Namibia 2002 by Brian J. McMorrow (c)
April 15-29, 2002
A practically undiscovered land awaits your arrival deep in southern Africa, a nine hour flight south of Germany. Air Namibia offers four weekly overnight flights (Mon, Tue, Thur, Sat) in their Boeing 747-400 Combi from Frankfurt to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Formerly the German colony of Southwest Africa, Namibia fell under South African administration after World War I until its independence in 1990. With this legacy, multi-racial Namibia enjoys a well developed infrastructure which makes independent travel throughout the country a breeze, even in a rented Volkswagen Polo. As an airline employee using the Zonal Employee Discount (ZED) program offered by my employer, I was able to secure a pair of round trip passes on Air Namibia for a mere $154 each. For non-airline employees, Air Namibia’s U.S. reservations line, (1-800-626-4242) quoted me $880 round trip from Frankfurt with little advance notice. Cheap airfare coupled with the historic lows of 11 to 1 reached by the South African rand and Namibia dollar in April, 2002, make Namibia one of the best deals out there. (*note in 2005 the rand has strengthened significantly against the dollar making the destination a bit more expensive for dollar holders*)
Our flight, SW286, departed Frankfurt on time April 15 at 2245. The 747 lifted off from Rhein-Main and took up a course due south on its 5000 mile route across the Alps and the Mediterranean to the coast of Tunisia, across the Libyan desert into Niger, passing west of Lake Chad entering Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon. Kinshasa and the Congo slipped by unnoticed in the dark as I dozed, still recovering from the trans-Atlantic flight of the previous night. Breakfast is served over southern Angola and sunrise welcomes us passing over the Etosha pans of northern Namibia just prior to the long power off descent to touch down at Hosea Kutako, Windhoek’s new international airport located 40 km east of the city. Even though we were the only aircraft on the ramp, immigration procedures took a little longer than I would have liked, since there were only two lanes open and the officials seemed to be struggling with a new computerized system. About 90 minutes after touchdown, we were on our way, speeding along the excellent road in our brand new VW rental headed for the capital, albeit driving on the wrong side of the road.
At 1700m (5400 feet) in altitude, Windhoek in April enjoys pleasant temperatures, blue skies and dry, clean air with excellent visibility. At under 200,000 inhabitants, it is a small city, but as this is the least densely populated country in sub-Saharan Africa, it is the only city. For our first two nights, we opted for the mid-range Hotel Thüringer Hof (www.namibsunhotels.com.na), quite reasonable at N$490 ($45) per night, complete with beer garden, and centrally located on Independence Avenue near the Namibia Wildlife Resorts central office, where you can go for reservations at the lodges and camps in the various national parks and reserves throughout the country. From the U.S., fax requests to 011 264 61 224900 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For our first full day in the country, we headed out about 25 km west of the city to the small but pleasant Daan Viljoean National Park, a good introduction to the African wildlife experience. National park entrance fees here are N$20 per person plus N$20 per vehicle. Since there are no dangerous predators or elephant and rhino in this park, unescorted hiking is allowed and we spotted wildebeest, zebra, kudu, red hartebeest, gemsbok (southern oryx), and baboons on foot. There is a large picnic area by the lake near the main camp with excellent bird watching. From there you can hike up some of the small rocky hills to look for rock hyrax (dassies) and enjoy the views across the valley to Windhoek. As we visited on a weekday, we had the park practically to ourselves, seeing only two or three other parties during our entire stay.
Back in Windhoek, we opted for a real African dinner. We headed to Restaurant Africa, located in the historic old German fort, the Alte Feste. The evening was pleasant so we opted for the fine view of city and the last traces of sunset from the large westward facing terrace. A couple of Namibia’s excellent beers helped us relax after our full day in the bush. In a fit of bravery, we ordered an appetizer of a local delicacy recommended by the waiter, fried omaungu with chili and onions. This turned out to be bugs. More specifically a type of caterpillar-looking worm. Believe it or not, they were tasty, once you got over the fact that they still looked like bugs. Dinner for two, N$141 ($13).
The next day, after stocking up on supplies, mainly bottled water, we started our trek in earnest departing Windhoek to the north on the B2 motorway for 65 km to Okahanja, the main craft center of the country. There are two large markets, one south of town and one near the center of town. Each market consists of dozens of merchants who sell all sorts of interesting wood and stone carvings under makeshift shelters. Some were pushy. Most were friendly. All were harmless. Hard bargaining was the rule. We preferred the market on the south side of town and left with a large assortment of native masks and carved animals, including the requisite four-foot giraffe.
