Getting there

Namibia MapThe journey there took 36 hours: Vancouver to Heathrow to Jo’burg to Windhoek by plane, and then we were picked up by our COSDEF driver, Laetitia, who drove us the last four hundred kilometers to Swakopmund. It’s Friday.

The drive was a good introduction to Namibia. Windhoek is in the interior highlands on the far side of the Kalahari Desert from Jo’burg, and at this time of the year was green. But as we drove West towards the coast, dropping rapidly out of the mountains, the land dried up: we went from shrubland and trees (and a small family of giraffes) to no trees, to not even shrubs, to just sand.

Swakopmund from Google earth>

Skakopmund

Swakopmund offers the same surprise as Vegas: a bizarre town appearing unexpectedly out of the sand after four hours of driving across desert. The whole town appears to be single storey, with the odd two-storey skyscraper. The main drag is prosperous, with tidy tourist stores, supermarkets and pharmacies.

Hotel …and all very distinctly, well, German. Even though we haven’t yet visited South Africa, it was unexpected—although not unpleasant—to hear everyone speaking Afrikaans here. But it did used to be (German) Southwest Africa.

By the time we arrived, it was late afternoon and cool. We drove down to the ocean and turned South along the beach into the Alte Brucke Resort Hotel, which is in every sense the end of the road—ours and theirs. We are shown to a very clean, modern, semi-detached bungalow with a finished wood cabin interior. We have plenty of room, a sort of loft-bedroom, and our own TV.

The Tug restaurant, where we spent several pleasant eveningsOn the first evening, Laetitia takes us to the Tug restaurant, which is right on the beach, and we have an excellent dinner looking out over the Atlantic. The sky broods and gleams in a semi-sinister way which reminds us of...somewhere. Later in the week, during one of our several return visits to the same restaurant, we wake up to the fact that it’s all familiar—the clientele, the menu, the beach…we could be in California, or Vancouver, or anywhere. The global village effect might sometimes prove disappointing, but at other times it is a chance to enjoy the good things at home...while you're away.


Main Street...and Lynda Swakopmund is a coastal town just north of the mouth of the Swakop river (which only flows in heavy rains).  Its companion town, Walvis Bay, just 30 kilometers to the south, is the nation’s main port, site of the nearest airport and of the most interesting marine and bird life. It is also almost twice the size of Swakopmund, so why Swakopmund prospers as a hot real-estate market and center of commerce is hard to fathom. Quite possibly it is because it doesn’t have the grubby commerce of Walvis Bay and has many of the same retirement attractions as Florida.

Dunes John, Dune 7, and local family (dots in the background One key feature is the presence, just to the south of the town, of the northern end of Nambia’s famous sand dunes (the “Wind” screensaver in Windows). We had the weekend to unjetlag so the next day our COSDEF tour guide, David, drove us out to see them. We took the back route first—out of town the way we came in, and then south, driving parallel with the coast, behind the dunes, towards Walvis Bay. We have the bland, tawny plain of the desert on our left, and to our right, only a hundred meters or so away, a single line of distinctly orange dunes, like low hills between us and the Lyn at the topocean. We eventually pull into an all but empty parking lot with a few palm trees and climb the back of the curiously named Dune 7 (others are numbered too but I couldn’t find out why). It’s only about 100feet vertical but it’s enough. An African family is already at the top, the kids sliding down on the steep slope and having a ball. After this (the first exercise for Lyn since her operation), we circle into Walvis Bay, a typical port, and drive back into Swakopmund on the coast road.

Seal, harbour The following day, we make a similar circular trip towards Walvis Bay…on the ocean. We’re picked up by the failed jetty/port in downtown Swakopmund, which now only hosts a small family of seals, and head down the coast towards Walvis Bay. It’s a pleasant half-day out on the ocean. We see plenty of seals and occasionally, one of the two species of dolphin. One of the seals (a known character) has learned how to jump into the back of the boat to earn a fish, which is quite entertaining. We skirt the enormous rusting hulls of two Russian fishing ships, anchored a few kilometers off shore. They are there to preserve some ancient fishing agreement that makes virtual prisoners of the crew, who haven’t been home in 15 years.

In the afternoon, we walk into town and pick up some groceries at the modern supermarket, update the blog in the modern internet café, and go home to watch cricket and rugby, drinking the excellent local beer and eating chips.

Lyndas group of trainees The rest of the week (to cut a number of stories short) goes brilliantly. Lyn is very pleased with her workshop. She’s just around the corner from the resort, in a modern, convention center. Her “team” meets at breakfast in the resort (we’re all here) to plan the day and then walks over to the center.

