Christmas in Etosha

We had a lazy start to Christmas morning, given the stress of the previous few days. A ‘respectable’ time out of bed was followed by bacon and eggs cooked on the Trangia. We Face-timed some of the family (something very new to us ludites) and made arrangements to catch up with others later. After lunch we headed out of the small game reserve surrounding the lodge to make our first visit into Etosha itself. It was an unpromising start. At the gate the usual police presence had been joined by the anti-poaching squad who were checking everyone coming through. Poaching has become a real problem in Etosha, particularly for rhino as their horn is highly (and illegally) sought after in China. In October there was a shoot out with poachers, two of whom were killed. The other three fled into the park where they are believed to have died. Anti-poaching officers put their lives on the line as part of their job. It’s deadly serious. At the gate we were approached by one of them. “Hello. How are you?” he asked with no warmth in his voice. “Very well thanks, how are you? Happy Christmas!”. It obviously wasn’t. “Where are you from?”. “The UK”. “Do you have any weapons in the car? Any pistols or rifles?” The question came as a bit of a surprise as that’s the last thing we were going to carry into the park. “Err, no.” He pointed to the glove box and asked us to open it which we did. “You don’t have any pistols or rifles in there?” he asked sternly. Obviously we didn’t and in the spirit of Christmas and trying to be light-hearted Angela replied “No, they’re in the back”.

The words were out before she had a chance to think about it. Gareth cringed. In the words of Del Boy, what a prize plonker. Like joking about a having a bomb at the airport check-in. “You have guns in the back?” “No, sorry I was just kidding. We don’t have any guns”. “Open the back of the car”. He had a fairly cursory inspection of the sides and the back (fortunately missing the anti-baboon catapult which we’d bought to stave off the camp site terrorists and which we’d forgotten was on board). Opening a drawer he called over a colleague. We had eggs in it. The colleague took over. “You can take eggs and meat in but you can’t bring them out”. We knew this applied to red meat and had temporarily off-loaded some mutton into the fridge of some friendly American camper neighbours. But we’d left the eggs and two meals-worth of chicken in the fridge/freezer. We could have gone back to remove the chicken as well but it wouldn’t have been worth going back in to the park so we returned to the campsite a bit dispirited and got out the Christmas sparkling wine instead. As you do.

We had a fantastic meal in the restaurant, with turkey, beef, sausage, and an interesting mix of melie pap and veg, followed by pudding with lashings and lashings of custard. Yum. It was a really nice evening. We took the dangerous gamble of booking a game drive for 6.30am the following morning so we restricted our wine intake and had a fairly early night.

The guide started off by telling us that we had chosen a bad time of year for game viewing. As there had been rain the animals weren’t coming to the water hole. He was basically telling us not to expect to see anything. But Angela had put her lucky bracelet on.  She’d bought it last year and was wearing it when we’d had a fantastic encounter with a leopard and seen lions hunting zebra – obviously the bracelet was lucky. We headed off. Within 10 minutes, before we’d even left the private reserve, we had two cheetahs, a mother and cub, next to us on the road.

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Cheetah mum and cub

We entered the park and five minutes later saw a leopard, albeit briefly, in the bush. Next was a black rhino, one of the most endangered animals on the planet. We followed that with three cheetahs feeding on a recent kill. Then another one. To top it all we watched a big bull elephant marching down the ‘shore’ of the pan. He stopped at a small pool, had a drink and then proceeded to dig into it with his feet to muddy the water and create his own personal wallow. He splashed and wriggled around in the mud, getting as much over him as he could. It was magic. Hope you enjoy the pics as much as we enjoyed watching him.

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Mud, mud, glorious mud….

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Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood…

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Perhaps the highlight (and lowlight) of the tour was when the tour truck nearly hit a guinea fowl. One of the other ladies gasped in horror as the bird dashed out right in front of the car. Angela sighed with disappointment when it flew out the other side. So close and yet so far.

We were obviously very disappointed by our game drive so retreated to the bar for sustenance and to catch up on our blog which was very behind. Our surroundings weren’t too shabby.

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The ‘lounge’

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The view. Life’s tough on the road…

We’d wanted to see an African thunderstorm and half way through our second beer it happened. It absolutely bucketed down. There was nothing for it. Our firewood would be wet and our campsite soaked, probably under water. We were forced to spend a second night in the restaurant. It was a hardship. Oryx steak with blueberry sauce, chicken with mushroom sauce. Lemon mousse, brandy. Well, what else could we do?

The following day we headed into the park on our own. We’d managed to book a night camping at Okaukuejo, the camp in the middle of the park. We didn’t see any of the big five but we saw lots of antelope, zebra and birds including the rare and beautiful blue crane.

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My little pony?

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The graceful blue crane

But as we approached the camp the weather deteriorated until we were driving through pouring rain and driving sand. We’d only washed the car the day before and now it was caked again!

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The weather doesn’t look good for camping tonight…

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This really was the view out of the windscreen

The camp site was partially flooded but fortunately our pitch was ok. The wind roared through the camp and dense black clouds threatened an imminent downpour to wash away our braai and our dinner with it. But thankfully it passed us by.

