desert in Namaqualand as it springs to life after the rains.

At Groenriviermond….

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And then at Skilpad….

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One big game park

“Actually, Namibia is just one big game park”  – so said Peter about half way into our road trip, having discovered that wherever we drive, there are random animals wandering around of the ‘wild’ variety.

The caution against driving after dark is wise advice, with baboons, springbok, gemsbok, and even this random ostrich thinking nothing of racing across the road in front of the car.

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The springbok are stupid and insubstantial animals – but the gemsbok (oryx) are genuinely beautiful (and tasty too!).

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Given that our journey did not extend up north into the actual game rich areas around Etosha, it seems that Peter is right.  At least as common as “normal” road signs are signs exhorting motorists to beware of buck, ostriches and even zebras crossing the road.  The only zebras we saw were, thankfully, quite far from the road – thankfully because these mountain zebra are in fact quite rare, and road crossing is likely to be hazardous to their long term future.

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Animals adapt – quite remarkable to see these huge creatures living in total desert. -though the best example of adaptation I saw had to be these birds in the Kalahari, who in the total absence of trees, we’re building their nests, and even raising their young in the “forks” of telephone poles.

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One last bit of wild life viewing today with these real life meerkats amongst the Namaqualand flowers, and a slow journey back to the main road with Peter stopping for every tortoise we saw crossing the road (and there were many!).

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I got out of the car to assist this little guy to get to the other side safely – he wasn’t happy, struggled as much as a tortoise can, and then went inside in a sulk once I set him gently down.  Ungrateful tortoise!

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It wouldn’t be an adventure holiday without the adventure!

It would be fair to say that in Namibia, you need look no further for your adventure than the roads leading to many of the major sights.  Deceptively substantial on the maps, they range from quite good to a good imitation of corrugated iron, to little better than a sandpit!  And that’s just the ones deemed “suitable” for 2WD vehicles.  The 4WD tracks are a LOT more fun!

Travelling almost 2000km from Windhoek, via Swakopmund, Sesriem and Fish River Canyon to Noordoewer, we had much reason to be thankful for Peter’s distant past experiences of driving on terrible roads in Southern Africa;  and his amazing levels of concentration for hours on end.

Locals were not encouraging when we mentioned that we were planning to do Sesriem to Fish River Canyon in a single day – when we planned the 520km, we hadn’t realised it was all on dirt roads! In all of those 8 hours, we saw maybe 12 other vehicles on the roads, and barely any other signs of life.

Ensuring you stop for fuel when you can is a major priority, not to mention the need for toilet stops.  These are probably the most lovingly maintained toilets in the whole of Namibia, complete with flowers, embroidered hand towels and air freshener – beyond spotless – in a nothing place called Betta.  I wanted to leave a “thank you” note for the toilet fairy!

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The stop for fuel at Helmeringshausen was equally successful – the best apple pie in Namibia, the sign proclaimed, so we simply had to try it, and it was, indeed, pretty damn good.

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Though at this point I did start noticing a germanic propensity to post instruction signs all over the place – do this, do not do that, everywhere you look!DSC_0373DSC_0372

Miles and miles and miles of long, straight, dirt roads… serviced occasionally by grader drivers, who appear to be located at big intervals along the way, grading our the corrugations and living in “caravans” like this one where they park up their grader overnight.  What a life!

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When the road is long, and there’s nothing to see, you start noticing the smallest things, like the fact the the windmills of my youth appear to be (slowly) being replaced with ugly (though perhaps more efficient?) models…

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We did, eventually, arrive in at Fish River Canyon Village – and what a warm welcome awaited us there!  A beautiful ring of stone bungalows, with the loveliest people, and a room straight out of Ouma’s day, in literally the middle of nowhere!

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We climbed the hill to a hidden bar fridge in the rocks for sundowners that evening – healthy gin & tonic (good for the mosquitos) to wash away the dust of the day.

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The real adventure, of course, was waiting just around the corner, striking the next day when we were exploring the area for views of the Fish River Canyon.  Bang!

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Thankfully the spare was in good working order!  But there we were, with no further backup, and a 6 hour round trip away from anywhere with a new tyre the right size.   When we got back to the hotel, we found we were in luck – one of their staff happened to be “in town”, due to return that night.  An emergency callout fee for the tyre shop man (it being after midday on Saturday) and the new tyre was duly purchased on our behalf.  Phew!

The next day, we set off for our final night in Namibia – on the banks of the Orange River.  Never have I been happier to see a tar-sealed road.  And never more amazed to see a lush green landscape, with actual lawn, unfold in front of my eyes as we reached the river banks.   Green never looked so good!

Beyond old

The ancient Namib desert is exactly that, truly ancient.  Unlike other deserts which have formed over time, spreading as a consequence of human activity, the Namib has been desert for 5 million years.  Small, but perfectly formed desert, ancient beyond imagination.

