Hello Namibia – our first wild camp

We crossed over at the Mata Mata frontier post and got the carnet stamped (the South African refused to stamp ours on the way out and I’m sure that will be a bit of trouble we need to sort out when we go back into South Africa next year – stamp in stamp out, seems fairly straightforward, but evidently not…).

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Mata Mata border – let us in please

Our destination was the Brukkaros crater. We originally thought this might be the one used in Spectre, but that’s in Morocco. There were two campsites shown on our Tracks4Africa map (and their Garmin map of Africa), so we went for that. The drive from the border to near the crater was uneventful and relatively flat, then the only mound for miles around started rearing up.

We went to the local town to see if they had any shops, but they hadn’t and there was a gathering going on with what looked like a small livestock market going on and a few stalls. We were a bit pushed and had food anyway, so we turned around and headed towards the mountain.

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The crater looms up

There was a sign up with a phone number for camping, but we hadn’t got our local SIM yet, so we carried on driving. We got to the first building and it was run down with no roof and the lower campsite was similar. This was a real shame because the buildings looked like they once looked really smart with a great looking outside shower per plot. We carried on up a relatively steep and rutted track to the upper campsite and this was in the same condition. However the drop toilet there was still functioning and we thought we’d stay.

We were slightly nervous about doing it, but it was miles from the nearest town and clearly no-one was looking after this place, but the view up towards the crater and across the plain was spectacular so we went for it.

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How’s that for a camping spot

The braai was on, the beer was already out and Gareth was walking around with no shirt on as it was still hot later on in the evening. The evenings menu was steak and chips. The chips were on in the frying pan, when Angela said someone’s coming. Best put a shirt on then and greet them properly.

6 people came over the brow of the hill and started walking down to us – gulp. There were two older men, two younger men, a girl and a small boy. We said hello and stated our names and they did too. We asked if we were ok to stay there and the most well spoken of the two younger guys said yes. They spent the next 5 minutes chatting and taking lots of pictures of us and the car and the campsite – we thought we’d be on some wanted website for illegal campers.

We talked about who they were and they said they were part of a local co-operative, the zebra co-operative and wanted to bring the site back to life. It had been corruptly run and when it closed 3 years ago, local farmers raided the place and stole the roofs and doors and windows from the chalets. They said they were from the local town, but were staying 50kms away as their house was being done up.

They eventually said their goodbyes and left.

THE CHIPS. They were slightly overcooked by now, but at least the steak hadn’t gone on yet. So we cooked that and had a bit of a half and half meal Smile

We were slightly paranoid all evening about someone coming back knowing there would be things of interest in the car.

Morning came and we talked ourselves into the hike to the rim of the crater. That meant leaving the car unattended for at least 2 hours and spotting a bit of broken car glass near the start of the walk didn’t calm the nerves. What a paranoid walk up that was, looking back whenever we could (obviously a futile gesture given how long it would take us to get back to it, but it helped a little…

The hike was a hot one despite leaving relatively early, but the crater was worth it.

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Worth that walk

We turned around and headed back and all was well with the car – all nice and intact. You can’t help what you think though. Next we’re off to the Quiver Tree Forest and hopefully see a man about the squeaky brakes as they are still there.

Kgalagadi – Animal Magic

We have spent the most amazing week in the Kgalagadi, pronounced ‘chalachadi’ with the ‘ch’ sounding like that in the Scottish ‘loch’. In the Tswana language it means “thirst of infamous nature”. It sure is hot and dry here, although they do get occasional rain, including at this time of year. After the madness of the dust storm, the weather’s settled down a bit and although there have been odd spots of rain it has largely held off over us. There have been huge lightning storms on the horizon most nights, but for some reason they never got as far as us.