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Now just where should we put the tent?

Our neighbours were a colony of sociable weavers. These sparrow-like birds build huge structures in which they each have a nest.You see them everywhere, on trees and telegraph poles. They can be big enough to break large branches off the tree. They’re very chatty birds but they shut up at night (guinea fowl take heed) and we’ve got quite fond of them.

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Sociable weaver nest

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Underside of nest showing entry to individual nests

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A sociable weaver couple in their nest

Our last day in Etosha was spent hunting for the elusive animals. We asked a guide if he had seen anything. “Only six lions”. ONLY SIX LIONS?! Where? He told us where to find them and sure enough, there they were, snuggled up underneath a tree about 30 metres from the road. Like the males we’d seen in Kgalagadi, they looked so happy snuggled up with each other, despite the heat. One was on her back, legs akimbo, sound asleep. They were still there at 4pm when we left the park. If only we slept that well Smile

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Not a great pic but just look how cosy they are

We saw one of our favourite antelope, the kudu. A beautiful animal. We’ve heard from two different sources that the male can jump a 3 metre fence from a stand still. 3 metres. Just think about that…

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Kudu – masters of the puissance

At our lunch stop we also found a less cuddly but differently beautiful animal that had popped out of his burrow to see what was going on.

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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sting…

Finally we found two more elephants. Another solitary bull giving himself a coat of natural sun-tan lotion at a muddy waterhole and this one:

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An elephant shrew! Smile

And because you can never have too many pictures of an elephant shrew:

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Angela was almost more happy to see this than the elephants. We coaxed him into the car and he is now travelling with us. He sits on the dash board watching the world and the wildlife go by, and then he curls up on Angela’s lap and falls asleep, his long little nose twitching contentedly. In Angela’s dreams anyway. 

A belated Merry Christmas and a happy New Year everybody…

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…and no, we will never wear these hats again.

So you brought an 18 year old Land Rover to Africa…?

Having got the car sorted in Swakopmund we headed north-east. We’d booked to stop at a nice little camp site, Hoada, where we’d stayed for one night last year and wished it could have been longer, and from there the plan was to head for Etosha National Park. Probably Namibia’s most famous park, the game viewing here is excellent – elephants, black and white rhino, lion, leopard and cheetah, you name it they have it – so we planned time to view and time to relax. We had booked three nights at camp sites in the park, and another three in a private game reserve just outside. We could camp here but also use the lodge facilities so had booked Christmas dinner in their restaurant. We were really looking forward to it.

On the way to Hoada we had a fantastic morning driving along 4×4 trails rather than on the gravel roads. Beautiful scenery, fun and sometimes challenging driving and no-one else around. We had lunch next to a dry river bed under the shade of an Acacia tree, hoping to see the Desert Elephants that roam the area. Sadly they had roamed away but the drive was great and we finally saw one of the Namib Desert’s oldest-living plants – Welwitschias.  In fact we saw hundreds of them. They consist of a single pair of leaves (at least that’s what the book says but they seem to have several to us) but can grow up to 1m tall and 8m wide. Some are thought to be over 2,000 years old. The population in the Angola part of the Namib is higher as it is better protected…  by the concentration of land mines in that country. Something to consider for the UK’s most threatened plants???? Maybe not.

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We had great fun out on the 4×4 tracks

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Welwitschia – which can live for over 1,000 years

Getting back onto gravel roads we headed to the camp. Stopping to admire the view, smoke came belching from the engine. Not again. Must still be some oil left on the exhaust from the sump gasket job. The smoke cleared and we headed off, taking it a bit more slowly to reduce the temperature and therefore the burn-off. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t the problem. Although while driving it seemed fine, albeit down on power, each time we stopped the smoke billowed. We popped the bonnet and there was oil near the top of the engine. Arse. The harder the engine worked the worse the smoke and then it started coming from the exhaust. That’s a very bad sign. We nursed the engine to camp, not helped by a steep mountain pass on the way. In the morning Gareth took the inlet manifold off. We had a split gasket. That might cause the engine smoke as it burnt off but would it cause the exhaust smoke? We didn’t know.

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A poorly car and a sad Gareth – not a good look (on either)

We called around and found a garage in the nearest town, Kamanjab, about an hour away. Our man in Swakopmund, Nico – who knew more about Land Rovers than we’d had hot dinners (which is quite a lot…) – was now about 6 hours drive away, also put us onto a garage in Outjo, that was about 2 hours beyond Kamanjab. We headed to the closest first, where we stopped on the edge of town for the smoke to fade. At the garage, the owner was there but wouldn’t open up to help us. It was the 19th December and he’d shut up for Christmas and wouldn’t re-open til the 3rd January. Come back then. Then he handed us his card. “My main business is tow-ins. It’s a 24 hour / 365 day service. If you break down give me a call”. So you won’t help us now but you will come and get us if we break down in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Day? Great, but don’t file his card in the square one just yet.