And the jewel in the crown of this ancient landscape is the star dunes at Sossusvlei, surrounding the Dead Vlei, complete with its dead trees that have been as they are, dead and yet not gone, for millenia.  Not petrified, not turned to stone, but simply dead wood, and never has dead wood been so amazing!  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

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Our first night in the area at Desert Camp has to be the best “camping” experience ever.  Self catering “tents” – I guess these days it would be called glamping – each with a concrete pad , from which rose a concrete ensuite bathroom, with a substantial tent pitched over the top of it all.  Very isolated, very beautiful… With the downside only becoming clear later that night when the wind started howling and rattling every zipper pull on every window!

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But meanwhile, the service came with a “kitchen box” available on deposit from reception, with plates, cups, cutlery… even wine glasses!  And an order list for a “food bag” delivery, Namibian style.  We ordered eland steaks, boerewors,  potatoes wrapped in foil… plus breakfast supplies of bacon, eggs, tomato and onion!  Best of all, when the bakkie pulled up with the delivery just after sunset, the delivery man built the fire in the braai on our stoep, and lit it for us.  Now that’s service!

By then, Peter and I were very mellow, having wandered out into the veldt for a good view of the sunset, red wine in one hand and camera in the other.  At least, until we were grumped at by the Frenchman in the next tent, who, unnoticed by us, had set up a camera on a tripod, presumably taking a time lapse series of said sunset.  Oh well, now has two romantic old people in his shot!

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That night, we talked long and late about what might have been.  Different choices, where would we be now?  Would we be more regular visitors to this vast and vacant place?  Probably not, we concluded… but who knows?  It is a privilege, we decided, to be as comfortable as we are with past choices, and also to be able to travel so far and wide to explore the “might have been”.

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In the morning we left early, and arrived at the wonderful Sossus Desert Lodge – inside the national park boundaries – in time for lunch.  Now this really is the luxury version… bungalows built mainly from wood and canvas,but with more substantial fittings, and a pair of loungers in the window from whence we could survey our own waterhole.

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It’s an eco lodge, our guide explained, built like this so that if the government decides it no longer wants them there, it can all be removed with minimum impact on the environment, as if it had never been there!   Hmmm…

Here we met the fabulous and unfortunately named Sammy – our guide and ranger for the sundowner drive that evening and the VERY early morning drive to the Vlei!

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We also met some of the more annoying travellers we have encountered, reaffirming why we don’t do cruises or group tours!  Being trapped on a drive with a truly ignorant Englishman – what’s a wildebeest?  is it a dog? – on the first drive tested my patience, but didn’t detract from the excitement of seeing a family of bat eared foxes (too far in the distance for the camera to do them justice, but a joy to watch through the binoculars).  Sundowners on our private dune were spectacular – though surprisingly teetotal!

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And then on the morning drive we were teamed up with an elderly Jewish foursome from Oudtshoorn, who didn’t seem to grasp that sunrise would not wait while they firstly delayed our departure by 15 minutes, and then kerfuffled around with toilet arrangements when we finally did get out to the dunes… Suffice to say my tolerance for stupid people was at an all time low, and even Sammy set off with Peter and me at a cracking pace, leaving the geriatrics in our wake (particularly silly woman who had worn her town sandals, and handed realised that a walk in the dunes would involve actual walking!!)

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Of course, none of this in any way detracted from the amazing spectacle – first the dunes themselves at sunrise, and then of Dead Vlei.  As we crested the dune into the Vlei, there he was, this beautiful creature reinforcing that although the vlei itself may be dead, this is a living desert that sustains life both large and small.

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Afterwards we retired to our bungalow for a mid morning nap… the 4am wake up call for a 430am departure having taken its toll.  Mind you, absolutely worth it, and the very reason we moved from Desert Camp into the Lodge.  You see, only those inside the park overnight get to actually see sunrise at the dunes, an hour’s drive west of the gate, which only opens at 630am!

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And as the sun rose, so did the wind.  It blew and it blew and it blew – fine sand and fine lime (from the limestone in dead vlei) filled everything.  Even my ears were full of sand!  Heaven knows if my camera will survive.

By the time we got back to the vehicle, you could barely see the dunes.  But I couldn’t resist taking this photo of the toilets (specially for a special person in London – you know who you are).  Longdrops in true African style, and the one on the right doesn’t even have a door, just open to the sands!  When you gotta go, you gotta go!

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The next morning as we left early for our longest drive of the trip, there was a long queue of cars and buses waiting for the gate to open, but the sun (and the wind) was already well up.

What an amazing place!

Namibian wisdom

DSC_0320Lessons from the Quiver Tree
(source unknown)

Sink your roots deep into the ground

Stand tall and proud

Accept your natural beauty

Make a difference just where you are

I saw this quote on the reception desk at our hotel – loved it so much I just had to share!  The quiver tree is not in fact a tree at all, but an aloe, with a fibrous stem that the San people used to make quivers for their arrows.

Namibian nothingness

Intellectually, of course I knew that Namibia is a vast and empty country – well, come to think of it, New Zealand is pretty empty too – but no amount of knowledge can prepare you for the experience of the vast tracts of nothingness that is Namibia.

