Into the Namibian Desert with the Pastores

Trip Start Jan 31, 2005
Trip End Mar 30, 2006

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

After yet another four or five days in Cape Town, the two of us got on our first bus in South Africa and rode 20 or so hours up to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Windhoek is a pretty mellow place, about the size of Kalamazoo. We spent a few days getting organized there (including a hot, dusty walk to the Indian Embassy, where we needed to apply for a visa), and then met up with Jeff's sister Julie and her husband Pat for a 12-day self-guided tour through Namibia.

We spent the first couple of days with Julie and Pat in Windhoek, allowing them to recover from the 30 or so hours of travel from Cleveland to Namibia, as well as see a few local sites and stock up on food for our upcoming camping road trip. We then picked up the big 4x4 truck (complete with pop-up roof tent for Julie and Pat, as well as table, chairs, big stove, cooking gear, fridge and more) that we reserved and headed north to Etosha National Park, Namibia's most famous game reserve. The drive was pretty indicative of what was to come in Namibia - lots of flat sandy land, a tree and a huge termite mound here and there and the occasional small town. Namibia is four times the size of the UK but has a population of only 1.8 million people.

We arrived in Etosha close to sunset, the start of the trend of our arriving in places just before the gates were about to close (or closed). On the short drive between the gates and our first campground, we saw a couple of giraffes and some antelope - a good warmup for what was to come - and then checked into the campground and set up in the dark (the start of another trend...).

Etosha is incredibly flat, contains an immense saltpan and is very dry in the winter months (think Southern Hemisphere winter). The combination of all of these things makes it very easy to see wildlife, particularly around waterholes. The big draw at Etosha are the floodlit waterholes located at each of its campgrounds, which attract large numbers of animals throughout the night, allowing the viewing of wildlife after being safely gated inside the campground at dark. We had been told not to expect too much at the first campground's (Namutoni) waterhole, as there are several other waterholes nearby for animals to choose. After dinner, though, we walked over to have a look and within a half hour, two lions crept out of the surrounding bushes and took a long drink - we didn't see anything else that was too exciting that night, but a good start!

We got up before dawn the next morning to get a jump on the best game viewing hours and were out of the campground and driving by 6:30am. We had a good run that morning, seeing lots of types of antelope (big and small) and some rarely seen bat-eared foxes within minutes. We then pulled over at a waterhole where an ostrich and a few small antelope were standing around. We decided to stick around for a few minutes to see if anything else showed up and soon after a group of about six giraffes showed up. We watched as they slowly, warily moved to the water, and then, after looking around for trouble numerous times, splayed their legs wide and put their heads down for a drink (they are at their most vulnerable to attack when drinking). After watching the giraffes for awhile, we moved on. Soon after, Jeff's sharp eyes spotted eight lions coming over the salt pan in the distance, and we watched as they approached a different waterhole. A large group of various antelope and zebra were at the hole before the lions arrived, and it was interesting to watch the animals suddenly stand at a attention and then warily leave the waterhole to give the lions room. They did not actually run away, as they seemed to sense that the lions weren't hunting, but they gave the cats a wide berth and watched from a distance. The lions (several lionesses and a young male), too, were interesting to watch as they approached, as one or two lionesses stayed far back from the waterhole while the others were drinking, maybe keeping an eye out for trouble. After the lions had all had their fill they flopped in the shade of two huge palm trees next to the waterhole - a post-card ready shot if we had had better cameras.

We moved to the next campsite, Halali, that afternoon, rested a little bit. We had a good show at the Halali waterhole that night. A big family of elephants was there when we arrived, including lots of babies and young elephants. The elephant soap opera of the night consisted of two males play fighting and a baby who seemed to have lost its mom and kept trying to nurse from all of the other moms (it was really sad watching the not-moms kicking him away). There were also a couple of rhino drinking for part of the night, and three hyenas made a brief appearance. And lots of squirrely black-backed jackals, the only animals routinely present within the campground itself (we were warned to bring all shoes into the tent with us at night or that they would be chewed up by the jackals).