We phoned the guys in Outjo and got an answer phone message in Afrikaans which seemed to suggest they had closed on the 15th and wouldn’t open until the New Year. Great. We decided to try really gentle driving and see if it would stop smoking, with the aim of creeping our way round our planned route through the park. We gave it 20km and it was obviously no good. We either went back to Hoada for 2 weeks and hoped the local guy knew enough about Land Rovers to actually help us or we could try at least to use some of the camp sites we’d booked and have our planned Christmas, even if we didn’t drive through the park. We chose the latter and headed for Outjo, which was en-route, going back via Kamanjab to get some more oil in case we needed to top up. As we got towards town, but before we’d had a chance to cool the exhaust, we found a police car behind us. As the speed limit dropped and we slowed down, the car started pumping out smoke. He backed off. As we got to the petrol station he flashed and pulled in behind us. We took our sun glasses off and smiled. They didn’t.”Where are you going?”. “Outjo”. “Why are you driving this car? It’s not fit to be on the road. You’re ruining our environment. The car should be towed” and various words to that effect. They had a very good point and we didn’t really  have an answer for them. We explained our situation, that we’d tried the local garage and he wouldn’t help and that maybe we should just head back to Hoada for 2 weeks. It wasn’t looking hopeful but then the senior officer seemed to change, took off his sun glasses and said “Outjo, you should go there. To Weimanns garage. They will help you”. “That’s what we wanted to do but we called and they are closed”. “They are open. I was there yesterday. Go to Outjo”. So we grabbed the opportunity and nursed the car to Outjo, and the notice on the very closed door at Weimanns garage said they were closed from the 15th of December to the 9th January… Maybe he just wanted us off his patch – too much paperwork with a foreign car? Who knows.

We found a nice camp site just outside of the town (with T-bone on the menu!) and pondered what to do. We could try again for our other camps or stay put til the New Year. Maybe our man in Swakopmund would be open after Christmas. We’d try and call him in the morning. We slept on it and called. He was open, but closing tomorrow. Can you come in today? No. We wouldn’t get there in time. What about the day after? Friday, 23rd. Yes, we could make that. OK, see you then. We headed straight off. The drive was all on tarmac which made it a bit faster and easier going but it still took about 7.5 hours. We stopped before every town to let it cool down so that it didn’t smoke too much and we prayed we wouldn’t see any police. No such luck. We turned onto a major road after a very long uphill section and the traffic came to a stop. A police check point. FFS. No chance to pretend we had a healthy car. But the queue was long and by the time we got to them the smoke had stopped. They were checking road tax and waved us through. OMG. We breathed a sigh of relief. We eventually got to near Swakopmund at about 5.30 and got the last pitch on a camp site 13km out of town. We were nearly there but one by one our days in Etosha were being cancelled.

The following morning we set off again, straight into another police check point. The queue was fairly long and we prayed for the smoke to die down. It carried on, despite the fact the engine was fairly cold. Shit. One of the police was definitely looking in our direction. The car billowed. Shit. We’re definitely going to be pulled over. Will they tell us to get it towed? We had our story all sorted. Poor tourists, no-one can help, had to come to Swakopmund, nearly at the garage, it’s Christmas, etc. etc.. The smoke just about stopped as we pulled alongside them…. and they waived us straight through. Incredulous we pulled away slowly, the car once again billowing. No reaction. Unbelievable. We took the back roads into town, belching smoke all the way, other drivers overtaking and shaking their hands at us. Sorry! Not our finest or most stress-free hour(s).

We were at the garage for 8am. They got stuck straight in and after a good look over and pulling various bits off announced what we had feared. The turbo is gone. “I have the gasket, I don’t have the turbo” he told us. He disappeared and the guys carried on prepping the car for the gasket. We were stuck in Swakopmund for Christmas, at the height of their tourist season, with no accommodation booked. But no. Nico returned with a turbo. He had called a Land Rover parts supplier and despite the fact they were closed for Christmas he had got the turbo from them! What a star. They fitted the turbo. They took the car for a drive and returned. Our hearts sank – it was still billowing smoke… OK, the system is still full of oil. He took off the exhaust. The catalytic converter was caked in it and looking pretty blocked. He cut out the cat and welded a plain section of exhaust in its place – a custom de-cat. We don’t bother with these in Africa – as soon as my new Defender is out of warrantee, that’s coming straight off.

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Custom de-cat – another thing you can do with a welder

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A rather grubby looking 300Tdi with no turbo

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Here was problem number 1

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Some of the team – at one point we had 5 men working on the car

They ran the engine for a while to get rid of as much oil as possible and took it for a spin. You guessed it…. “Oh bother” I think were the words we used. He pulled the turbo away from the engine to check for oil coming from the engine itself. There was none. The turbo’s dud – a brand new Garrett one! He double checked and called the supplier, who turned up, had a look, agreed and apologised. But he didn’t have another one. We were stuffed. But no! He had sold one to another client who hadn’t fitted it yet and could get it back from him. He would have it by 8am in the morning – Christmas Eve. Nico and his team would come back in the morning to fit it for us! We were gob-smacked and humbled. We couldn’t believe the trouble these guys were taking for us.

