Rain, mud and fake snakes

After the excitement of the night before we decided to leave Bwabwata behind and headed towards the Nkasa Rupara National Park. We’d been recommended a site on the Kwando River. We had a fantastic river cruise with an excellent young guide (19 years old!) where we saw loads of birds including lots of stunning Bee-eaters, and visited a crocodile’s nest where you could see the remains of the eggs which had hatched 3 weeks earlier.

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Little Bee-eater

We also had fun dodging the hippos. As the river is quite narrow our guide had to drive the shallow-draught boat over the top of the hippos, which mostly dive as the boat approaches. A few however like to chase the boat by running along the river bed near the bank, which was quite entertaining and slightly alarming.

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Race with a Hippo

We had planned to stay a couple of days but the camping area was expensive and poorly maintained so we stayed one night and moved on. We found a site further down the river which offered a private plot with our own lapa (a thatched covered area) for a good price. The drive there was interesting. The sky promised more rain, which indeed we got.

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Brooding sky

The camp was on the road to Nkasa Rupara National Park. The first section was gravel and was good. We then crossed a bridge, the gravel stopped and the mud began. The rains were taking their toll. A German couple, in a 4×4 camper, had stopped by the first ‘pool’. We had a chat and they’d been told by a guide that the road was bad with deep mud and water. They said that they were new to off-roading so very cautious and maybe we should have a chat with the guide ourselves, as he was still around waiting for his clients to turn up. We went back over the bridge and found the guide who was really friendly and very helpful. He said that we should be ok (although sometimes he told us even they get stuck) and that in any case, once his guests showed up he would be going that way and would help us if we got into difficulties. His advice was to follow the more recent tracks where other people “have taken their chances”. This we did and although the road, or more accurately roads as people had been trying various lines, was not great (to say the least) we took our time, back-tracked where we weren’t sure and got through.

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The main ‘road’ to the National Park…

We were the only guests and were given a lovely site that looked across a wetland area and was incredibly peaceful. Slightly alarmingly there was a large striped cobra lying in the middle of the site, head up, mouth open and fangs showing. Staying in the car, we peered at it through our binoculars. It hadn’t moved, the mouth stayed open, the fangs still protruding. We crept the car forward to confirm our thoughts – it was rubber.

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Gareth the snake wrangler

With relief we set up camp, noticing several other fake snakes scattered around the camp. They were to scare off the baboons!

We had two nights there, the lapa providing great cover for the evening rains, which were becoming the norm. The first morning we had a ‘mokoro’ ride. This is the traditional canoe which the locals use to get around the rivers and for fishing. The traditional ones are carved out of a tree trunk and would apparently last a life time. We asked if they treat them at all. Apparently they do, with engine oil, almost certainly used!!! Ours was fibre-glass – cheaper and much lighter. We had two local guides, one at the front to ‘guide’ and the other at the back to paddle (with one oar) and steer. As we set off the boat glided silently over the water. It was so different from the river cruises. We were sat right down at water level, with just the soft sound of the oar gently pushing us through the water.

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Enjoying a peaceful Mokoro ride?

However, we soon started to feel that they didn’t really know what they were doing. The channel was narrow and fringed with thick reeds. There were numerous submerged hippos, their presence only told by a series of bubbles on the water. When we came across them the plan was to steer into the reeds in shallow water and wait until it was safe to pass. When the bubbles were spotted, the helmsman, who was obviously quite nervous of the hippos, would utter several low, deep “hohs” and steer quickly into the nearest reeds. His choice was usually wrong in the eyes of the front guide who would snap sharply at him and they would jabber away to each other, arguing and pointing about which direction was best and how to get around the water monster. Both of them were on their mobile phones, texting / reading texts, throughout much of the trip. On several occasions Angela, who was behind the front guide, had to warn him about bubbles right in front of the boat, panic would ensue, the helmsman would get the blame, an argument would start again as they made a frantic scrabble for the reeds, hoping to god that the hippo didn’t decide to surface underneath us. It was all rather unnerving and we were quite glad to make it back to land safely.