My workshop is at a computer training school and I get a twenty minute ride every day, usually from Laetitia or the robust Hennie Swiegers, who actually ends up teaching the workshop from my notes when I come down with laryngitis mid-way through the week.

Judging by later reports, the students from both courses learned a great deal.

ETOSHA

Getting there

Map of Etosha While Lyn finished off her workshop duties on Saturday morning, I made a quick spin around town to buy some ironwood heads from a local carver. By noon, we pack up, and head out of town back towards Windhoek, with Laetitia driving us again in the company car.

Starting out: no sign of rain for weeks......two hours later...The terrain reverses the changes we saw coming in…a hundred kilometers of desert suddenly becomes dotted with shrubs then trees. Finally, after taking a left fork at about the 200Km mark, we climb into the mountains and we’re in the middle of a thunderstorm! By early evening we turn down a side road outside the town of Otjiwarongo and find ourselves in a small game farm/resort: our stop for the night. We take a short walk and see deer, ostriches and wildebeest.

Crocodiles about to become handbagsThe road ahead...about 600km of it!The next day, we make a brief stop at the nearby crocodile farm and then we’re on to Etosha. The roads are good—straight, like arrows, through more or less flat bushland. There’s not a lot of variety to this kind of terrain. It’s all small trees in grassland. The last one hundred kilometers gets more interesting: there’s a 50ft grass verge on either side of the road and then a fence, to keep the big game off the road (or it’s supposed to but we still pass a pair of Kudu—about the size of a moose—browsing on our side of the fence). No, the constant problem for Bushvelddrivers here is hitting the wart-hogs that scoot out of the grass occasionally. They are only a goat-sized animal so it isn’t the kind of (human) life-threatening collision that you’ll have with a kudu, but still. And the guineafowl. Fortunately, these are less likely to run out into the road, but once on the road (and they are, often) it is harder to convince them to clear off the road rather than running along the road in front of your honking car.

We arrive finally at Andersson’s gate into Etosha, pay our fee, and drive the short distance into Okaukuejo village, one of the three resort villages owned and managed inside the reserve by the Namibian government. There are plenty of private and very upscale resorts outside the reserve but the government rates, at C$200 a day are small compared with the alternatives.

Okaukuejo

COSDEF has done us proud. We’re in the chalet closest to—about 75m from—the waterhole. Laetitia drops us off and we plan to meet a little later in the afternoon. It’s stinking hot; we find the air-conditioning and unpack a few things—bearing in mind that we only have a couple of days here—then take a quick walk around. There are dozens of varieties of birds, some of them apparently interested in what we have to offer, and there’s a huge nest of Sociable Weaver birds in the tree next to the watering hole filled with the chatter of young.

Springbok and Buschell's ZebraWe drive out of the resort and head towards theLeubron watering hole, which according to the signposts is about 30km away. Having barrelled across Namibia at 120km an hour in the last two days we’re thinking 15 minutes to Leubron, but in the next three days we have to readjust: 30km is an hour or more on these potholed, dusty roads!

Ostriches So we trundle off through the park, and…well, you have to get into the atmosphere of the place. We’re on a large flat plain that makes Saskatchewan look hilly. The sun is baking down, and we alternate between having the windows closed and the air conditioner on, and the windows open to allow a breeze. Laetitia is great at this: we bump along at 20km an hour keeping our eyes open, slowing down or stopping if we see anything. There’s only the occasional other car doing the same thing. It’s green here because of the rains, but the green is sparse, with grass sprouting up in tufts from the arrid, stony, soil. The trees are that short thorny kind of tree, or the African kind that you see on all those safari shows—thornveldt.


Zebra We pass hundreds of Springbok, get steady sightings of ostriches, zebra and wildebeest, and less often the large Gemsbok (Oryx) with their spear-sized horns. We pass one giraffe carcass. There’s a meditative feel to the place. The animals just graze, sometimes in large groups, but oddly many seem to be on their own. That’s about it for variety today.

Thought we had some shots of the young but didn'tWe haven’t seen any of the big five—lions, elephants, leopards, cheetahs or rhinos—and this isn’t the best time of the year to see them. This is the wet season, and all the animals can find water almost anywhere (there are puddles in the road). During the dry season, all the animals are forced to come to the watering holes...or "the diner" as the big cats call it at that time of the year.