The landscape here is beautiful, with line upon line of ancient brick-coloured dunes running roughly north to south for miles. But that is not why we came here. We came for big cats, and we haven’t been disappointed.  Our night drive was a great start. We joined an open truck load of tourists, which to start with we were a bit sniffy about. We’d been so spoilt on our trip last year and had the game drives to ourselves, as it was fairly quiet. The camps are fairly full here. What we hadn’t twigged was that more people means more eyes to look for game, and we had a couple of really good spotters on our bus, as well as the guide. We saw all sorts of night-time wildlife including an African Wild Cat, Bat-eared Fox, lots of Spotted Eagle Owls and a family of Cape Foxes which caught something and trotted off to their den with it. But the star of the show was a leopard. She was sat about 20 metres from the road at the foot of a tree, quite unconcerned by our presence. She sat there for about 5 minutes while we all gaped in wonder and snapped with our cameras. Then she climbed up the tree, spread herself along a branch, feet dangling, and went to sleep! Awesome.

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Leopard off to bed

We’ve seen lions every day, sometimes singly, sometimes in groups. We came across a family group in the road including 2 young cubs. We drove very slowly past, trying not to disturb them too much. The adults were very relaxed, surprisingly so with the cubs around and so close to the car, but the cubs were hissing and spitting at us. Comical. Another was a big male sat next to his dinner, an unlucky Eland, again just feet from the car. He was sooo hot and just trying to keep cool in the shade of a tree and couldn’t be less interested in us.

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“He’s a very friendly lion called Parsley…”

We saw several other carcasses of large antelope – so the lions are obviously very active. Top Tip: don’t ever get downwind of a carcass that’s been there for a while, like we did to get this photo. Big mistake. The smell was so bad it had us gagging.

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Unfortunate and very smelly Wildebeest

On our second but last evening we headed out at 5.30 for an evening game drive. Angela was driving and had in mind to do a loop incorporating 2 waterholes. She hadn’t looked properly at the map and didn’t listen properly to Gareth who had tried to tell her how far it was…. It was 25km and on the soft sandy road took 50 minutes to get to the first waterhole. The camp gates shut at 7.30 so we had a maximum of 20 minutes to wait for some action. We drew up to find one other car there. A quick pass with the binoculars showed 3 male lions asleep under some bushes behind the waterhole. They were in no hurry to get up.  “Come on Mr Lion, it’s been such a long, hot, tiring day – you must want some lovely cool water. Mmmm, lovely water.….”. Apparently they didn’t. Time was ticking on and we were running out of it. Two were snuggled up next to each other and looked so utterly happy in each others company. One sat up and started to nuzzle his pal, and then softly patted his head, to be gently brushed off by the snoozing friend. It was magical to watch.

Then finally, one by one, they woke up and lazily made their way to the waterhole. Then, again one by one, they strolled up the bank to where we were parked and sat down in front of the cars. We watched and snapped and grinned at our co-witnesses. We wanted to stay but couldn’t risk getting locked out of camp. We signalled with the others who also knew that we were pushing it for time, and both headed off, this time Gareth  driving. He made good progress and we made it to the  gate with time to spare. We later found out the others had been there since 4pm! – sometimes it’s better to be lucky than patient…. 

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Oh so lucky lion encounter

The following morning we were awake early. Lions had been roaring for half the night, which is hard to sleep through, so at about 5am (yes, am, not pm…) we went down to the hide overlooking the waterhole on the edge of the camp. No lions and the roaring had stopped. Damn, we’d missed them. We headed back to our camp, passing about half a dozen vehicles all ready to go searching for sightings as soon as the gate opened at 5.30. A good time to see the wildlife in action but way, way to early for us to be ready to head out. We decided to get breakfast ready. As the kettle came to the boil the early drivers came flying back into camp – forwards, backwards, whichever way they could get in quickest – dived out of their cars and headed for the hide. We abandoned breakfast and joined them as 3 lions sauntered towards the waterhole, making a hell of a din. We thought it was the males that did all the roaring but it was the girls (2 of them) that were making all the noise now. “Rrrroooaaaaarrrggghh, wwwoooaaaarrhhh, wooommpphh, wooommpphh”. They were making their presence loudly known. Their male companion sat away from them and let them get on with it. One of the girls sashayed towards him, flicking her tail in his face in a most provocative way, but he was not at all interested. Sorry love, he seems to have a headache.