As we continued north along the traffic-free paved road, tall termite mounds accentuated the bushveld, much of which looked surprisingly like the American Southwest. Just prior to the town of Otjiwarongo, we forked off to the right towards our destination for the next two nights, the Waterberg Plateau National Park. We had a small 2-bed bungalow with ensuite bath facilities for N$330 ($30) per night. The calls of the various species of hornbill and other interesting birds inhabiting the tall trees behind the bungalow added a bit of background music while we settled in to our camp. The camp’s restaurant, built as a German police post in 1904 is full of colonial flavor and serves excellent meals at very reasonable prices. The gemsbok fillet (N$55) was excellent.
The protected Waterberg Plateau, named for the springs found around its base, is used by Namibia as a repository for some of the country’s endangered species. While vast herds may not be spotted in the dense bush, this is an excellent place to spot the rare tessebie and roan antelope, the giant eland, the largest of all antelope species, and the beautiful sable with its long curved horns. Signs of the resident black and white rhino are visible alongside the sandy 4-WD roads, although we were not lucky enough to spot one. Unlike the other parks in Namibia, the top of the plateau is accessible only on a guided game drive in an open safari vehicle. The three-hour trips depart the main camp at 6 am and 3 pm and cost N$90 ($8) per person in addition to the standard national park entrance fees. Be sure to bring a light jacket as it gets pretty chilly on the 20 minute drive from the camp to the summit road.
Our next destination was the crown jewel of all Namibian parks areas, the Etosha National Park, well regarded as one of the best wildlife areas in Africa. Enroute, we stopped for lunch in the pleasant little town of Tsumeb, the last piece of civilization (and the last ATM) before entering the park. The Etosha Café und Biergarten is run by a little old German lady who bakes up a mean black forest cake. At 22,912 square km, Etosha National Park is larger than the state of New Jersey (21,277 sq km or 8,215 sq mi). It is situated around the Etosha Pan, the remnants of an ancient lake, now a hard salt flat, dry most of the year. The park is served by three camps run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts. From east to west, the order in which we visited, they are Namutoni, Halali, and Okaukuejo. Each camp contains a variety of lodging options from camping to luxury bungalows, and has a restaurant, swimming pool, gas station, camp store, and lighted waterhole for nocturnal wildlife viewing. We opted for the standard rooms at N$350 ($32) per night, with bathroom and air conditioning. Visiting the park is simple. You are free to drive yourself between sunrise and sunset along the numerous well-maintained gravel roads throughout the park, all passable with regular two-wheel drive cars. As there are lions and other dangerous animals in the park, you are not allowed to exit your vehicle except in a camp or one of the several fenced picnic areas. You must plan your driving tour so as to be back in your camp or out of the park when the gates close at sunset, the time of which is posted at the main park entrance and at each camp. The most popular time to visit is July and August, the southern winter, when it is coolest and there is less vegetation to hide the game. In April, when we visited, crowds were not an issue, the heat not oppressive, the evenings pleasant, and the game, for the most part, plentiful.
In the course of our five days in the park, we saw literally thousands of large animals, and countless birds. Game viewing starts right in the camp at Namutoni where a family of warthogs crop the grass around the old German fort. Geckos and other small lizards stick to the walls. After dark, while walking to the waterhole, we were surprised by a snake, the poisonous but supposedly docile puff adder, laid accross someone’s doorstep digesting a fresh meal. Bring a flashlight. The Namutoni waterhole illuminated at night is a stunning stage-like setting for a glimpse into life after dark in Etosha. As we were watching, a tall giraffe awkwardly bent down for a drink, remaining vigilant as nearby a blackbacked jackal robbed the nest of a bird protesting loudly. In the morning, we were welcomed by a troop of mongoose scurrying through the courtyard of the fort, inspecting the trashcans along the route.
Morning by the waterholes in Etosha is a busy time as the day time creatures emerge from their hiding places in the bush and on the pans. At the Klein Namutoni waterhole, bull kudu, majestic and massive, is easily identified by his massive corkscrew shaped horns, as he made his way among a herd of zebra for his morning drink. Nearby under some of the scrubby vegetation, we encountered an adorable miniature antelope, the tiny Damara dikdik, looking at us through his big black wet eyes. A curious giraffe with long eyelashes pokes his head up from behind a tree he was browsing. Giraffe are plentiful in this part of the park, and we spotted several large groups of them out on the plains. Also plentiful throughout the park are herds of springbok, zebra, gemsbok (oryx) and wildebeest. At the Andoni waterhole along the northern edge of the park, well away from camp, we had a vast mixed herd of several hundred large herbivores, warthog and ostrich, all to ourselves. Throughout the day we had been seeing signs of elephant but it took til mid-afternoon for us to finally spot a family of six of all sizes keeping themselves cool in the heat of the day under a large tree fanning their huge ears and blowing sand onto their backs. We also spotted two resting prides of lion during the day, but it was towards dusk that we struck gold, along the road near Okerfontein. Three bachelor male lions came walking down the road looking for their next meal. They were beautiful and powerful, majestic and free, confident and fearless, the king of beasts, master of Etosha. You cannot even begin to compare a sighting like this with a captive lion in a zoo. We would have liked to stay and admire them longer, but we had to race the sunset to Halali camp for the night.
