Africa 2019: Week 1

#BCAfrica2019

Week one: June 3-June 9

Countries: Namibia

Route: Windhoek - Waterberg - Sessriem - Swakupmund - Uis - Palmwag

Kms driven: 2306


Ever since Phoebe and Ben were tiny, John had been talking about doing “An Africa Trip”. Over the last 18 months, plans slowly started to form, partly based on retracing John’s travels over thirty years previously, and partly on the various “things to see in Southern Africa” articles that Ronnie and Phoebe kept digging up. It was decided that the trip should be undertaken in a 4x4 truck, with a rooftop tent, driving and camping around Namibia and Botswana, ending in Victoria Falls, with time to climb Kilimanjaro at the end. The trip will cover thousands of kilometers, and take us six weeks. Six weeks, five of which will be spent in a car, in unfamiliar countries, relying on spotty GPS and paper maps, with four family members of questionable temperament.

God help us. 

John and Ben arrived in Namibia three days before Phoebe and Ronnie, and picked up our behemoth of a truck, and drove to Cheetah Conservation Fund near Otjiwarongo. This organization rescues injured or orphaned cheetahs and cares for them if they can’t release them into the wild. They aim to raise awareness about cheetahs, which are mostly seen as a threat to livestock.

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Unfortunately, the government does not compensate farmers for stock losses to wild predators, so manyd farmers resort to poisoning carcasses, which kills lots of animals, and vultures. Rich farmers can afford to buy and feed Anatolian sheepdogs, imported from Turkey and bred at CCF, specifically to protect flocks from cheetahs. 

On their second day, Ben and John drove to Waterberg plateau lodge, where they saw the endangered white rhinos and giraffes on a sunset tour, although John commented that it seemed somewhat like being in a big zoo, albeit with the significant difference that you can walk around the animals. The peace of the first African night camp was rudely shattered at 11 pm by a porcupine  turning over the rubbish bin, followed by a honey badger doing the rounds of the sites.

White Rhinos in the Waterberg Plateau National Park

White Rhinos in the Waterberg Plateau National Park

The four of us reunited in Windhoek after Ronnie and Phoebe nearly missed their flight in Johannesburg; and started getting the car ready for the next leg of the trip. This was about the time we all started discovering how many things we had forgotten/misplaced/left behind. The whole question of whether we had enough cash to pay for things was floated, and then discarded. We were, obviously, very well prepared. We finally set off for Sessriem, two hours later than we had planned, crammed into the truck with a few days worth of supplies. Twenty minutes down the highway, our tyre disintegrated. 

Staying positive on the side of the road

Staying positive on the side of the road

Changing a shredded tyre (which, it was clear, was a poorly done retread) by the side of the highway in the middle of the day, in the middle of the Namibian desert is, I think, a character building experience. And would have been even more so, had it happened on any of the extremely remoteAfter replacing the two back wheels and the spare (since they all were pretty trashed, it turned out) we set off once more down winding, bumpy dirt roads, through scrubby desert and canyons and past dry river beds. It hasn’t rained in Namibia in a very long time. 

We arrived in Sessreim just in time for sunset, and watched the massive sand dunes turn red around us, before heading back to make camp. The next morning we managed to get up, pack up, and set off in time for sunrise, driving south towards Sossusvlei - the dried lake bed between the dunes. We almost turned back, the track was such soft sand, but we made it through (although a few other cars did not). 

Give me wide open spaces…

Give me wide open spaces…

The sun was just rising, and it was about eight degrees outside, as we hiked through the dunes and came upon Deadvlei - an alien looking landscape dotted with tree skeletons, with a white, cobblestone looking floor, surrounded by towering red dunes. 

Hikers try to beat the sunrise on “Big Daddy Dune”

Hikers try to beat the sunrise on “Big Daddy Dune”

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Tree and dunes in Deadvlei

Tree and dunes in Deadvlei

The rest of the day was a long, bumpy, monotonous drive through flat desert plains towards Swakopmund, a tourist town about half way up the Namibian coast, separating the desolate skeleton coast to the north, from the dunes to the south. 