We’ve also seen cheetah, after a tip-off from another visitor who gave us directions – “about 9km past the Mata Mata turn, after the road splits into two, they’re lying flat out under a tree on your right. Look for the tomato that someone’s dropped to mark the spot”! HIs directions were spot on, although without the tomato on the road I don’t think we’d have spotted them – three fat cheetahs lying in the shade. Cool.

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Well-fed Cheetahs

As well as the big cats a few other animals stood out. We spotted a Slender Mongoose searching around a bush for his lunch. It had the most beautiful, bright red coat. I imagined mongoose to be quite hard-nosed kind of animals, not very endearing. After all, they kill cobras. But they are really charming. The Yellow Mongoose in camp have obviously read the Cat’s Manual on How to Handle Your Human. They have all he poses and looks down to a tee, designed to promote maximum cute-factor and extract optimum dinner rations. Think Puss in Boots from Shrek and you’ll get the idea. This one was at least after his own dinner. The photo actually shows him yawning, but I wouldn’t want to be on his menu with those gnashers.

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Slender Mongoose – Anyone seen American Werewolf In London?….

The area is full of birds of prey and we saw various owls, eagles, falcons, kestrels, harriers, goshawks and vultures but our favourite was probably a young Tawny Eagle. It was trying to drink from an artificial water hole. These shallow concrete bowls are what provide water when the natural pans dry up. They have rounded, sloping edges. The eagle was too big and inexperienced to stoop forward for a drink but didn’t want to get her feet wet. She kept leaning forward and sliding unceremoniously down the slope and into the water, then flapping wildly around trying to get out again. Eventually she jumped right in, which she really didn’t like at all. It was hilarious and just brilliant to watch her antics, as the adult stood watch in the tree above.

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Mum, I don’t like it….

Finally, as we got up to our final camp, we saw giraffes, and spent time watching them drink (much more successfully that the eagle). They hosed in huge amounts of water which we could hear them slurping. We love giraffes. They’re brilliant.

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Giraffes are so elegant, but they sound like a suction pump when they drink

Next we leave the park, and South Africa, and cross the border into Namibia…

Kgalagadi Sand(storm)

With the car fully functional and the temperature rising we made our way west of Upington to the Augrabies Falls. The name translates to “the place of great noise” and although not the size of the great falls of Victoria it still packs a punch in full flow. Way past full now, it was still a spectacle to behold and the steep-sided gorge was pretty awesome. We could see huge fish in the green-coloured Orange River far below us. Shark probably… The day-time temperature was 36 degrees. Hot, hot, hot. The Dassies sensibly stayed in their rocky homes for most of the day, coming out in their dozens in the late afternoon and morning to feed on the sparse vegetation of the rocky landscape.

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Young Dassie on cliff face

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Orange River at Augrabies Falls

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Just downstream of the falls

We spent a fairly comfortable night in the tent with a cool breeze helping us sleep, then headed north to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. One of the biggest national parks in the world, this vast area of wilderness covers 9,591 km2 of South Africa and 28,400km2 of Botswana. It is also renowned for its predators, including the famous black-maned Kalahari lions. We are here for 6 nights, after which we’ll leave South Africa, for now at least, and head into Namibia (which the park also borders). We’re spending two of our 6 nights in a site that is renowned for in-camp visitors of the large feline kind.  May take that she-pee up to bed of an evening… Smile

Our first night was a slightly wild welcome of a different sort. We’d got dinner under way – a stir fry (using the last of a pack of three enormous T-bone steaks that cost about 130 Rand. That’s £8. £8 for three huge steaks. I may never come home…. Smile). All was prepped, wine glasses in hand and the braai roaring and ready to go when we noticed a huge bank of brown ‘cloud’ where the sun had recently set. “What the hell’s that?” “Don’t know”. “Do you think it’s a dust storm?” Now we’ve seen ’The Mummy’ so we know what a dust storm looks like and this looked just like one. Most of the campsite seemed oblivious but an Afrikaans neighbour saw us looking. “Do you know what that is?” we asked. “Looks like rain”came the reply. It didn’t.