After such a fruitful day, our next day out of Halali was a bit of a disappointment. The bush here was thicker and the game difficult to spot, although we did see a pair of spotted hyena. At the Salvadora waterhole, we found a lone lioness waiting in ambush. The lone thirsty zebra approaching the waterhole was wary. It could smell that something was wrong, but it kept advancing. We were hoping to get lucky and see an attack, but the zebra wisely decided to get its water elsewhere. The lioness gave up and emerged from the tall grass, took a leisurely drink, and wandered off to rejoin her pride. As we neared the Okaukuejo camp, game densities increased and we once again encountered large herds of zebra and springbok. In the heat of the late afternoon, the cumulonimbus that had been building finally shed some needed sprinkles on the parched landscape. Minutes later the sun was back and all that was left was a marvelous rainbow from horizon to horizon.
Okaukuejo, the westernmost of the three public camps, is the most popular due to its famous waterhole. Book one of the luxury thatched roof rondavels near the waterhole for an extra special experience. They say that in one night sitting by the waterhole here you can see more black rhino than exist in most African countries. Our night was no exception and we witnessed three black rhino at the waterhole, a full grown female with a small calf, and an adolescent. In the distance out of the darkness, the deep throated roar of a lion echoed through the night rounding out this wild and wonderful African scene. At dawn by the waterhole as I waited, zebra appeared out of the bush, and began to make their way cautiously in single file to the edge of the water. Soon, the rest of the vast herd of several hundred emerged and the shore which had been so peaceful the night before was a riotous mass of black and white stripes jostling for the best position. They did not linger but rather drank their fill and melted back into the surrounding bush.
On the morning of our last full day in Etosha, we explored the area north and west of Okaukuejo, heading as far as the Sproieswoud, or Ghost Tree Forest, a small area of very odd and unique trees. Ground squirrels looked up at us from their dens inquisitively. On the side of the road, a zebra carcass had been picked clean, and only a small remnant of its striped coat allowed it to be identified. Pulling into Wolfsnes waterhole, we spotted two lions at a kill. Then, under the lone tree at the waterhole, we found the rest of the pride, eight big cats led by a large male. We were so close we could smell the stench of the bloody gore still covering their faces from their fresh kill. They seemed quite unconcerned about us and most were napping. Again, we almost had them all to ourselves. There was only one other vehicle at the waterhole.
That afternoon, near Gemboksvlakte waterhole, we had our sixth lion sighting. Several females were stalking through the bush in the distance. As we watch them through our binoculars, my traveling companion yells “leopard”! I’m excited because in my two trips to Africa I still have not spotted a leopard in the wild. And I still hadn’t. It may not have been a leopard but it was certainly just as impressive because she had discovered the other spotted cat, the cheetah. And not just one, but a whole group of them. We backtracked about half the way to the waterhole in the hopes of catching the fastest land animal on earth at work. Five zebra and two gemsbok were grazing in the open field near the bushes where we spotted the cats stalking. The zebra spotted them, but did not run and stood their ground for quite some time before making a tactical withdrawal. We returned to Gemboksvlakte and waited. Soon, we spot a head in the bush. Then another. And another. They are spaced in a line abreast covering about 100 feet. We count eleven cheetah. We can’t believe our luck. The dozens of zebra and springbok at the waterhole, and the other vehicles, don’t know anything is up yet. As they stalk out of the cover of the tall grass, it reminds me of a platoon of soldiers creeping out of the jungle in Vietnam. Suddenly, all heads turn. We’re hoping
for a chase, but not today. The zebra and springbok scatter and the cheetah take over the waterhole. What a sight, a pile of beautiful, sleek spotted cats together in a waterhole in the African bush. It doesn’t get better than that.