The following day we drove into the park, over a fairly ropey-looking but actually quite strong  bridge.

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We didn’t see anyone else all day, which was marvellous! In the park office they only had a map on the wall which we had to take a photo of. This map was next to useless and we relied on our Tracks4Afirca GPS map to see us through, as some of the tracks weren’t that obvious…

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Yes, this is a track

It was a pleasant drive around with a stream crossing to end and a few animals thrown in for good measure.

We then continued across the Zambezi strip and stayed just outside Katima Mulilo, the border town with Zambia and spent a couple if days chilling before our next border crossing.

Heading for a sticky situation

Now heading for the Zambezi region, we continued north to Rundu along the B8, a really good quality tar road which made the journey quick and comfortable. By now the landscape around us had changed almost beyond recognition. This area had had rain; everywhere we looked it was green and the further north we went the more lush the vegetation became. The number of people also steadily increased, with small villages dotted regularly along the road and people and livestock walking along and across it. Gareth had to keep alert to avoid the animals that suddenly decided to cross the road in front of us. The sheep usually do this to get to their mates, which they suddenly realise they are going to be separated from as the scary vehicle approaches. The cows also do this but they also seem to decide to walk into the road right in front of you for no discernable reason except to be annoying. In these parts they have priority and anyway, who wants to hit a cow doing 50mph?!

This area is booming, being on the commercial route from the border with Zambia to the capital Windhoek and on to the Atlantic coast and the sea port at Walvis Bay. Rundu itself has a real frontier town feel to it. The established part of town has a shopping mall (although the Grand Arcade in Cambridge it certainly is not!), fast food joints, banks, estate agents and many other established stores but the road in is lined with a sprawl of tin shacks with people selling pretty much anything you could think of. Many of them also seem to offer phone top-up and charging.

We found a nice campsite at a lodge a little way outside the madness of the town on the Okavango River, the waters that feed the Okavango Delta. The next day we followed the river east to Divundu. We chose to take the gravel road that ran parallel to the main tar route, taking us much closer to the river and giving us a more leisurely drive. It was lined with an endless string of settlements, arranged in what we guess are family groups, each with a few mud and thatched huts and livestock kraals enclosed by a tall post and reed fence. Unlike the round Himba villages, these huts and enclosures are all square. There are people everywhere, walking, sitting, tending their livestock and their maize fields. Much of the bush has been cleared for small-scale cultivation and to provide firewood and grazing for the animals. 

Although we were heading to the border and Zambia, we also wanted to explore this part of Namibia. The Zambezi region, formerly known as the Caprivi Strip, is part of a narrow strip of Namibia that runs for about 400km east to Zambia, squeezing between Angola to the north and Botswana to the south on the way. Beyond Divundu it is largely composed of a series of National Parks which have been established in cooperation with the neighbouring countries. They provide a haven for wildlife and in particular a corridor for their (relatively) free movement across the international borders along ancient migration routes. The area is dominated by the four rivers that wind their way through it: the Okavango, Kwando, Linyanti and Zambezi, which provide the life force to the area’s wildlife. Although the main road is tar, the side roads are generally sand, mud or a combination of the two. Most of these are only suitable for 4×4 vehicles in the dry season. In the wet season, which we had now entered, many become flooded and impassable. So we thought we would just see what was open and explore what we could.

As we have said before, this time of year is not the best for viewing game. The increased rain reduces the dependence of the animals on the water holes and they are more dispersed. The lush vegetation also makes it difficult to see the animals that are there. It’s a great time to see birds though and this area is particularly rich in bird life. Happy Angela. Poor Gareth.

The first park we wanted to visit, Mahango Game Reserve, was close to Divundu and on the banks of the Okavango. We’d visited the reserve on our honeymoon and really enjoyed it. This time was no different. We’d driven through rain but as we arrived at about 4pm the dark clouds cleared and the sun came out. Although the reserve is small we saw animals around almost every corner. Not huge herds but lots of different species, many of them close to the car, and lots of birds of prey including an African Fish Eagle polishing off his dinner on a nearby tree.

