My first views of the Namibian roads, for which I had been meticulously briefed and prepared, were from the skies as we flew in on the half empty plane from Johannesburg. Believe us when we tell you that they are long and straight! In the month of December, the scarce rainfall gives life to the semi-arid plains and the gravel tracks begin to stand out like lines on a palm from the spring-green scrubs.
The heat and the colours, the purple mountains and yellow grass, and the tiny airport impressed themselves on me so that when I met Mike at arrivals I already had a grin on my face and we took the drive to the Safari Drive base in town talking non stop about the history and geography of the land.
The Friday before I arrived had been the day of the general election, held every five years and for which the country turns out in force to vote for. Namibia is hugely proud of its independence from German colonisation and it was a good talking point with the hosts and guides I met along the way. The new leader is again a member of the SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation) party, but unlike like his two predecessors he is Damara rather than Ovambo. The Damara people, along with the Nama and Bushman people, are thought to be the original inhabitants of Namibia, with other groups migrating later.
I spend a heavenly first night at The Olive Grove, waking up to hot sun and hot coffee with the excitement of my self drive adventure ahead of me. Kate, who runs our base in Zambia and who was joining me on the trip, arrived into the airport at midday and after picking her up we headed out to Eningu, The Clayhouse Lodge. Even on this first drive we started to discover our shared interests in birdlife as I pointed to the weaver’s nests and Kate explained about their different nesting habits and breeding behaviour.
It would be very easy to write this account simply as a list of bird and game sightings, as this is mainly how we spent our safari – increasing our drives times by an hour each time we spotted something interesting roadside, but the lodges, guesthouses, campsites and farmsteads acted as the perfect balance to the adventure. A steak and a bottle of wine in the evening remedied any tiredness we felt and gave us the chance to divert conversation from becoming too twitcher orientated!
After a night at Eningu we began our journey north up the good tar road to Okonjima Private Game Reserve. Here the Hanssen family relocate cheetah and leopard trapped by farmers onto this 55,000 acre reserve. Namibia has around a quarter of the world’s cheetah population, but the relationship between livestock owners and these wild cats is understandably a strained one. Okonjima addresses this issue through educational trips for schools; the aim being to educate the young and help them to understand wildlife as being something of intrinsic value, rather than being seen as pests.
Tourism plays a major role in Namibia and is the third biggest industry after mining and agriculture. Many lodges that we stayed at, similarly to Okonjima, were involved in conservation and or community projects, with these often being closely linked. One lodge that we stayed at, Grootberg in Northern Damaraland, is entirely owned by the conservancy in which it sits. Proceeds from guests staying have enabled the community to build a school, a clinic and a soup kitchen for the elderly. There are also efforts in place to help ease the relationship between the community and the wildlife, which is essential to help draw guests to the lodge. A predator fund is used to replace livestock killed by cheetah or leopard in the area.
Following our stay at Okonjima we headed to Etosha National Park where we stayed at the beautiful Mushara Outpost. This could be my favourite lodge of the trip. The safari tents are outstanding, with lovely private verandahs overlooking a woodland riverbed where Kudu came foraging right past my tent. Our host was also wonderful, which was a common theme in Namibia. Greetings here are not just a nod or a breezy hi there but a full on big grin Hello! How are you? This being invariably followed by Very well! How are you?!’ And always a warm handshake.
There are certain linguistic tilts that will help you whilst travelling here. The cardinal sin is to mention barbecues. It is always a braai. Traffic lights are robots, the dried spiced meat which is a popular snack is biltong and a bakkie is a pick up truck (which our Land Rover is certainly not, thank you). English is commonly spoken and is the official language although you will hear a wide range of local dialects, whilst a lot of the population also still use Africaans or German.
There is also the language of the non-human population to be taken into account. As we rounded a corner in Etosha National Park an unseen elephant manifested itself and gave me a very large fright. Kate, in the driver’s seat, turned the engine off. This was not what I would have done. I said, do you think we should move on a little bit there, do you think, maybe? I was reassured that the elephant was only looking at us and flapping its ears because it was curious. I sat it out but as the curious elephant came curiously ever closer I began to lose my cool and at two paces, the engine came sharply to life as Kate’s cool deserted her as well. There is only so much reading of behaviour you can do before you move into actual peril.