“I think we’ll baton down the hatches just in case….”. We shut up the roof tent, which we’d opened up in the vain hope that the tiny semblance of a breeze that was running through the camp would cool it down, and carried on with dinner hoping we were wrong. We weren’t. Before we knew it the ‘cloud’ came upon us and then all hell broke loose. We were suddenly hit with howling winds and dust. Even the Scorpions were running for cover. (General rule seems to be big pincers + small tail = ok; small pincers + big tail = bad. This one had very small pincers and a very big tail….) 

The perfectly ready charcoal was blasted off the braai towards our open car and tent. We grabbed water to put the coals out as they tumbled forwards and threw everything including ourselves into the car. We waited to see if it would die down as quickly as it had come up but it didn’t. So we poured another glass of wine and sat eating the stir-fry veg – now crudites – with a bit of ham grabbed from the fridge. The wind whipped and tore at the tent above us but it seemed to be holding up well to the big gusts. We were exhausted from our long drive and the intense heat (it had topped 41 degrees in camp that day) so decided it was death or glory and went to bed, with ear plugs to keep out the sound of imminent tent collapse. The tent held up (hats off Eezi-Awn) and we got some fitful sleep.

This morning the skies are blue and clear. The camp is full of birdlife and we have Yellow Mongoose and Ground Squirrels running around at our feet. We’ve done all our paperwork with the South African border control and police and had a bit of a shop, including some useful mossie deterrent, with a very apt name. 

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My sentiments exactly…

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Yellow Mongoose chilling in our camp

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Ground squirrel – Now where have I left my nuts?

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Crimson-breasted shrike feeding its young

We have a night drive planned for this evening and the forecast for that at least is looking good.

Risk of thunderstorms for tomorrow…

Camp Wildlife

We are resting up after our brake problem adventure which has taken 3 days to sort, a long 5 hour and cautious drive with only 3 working brakes and a lot of waiting around in car workshops. So we’ve treated ourselves to a chalet with a proper bed, toilet you can sit on and an electric kettle. Bliss. Only problem is the mosquitoes, which are worse in the chalet than in the tent, where it’s fairly easy to keep them out. We’ve become obsessed with the little buggers. Angela’s usual ‘live and let live’ approach to wildlife goes completely out the window and she wonders round with a can of ‘Doom’ in hand to zap them. There’s little worse than that high pitched whizzing next to your ear in the middle of the night, knowing that they’re eating you alive. The other favourite method of dispatch is the ‘pants of doom’ which are just the right weight and size to get a well aimed shot in. Only problem is the streak of blood (probably ours!) left on the wall. I mean, really, is there any point to mosquitoes?

We had a Solifuge in the chalet the other evening. A sort of cross between a scorpion and spider, known as Camel Spiders or Wind Scorpions, they are actually neither and apparently quite harmless, although don’t look it and can get pretty big. Fortunately this was only a couple of inches long but as you can imagine we didn’t really want it in the chalet. It was pretty quick and took a fair bit of chasing round (and a broken glass) before we caught it and put it outside.

Most of the other wildlife is welcome. At each campsite there’s been a resident bird or two that have no fear of us and come right up under your feet. The odd thing is that it’s been a different species at each site. Mostly they’re small birds, a Cape Robin-chat at Kleinmond, a Cape Wagtail at Dwarskersbos and a White-browed Weaver Sparrow here in Upington. At Tankwa Karoo a bird came flying past us into camp like a rugby ball, landing with little more dignity than a tackled rugby player. Turned out to be a Cape Spurfowl who was obviously used to and expecting to be fed. She was then joined by her family. You are not allowed to feed the animals in the National Parks. “Not even the smallest bird…” say the rules. Bad Angela.