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Anyone for a fish supper?

The main route is surfaced and easy to drive, winding it’s way through the bushes, plains, riverside and wetland. We had a really nice afternoon, finished off nicely by a big bull elephant wondering along the grassy shores of the wetland.

We visited the huge Baobab trees we’d seen last time. One of them was fallen, as it had been before. In less than 2 years the difference was incredible; it had been almost completely decomposed by the termites.

 

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Baobab May 2015

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Baobab January 2017

We’d been given a couple of recommendations for camps in the area so decided to give them both a go. The first was a lovely new lodge with secluded private camp sites for an incredibly cheap price and a covered area for preparing and eating food. Perfect, as the rain kicked off just as we settled down to making dinner.

We hadn’t seen any big predators in our evening trip so, in a break from tradition, decided to get up early  the next morning to give us a better chance of seeing the lions and wild dogs that inhabit the park. We were there at 7.30am, unheard of for us! Sadly it didn’t pay off – such is the lottery of seeing animals in the ‘wild’ – but we still had a great morning with lots of wildlife to see, including a 5 legged elephant.

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Jake the peg?

Our next camp is one that has a reputation with travellers for its great atmosphere and quirky features. They have what they describe as the world’s first croc and hippo proof pool in the middle of the river, which we of course had to have a dip in, with the hippos chuckling throatily to themselves in the shallows on the other side of the river.

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Croc and hippo cage…

They also have an outside bathroom called the Fish Eagle Bath, with a tin tub and a fantastic view across the river. You have to light your own fire under the donkey boiler to heat the water, which took ages but was worth it for such an unusual experience. You did have to keep a look out for any tourist boats that went up and down the river so as not to embarrass anyone Smile

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Fish Eagle Bath

From Divundu we continued our journey east for a couple of hours through the Bwabwata National Park to another area we’d explored last time. Then we’d stayed at a very luxurious lodge (we’d had a free upgrade as the lodge we were booked to stay at was doing renovations) and had the most amazing encounter with a huge heard of about 200 elephants. We didn’t expect that this time and did wonder whether to go back again but decided to give it a go anyway, although we didn’t know how much of the park was flooded. The first track we took was flooded after about 200 metres and we had to turn back. Further down the main road and through the main park entrance the roads were much better. We met another driver who told us that the roads were generally ok for 4×4 vehicles and that there was a dead hippo at the far end of the park with about 90 vultures on it. We had to go looking for it. We tried to follow his directions and also followed his tyre tracks along the various paths that wind through the park. We saw a group of hippos in a large pool and stopped to watch them for a while. Several of them ‘yawned’ which we learnt later was a threat as they weren’t happy with us being there. Fortunately we’d kept our distance.

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Yawning hippo

The roads were mainly in good condition with only short sections where ruts had filled with water. We were nearly at the far end of the park and had lost the fresh tyre tracks but decided to keep going to the end. Then we came across a longer section of flooded track next to a flooded hippo wallow. We stopped and had a look. You could see where the path went and there was still grass visible so it shouldn’t be too deep…

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Would you drive your car through this?

We crept in with the front wheels and the car bogged a bit. It was soft, but it backed out easily enough. OK, put it into low gear, engage the diff lock and have another go. Bad move. The car bogged as soon as we drove in and this time both front and rear wheels were in. We put it into reverse and gently tried to back out, but to no avail. The wheels spun and dug it in further. <Insert Anglo-Saxon expletive here>.

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Deep doo doo

Gareth got out and gathered some branches to jam under the rear wheels to give them a bit of traction. It didn’t work, although he did manage to stab his hand with a nice camel thorn. Next step was to get the sand ladders down. Gareth then dug the waterlogged sand out from under the wheels with our collapsible shovel whilst looking over his shoulder for the first few moments in case there were crocs, or hippos, or lions, or elephants – all of which inhabit the park. After a few minutes, the job was to get the car out and Angela was on look out duties. The digging didn’t go well as you couldn’t dig deep enough to get the ladder under the tyre before the hole collapsed in on itself.