The rest of our sightings we did from a more reserved distance. We were lucky enough, even though the rains had started, to see lion, rhino, a family of hyena, giraffe, blue crane, plenty of storks, korhaan, ostrich, kori bustard, springbok, oryx, black faced impala, wildebeest, hartebeest, Burchell’s zebra and of course more elephants and all the birds that I have not listed, which gave me a great amount of nerdy pleasure to identify with my binoculars and trusty Newman’s ‘Birds of Southern Africa’.
As we moved out of Etosha and into Damaraland the focus moved from the wildlife very much to the landscape. We drove south from Galton Gate and headed for Grootberg Pass, climbing steeply up to Grootberg Lodge for one of the finest views to be had in Namibia. All the chalets here are based on the side of the Grootberg Mountain overlooking the valley and it is the most stunning place to wake up to. Once in the midst of this scenery the red mountains, especially at sunrise or sunset, outshine the wildlife and is a better reason to visit than going to find the rarely spotted rhino and desert adapted elephant. Special as these are, it is a bonus to see them, rather than being something that you can expect from your stay here.
The rhino poaching problem is being addressed with both education of the next generation, which will in the long term be the best solution, and in the short term with dehorning and security patrols. Dehorning is not an ideal method of deterrent to poaching as it is so intrusive and the use of the horn to the rhino is not fully understood, and by extension the effect this has on the animal (in mating, parenting, foraging etc). Additionally, dehorned rhinos can still be killed for the stub of the horn that is left. However, this is less common in Namibia than elsewhere and this method is still being used as a first port of call in their conservation. With tourism becoming an increasingly big employer in Namibia, it is hoped that the conservation of this species will become more significant to potential poachers than the money to be gained from their destruction.
Of the little species that we saw, my favourites included the fantastically funny jackals, who gave me a morning’s amusement at Okonjima, chasing each other around my chalet whilst I sat on the verandah. In Etosha we spent a good deal of the driving avoiding Shongololo’s (like giant centipedes) and leopard tortoises which sunbathe on the tracks around the park and take up all the room, so that you can’t drive in a straight line. As we headed further south we began to see little bat eared foxes, loomed over by great kopjies as they scavenged around roadsides. Their faces are black from the eyes downwards, giving them a masked look. It was always a wonder to me to see any animals as we got closer to the dunes and I constantly wondered about where on earth they found water.
The dunes themselves were very beautiful, but certainly worth travelling to before the sun has properly risen, or at the end of the day as you are very exposed there. I was rather ashamed that I did have to have a little sit down at Dead Vlei. Again, there is no evidence of water and you need to be prepared for this and take more than enough, which applies on self drive trips anywhere in Africa.
We spent the morning here before taking the relatively short drive further south to NamibRand Private Reserve and setting up camp. The most important part of staying here is to have a really good fillet of beef. You are in the middle of nowhere with nothing around you except for a rustic shower block (with solar powered hot water so shower in the day), a good firepit and a shaded area under a tree. There is a waterhole very close to the campsite and oryx are frequent visitors. The landscape is absolutely stunning and it is the perfect finish to a safari in Namibia, giving you plenty of time and space for reflection.
Next day was back to Windhoek and a rather long drive before one of the best suppers of the trip at Stellenbosch. Mike has been warning us off Joe’s Beerhouse but we snuck there before meeting him for our last gin and tonic and secretly liked it a lot (it was also showing the football which was a popular decision with Kate). We ended the trip as instructed – absolutely exhausted but having learnt a lot. It is an absolutely stunning country with wonderfully friendly people and a rich history and cultures. I have added about five properties to my bucket list of places to stay for a week or more and my transformation into a twitcher is rather sadly but inevitably complete. Where can I find some good sandals?