It was 3pm. We found a space on a camp site on the beach (sounds lovely but think ‘exposed, very windy and very, very busy’) and got a little sleep.  By 7.45 the following morning they were working on the car again. The second new turbo was fitted and they took the car for a spin and…. it came back billowing smoke. It’s not the turbo. Nico scratched his head. In years of working on these vehicles he had never had a problem like this before and he didn’t know what the problem was. We fully expected to be told to come back in the New Year but no. They carried on. They spoke in Afrikaans as they worked, most of which we didn’t understand. But we did pick up the occasional word. Well the same word was used more than occasionally… I think it is similar in many languages…

They’d already checked all the oil feed pipes and all of the other pressure equalising pipes. Maybe something was blocking them deep in the engine? He really was at a loss. So, they took the sump off again and cleaned it all up. In the meantime, Nico was reconditioning an old turbo he had as a back-up plan.Nothing obvious in the lower part of the engine but they put it back together again and took it for a spin. We couldn’t bring ourselves to look.They said nothing but Nico looked more relaxed. They called Gareth to come for a spin. They were gone for ages. When they returned, no smoke. NO SMOKE!!! YAY!!! He admitted he still didn’t know what the problem was – maybe a small blockage somewhere? It was 1pm. We looked at our timing and decided to try and get to the site we had booked outside Etosha. Sat nav said 6 hours. Nico gave us his card and told us to call him if we had any problems, even over Christmas and to text him that all was ok when we got to the first town en-route (about 130km away). They’d worked for over 10 hours in he car and he charged us for 3 hours labour. We really didn’t know what to say to them except Nico, Robbie, Kenny, team. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved our Christmas.

We should also mention the final member of the team, the garage cat, a stray that had adopted them. He was incredibly vocal and very friendly and provided some stress relief during the hours of waiting. He had no name but after a comment from Robbie we christened him Grease Monkey.

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Grease Monkey – one of the friendliest but grubbiest cats we’ve ever met

The trip to north took 8.5 hours. Gareth drove all the way. The last hour and a half were in the dark, something we had hoped to avoid in Africa. This brought unexpected consequences. The bad side was that the night air was full of insects – we’ve never seen so many. Lit up by the headlights, and attracted by them, it was like driving into snow. They hit the windscreen like living rain. The windscreen washers couldn’t clean off the resultant ‘fluid debris’ and left Gareth with a small and smearing patch in the windscreen to see through, which slowed progress considerably.

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Carnage on the windscreen

The good thing was that we avoided driving into elephants and there were no cars driving without headlights which we’d heard is common in rural Africa. But the best thing was that we saw an Aarvark. They are mainly nocturnal and they shared the top spot with a handful of animals we really wanted to see. They are so cool. We couldn’t get a pic but watched him for several minutes trundling around looking for ants (their common name is Ant Bear). 

We rolled into camp at 9.50pm. They’d kept the gates open for us and dismissed our apologies with big smiles and a warm welcome. We set up our tent and, too tired to cook dinner, made do with a glass of wine before heading to bed. As we sat there utterly exhausted a lion roared in the distance. Happy Christmas. Welcome to Etosha.

The Skeleton Coast and Africa’s Little 5 (arachnid and snake warning!)

When we were over here last year for our honeymoon, we only spent one night in Swakopmund and saw details about a dune safari to spot the Little 5. We couldn’t do it then as it was a half day trip, so this time we planned some time in Swakopmund to do it. We were picked up early and headed to the entrance to the dunes shared by quad bikes and camel ride operators (not the healthiest of mixes you would have thought).

We only travelled about  1km into the sand when we stopped for a really interesting chat about the food chain in the sands. The muesli of the desert was wind blown grass and plant debris, which attracted the little bugs, the Tok-Tokkie, larvae and silver fish.  They normally accumulate at the bottom (leeward side) of the dune (think of a dune as a long gradual slope up blown by the wind, then a steep – though never more than 30 degrees – slope on the leeward side). The things that feed on the bugs, etc. are skinks (lizards without discernable necks), spiders and lizards. Then there are the geckos, chameleons and snakes. Then birds and bigger prey at the top.

The spider we saw was called the white dancing spider (part of the trap-door family). It digs into the sand and sprays silk all over the inside as structural support and digs deeper – The genesis of the tunnel boring machine. After a while, it spins a door of silk and covers it with sand to camouflage it. It’s called a dancing spider because it runs away from a parasitic wasp by cartwheeling down the steep slope of the dune (at 44 revs per second allegedly) and when it stops spinning it must be at the bottom, and then it raises some of it’s legs to fend off any predator if they were around. It can give you a nasty nip as well.

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And here she is (bigger than the male who gets a grizzly end after some rumpy)

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Here’s the legless skink, which is an amazingly fast digger

This gecko is only found in the Namib and has no eyelids (they lick their eyes), so we needed to protect it from the sun. Fortunately, it was overcast, but this meant the colours don’t come out as they might have.