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Plan C was to jack the car up using the Hi-Lift jack which would give us room to get the sand ladders under. Simples! Or not… As he jacked it up, the base of the jack dug in deeper, but we eventually managed to get it up high enough to put the ladder partially under it. The base of the jack was about 2 foot under the level of the ground at this point. Next, just drop the car off the jack. Ahh – the jack doesn’t want to go down, only up. These things have a reputation for being dangerous to use and we’d made sure that it worked and we knew how to use it before we left the UK. Despite this it didn’t now want to play ball. So, just push the car, all 2.5 tonnes of her, off the jack – easy. Or not. After lots of swinging and swearing and one set of trapped fingers (between the jack and the car door – that was a bit scary), it came off – hurrah. Lots of digging left to get the jack out of the ground.

Then we had to do the same on the other wheel, with even more hassle to get the high-lift jack out. At one point Angela was swinging on the roof to rock the car while Gareth tried to pull the hi-lift out, this time pulling it with a strap to save his fingers. Finally we got it out and with great relief we backed up the 6 feet or so that we had gone into the bog and we were free. All in all, it took us two and a half hours to extract ourselves. Gareth was covered in mud and insect bites and we both must have lost at least six months off our lives with worrying about what wildlife might come sniffing around. But many lessons were learnt and on the plus side, the welding to the sills that Gareth did a couple of years ago was still strong enough to lift the very heavy car Smile. And we didn’t get eaten or squashed by large animals. Bonus! We were not going to get to our planned camp as it was nearly 6:30, so we went to a nearby community camp which was next to the plush lodge we’d stayed in before, though somewhat less luxurious. Man did the beer taste good that night!

Time to catch up

Having got the awning sides sorted we headed off to the Waterberg Plateau, a government-run National Park south west of Otjiwarongo. It looked like the Lost World, and to a certain extent I guess it is. The protection that the plateau affords had led to various conservation successes with rhino and other rare species. The rains had made the local  gravel road really bad so we had a slow and very shaky drive to the camp site. As we got there at about 7pm the park reception was closed and some friendly rangers told us to camp and pay in the morning. It was a bit late to get the braai on so we drove the 1km to the restaurant for dinner and then set up camp in the dark. It was a large campsite but there was only one other group t here so we had plenty of choice, albeit in the dark. On our way back from the ablutions we saw a small pair of red lights in a tree near our camp and realised it was a Bush Baby. The gorgeous little primate sat for a while looking at us and then decided to move on. It was incredibly fast and agile, leaping through the trees, upwards, sideways, anyways. Apparently they can leap 2m vertically and 5m from tree to tree. Brilliant little critters.

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Waterberg Plateau

As we headed to bed some German campers arrived and set up in the pitch next to ours, despite the rest of the huge site being empty! Grrr. They then spent hours setting up their tents, talking loudly and slamming doors more times than the manufacturer’s door durability tests must have included.

In the morning we had Warthogs, Damara Dik Dik (a tiny little antelope no higher than your knee) and a family of around 20 Banded Mongoose bimbling through camp.

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Damara Dik Dik chilling in the shade

Then sudden uproar in the German camp alerted us to the presence of Baboons, who were making off with the contents of their larder. Shame…. I think that’s called karma…

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Naughty Baboon

We went to the reception to pay for camping and find out more about the park. The camp site was expensive (especially considering how poorly maintained it was) and the receptionist couldn’t have been more unhelpful and unfriendly, treating us like we were a nuisance while she inspected her eyebrows in her mirror. We had thought about staying 2 nights but her attitude completely put us off. We’d paid the park fees so decided to explore the park for the day, walking/climbing up the beautiful rock face to the top of the plateau, and headed off somewhere else for the night. 