At the same site we spent some time watching a family of Striped Mice and a few Karoo Bush-rats (which looks more like a vole than a rat) clambering around a Camel-thorn bush to get at the orange pom-pom flowers on the tips of the supple but very spikey branches. They were utterly charming, although if someone had told us that the camp was infested with mice and rats…

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Striped Mouse foraging on Camel-thorn flowers

At Kleinmond, on the coast south-east of Cape Town, the camp was regularly patrolled by a Grey Mongoose. Far too active and quick to get a photo but it came within a few metres of us.

Probably our favourite small mammal encounter was on a long and exhausting walk up a gorge at a place called Beaverlac in the Cederberg. Fi Fi, this is one for you. Underneath a rock ledge we found an Elephant Shrew. It was quite unafraid and we spent ages watching it and trying to get a picture in the poor light. Its long nose seems to act completely independently of the rest of its body, twitching in all sorts of directions. Soooo cute. Wonder if they make good pets?….

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Enjoying a well-needed cold dip on our Beaverlac walk

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Cape Rock Elephant Shrew

And this morning we walked out of the chalet to find a large tortoise by the car. About 15 inches long, it must have been at least 50 years old. When it saw us, rather than dive into its shell like most of them have done, it came towards us to have its head scratched! It climbed up onto the patio stretching its neck up to us. It specially seemed to like Gareth and sat as he gently stroked its neck. We put some water down which it lapped up and then cut up some strips of bell pepper which was the most vegetarian thing we could muster for it. As they feed the Springbok which are enclosed in the campsite here we didn’t think it would be too bad to feed him/her. It had a bit of a slow start, not sure about this new form of food, and then got stuck in, even asking for more. Gareth hand fed it too. Amazing, What a great start to the day.

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Tortoise coming for breakfast

Perhaps the most annoying animals of our trip so far (apart from the mosquitoes) have been the Guinea Fowl. They really are one of the most irritating creatures you could come across. Angela has a long-standing dislike of them from a time spent working at a country park which had some and our recent experience has only served to deepen that dislike. When they are startled by something they chase around like headless chickens making the loudest and most irritating squawking noises that goes on and on and makes you want to shoot them. And they get startled a lot. I mean really a lot. And then, to cap it off, they come and roost in the tree above your tent and spend half an hour squawking at their mates across the campsite. Eventually they settle down (unless something startles them…) until about 5am when it starts all over again. To give them their dues, they did give us some entertainment. At Beaverlac there was obviously an amorous male amongst them, which spent all afternoon chasing the females, who were far less interested in him than he was in them. A line of birds would speed back and forth across the campsite, blue heads held high and legs doing ten to the dozen, chased by the male just like a scene from Benny Hill. It did make us laugh but was not enough to redeem them in our eyes. They do say revenge is a dish best served cold, or in this case warm – we have decided what we are having for Christmas dinner… They may be irritating but they taste damn good… Smile

Brake Fun

It all started off with squealing brakes as we entered the Tankwa Karoo National Park. We were off grid here for 4 days with no power or water at our ‘wild camping’ spots (dig for your toilet pleasure Smile).

We pulled all of the pads out and re-copper greased them.

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Working on the brakes

Unfortunately, this didn’t cure it. We were going to put up with it until we got to a bit more civilisation, but on the way out of the park on our 5th day there was a hot brake smell and the drivers side front was very hot.

We jacked up the car and took the pads out after letting it cool down a bit – the outer one put up a bit of a fight. The inner pistons were moving ok, but the outer ones were stuck pretty well. We managed to free up one of the outer ones a bit, but the other would only press out and not retract. So with no way to put the pads back in, it was time to resort to a trick we learnt on our bush mechanics course and we clamped off the problem calliper with the vice clamp as shown in the picture. This was all around midday and about 35 Degrees – deep joy.