Gemsbok: wheredja get them horns?But there are compensations, for we’ve come just after spring, and all of the animals we see are accompanied by young. The young springbok are the funniest, as they don’t merely move off the road but take the chance for a bit of sprinting, bucking, leg-kicking, and poinking about as though literally on springs. The wildebeest and zebra young are equally boisterous.

And birds! (click here to see the few birds we photographed in Etosha) There are dozens of birds of course:

But this gets frustrating. We cannot find a single book on birds and only a few books on wildlife.

Termite hillThat evening, we have dinner at the resort restaurant and have one of the few disappointments of our trip. The food is buffet style and indifferent enough but the staff—mostly men—add a discomfiting mix of disdain and servility. This could all have been innocent: a novice and nervous waiter at our table, and one overly keen to bolster his tip at the next, in what was clearly a bad time of the year for them.

We left the restaurant and returned to our cabin and found the watering hole floodlit. In the comparitive gloom, on this side of the fencing, sat a watchful crowd of people in complete silence. The night, however, was alive with bird calls, and the floodlights were attracting a snowstorm of moths and other insects—thankfully, because that meant they weren’t around us. There were a few mosquitos but not many, which is good because they carry malaria here.

This shot came out completely black! It took me two hours using special software to even get these two ghosts >At the watering hole, two white rhinos made their way slowly around the edge, grazing as they went, the occasional snorted breath or kicked stone the only sound of their presence. There was the occasional flash of a camera as they came within twenty meters of the wall, yet even with this they remained apparently unaware of their rapt audience. Lyn turned and saw a pair of black-backed jackals, no bigger than border collies, trotting around the cabins in the darkness and taking advantage of our distraction to see if there’s anything they can snap up. It’s a wonder that the dozens of ground-squirrels in the area don’t keep them here permanently.

The next morning, we emerged at about 8:30am and found it blissfully cool. Out in the grassland there were again only the sounds of doves. A couple of jaunty African Hoopoes were  checking everything out. We spent that day too around Okaukuejo, seeing but not tiring of much the same animals; we did see two enormous kudu up relatively close. We avoided the restaurant the following evening, and the animals avoided the watering hole.

Namutoni

The following day, we packed up early and began the long drive to Namutoni. It’s only 100km but it took us about four hours.

Black-faced Impala--saw just a few of these But now, as we passed through Halali, we suddenly began to see impala and hartebeest. There aren’t a large number of them, but Red Hartebeest: again, saw very few of these, so lucky to get this shot enough of a change to our viewing to keep us on our toes. And suddenly we also begin to see large numbers of giraffes. These are huge animals, unlike the smaller ones we saw by the road outside Windhoek: they appear like dock cranes along the horizon, and sometimes we find them lurching about on the road, not keen to see our car but not panicked in getting out of our way. 

Us by the Etosha PanWe checked in to Namutoni and then headed out to drive the salt pan. This is the famous Etosha pan, a huge shallow lake in summer that becomes salt flat in winter. We are hoping to see really big game—like the rest of the big five—before we leave, but no luck there. But we Didn't see many Kudu and they are a fabulous looking animal, so this was a great shot. Maybe I shouldn't have got out of the car though aren’t disappointed overall as we see a large variety of birds, and animals. At one point we come across two black-backed jackals tearing at something (we can’t see) only 100m from the road, while around them an audience of about twenty vultures and a Maribou Stork wait their turn in solemn silence.

The restaurant at Namutoni was better, and after we sat by the watering hole for almost an hour. We could make out a group of zebras faintly in the darkness as they made their way across in the distance. Banded mongoose...geese? Apparently these groups are quite tame and hang around the camps. They moved like a kind of pool of fur, across the road in front of us and disappeared Four of them broke towards us, two of them quite boisterous—young bucks probably— and as they raced about for a few seconds we were surprised to hear the booming of their hooves at this distance. They eventually all drank nervously at the waterhole and moved on.


On, to South Africa

...alternating signs (watch for springboks was the other) every couple kilometersThe next day, we packed up and headed out, driving back to Windhoek. We stopped in to visit the two COSDEC centres, and said hello to some of the people who had come down to our courses. Then we were back, rocketing through the countryside, making Windhoek by late afternoon. We had dinner that evening at a very good Indian restaurant with our hosts from Swakopmund, who were also in town. The next day, we headed out, to the airport for our plane to Johannesburg, and the next stage of our trip.

This was a fabulous two weeks. Thanks Lawrence Pringle of COSDEF for your wonderful hospitality, Pat Salt, for making it happen...

...and Laetitia for driving us all over and tour guiding as well! Thanks Laetitia!