Oryx and Cake
I am not one for interfering with nature. In fact, I am in Namibia with friends in order to experience nature at its least interfered-with. We are sitting in a land rover on a raised dirt track beside the vast grey-whiteness of the Etosha salt pan. To our right is an oryx, or gemsbok, paused impassively in the haze of the morning heat (1030am, and it is stinking hot already) on its route across a corner of the pan. Fifty yards to our left, behind a weary-looking bush, is a lioness, crouching, taut, her eyes fixed on the gemsbok. Evidently, she has not had a successful night’s hunting. I move the car forward a few metres to get a better view, and as I do, it occurs to me that I am providing cover for the lioness. Oh well. It was accidental, I tell myself. And predators are resourceful. We've all seen cheetah sit on top of Jonathan Scott's car to get a better view of prey and competitors, and in the Madikwe game reserve in South Africa a few weeks earlier, I heard of a packs of wild dogs which regularly chased large antelopes into the electrified wires of its perimeter fence. Animals will use every means at their disposal to improve their chances in the big savannah lottery – this is why the gemsbok is braving the heat out in the pan rather than sheltering in the shade of a tree: with this visibility, a lion is unlikely to get near it.
But it seems we're no help anyway. As we move forward, so does the gemsbok, and the big cat breaks cover and starts to run. Perhaps it was already aware of the lioness, which has 80 metres to catch up on the gemsbok, and no chance. In retrospect, breaking the lioness’s line of sight might not have been the best idea. A large-maned lion emerges from the scrub behind the lioness’s position and seems to glare at us. He must be hungry too. It is rare for a male to be this interested in the hunt if he has a female to do it for him. The pair wander off as another car approaches, and we move on too, back to the campsite. A cup of coffee at 6am while waiting for the camp gates to open was not a proper safari breakfast.
Three of us are having an adventure. It is not the wildest adventure ever, but it is a bit different. We are driving ourselves around the back roads of Namibia (there are not many main ones) in a land rover. We brought our own tents and cooking equipment (but you don't have to - Practical Information below). This kind of self-sufficiency is perhaps not the best way to meet and interact with Namibians, but that is not easy at the best of times. Namibia is huge, and empty of humans. Or it seems that way, outside of the infrequent towns we come across.
It has been a stunning trip. Tonight will be our last in Namibia before the long drive back to Cape Town. Despite the nights under canvas, we have hardly been roughing it. We are at Okaukuejo, a rest camp in the centre of Etosha National Park with a floodlit waterhole. Another, Namutoni, has plush rooms in a 100 year-old German fort, built in 1903 in a show of force aimed at the local Ovambo people. It is next to a spring which feeds another waterhole. The Ovambo, who now make up half of the country’s 2m people, promptly destroyed it in 1904, making perhaps the more convincing point. Its replacement, built in 1906, is still there, an incongruous white castle in the sand. On top of its geological and natural wonders (of which more later) Namibia is full of architectural surprises. Steep-sloping Bavarian roofs, designed to prevent too much snow settling, stand in bemused lines in the coastal towns of Swakopmund and Lüderitz. The sea mists which settle overnight as a result of the difference in temperature between the cold sea (14C at most) and the baking red land (40C plus) only add to their strangeness. Windhoek city centre is a mix of glass and steel and old wooden balconies, all bathed in the kind of crystal-clear light that can only come from being at nearly 6000ft in the middle of a dry country. Add in small bars in dry river beds, hours from the nearest town, restaurants in old tugboats on concrete stilts in the aforementioned strange Bavarian seaside/edge of desert towns, and you could be dreaming.
And then there’s the nature. The flora clings on for dear life but supports an impressive food chain. Etosha is considered one of the finest National Parks in Africa, and a highlight of a visit to Namibia (it’s all highlights to be honest). It is the size of Wales (a regular benchmark where African parks are concerned – Kruger Park in South Africa is the size of Wales too) and teems with big herds and their predators. The previous day we had caught sight of a leopard’s ears above the level of the grass as it lazed under a tree on the edge of the salt pan, and today we had spoilt a lion’s breakfast. In between times we had sat in our car as huge herds of whinnying and grunting blue wildebeest, gemsbok, springbok and zebra gathered around us on their way to a waterhole, and had been hypnotised by the swaying necks of a herd of giraffes as they ran alongside us. In the afternoon, we had settled down with a cold one on a bench at Okakuejo’s soon-to-be-floodlit waterhole, as if at a cricket match. Slowly, species by species and with varying degrees of caution, animals came to drink. The gemsbok were the shyest of the herding ‘plains game’, but eventually waded into the water. As the sun set, a herd of elephants approached and every other creature, bar a spotted eagle owl, scattered. The owl had a lot of fun, and so did the baby elephant chasing it away every ten minutes. And so did we, transfixed for two hours by the social interaction of these enormous, intelligent, beautiful creatures. Eventually, they ambled off into the night, to be replaced by a lone black rhino, its one-ton frame looking slight compared to the elephants who had gone before. We wandered back to our corner of the sprawling fenced camp to cook a meal on our barbecue, sorry braai, and felt at peace with the world. A very considerate fellow-camper came over to tell us a pride of lions were drinking at the waterhole, but we were dog-tired. ‘We’ll see them tomorrow’ was the consensus. And this being Etosha, we did.