Sunset in Swakopmund

Sunset in Swakopmund

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There have been people living in Namibia for 27,000 years - the oldest ethnic groups basing the San (bushmen) and the Damara. Germany colonized Namibia in 1884, and committed a terrible genocide of the Himba tribespeople. Namibia was then known as German south west Africa, until World War One, when the League of Nations placed the land under South African rule. In 1971, the International Court of Justice declared that South Africa’s presence was in fact, illegal, but it took another 19 years before Namibia was granted formal independence. This history accounts for the German names, German language, and large number of German tourists (relatively speaking - there are fewer tourists here than we’ve seen in almost any country we’ve visited, apart from Antarctica). Phoebe, Ronnie and Ben stayed for a day in Swakopmund, which was like being in a German seaside town, complete with schnitzel and Biergartens, while John went touring down the coast to the dunes and bird sanctuaries.  On Friday, after dealing with a simultaneous milk and honey explosion in the back of the truck, which necessitated a complete unpacking, cleaning, and repacking of all our belongings, we set off in search of the famous Welwitschia plants, which supposedly grew in abundance about an hour and a half into the desert west of Swakopmund.

The elusive Welwitschia plant

The elusive Welwitschia plant

The welwitschia are bizarre plants, that look like someone has stuck a bunch of pine cones and a few iris leaves into a pair of lumpy grey rocks. They’re hundreds, even thousands of years old, and can survive in the totally dry desert, supposedly by magic. The one we found (we did not come across the fields of them which supposedly grow out there) was covered in a hundred or so brightly colored bugs, which were drinking the sap from its seed pods, and repeatedly mounting one another in the shade of its leaves. It was a decidedly strange spectacle, but it was too hot to stay long, and we had another four hours to drive to our campsite - but not before stopping at the hundred year old homestead cafe at the Goanikontas oasis for lunch.

We took another detour back to the coast to see the Cape Cross Fur Seal colony, which was both the loudest and the smelliest place we had ever experienced. There were literally thousands of seals laying on the sand, wedged between the rocks, surfing the waves, and calling out to one another with noises that were somewhere between a bleat and a shriek, like a goat being tortured by a laughing hyena. The baby seals were incredibly cute, and the adults didn’t seem to care much that we were there, which was fortunate, since they all weighed about 300kgs and had very sharp teeth. A few optimistic jackals and seagulls circled the colony, looking for scraps, but keeping well out of reach, and the rolling sea fog added to the gothic atmosphere. 


Pink rock salt from the side of the road

Pink rock salt from the side of the road

As we drove back inland, we passed tiny stalls beside the road selling hunks of pink rock salt, although it wasn’t clear who was selling them, or for how much, since there were no people in sight. After driving another very straight, very flat road, and passing a cyclist who was obviously insane, we made it into Uis just as dark was falling, and the roadside stalls reappeared, selling gemstones and quartz. 

We stayed in Uis for two nights, hiking in the Brandberg mountains to see the ancient rock paintings and finding (after a very long drive in what seemed to be a converted tank) a family of wild desert elephants. The elephants wreaked unbelievable havoc on the acacia trees, shaking and tearing them in order to reach the leaves, bark, and seed pods. We sat, fascinated, as the three adult females and three juveniles grazed for an hour, occasionally shaking the trees with their foreheads to loosen to pods, which they they picked up with their trunks and tossed into their mouths like peanuts. 

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On Sunday we saw the rock engravings at Twyfelfontein (which translates to “doubtful spring”) which had once, presumably, been on the walls of a cave, but were now scattered around the slope after a landslide hundreds of years ago. We took a chance on the dubious roadside attractions of the “organ pipe” rock formations and “burnt mountain”, declaring both to be the world’s most unimpressive “sightseeing” experiences, and started back for the car when quite unexpectedly, we happened upon an entire field of Welwitschia, all larger, and presumably older, than the one we had seen before. John was in seventh heaven, but Ben, Phoebe and Ronnie wondered if they were ever going to see any animals on this trip, which until now had consisted significantly of rocks, sand and plants.

Rock Paintings at Brandberg

Rock Paintings at Brandberg

Rock Carvings at Twyfelfontein

Rock Carvings at Twyfelfontein

On the side of the road heading north, Phoebe spotted a family of zebra grazing beside a family of springbok. We screeched to a halt and piled out of the car, binoculars in hand, oohing and aahing as the animals grazed about 200 meters away. A genuine wild animal sighting! Five minutes later, on the other side of the road, Ben saw a group of giraffes, and we repeated the performance all over again. Arriving at the campsite to find a rock pool and sunset bar topped off a pretty perfect day all around! 

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Next week, we head up to Etosha, hopefully, to find more wildlife!