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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One night in Jozi

An uneventful drive back down to Johannesburg from Kruger found us checking into a lovely comfortable guest house, with the friendliest staff in perhaps the worst area we could have imagined.  Oh dear, the perils of Trip Advisor!

I guess for those who are picked up from the airport in their shuttle, delivered inside the high gates, and returned to catch their flight the next day, it is a convenient resting point, but arriving in a self-driven rental car, and wondering whether it was safe to get out out the car to ring the bell on the gate was not a good feeling.

My fears were confirmed when cousin Daniel picked us up later that evening … How the hell did you find this place, he asked incredulously. If you go to the shopping mall down the road, you’ll think you’re in Nigeria, he said. Well actually, we had popped out to the mall down the road, to buy data for the phone – I haven’t been to Nigeria, so couldn’t comment, but I do know it felt very much like Africa, which of course it should!

Mind you, he then proceeded to drive us straight through the very heart of the Jo’burg CBD, showing us how “safe” it is now that they have a grid of CTV cameras and armed guards on all the rapid transit stations. Hmmm…. For obvious reasons, no photos, though it was interesting – in a kind of watching-a-train-crash kinda way – and familiar but unrecognisable. Daniel’s girlfriend was very grumpy with him for risking driving through the city after dark.

Article in the newspaper next morning talking about how many police are being killed each week, and wondered what the “average” level might be in other places. Cops killed by ex-cops who’ve been kicked out of the force for corruption? Let me see… Probably ZERO would be good!

Then in a startling example of the juxtaposition of old and new South Africa, we arrived at the Johannesburg Country Club- a bastion of erstwhile tradition, now trying hard to attract the next generation of families who have been in the fold for decades. This occasion – a wine tasting followed by casual dinner… very nice, very interesting to taste some old favourites and make some new discoveries, and to catch up with Daniel, and meet his girlfriend Caroline. So very kind of them to invite us to gate crash their Friday night out with friends.

They drove us back to the unsuitable guest house – by now, having checked in, I was clutching the remote control for the security gates. We drove in and closed the gate behind us before we hopped out and bid them farewell and thanks for a fascinating night out. Come visit us in Auckland soon, Daniel and Caroline! We definitely owe you!

Animals, animals everywhere

When I lived in Africa, I regularly came across people from other parts of the world who wondered if we had wild animals in the garden. No, of course not, I would say, we live in a city.

Well, on this trip I have been fortunate to (mostly) avoid the cities, and visit the places where wild animals are, in fact, very much a feature of the general environment.  And wild animals there were aplenty – it would be fair to say, if we’d been building an ark, we would have had no trouble stocking it!

And so, in the spirit of Noah and his ark, let me share with you some of our sightings across Southern Africa.

There were green alligators…

Well actually crocodiles, but at least two that we saw were definitely green (from the algae in the dams), and as so often the case, where crocodiles are, hippos are not far behind.

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And long necked geese…

Actually, there were geese, Egyptian geese, lots of them, but not particularly photogenic, so instead, I’ll share a couple of other long necked creatures instead.

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Humpy backed camels…

Yes, now that we’re in the Namib, we have in fact seen camels, but only of the tourist attraction ride on variety, and a lone sign on the road, pointing to a camel farm, presumably breeding camels for tourists to ride on.

There are, however, lots of humps in the bush – these are my very favourite antelopes, the majestic kudus!

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See the buffalo having a go at each other in the background.  These are imposing creatures, yet ultimate a pushover for other large animals.  We saw them being seen off not only by elephants, but also by hippos and rhinos…  and of course, by each other.  Though I did love this shot of the three asking the big guy permission to cross his river.

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There were chimpanzees…

Well certainly monkeys, lots of monkeys – though no chimpanzees in Southern Africa (as far as I know).  These baboons crossing the main road from Windhoek to Namibia…  we didn’t stop to wonder why.

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There were cats and rats and elephants, as sure as you were born…

One single “cat” sighting – apparently the lions in Kruger have been literally decimated by TB – and thankfully, no rats….  but elephants, oh my goodness, were there plenty of elephants.  Elephants, elephants everywhere – in the bush, in the rivers, on the road, cavorting in mud pools, seeing off some buffalo…

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But the loveliest of all was the unicorn….