As we touched down at Windhoek airport, I wondered “but where is Windhoek?”  The airport itself located in a vast empty plain some 40km from the city itself.  After a long wait for customs – two flights from Johannesburg in at exactly the same time, with just two customs officers processing “foreigners” – we headed for the Hertz desk to pick up our car, only to find the costs were nearly double what we’d been quoted.  To add insult to injury, having told us there’s an additional NZ$400 not included in the quote because we’re dropping off the car in Cape Town (which they obviously knew when they did the quote), she then fiddles about to find us a car that needs to be relocated back to SA anyway!  Final straw!  Sorry says Peter, forget it!

Marches over to the next rental car counter, where we secure a bigger car, at very close to what Hertz quoted us originally, all costs included!  So there!

But by now we are running a tad later than expected, and still have a 4 hour drive to Swakopmund, Fortunately on good roads, but also roads which everyone advises should not be driven after dark because of wandering wild animals (such as those baboons crossing the road featured in my previous post).

DSC_0665As the sun fell lower and lower, it became clear we were not in fact going to make it in time… The last 30km into Swakopmund, with roads full of traffic right at shift changeover time for the surrounding mines, and big trucks serving the supply chain from Walvis Bay to the rest of the country, were the longest 30km of the trip thus far.

Nothing that couldn’t be fixed by a nice dinner of oryx steak, washed down with a fine Cape red, followed by a couple of Dom pedros at the Lighthouse down the road!

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Sunday, of course, sees everything but the churches closed in Swakopmund – fortunately anticipated when I booked a full day guided tour with Steve from Batis Birding Safaris, and what a fabulous day it was.  We headed to Walvis Bay lagoon, where the flamingoes and pelicans are normally the key attraction – though our morning was highlighted for Steve by the sighting of a very rare bird – yet to be confirmed as a royal tern quite far from “home”, and for us the sight of a black-backed jackal, strolling along the beach stalking flamingoes, or to be precise, one rather large flamingo that, according to Steve, he had probably identified as being infirm or elderly, and thus a good target.  Sadly we didn’t tarry to observe the chase, Mr Jackal being a little indecisive…

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A long bumpy ride into the dunes in search of the elusive dune lark – only to spot one flying away!  Namibia’s only endemic bird, has adapted to desert life to the point where it doesn’t need water!  Never mind – we were subsequently treated to a sighting in the dunes near Sossusvlei over sundowners.

Lunch of fish and chips on the wharf at Walvis Bay and we were off into the hinterland for a “drive along the Swakopmund River”.

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Major discovery of the day – when a Namibian says they’re taking you for a drive along the river, there will be NO WATER in sight, just a dusty, desiccated river bed that doubles as a road track.  “There was water here for 2 months in 2011” Steve tells us.  Wow!

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What the drive lacks in terms of actual river, it makes up for many times over in amazing geology.  Rocks folded and folded over again, truly ancient, and fascinatingly vast fields of lichen covered stones, which just look like desert until you examine the stones closely to find a host of different lichens giving the stony field its colourful hue.

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And the object of this adventure?  The ancient welwitschia plants, which live for thousands of years – these babies just about 150 years old, apparently… Male and female plants (a bit like birds, the male more decorative)… And their very own welwichia beetle that feeds on them and is responsible for pollination.  A tight and ancient ecosystem.

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Two sleeps later we were on the road again – only 350km to Sossusvlei…  Steve had pointed out the turnoff to us a few days earlier – turn off here on the gravel road, he said.  How far is it unsealed, asked Peter.  All the way…. Oh!

This is a brief view of that trip – photos taken through the windscreen at half hour intervals.  Namibian nothingness at its very finest!
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DSC_0931DSC_0918DSC_0942Five and a half hours to do 350km, with only a stop at Moose McGregor’s bakery in the aptly names Solitaire for a coke and pie!

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A very exciting day (apparently)

I say “apparently” because our guide for the day – the awesome Steve from Batis Birding Safaris – seemed extremely perplexed that Peter and I were not sharing his huge excitement at our sighting of a Royal Tern at Walvis Bay.

Excitement so great that having seen the thing – a big “mossie” (sparrow), according to Peter, not even a decent sized chicken (he was joking!) – around 10am, by 4pm the word was out in the birding community, and birders from as far away as South Africa were standing by to fly to Swakopmund in the hopes of seeing said bird.

Problem was, there were only three people who saw it – me, Peter and Steve – and only one who appreciated its significance.  And that one didn’t have a camera – and my camera lens, good as it is, is definitely not designed for bird pics at 50m…  Steve called for reinforcements with appropriate camera gear, but by the time the troops arrived, birdie had flown the coop, so to speak.  Convinced he will be back, the troops were still waiting patiently four hours later.

Meanwhile, back at the B&B, I downloaded my photos, and thanks to the wonders of truly giant file sizes, I think the evidence is clear.  One “ordinary” tern with yellow beak, and his big cousin the Royal tern with brighter orange beak, side by side on the sand.

Who knows, my photo may be famous – at least until the professionals descend on Swakopmund in the next few days.

And just for the record, Steve, we were really thrilled to have shared in your discovery, and so pleased if my photo does in fact authenticate your sighting.  We loved the rest of the day too, but more of that to come in the next few posts.