A week of indelible memories previously, we had headed southwest out of Windhoek on a dirt road across the central highlands. Endless swaths of golden grass caught the morning light to stunning effect. The stony ground here makes cultivation impossible, but the grass supports huge cattle and sheep ranches. We glimpsed only scattered springbok, before reaching the dramatic Gamsberg pass, which winds down towards the Namib, the oldest desert in the world. Spread out in front of us, a vast undulating blanket of red sand radiated the sun’s heat back into a deep blue sky. We felt minuscule and incidental between the two as we followed the road down towards Sesriem, a camp just inside the Namib-Naukluft national park, and our first stop. It was so quiet that night and the stars so bright that they seemed to be singing. First light on the sand dunes at Sossussvlei the following day felt like the dawn of time. (Note: I have been here before and since, and there can be noise from partying overland truckers, but they're not always there, or like that, and there are many other parts of this desert you can have to yourself).
A brief interlude on the coast followed, doing active things by day (sandboarding, bodysurfing in the freezing sea) and looking into the possibilities of Swakopmund by night. Early nights all round then, but we did eat well, and cheaply, here and everywhere, including at the restaurant in an old tugboat on a concrete plinth. Barbecued food somehow tastes better cooked out in the wilds too. Coffee and küchen (cakes!) houses are another curious feature of many Namibian towns. A chilled counter, with Bavarian gateaux of every hue is a weird and wonderful thing to get stuck into after a long, dusty morning on the road. Just as scattered acacias across the country's sparse landscapes often shelter a lone gemsbok from the midday sun, so these coffee houses sustain human travellers, not to mention farming families with roots in the Black Forest.
So many moments on our long meandering drive from the coast up to Etosha made this trip unforgettable. We camped one night near the aforementioned bar-in-the-middle-of-nowhere. It is in fact in the middle of the Ugab, a dry river in Damaraland, 300km southwest of Etosha, and is one of several local businesses run by and for the local Damara community. Others include the campsite and a small visitors’ centre next to the nearby Brandberg, the highest mountain in the country, made all the more imposing by its isolation. It sits alone, rising nearly 2000m from the desert floor to 2600m, and is home to insect species yet to be officially classified. Magnificent rock art hides around every corner (there are many other sites across the country too, Twyfelfontein and Grootfontein being the most famous), including the enigmatic White Lady, named by the white men who discovered her, on account of the figure’s white legs. ‘She’ looks nothing like a white lady and is now acknowledged to be a young black man hunting – the bow and arrow, not to mention the black face and torso, should really have given it away. It is one of hundreds of engravings and paintings an hour’s walk into the Brandberg from the visitors’ centre. A local guide will take you up to them and beyond. It is a fascinating mountain, and an impressive grass-roots tourism initiative.
At this camp, the morning after our walk on the mountain, we awoke from a deep desert slumber and opened our tent flaps to find an old bull elephant stripping away the foliage on a tree opposite. It was a moment made all the more magical by the fact that it was hundreds of miles from any fenced park or surface water. We had seen one of the elusive desert elephants, which migrate down from Etosha in the winters, finding water beneath the surface of the dry river beds. It was followed at a respectful distance by a small herd of British gap year students, which broke the spell slightly, although they were as mesmerised as we were. Their role was apparently to monitor these giants as they pass through the area. It was their first sighting in ten days - a perfect preparation for the rigours of university. To be fair to them, they had also helped build the visitors’ centre at the Brandberg.
On the road north to Etosha, we spotted four small furry shapes at the edge of the road - young cheetah cubs. Their mother had already crossed, and we found ourselves between them. She started running, trying to draw us away from the cubs. However, they followed, and we found ourselves driving along with four cheetah cubs on one side and their increasingly distressed mother on the other - an unforgettable escort. Eventually, the penny dropped - we were the cause of her distress. We stopped the car and the cheetahs disappeared off into the undergrowth together. These and countless other moments – surfing sea lions, desert sunsets, dubious gemstone salesmen - flash through my mind daily. We were only away for ten days but it felt like months.
Practical details and tips
Don't try to 'do' the whole country in one trip. There is so much to see. On this occasion we missed out the wildlife riches of the Caprivi strip running across the north of Botswana, the vast deserts and unique people of of Kaokaland in the remote northwest, the unique Bushmanland and Khaudum in the northeast, and the not-inconsiderable Fish River Canyon in the south. That's four more trips at least.
The tourist offering in Namibia has also evolved enormously since I wrote the above piece in 2002, although the landscapes remain the same. There are possibly fewer cheetahs in the country, but still more than anywhere else, and some concessions have sold a bit too much of their wild game to hunters, but other areas have become more conservation-minded. The luxury end of the market has grown immensely, with fancy lodges in outrageously beautiful locations, but interesting too is the rise in community-owned conservancies, which either run or lease out camps to operators. I hope to feature many of these on the site in future as I get to know them, along with excellent and vital conservation initiatives such as Africat. Essentially there is something for every budget: farm stays, community campsites, hostels even.