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View from the top

Somewhere else turned out to be a farm / lodge on the road to the north-east. For considerably less cash than the basic camp at the National Park we had a site with our own private ablutions under a large shady roof. The rough roads had not just taken their toll on our tyres but also on some of the fittings we’d installed. In particular we’d made a shelf to take the heavy duty solar panels which provide us with power when the camp sites don’t have charging points (which so far hadn’t actually been that many). To fix this we had to take everything out of the car including the shelf and some of the interior plastic trim. This site was the perfect place to do it, as everything (including us) was protected from the elements, be it sun, wind or rain. We’d bought a load of new brackets, screws and bolts in the local town and set to fixing the shelf. It took a whole day of drilling, screwing, bending and fixing and Gareth has multiple grazes on his hands (including one from an electric drill) to prove it. Nevertheless the now reinforced shelf was fixed and the car put back together.

We spent 3 days here, doing this and catching up with various other chores. Ever since the turbo had been replaced we’d had little power before it kicked in. Gareth did some research on the Landy forums and the first fix to try was replacing the fuel filter. He had expected to change this during the trip so had brought a couple of spares, one of which he now fitted with consummate ease.

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Make-shift workshop

Meanwhile Angela was doing other repairs. Some of these involved sewing, which it has to be said is not her forte. With the exception of a pair of sofa arm covers, of which she will be eternally proud but which still evade explanation, Angela has never been a great seamstress. Not really surprising given the needlework teacher she and her sister had at school. A tiny but vicious little nun (the teacher, not Angela’s sister), she tyrannized her pupils with threats and punishment, stabbing pins into the back of their hands if they failed to use the pin-cushion they had so joyfully made in a previous lesson. With no such supportive guidance now, Angela got out the needles and thread she had bought in Cape Town for just such an occasion. Sadly the thread turned out to be elasticated, despite no mention of this on the packaging. OK, not ideal but may still do the job. Except it was too thick to go through the eye of even the largest needle in the box. Convinced she had some thread somewhere Angela searched through their bags. No thread, but there was dental floss. Hmmm. It was strong and it fitted the needle…. How long it will last, who can say. What punishment it would elicit from a certain little nun, who dares to imagine. But for now it will do the job.

From here we will be travelling north, making our way to the Zambezi region with its multiple rivers and probably lots of rain!

Climbing dogs and dive bombing snakes

We broke our trip to Otjiwarongo with another night at Oppi-Koppi camp in Kamanjab, as we really enjoyed our stay there over New Year. We had a really nice welcome from them and had made it into their overlanders folder. They take a picture of all the freeloaders that don’t pay for camping (err, that should be intrepid overland explorers…) and include whatever details you want there. Some overlanders even have their own business cards made for their trip! The Porcupines that come for leftovers every night were joined this time by a Small-spotted Genet, a rather cat-like creature. The campsite dogs pretty much ignored the Porcupines but their reaction to the Genet was completely different. They stopped what they were doing and stared up at it for about 30 seconds, then quicker than you can say “dossie dats” they all charged towards the animal which made a very hasty exit. It seems cats and dogs have the same relationship the world over.

After a one night stop we headed to a farm camp site just outside Otjiwarongo, seeing this little chap on the way, who was trying to get back to his family on the other side of the fence:

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It was Sunday so we could chill for the afternoon and be in town for 9 on the Monday. The farm nestled at the foot of a steep hillside. The campsites were under shady trees with lots of bird life. One, a beautiful starling with a white belly and the most gorgeous violet-coloured wings, was making a real commotion. As we watched it one of the staff came over and was looking in the tree. “He’s not happy about something is he?” we said. “No, it is a sign. There is a snake in the tree”. Sure enough there was, and the starling was now diving-bombing it! The only tree snake we’d heard of was the Boomslang, which literally means Tree Snake in Afrikaans. Apparently, until 1957 it was thought to be harmless to humans as it has backward-pointing fangs at the back of its mouth which it was thought impossible to bite something the size of a human with. That was until an expert snake handler from one of the zoos in South Africa got bitten in the thumb by a baby Boomslang and died within 24 hours. It is now considered to be one of the most deadly snakes in Africa! We were assured that this was not a Boomslang but a harmless tree snake, despite the fact that it bears a striking (no pun intended) resemblance to the description of a Boomslang in our wildlife guide book. Be interested to know if anyone can tell us what it is?