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Namib gecko

The guides saw traces of a sidewinder snake. They are part of the adder family and are much smaller than we’d imagined (30cm max). We went over for the photo shoot and she was very accommodating sliding up and down the dunes and burrowing in when she felt safe with only her eyes out of the sand ready to pounce. Sometimes she pops her tail out in front of her head to mimic a worm or similar to capture the prey that feeds on it.

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Here are the classic sidewinder tracks

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Here she is camouflaging herself in the sand

We then went to a place where they’d seen a chameleon the day before and sure enough it was there. The guide had a bag of nice wriggling maggots and lured him out of the bush where he was a dark brown colour. It obviously looks around in all directions first to see what’s going on and who these large objects that have just got me out of my hideout are, but when he spots some wriggling, he spins both eyes to give him binocular vision for depth and fires his weapon and lunch is had. After his fill, he waddles off slowly to the bush again, a contented white colour now to match the sand.

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Gotcha

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Happy chappy

Lastly we saw the shovel nosed lizard. They are extremely fast moving and when they spot a wriggling bite for lunch, they are on it like lightening. These are the ones you may have seen on the tele that lift opposite front and back legs to regulate their temperature.

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Blimey it’s hot here

After the tour we went up the Skeleton Coast towards the Cape fur seal colony at Cape Point (where the Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in Southern Africa). There are many wrecks that give it its name, but we only saw this one:

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The seal colony was a very sad place. There are over 200,000 there during the breeding season (now) making it the largest such colony in the world. There were loads of pups born, but`so many, hundreds of them, were dead. And the smell of that and the shear numbers of seals together was almost unbearable. It made us wish we hadn’t gone there. The trials of life there in a nutshell.

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200,000 seals in one place

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Some of the cuter ones

Dunes

Sossusvlei is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. It includes the Deadvlei, or dead marsh, which once was wet and full of life but now is dry desert with just the skeletons of the trees to hint at the past. It lies at the end of a 65km dead-end road from the camp at Sesriem. The first 60km is tar which gives way to soft sand for the last 5. The gates to the national park open at 5am and if you want to see it at sunrise, before the sun bleaches out the contrast between the red sand, the white dried mud and the clear blue sky, you can join the daily 65km dash to be the first there. We did his last year and it was well worth the effort, especially as we were first at Deadvlei and got some fab shots without all the other tourists there (damn tourists, always getting in our way….). We decided to see it for the sunset this time (and have a lie in). It is a hauntingly beautiful place and we had it all to ourselves – not another soul around. If you are into landscape photography, you must visit Namibia in general and Sossusvlei in particular – you almost can’t take a bad shot here and that’s just with our point-and-shooting; if you knew what you were doing ….

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Sossusvlei – can you spot the Landy?

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Deadvlei

The sand at the end of the road was much softer than last year and it was the first time we’d driven our landy in such deep stuff. When sand is deep you need to keep momentum up so that you don’t get bogged down in it, but wanting to avoid getting stuck out there on our own we probably worked her harder than we needed to. We also didn’t let our tyres down as it was only a short distance. We started to get a smell of oil and stopped on a firm(ish) bit. Now as any owner of a landy will testify, they all weep oil a bit. This one however was dripping a bit from the sump seal onto the exhaust and with the car working hard, it was smoking off. We couldn’t see any continuous dripping, so buried our heads in the surrounding sand and caned it to the end of the soft stuff. We took it easy on the tar road back to camp and we didn’t seem to have lost much oil. The plan was to continue with our two overnight stops before the relatively large town of Swakopmund as before, then find a man to fix the leak.

We stopped at the Sesriem camp for the night and rewarded ourselves for our escape from the desert with a large T-bone steak. We also felt fairly worthy as we’d stopped to help a fellow traveller fix his rental car, which had half the wheel arch covering hanging off. Out with our tools and some zip-ties and we had him sorted and back on the road.

The morning took us to into the mountains where camped under a huge overhang of rock. From there we headed to the Namib Naukluft Park and a camp next to a dry river bed in the Kuiseb Canyon, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn on the way.

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The camp site was very basic, with just a long-drop toilet (think deep hole with a rustic loo seat over it) and no other facilities. We filled up our solar shower (heavy duty black plastic bag with clear window) and hung it up in the sunshine to heat up. It worked a treat. We lashed it up on a branch overhanging the river bed and has a nice hot shower.

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Just don’t drop the soap in the sand…

Our next stop was Swakopmund. We tracked the river, passing tiny rustic villages and their livestock, still staggered that animals can find anything to eat in this landscape.

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Local shepherds in the dunes

In town we picked up some new brake pads  that we’d ordered from a Land Rover parts specialist and which we hoped would stop the squealing. We then headed for the Land Rover specialist. We turned up unannounced on a Friday afternoon and explained the problem with the oil. He popped it over the inspection pit, cleaned the engine bay and told us to take it for a spin so he could locate the leak. Yes, it was coming from the sump. It needed a new gasket. They fixed it there and then. Sump off, new gasket applied (for some reason Land Rover just use a sealant for the sump rather than a pre-made seal) and all sorted. There was quite a bit of oil left on the exhaust and chassis but they cleaned most of it off. The rest would have to burn off.