The following morning, we get an early start because we have a long drive to the coast ahead of us. It is our plan to drive to the Skeleton Coast National Park and to spend the night at the national park service lodge at Terrace Bay, a remote outpost favored by the Namibia President, Sam Nujoma. The first half of the drive is easy, on good paved road with no traffic. We stopped in Outjo for fuel and German pastries at the bakery/internet café before heading west into Damaraland. We left the paved road in Khorixas at noon. The landscape is beautiful, reminiscent of Arizona without the saguaro. There is even a Petrified Forest. The population is sparse, with just a few impoverished looking homesteads and the occasional donkey cart. The road is broad, and made of gravel. Statically, 1 in 10 visitors to Namibia has a car accident, and the gravel roads are the biggest cause. The distances are great, and the broad straight roads lure many people to unsafe speeds which on the loose gravel can be disastrous. We left plenty of time for our journey to the coast so we kept the speed around 60 km/hr. My biggest concern was getting a flat tire, since the road in places was so rocky, facilities were nil, and traffic was almost non-existent, maybe one or two cars an hour, but we made it through to the Springbokwater gate of the Skeleton Coast National Park by 4:15.
It was here at the Skeleton Coast that we hit the first snag of the trip. The official at the gate informed us that the dirt road up the coast that we must drive to reach our lodge at Terrace Bay had been damaged by water, and may be impassable without four wheel drive. Since we had not passed any civilization in the past four hours on the gravel road to backtrack to, and dusk was rapidly approaching, we decided to press on and see for ourselves what “may be impassable” entailed. From the gate to the coast, we passed through a moonscape which surely defines barren, with hardly a trace of life. The Skeleton Coast gets its name from the many sailors shipwrecked on the treacherous foggy coast who survived the wreck, only to die of thirst in this inhospitable land. Reaching the coast, we came to a fork in the road. To the right, our destination, Terrace Bay, 58 km past Torra Bay. To the left, the southern gate of the park at the Ugab River, which was closed as it was after 5 pm. About 30 km south of Terrace Bay, at the dry Uniab River bed, the road degrades into a sand pit in which a large truck is stuck. We investigate on foot and find that the ground inland is firm enough for the car and we make it around the obstruction, hoping that that is the only problem with the road, which the national parks office in Windhoek claims is adequate for two wheel drive vehicles. Soon after, we reach a steep sandy descent between tall dunes which ends in a wet, sandy pool of standing water. How ironic to be stopped so close to our destination by the only water we’ve encountered since leaving Etosha nine hours earlier. Given the lack of traffic, we decided not to chance fording the pit, and turned back. We drove about two hours south towards the Ugab River gate and spent the night in the car parked off the main road in front of an old toppled oil rig covered with cormorant nests, which looked very eerie in the light of the full moon. In the darkness, the birds scatter. We shine our flashlight and catch the two glowing green eyes of a jackal on the hunt. Later, we spot a large moving shape, which turns out to be a huge cape porcupine, the size of small pig, quills extended at our light.
The VW Polo was surprisingly comfortable and we slept in well past sunrise. Except for not having four wheel drive to get us through to Terrace Bay the night before, I was extremely satisfied with the Polo. In addition to comfort, it saved us again being so fuel efficient. Our plan was to fuel at Terrace Bay. Our backup plan was to fuel at Mile 108, a service area just south of the Ugab River gate to the Skeleton Coast. We pull into Ugab River with just over ¼ of a tank of gas, and it turns out that they don’t carry unleaded fuel. Not good. We continued driving south along the excellent salt road towards civilization in Swakopmund, thankful that there is more traffic on this stretch of the coast, primarily South African fishermen.
Before reaching Swakopmund, we pulled into the Cape Cross Seal Preserve at about 10:15 am just after it opened for visitors. Standard national park fees apply. Cape Cross is named after the monolithic stone cross the Portuguese explorers placed on the coast here as a marker during their exploration of the African coast in the 1500’s. It is an impressive place, home to a massive colony of cape fur seals, numbering in the tens of thousands of animals. Instead of barking like the California sea lions, these seals sounded like sheep, which was quite odd. For a well deserved lunch, we were delighted to find a beautiful beach front 8-room lodge at Cape Cross which had only been open six months. It’s not a place for swimming though, since the Antarctic currents make the water very cold here, and fog is a common occurrence. Were I to plan this trip again, I would have spent the previous night in Damaraland near the petroglyphs of the Brandberg by Twyfelfontein, and another night here at the Cape Cross lodge. (email@example.com)
Thirty minutes or so south of Cape Cross, our fuel light came on just as we turned off the main road into the town of Henties Bay where our thirsty little Polo took 39 liters of unleaded petrol. I wonder how much the tank holds? Fuel costs in Namibia are reasonable, here they were N$3.94 per liter, or $1.36/gallon. Back on the road with a full tank of gas, we soon pulled into the small German coastal town of Swakopmund, a big city compared to everything else we’ve seen for the past week. We decided to treat ourselves after the night in the car and checked into the four-star Hansa Hotel, which ran us N$895 ($81) for a double. The smell of the Hansa Brewery drifted over the city mixing with the sea air. For dinner, we ate an excellent gemsbok steak and German bratwurst, and drank the local German-style beer at the Swakopmund Brauhaus, and spent only N$91 ($8) for two. Reservations are recommended. I would have liked another day in Swakopmund to enjoy the little town, the flamingos at Sandwich Harbor, and surrounding Namib desert, but our trip was winding down and we had reservations at Sossusvlei for the last two nights of the trip.