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A harmless tree snake?

There is a path up to the top of the hill behind the farm so we decided to climb it that afternoon, despite the fact that it was swelteringly hot. As we put our walking shoes on the farm dogs appeared at our feet in a great state of excitement. Uncanny how dogs know when a walk is in the offing. One of them was a Dachshund called Nala. We climbed about 700 metres over some really scrambly and steep terrain and this little dog with its tiny little legs came all the way with us. The others had given up a long before (or maybe just been more interested in chasing Dassies). She was amazing.

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Nala, the Namibian Mountain Dog

The next day we headed into town. We had phoned the textile company ahead from Kunene to find out if they did canvas alterations and they said they did and booked us in. So we arrived at the shop only to be told they don’t do alterations… Fortunately we found the lady we’d spoken to, who it turned out had taken on that side of the business from them, and went round the block to her shop. We put the awning and sides up in the back yard and told her and the young man who was going to do the work what we wanted and they helped work out the best way to do it. They expected to have it done by the end of the day so, in the meantime, we sorted out a new tyre to replace the damaged one from Van Zyls, bought some fixings for a bit of DIY on the car and even managed to squeeze in a hair cut each.

The canvas workers were true to their word and had the alterations done by 4pm. It was a really good job and the whole day’s work cost us about £70! An absolute bargain. The awning sides have been shortened so that they fit properly and the door is now higher so even us hobbits don’t have to stoop as we go in. Smile. We have velcro to attach the roof to the sides and stop it all flapping and letting water in. Hopefully it is all now weather-proof as we’re heading into the wetter part of our journey. And in that spirit, next stop Waterberg.

Kunene River

The Epupa Falls are on the Kunene River in the far north-west of Namibia. On the opposite bank lies Angola. Here the river widens across the top of the falls, producing a series of cascades amongst the steep rocks and the Baobab trees that cling to them.  Our camp site was right on the riverbank about 30 metres from the first and largest of the waterfalls, where the river drops down into a deep gorge. This gave us a great view but did mean we needed earplugs at night to block out the roaring of the plunging water!

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Epupa Falls – our camp site is on the upper rhs of the 2nd pic  

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Not a bad spot for a sun-downer…

From here we followed the river east. The map showed the road as a slow 4×4 route and the 90km trip was expected to take between 9 and 11 hours. But we were told that the route had been ‘improved’ and was now a good gravel road. Well, it had indeed been widened, although I’m not sure you could say it was improved. What must have been a beautiful if tricky track winding its way through the riverside landscape had been bulldozed so wide that it looked like the ground-works for a British dual carriageway, not a relatively low-usage local road. Despite the width, more than 20 metres in places, the surface was very uneven and rocky and vehicles were using a single, meandering track up the middle. To us it looked like government-sponsored vandalism. Granted, it took more than 6 hours off the journey and is therefore much better for locals. The wide verges also improve safety as they make animals – wild and domestic – easier to see at the sides of the road, and it will be a very long time before any work is needed to clear them back again. But it still looked awful to us, especially as most of the road wasn’t actually maintained in a usable state. We’d have much preferred the 4×4 track.

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A bit smoother and maybe you could land a 747 here?

Our destination was the Kunene River Lodge which was run by a British couple, Peter and HiIlary. The lodge had been recommended to us and we stayed for 3 days. It was a nice relaxing time. We took a river cruise up to some local rapids and saw lots of birds and a small Crocodile on the way – as the river was quite high many of the larger crocs had retreated to the back channels.

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This fella was only a metre long but the adults can reach 6 metres!

We swam in the pool and ate far too much in the restaurant – they make really good chips! There were Water Monitors living in the undergrowth next to our campsite. They were about the same size as the young croc but with far less potential for damage! Peter is a bit of a bird expert and they have a conservation area along the river next to the lodge, which was a real haven for birds so occupied some of Angela’s time while Gareth worked on the car, trying in vain to stop the squeaky rear brakes!