We’d booked a room for a couple of nights as the wind was up and we didn’t fancy camping on the very exposed coast. The main reason we’d come to Swakopmund was to do the Living Desert Tour where we hoped to see “The Little Five”, the desert’s answer to the Big Five that are traditionally associated with safaris. That awaits us tomorrow.

Here kitty kitty

From our farm stop-over we headed for Sesriem and the dunes of Sossusvlei. We stopped over at a lodge campsite en route, where we discovered they did a big cat walk. They turned out to be rescue animals, which you could walk in with. Two Cheetahs, a Leopard and 3 Caracal. Most were raised from cubs whilst one, a naughty Caracal, had been caught killing sheep. The guide took us in to see the Caracal first, telling us we had to do an eye test before we could go in. We looked around, no caracal, but there had to be something we were missing. Then we spotted her, a Leopard sat right next to us in the adjacent enclosure. She was beautiful. Her name was Lisa and she had been raised from a cub. Unlike the other cats we couldn’t go in with her as she was too unpredictable. Leopards are solitary animals and the only other leopard they will tolerate (except when breeding) is their mother. The owner’s son was who she saw as her mother, and from the pictures we saw they obviously has an amazing relationship, but even he would check her mood before he visited. But she still loves company and misses the attention she got when she was a house cat (until she was about 3 years old), so we put our hands against the mesh fence as she rubbed her head and face against them. Wow.

The Caracal were pretty cool. Romeo, Juliet and Shakespeare. We couldn’t touch them but got fairly close. Shakespeare started purring as we approached him. We watched and admired for a while, then Romeo sidled over near him and the purr changed to a growl, so we left them to it and moved on.

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Romeo and Juliet. Fancy one of these curled up on your lap?

Next were the Cheetahs. We went in to the enclosure and looked for them, finding the male, Bushman, first. Our guide called him. At first he was elusive, stalking behind a bush. Then he came into the open and crouched. Our guide called again. Suddenly the cat sprang forward and sped towards us. Err, keep nice and calm now and don’t run like some prey.… Taking our lead from our guide we stayed still. As you do. Bushman charged towards him and came to a skidding halt at his feet, giving him a rather boisterous rub and starting to chew at his leg. “NO, Bushman!”. “He wants to play with me!”. Riiiight…. Angela had rolled up trousers which she promptly rolled down for full protection. Gareth had shorts on… But he settled, walked across to Angela, flopped down across her feet and started purring, loudly like an engine. “You can stroke his head now”. She gently slid her feet from under the cat, crouched down and scratched his head. Oh yes, cheetahs like a head rub as much as your domestic cat. Behind the ears too. OMG. I can’t tell you how bizarre it feels to give a cheetah a head rub. An animal that could easily kill you. Amazing and not just a little nerve-tingling at the same time. Gareth leant down and gave / got the same treatment.

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Bushman, who enjoys a head rub as you can see

We left Bushman and went looking for the female. She was lying under a bush. Her name was Wild and she was more reserved. She started purring and then slowly got up and went over to the guide. “I always wait for her to come to me” he said. We took his lead and waited and watched. He stroked her flank and she was settled. Then she walked across to Angela and rubbed alongside her, stopping for a gentle stroke, still purring. She then stepped over to Gareth and took a great deal of interest in his legs. Not sure if it was the sweat, sun cream or just his sweet smell but she started to lick his calves with a tongue that is designed to rasp flesh from bone! Gareth stood there not sure what to do, with feelings somewhere between amazement and nervousness with not a little pain thrown in. What do you do when a big cat starts licking you? Never show fear. Was she tenderising his calf ready for dinner? Or just intrigued by the taste. After a bit too long the guide said “You can move back if you want to”. OK, thanks, I might do that! That had the desired effect and she wondered back to the shade.

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Wild – the calf-licker

On our way back we met Bushman again, who decided to have another run at us, again going for the guides legs. “He still wants to play” (he had known them since they were cubs) “but he cannot, he is big and a wild animal”. Indeed. We were a bit conflicted about keeping big cats like this in enclosures. Rescued or not, even though they had reasonable sized areas and were well looked after, they had nothing like the vast spaces they would inhabit in the wild. But the chance to get so close to them was incredible.

Next stop, the dunes.

Farm Life and the Dawn Chorus

From Luderitz we headed north. We found a camp site on a farm which had its own private ablutions and the rate looked pretty good in the guide. Did they have availability? Yes. How much? 29 Namibian dollars each. How much? 29 dollars. The least we’d paid so far was about 110 dollars each, or about £7. OK, great, we’ll take it. We handed over 58 dollars. She looked at it. “It’s 184 dollars”. “I thought you said 29 dollars each?…”. “Yes, 29 each, 184 for two….”.  Errr..??? Then it twigged. “92 dollars each?” “Yes, 92 dollars.” Ahh. She realised her mistake. “No wonder you looked so confused”. OK, still cheap, and had us less worried about the quality of the facilities. 