Our second full day in the park we got up early again and spent until mid-afternoon driving around. Another good day. About mid-morning, we pulled off to a waterhole to check if there was any action, and although nothing was drinking, we noticed lots of anxious-looking animals standing at attention, as well as a couple of jeeps parked and waiting with people inside who had the look of knowing something we didn't know. We lucked out, though, when a nice guy pulled over to our truck and told us that a pride of lions had killed and eaten a zebra the night before and were heading for the waterhole right then. He told us to follow him so that we could see them coming, so we went up the road a little ways and saw two coming in the distance. It turned out one was a huge male, closely followed by a lioness, both with big, fat, zebra-stuffed bellies. They sauntered across the road practically right in front of us and continued to the waterhole, which we returned to after they had crossed. Eventually, four or five other lions showed up, including one young male who was hanging out by himself and probably about to be booted from the pride. We watched them all drink and then flop in the shade of the most African-looking tree you can imagine. This time, we did get the postcard quality photos.

That night, at campground number three (Okaukejo), we saw lots of good stuff: elephants early in the night, a few timid giraffes being lazily stalked by three young lions and some ornery black rhinos with a few babies. (Usually black rhinos are pretty solitary, but there were a few families at the waterhole that night. They bellowed at each other a lot and then, right before we went to bed, we saw one chasing another around the waterhole - it looked like something out of a cartoon.)

Our third full day in Etosha wasn't too exciting. We had already seen most of the wildlife we had hoped to see, with the exception of a cheetah or a leopard, so we spent much of the day trying to find them, unsucessfully.

We left Etosha after the fourth night camping and spent a long day driving south to the seaside town of Swakopmund. It ended up being a pretty interesting day. After stopping in a little town for gas and craft shopping, we drove to Twyfelfontein National Park, famous for its rock art. The San people lived in the Twyfelfontein area about 4,000 to 6,000 years ago and produced (if we remember right) about 2,500 different etchings on rock surfaces, all in one small area. We got a walking tour of the site, which turned out to be really fascinating, as you'll see in the photos.

From Twyfelfontein, we decided to take advantage of (justify?) our four-wheel drive vehicle and take some shortcuts back to the main "highway" (really just a wider dirt road). It was a really stunning drive through the desert with incredibly weird rock formations (kind of like giant balls of clay all dropped into huge piles) and practically nobody else on the road. On the second part of our shortcut, we had driven about halfway to the main road when the road started getting narrower... and narrower... and then into a two-track and then suddenly it ended at a wide, sandy, dried-out riverbed. We stared across the former river for a bit and could see some sort of path on the other side. We decided to drive across to check it out. The truck made it without getting stuck in the sand (and good thing, because we would have been there a LONG time before anybody could pull us out - but, hey, we had tents, food, water, stove...), but when we got to the otherside, the "road" was so unlike a road that we decided to turn around and see if we could find somebody to ask directions. Luckily, there was a tiny village near the river, and a woman and her son happened to be walking by when we pulled up. We didn't figure she would speak English, so we said the name of the town we were driving towards and pointed in the direction of the river. She looked amused at the sight of the frazzled tourists and confirmed with nod that we were going the right way. We crossed the "river" again and eventually the path on the other side turned into something more like a road and soon after we made it to the main road. Eventually, nearing sunset, we turned onto a long, straight stretch through the Namib desert on a road that was only distinguishable from the surrounding sand and gravel by the curb-like mounds on each side created by keeping the road graded. Eventually we made it to the Atlantic ocean, the dirt road ended and we turned onto a salt road for the last hour or so of our drive to Swakopmund.