It is 'busier' these days, but it really is still vast and empty by any sane measure. We travelled over 2500 km in Namibia 10 days, but driving in such a stimulating landscape is not a chore.
We were in a borrowed car on this occasion but there are many thoroughly helpful and professional outfits, who give you practical driving training and everything you could possibly need, from sleeping bags and towels to shovels, cooking equipment (national park rest camps all have grocery stores) and a spare everything (or two, in the case of tyres).
You can do it in a hard-roofed bushcamper, or with one or two soft roof tents (complete with soft mattresses and sheets) and all the mod-cons you can think of stashed in the back. You can even have a fridge, which is nice. We had a coolbox, bought cheaply in Cape Town, and blocks of ice purchased regularly, which worked fine.
To save money, travel with an airline like Ethiopian, which allow you to bring 2x23kg bags, bring your own camping stuff and hire a basic 4x4 like an X-Trail.
Camping on the ground is fine. Most camps in parks are fenced, but even if they're not, leopards and lions do not have opposable thumbs, so can't work zips. Monkeys in the Caprivi, however...
As mentioned above, something like an X-Trail will do if you are not going too far off the beaten track, but the bigger the better, really. You could even reserve a high-clearance 4x2 and get a free upgrade to a 4x4 when one of these is not available, as happened to me once, but I wouldn't bank on it! Most 4x4 specialist car hire companies operate from the capital Windhoek (or Cape Town and Johannesburg too if you have more time), and also provide 24-hour back-up and a short course on how to drive on dirt roads. If you want to travel in a little more comfort (the rooftop tents are extremely comfortable though), you can also hire fully-equipped camper vans from some firms, for a similar price. These limit your options slightly in terms of taking scenic detours and heading into the remote corners of the country, but you will be able to travel on most roads. The only impact will be on your speed. The wider tyres and better traction of a 4x4 mean dirt roads can be taken a little more quickly, but you should still be cautious with your speed. Individual car hire firms will be able to suggest speed limits, and you should absolutely stick to these. In any case, you should only travel to the remote corners of the country in groups of two or more proper 4x4 cars (winch, shovel, 2 jacks, 2+ tyres, spare tank, spare water tank etc - not to mention satellite phone - recommended! Really, if you are not an experienced offroader, or even if you are, get a travel operator - see below - to recommend guides for this) for back-up in emergencies, as it is often weeks rather than hours before you see another vehicle.
When to go
Namibia has summer rainfall (October/November to April), which is heaviest in the north, including Etosha, where it temporarily turns the landscape green, makes game elusive and roads muddy - hard to believe for the 7-8 other months of the year. As early as May, when we visited, most of the standing water from the rains has dried up and the grass is brown again. It has all but disappeared by September, and October is a month of high tension as temperatures rise and vast herds of desperate animals assemble, waiting for the gathering clouds to break. Rainfall is not such a consideration in the southern two-thirds of the country, but the roasting temperatures between December and March make the Namib-Naukluft national park a bit of an ordeal. If you do go, however, you are likely to have it to yourself, and will find some respite as the temperatures cool at night. It is always a good 10 degrees cooler on the coast too, thanks to the Benguela current. The central highlands, including the capital Windhoek, are more pleasant in summer and get more rain due to the altitude. But it will still feel hot to most visitors, even in winter. In short, April to October is the season (2018 update: quite 'busy' in July and August these days - you might get a crowd around a lion in Etosha, but it's really not that bad!)
Southern Africa as a whole is prime 4x4 self-drive and territory, with National Park and private campsites everywhere. From Johannesburg, where you will find the most specialist car hire firms, you can head to all points of the compass. West takes you into the infinite possibilities of Botswana (properly wild camping - no fences, no facilities, no fear from the predators), or across it to Namibia or the large, lean lions of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in northern South Africa and south-western Botswana. To the east are the Kruger National Park and the beaches of southern Mozambique and to the south and south-west is the under-explored and under-rated heart of South Africa, by turns bleak and beautiful, or even Lesotho, though I'd recommend a pony trek there - look up Malealea. North is the beautiful Waterberg plateau, with Marakele National Park's Vulture colony a highlight, and many private reserves (avoid the hunting ones, please) beyond it the shattered red rock and archaeology of Mapungubwe National Park, the slow Limpopo, and beautiful, friendly Zimbabwe, not to mention the distinctive north of Kruger and adjoining community concessions (I'll post soon on Limpopo Province). Further still are Zambia and Malawi, for those with time on their hands and an adventurous spirit. (Stand by for more posts on these last two countries too.)
The hassle-free option is to get an operator to organise it for you, but if you're reading this you're probably looking to do it yourself. Most specialist African operators really know their stuff, however. Expert Africa and Aardvark Safaris, to name but two, are really great, and will get you a better deal on a lodge than you can. I would use them if you don't want to camp. Otherwise, there's enough clues in here to get you started!