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Our camp site was called Barn Owl

It was a nice farm and we decided to stay for a few nights and sort out the car a bit, clean off some of the dust and salt from the outside (it needed it after 6 weeks) and generally chill after a few busy days. We also had a chance to find out a bit about the farm from the farmer’s wife. It was a Swakara sheep farm with a few Jersey cows. Swakaras are one of the few breeds in Namibia that have fleeces. Most others don’t –  they have hair, which doesn’t need shearing, is much easier in the heat and make them look like goats. The Swakaras need shearing twice a year. Their fleeces are very course wool and are currently worthless. Apparently they used to be sold to make blankets for South African prisons, but that market has dried up as the SA government now get cheap imports from China. The main value in Swakara is in the pelts from the lambs, not something we’d heard of before. They are highly valued in the fashion industry as the short wavy fleece is quite different from the adult wool; it is soft and silky with beautiful patterns in the hair. This farm is one of the oldest Swakara farms in the country and apparently has a very good reputation for high quality breeding animals. Most of their animals are therefore sold to other farmers to add to their flocks. Unlike most livestock, the quality of an animal is told when it is 24 hours old, when you can see the quality of the pelt. They are all individually judged out of ten on colour, pattern, silkiness, etc.. The best are kept for the breeding flock. The worst are raised for about 12 months and sold for mutton. The in-betweenies, too good for meat but not good enough for breeding, are used for their pelts. They are slaughtered at 72 hours old, with the pelts removed, cleaned and dried for the fashion market. Swakara products are highly sought-after and have a correspondingly high price tag. A full length coat will set you back about £15,000 should you want one. It was fascinating, unexpected and a little uncomfortable to hear the lambs go so young.

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Swakara sheep

We had a really interesting and eye-opening couple of hours talking with her about the farm. They have 48km of boundary fence which they maintain against predators. The main problems for them seem to be Jackals, Caracal and Cheetah, which get in under the fence. Leopard will apparently come over it but they tend to take one or two animals to eat and then leave, so, at least on this farm, they are tolerated. Not so the Caracal and Cheetah. We were told (and have heard from more than one source) that when they get in they go on a killing spree, like Red Foxes do in the UK (our poor chickens… Sad smile). On one occasion the farm had a mother Cheetah with two juveniles get in to one large paddock. They started off by killing about 40 breeding ewes. It took them 3 months to catch them all (the paddocks are huge areas of veld) and in that time they’d taken over 100 animals. The captured Cheetahs all went  to the Cheetah Conservation Foundation, who relocated at least the juveniles. I think many farmers would have shot or poisoned them.

Although we couldn’t help out much on the farm, she invited us to join some of the workers to feed the sheep in the morning. So we jumped on the back of an old Series 3 Land Rover pick-up, hung onto the side bars and spent an hour driving from field to field feeding the sheep. Brilliant fun. The sheep are a fat-tailed breed which means they have a think flabby tail and large overhang of fat across their bottoms as well as in front of their chests, which they use as fat reserves for the lean times.

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They look really odd – their bums really do look big in that.

We enjoyed our stay at the farm and it gave Angela a chance to enjoy the dawn chorus. I use the words enjoy, dawn and chorus very loosely as in fact none of them are remotely accurate. The Guinea Fowl hardly shut up all night but really kicked off at about 3am, their continual screeching chak-chak-chak sounding like an avian machine gun. They were joined by a number of peacocks who loudly honked, trumpeted and wailed in a form of torturous unison. Finally, the cockerels chipped in, welcoming the arrival of the sun even thought it would not be up for at least another hour. Ear plugs were absolutely useless. Eventually, when the wild birds started singing the racket became a continuous white noise and Angela got a small kip. Gareth apparently slept through all of this. “The birds were pretty quiet last night”. “You are joking?!”. “I slept really well – a 7 out of 10 sleep”. You can go off some people. Still Christmas is coming.  Guinea fowl, cockerel and peacock. I wonder if our Dutch oven is big enough for a three bird roast?….

Wild horses, winds and weird old German towns

After three recommendations, we finally gave in and headed to Luderitz. From Seeheim to Aus for a fuel stop, then we left Aus to travel across the desert road to the coast. After abut 25kms, there was a water hole for the feral horses of the region just off the main road. We stopped for a look and it is heat haze central looking across this desolate plain, but some of the wavey blobs were moving. Eventually, some came into view clearly and then slowly they began to take it in turns at the hole in their walking groups of 3 or 4. All were unsurprisingly fairly thin considering the current drought, but most in reasonable shape. There are many stories about how they became to be here in the desert, most seem to link it to German Army horses that escaped before, during or after the First World War‘

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Not Red Rum, but reasonably athletic looking considering they are living in the desert

As we approached Luderitz, the wind picked up and whipped sand across the road. It was quite eerie crossing the desert in relative silence with this going on, straight out of the movies, but at least it’s cleaning some of the dirt (and paint) off the car!