Yes we did see these semi-mythical creatures, though we can’t say where, because there be bad men about with guns and chainsaws, organised to deliver horns for no good reason at all.  Truly tragic to hear how many are lost each year, despite massive efforts to keep them safe.  Most visibly, the strategy for those in semi-captivity, to have their horns removed so that they are no longer targets.  Sad, sad, sad…  one day, photos like these may be the only evidence of their existence.

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The birthday bash in the bush

No better excuse than a twin 60th birthday to gather with friends and family in the African bush.

The birthday party itself was planned to be a low-effort affair, with the lodge down the river doing all the hard work – but first there was this small matter of a birthday cake. Lindsay had come prepared with cake tins, chocolate, ground almonds and baking paper, and the famous Annabel Langbein gluten free chocolate cake recipe.
I have to say I was more than a little sceptical of the undertaking – making two cakes simultaneously, with a recipe relying on the beaten egg whites for “rise”, in a completely unknown oven that had proven itself to be more than a little temperamental in the preceding days!

But a grand team effort from the “ladies in the kitchen” – Lindsay, Caroline and me” delivered a fantastic result. Dr Google came to the rescue next day with a recipe for butter icing that didn’t require icing sugar (the forgotten ingredient) and there you have it – a two tier birthday cake fit for the occasion!

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The rest of the party (another 10 to match our already settled 10) started arriving before lunch on the day of the birthday – fortunately lots of vegetarian leftovers in the fridge – and then retired to the lodge where they were staying for an afternoon nap before the real party began.

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So very much enjoyed seeing people from this and other parts of the world that were part of our youth – some not seen for 30 years or more! With the added bonus of also seeing many of the missing cousins…  My goodness, if only I could get them all to NZ, family dinners would be spectacular! Well, more spectacular than they already are, of course.

Philippa, Robert, Jessica and Sarah, you were sadly missed. But very cool to see Catherine, Adrian and James together in one place, and to meet Max and Charli and their respective partners.

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Although there were no speeches planned – just some “thanks for comings” from birthday boys Robert and George – Robert did then, in true kiwi style “open the floor” to everyone else, encouraging those who wanted to say something to speak. More than a few took up the opportunity (yes, cannot tell a lie, including me). Prize for best speech of the night, however, goes to Charli’s fiancé Lee – a newcomer to the group, about to marry into the family, and probably also the guest least likely to fit in (boy, were we wrong about that!). His speech was brief, and to the point – he talked about how he too comes from a big, very close family, but they all live very close together, work together in the family business… And how this extended Jamieson family he is marrying into proves that you can still maintain really close family bonds even as you are scattered on the four winds to the very corners of the earth. A thought worth remembering, and one which sums us up so very well.

Dinner included such old favourites as peri peri chicken livers, pap and works, with tomato onion gravy, and of course lots and lots of braaivleis! Much red wine was drunk, tales of our youth revisited… Thank goodness for Johan our trusty ranger waiting to drive us back to our own house down the river – a short but circuitous bumpy dirt track, populated by wildlife including a herd of kudu eating the aloes in the neighbour’s garden!

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Never intended to be a one trick pony, the birthday celebrations continued the next day at our house, with much wallowing in the pool, and yet more food, glorious food, after an emergency supplies dash into the supermarket in Komatipoort when it became clear we would not be able to stretch our supplies far enough – loaves and fishes came to mind. Thank heavens for Sonta, our lovely housemaid, who unflappably dealt with the continuous stream of dirty dishes and glasses, returning them to the counter only to find them in immediate use again.

And then there was time for one last evening game drive with everyone – two vehicles going their separate ways, but meeting up for sundowners at the hippo pool, and the final farewells to the birthday visitors, before the rest of us retired back to our slothful ways for a few more days.

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As I surveyed the gathering, I couldn’t help but reflect on how un-South-African I feel. Somehow, others -despite having been away for decades – have maintained that easy connection, that common ground, visibly reflected in the way that many gatherings (this one included) break up into the men’s group and the women’s group (even when there is not an obvious reason like men braai’ing the meat and women making the salad.

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As I stood to one side, with some of the next generation, I realised that I didn’t fit in either group, but that that was not really the point. Fit it seems, is more about what’s in your heart than what’s on your birth certificate, and the words of my mother rang in my head “South African by birth, Kiwi by choice”.