We ended up staying two nights in Swakopmund, which turned out to be a fun, friendly and touristy resort town. The night we arrived we checked into a backpackers place (very nice except for the humorless German lady running it) and then walked into the center of town for a meal and some beer at the Swakopmund Brauhaus. Namibia was a German colony and still retains a lot of its cultural influence, though the country has, since independence in 1991, focused a lot on promoting its distinctive African culture (i.e. changing street/town names to African names...). The German influence in Swakopmund is everywhere, though, from the architecture to the food to the language.

Swakopmund is also the adventure sport capital of southern Africa, so, the next day, the four of us signed up for an afternoon of quad-biking in the surrounding sand dunes. It was pretty incredible racing up and down the beautiful dunes, and we all had a great time. Well, except maybe Julie "Can we go faster? Scarier?" Pastore, who tipped her quad-bike twice, and possibly cracked a rib or two... Guess Jeff was wrong when he said, "You can't tip a quad-bike" (actually, he almost tipped his, too, come to think of it... he jumped off first, though). But the Reimann children are a tough breed and the afternoon was great. We finished off with some sandboarding, though different than the type we did in South America. We went down the dunes head-first on pieces of partical board, a lot like sledding. So fun that it was worth climbing back up the dunes to do it three times.

The next day we spent the morning going through shops in Swakopmund, had a pizza for lunch and then started driving towards our next destination: the famous Sossusvlei sand dunes. We had been told the drive would take about 3 hours, and we vaguely planned to arrive by sunset, so we didn't hurry getting out of Swakopmund. As we were driving, though, somebody looked in the guidebook and realized that the campground we booked closed its gates at sunset... and that the estimate that it would only take us 3 hours to get there was pretty optimistic. We were about an hour away when the sun was setting, so we stopped at the little town of Solitaire (notable for its gas station and its famous apple crumble - seriously, we heard about Solitaire apple crumble any time somebody talked about a trip through Namibia...) to attempt to call the campground and beg them to keep it open for us. No luck getting through on the phone (something about the southerly winds wrecking havoc with the phone service), but we decided to drive to the campground anyway and hope that they'd let us in. We lucked out - somebody saw us pull up to the gate and after phoning somebody somewhere to confirm we had a reservation, we were let in. Another close call - didn't have to sleep outside of the gates with the cheetahs after all...

Sossusvlei was an amazing place. Red sand dunes, dried out lakes, gnarled trees. We climbed to the top of two dunes - one to watch the sunrise and the second because it was so huge we wanted to get to the top. Once we were at the top we realized that we must have climbed the highest dune in the area. It took us about an hour to make it to the top and then the best part: about five straight minutes of running, skipping, rolling and jumping down the steep side to the bottom. We were all ready for a shower after the combination of going up and down.

After a second night in the campground outside of Sossusvlei we drove back to Windhoek. Pat needed to catch his flight back to the US that afternoon, so, given our track record, we gave ourselves about twice the amount of time we thought we needed. Probably no surprise that, despite this, we dropped Pat off at the airport about 35 minutes before his flight was scheduled to take off (possibly the stop in Solitaire for apple crumble and coffee was too long?).

Allison, Jeff and Julie had a night and part of the following day to relax in Windhoek before Julie's flight back home. After that, the two of us spent another few days in Windhoek waiting for the next bus to Johannesburg. The ride was 24 hours long and memorable for the heater being on full blast almost the whole way, in spite of the fact that it was 80 or 90 degrees during the day outside. We spent three nights in Johannesburg, the highlight being a trip to the Apartheid Museum and a driving tour around the city center by our Jo'burg-born hostel owner. The city is one of the most dangerous in the world (from a statistical point of view anyway), and Gertie, our driver, said that she knows few people who would drive in the places she will go. Seeing the museum and the current state of Johannesburg (decrepit buildings, lots of poverty, drugs, crime...) in one afternoon was very profound - revealing both the terrible past and the extreme challenges the country has to face in the future.

So that is the end of our Africa chapter - onto India!
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