There are two camping sites, one just north of the town and one on the peninsular which is supposed to be better if it’s windy. IF IT’S WINDY – oh yes it’s windy alright. We saw the first one and there was no shelter, the one on the peninsular was also subject to the same hoolie. Time for a proper house then. After a few abortive attempts, we found this great place called Zum Anker on the south side of town. I was going to say a great little place, but this place is massive with a washing machine and a bath – the ultimate luxury that we haven’t had since we left the UK.

We’d planned to stay one night but we really liked the town so stayed for two. A mix of old-style German with working fishing town, it was honest and real, not like some of the coastal towns you come across. If you want the bright lights, amusement arcades or up-market malls and white sandy beaches then this isn’t the place to go but that suited us. The town is sandwiched between the Sperrgebiet (or Forbidden Area) and the Namib-Naukluft desert and both are open to permit holders only, mainly due to the presence of diamonds. But there is a small part of the coast that you can explore, a mix of tumbling rocks and petrified dunes with the Atlantic crashing on the rocky coves and shell beaches. We went looking for the cave and pools that we’d been told about. We had the place almost to ourselves and the wind.

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Bad hair day?

We explored the town and had tea and cake in a shady cafe garden watching their pet tortoise munching on their beautifully tended strawberry plants. We wandered round the harbour, ate a huge sea-food platter and visited a beautiful but, to us, weirdly out of place Edwardian German town-house with original Art Nouveau furniture which had been imported from Germany, along with many of the building materials, when the house was built. We even got our hair cut! Gareth braved a very local barber to get what he learnt was a Panga style (short back and sides) whilst Angela was a little more cautious and asked the (white) cafe owner for a recommendation. They were the cheapest haircuts either of us have ever had but we were both pleasantly surprised with the results, despite the fact that Gareth’s hair took longer to cut than Angela’s!

On our way out of Luderitz we visited the ghost town of Kolmannskop. What a strange place. This town developed on the site of one of the original diamond fields discovered in the early 20th Century. The ‘alluvial’ diamonds, washed thousands of km along rivers and left in shallow surface deposits, sometimes just lying on the surface, were so plentiful that, in some valleys, on a moon-lit night, the ground sparkled like a the lights of a town and handfuls of diamonds could literally be scooped up from under your feet. They were also mainly of gem quality (rather than industrial). It made the people who found it very, very rich and Kolmannskop became a thriving town. Four hundred Europeans, mostly Germans, lived there in considerable luxury. They had daily supplies of ice, fresh milk and bread delivered free to their doorstep by a small train that ran the length of the town. The same train would take the ladies back into town to do their shopping. The bakery was fully automated and there was an ice production plant. The shop supplied all the basics – champagne, caviar, fine cloth, you name it you could get it. Famous opera singers would visit to entertain the inhabitants and there was a bowling alley as well as a gymnasium to keep the chaps occupied. Building materials were again imported from Europe, including marble fittings from Italy. You were in the desert but you wanted for little.

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The Kolmannskop express

By contrast, the 800 workers lived in large bunk-houses and worked 12 hour shifts. Where the diamonds were on the surface the men had to lie down and crawl forward collecting the diamonds as they went, their mouths covered with a rag to stop them trying to swallow them. Once the surface diamonds were collected they had to dig the ground with shovels to get to the deeper lode. They had to spend 2 years there and could not leave during that time. 10 days before the end of that period they were confined to the hospital (which could accommodate 250 people) and fed castor oil, to ensure that any diamonds they were trying to liberate didn’t accompany them out of the town. The hospital even had an X-ray machine (the first in Africa I believe), not so much for broken bones but to check for hidden gems, whether swallowed, hidden in personal equipment or stitched into pockets they’d cut into their own skin. The authorities were so worried about smuggling that, after a two-year stint, the workers could not return to the mine as they knew too many of the secrets and procedures. They even banned people keeping pigeons as they had been used to carry diamonds back to their owners’ homes.  

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German Ghost town in the Namib Desert

The Great Depression took its toll and the final death knell for the town was when a deposit of much larger diamonds were found down south near the Orange River. The town was abandoned. The residents literally got up and left. They were so rich they didn’t bother going to the expense of taking their furniture with them and just left it. Now, barring a couple that have been restored for tourists to see, the houses have largely fallen to the elements. Sand has taken over many of them and the only life there now are the Sidewinder snakes, lizards and beetles. It is a weird place. Because the climate is so dry the buildings are still in remarkable condition and you can explore all but one of them, that one being only supported by the desert itself! In places you can see the wallpaper and stencils decorating the rooms, there is even a marble bath in one of the houses, whilst the sand has been blown in through the windows and is adorned with the occasional rippling track left by a hunting Sidewinder. Surreal.

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Can you spot the Sidewinder track?

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Diamonds are still mined in the area in Elizabeth’s Bay mine and the town is surrounded by fences and notices encouraging you to stay out. The only way you can get into the Sperrgebiet as a visitor is to arrange a permit by providing a copy of your passport days in advance, so that you can be fully checked out. Too much forward planning for us so we headed out and headed north, leaving the wind and, sadly, the diamonds.

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