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Look at that fine bit of clamping

After another night in the park, we set off reasonably early and drove with the clamp on for about 75 miles on some pretty rough gravel tracks and all was well. We got into Calvinia and found a garage that dropped everything to take a look. They removed the callipers and took them apart. The hole that joins the outer and inner was partially blocked and acted like a one way valve which explained why the piston was behaving like it was. They didn’t completely solve it and it was pulling to the left and they blamed the clamp I put on the flexi-hose, so we left town and headed on a 5 hour trip to Upington where there was a Land Rover dealer. They recommended a company to make a new hose as they don’t carry stock of such an old part. They wouldn’t remove it (litigious society mate), but there was a brake and clutch man next door.

They also dropped everything and took a look. First pulling the flexi-hose off – no issues with that, then bled everything – still the same. They removed the calliper and checked everything, then took the master cylinder off to check as well – you’ve never seen as much brake fluid just dripping on the floor – but hey this is Africa. That went back on and it felt like the pulling had eased off, but there was no servo assist. Off with the master again and I eventually found an o-ring on the floor that seemed to fit. All’s well (for now) and he only charged 2 hours labour and some fluid!! Wouldn’t take more. Will investigate a new master brake cylinder when we’re in Swakopmund in Namibia as they are Landy nuts there.

Snakey encounters and Sunny to the rescue

Our third day in the Cederberg Mountains took us to a campsite along the river at Jamaka organic farm, where we were greeted by the very friendly Sam. They grow various fruits including mangoes, irrigated by their own spring. We bought some of their home-dried mango strips. Delicious.

Our camp site was by a large pool in the river, which was perfect for a late afternoon dip, once we’d inched our bodies into the rather cold water! The water was crystal clear and we could see the fish swimming with us.

The next morning we followed one of the farm’s hiking trails up the hillside behind the farmhouse. It wound up through thick scrub for much of the route, giving welcome shade from the African sun. Occasional tortoises crossed our route, including a tiny baby no bigger than a lemon (not sure you can really compare a tortoise with a lemon but you get the idea). A small snake disappeared into the bush, not alleviating our (ok- Angela’s) slight paranoia about Puff Adders and Cobras that we know are resident in this area. We left the shade of the trees and arrived at a natural amphitheatre , carved by water, which had been used by the farmers’ forebears to ferment and dry wild rooibos leaves to make tea. Many of the South Africans love rooibos but it’s an acquired taste which neither of us has yet acquired. Maybe because it’s meant to be good for you… Smile

Further up the hillside we found the fence that marks the boundary between the farm and government land (the wildlife department owns the upper half of the mountain) and started along the return loop. The path, barely 3 ft wide, picked its way through the low scrubby vegetation or ‘fynbos’  (literally “fine bush”…) along the rocky mountain-side. Not 10 ft in front of us a Black Spitting Cobra reared up in the middle of the path, hood flared. Absolutely beautiful and utterly terrifying, we backed off! Gareth passed Angela to get a photo. Shrugging off warnings about the accuracy of their venom-spitting with a “don’t worry, I’m wearing glasses” he managed to get a snap as the snake lowered down. After a bit of a think the snake decided it was equally as concerned with our presence but considerably less interested and slithered off the path into the bushes. Do we turn round or carry on? Well, we’d come this far…. We thought we’d heard it move off so with adrenalin pumping and barely daring to breath we inched past, staring into the scrub just in case it was still there. Holy moley that was scary. Ange was still shaking when we got down to the farmhouse.

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Can you spot it?                 

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There you go!

From the farmhouse we headed back to find a route along the river to the campsite. One of the farm’s collies, Sunny, set off ahead of us and it soon became clear that she was leading the way. She stayed with us all afternoon and night. The following morning, after a shared breakfast of toast with marmite and peanut butter, which she seemed to enjoy, we headed up the mountain on the other side of the valley in the hope of finding a cave with San rock paintings we’d heard about. Sunny led the way, much to our delight and relief – as far as we were concerned we now had our own snake-dog. We shared lunch, water and shade with our new friend. The snake-dog obviously did her job as we had no serpentine encounters this time. She stayed with us all day and even joined us for a dip in the river when we got back to camp, trying and failing to catch the fish which she was completely absorbed by.

 

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Sunny the snake dog, chasing fish