Sossusvlei is an area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park known for a high concentration of accessible sand desert. The red dunes around Sossusvlei are said to reach up to 300 meters in height. The drive from Swakopmund took us a full day, but we stopped quite a bit to view the flamingos in the lagoon behind Walvis Bay and to admire some of the Namib desert scenery we were driving through. There was a little more traffic here than Damaraland and a car kicked up a stone that cracked our windshield. We saw small herds of springbok and many ostrich, as well as other interesting birds. We pulled into the Sossusvlei Lodge just after sunset.
The Sossusvlei Lodge was by far the most expensive place we stayed in Namibia, N$1740 ($158) per night, including an extensive buffet dinner and breakfast. The lodge is set up to look like a North African desert village with individual huts, and is sort of cute. You enter the front half of each hut through a regular door and enter a small foyer area with a wardrobe and bench to store your luggage. To the left is a full bathroom with flush toilet and shower with gas heated hot water. Through a second door, one enters the bedroom area, which is a frame tent with a paved floor and low cement walls. (Don’t ask the front desk where the key to this door is…there is none.) There is no air conditioning so I would not recommend this lodge in the hotter months. We elected to stay at a private lodge here because the national park service camp only offers campsites for you to pitch your own tent. The staff could have been friendlier and more helpful.
In the morning, we were stirred from our tent by the sound of the gas burner of the hot air balloon that was drifting overhead in the dawn air, which we had planned for the next morning. After breakfast, we drove into the park to visit the dunes at Sossusvlei, a dry pan surrounded by sandy desert, 60 km along a paved road. National park fees of N$30 per person and N$20 per vehicle apply. Soon after entering the park, you pass the small airfield where the bush pilots park their Cessnas. That’s probably a lot easier way of getting around than driving on the gravel roads. You have to get out and climb a couple of the big dunes to get the real experience, the sand in your shoes, and the excellent view. Bring water. At the end of the 60 km road there is a parking area. From there, you are five km from the pan via a sandy 4-WD only track. Luckily for us and our Polo, there are entrepreneurial locals running a 4-WD shuttle for around N$62 ($5.50) each. I hiked around the pan and dunes for about an hour before returning to the lodge for lunch.
At 5:30 am, the porter came and knocked on the door to wake us up for our final event of the trip, a hot air balloon ride across the desert valley and dunes ending in a champagne breakfast. The price to me was steep, $250 each, but apparently that’s quite reasonable for a balloon trip compared to other areas of the world. I paid cash so I wouldn’t see the bill on my credit card when I got home. Two balloons were being inflated in the pale predawn light. Each balloon, operated by Namib Sky Adventure Safaris (firstname.lastname@example.org) had a large basket which could hold eight of us, in addition to the pilot, a French-speaking Belgian named Thierry. I had never been in a balloon before and enjoyed the unrestricted views out of the basket, as well as the stillness of the cool dawn air. Our voyage lasted about an hour before Thierry put the balloon down near a dry riverbed at the base of the dunes where the chase crew set up a good breakfast. It was soon over and we found ourselves headed back to Windhoek, six hours away, for our 8 pm Air Namibia flight to Frankfurt.
Namibia is an amazing country. It is clean and the people are friendly. It is a relatively undiscovered treasure. With so few tourists you can have these magnificient parks to yourself. It is a true value. I was able to do this twelve night trip to Namibia with two people for around $1000 per person, plus airfare. In addition to our Air Namibia from Frankfurt, South African Airways and British Airways’ local affiliate, Comair, offer international connections through Johannesburg. South African Airlink offers Regional Jet flight from Cape Town to Windhoek’s downtown Eros Airport. Get there before everyone else does!