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Water Monitor on the move

We’d been warned about the Vervet Monkeys which live in the area and frequently cause disruption in camp, stealing what they can when you aren’t looking. We were very careful not to leave anything out. Then one afternoon Angela opened up the back to get something out. She saw a monkey on the edge of the camp and stopped to look at it, turning her back on the car. Gareth, who was at the front of the car, looked back to see a second monkey inside the car. He shouted out and shot round to the back, racing after the monkey who was making off with a loaf of bread. He just managed to grab the bread off the monkey before it climbed out of reach. The monkeys’ reaction was brilliant. They were absolutely furious. The thief was joined by his accomplice and rather than running off thinking they’d had a close call they turned and stood up on their hind legs, waving their arms above their heads and shouting at us in rage. They were totally affronted that we had taken their prize from them. It was really comical.

Peter uses a paintball gun to keep the Vervets at bay. (When I first saw the paintball gun I though this was a strange destination for a stag weekend…). He also uses it to deal with the more venomous snakes that happen about camp such as the Zebra snake – a black and white stripped spitting cobra that has a really nasty bite. All the lodges we’ve talked to kill the poisonous snakes they find, but leave the harmless ones to go about their business. They just aren’t prepared to take the risk of someone getting bitten. With the paintball gun he can deal with the snake easily if it gets behind the fridge or something, without endangering people moving a heavy object around with a venomous snake underneath it. Where he gets the paint balls from is anyone’s guess.

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Vervet Monkey. Very cute but very naughty

After a relaxing few days and no more monkey raids we packed up for the two-day trip south-east to Otjiwarongo, where we hope to get the awning and sides fixed.

Van Zyl’s Pass

We continued north after the Himba campsite on some pretty poor condition gravel until the town of Okangwati. Then we turned left and headed west on the 4×4 tracks aiming to do a big loop of about 330 miles and end up back in Opuwo again to refuel. For the first time in our trip we’d filled our two jerry cans, carried on the roof. Kaokoland is a vast area in the north west corner of Namibia, largely unexplored by tourists. Wild landscapes dotted with tiny Himba villages and tracks which are more used to the foot-fall of livestock and shepherds than vehicle traffic. There are very few fuel stations in the area except in a few of the larger settlements, and we’ve been monitoring our fuel consumption for this very trip to see how far we could travel with a sensible safety margin.

Once on the 4×4 tracks we saw no other car except the occasional pick-up belonging to the ‘well off’ people in the small settlements (usually one per settlement). We did see lots of kids running towards the track trying to get us to stop and with a hand out looking for money.

An option for the this loop was to drive down the fabled Van Zyl’s Pass. This is a bit of a mecca for off-roaders, as it is a challenging route which will put your off-road skills to the test. We’d been told do it with another vehicle in case one breaks down and because you need someone to ‘spot’ for you – i.e. the passenger getting out and guiding the driver over the safe route down an obstacle). We were told that other cars would be doing the pass so we thought we’d head towards it and try to tag along with one.

Unfortunately a lot of the track was through the shrubs, so the views out onto the landscape were minimal, but interesting when they came. Once again many dry river crossings were made through slightly soft sand, which was no problem for the car. The road had a few ‘special’ bits to it including some downhill sections that needed holes filling so we could drive down it and a pretty bouldery uphill climb – low range, diff-lock in and the Landy just eased up with no drama, although we were bounced around a bit by the rocks.

We got to the junction that was our decision point – whether to do the pass and go to the campsite near it to carry on to one south of the pass and avoid it. We’d seen no other travellers all day so we reluctantly decided to take the southerly route and headed for the village camp shown on the map. Another moment to notch down to experience. As we arrived at the settlement there was no sign of the community campsite. A quick check of the GPS map showed the camp site was closed – doh!

There were many Himba villages on the way down to this ‘site’, so we could have chanced our arm wild camping near one of them, but decided to head back to the Van Zyl’s campsite and see if there were other cars there to tag along with down the pass in the morning.

As time was pressing on, so did we and drove quite a bit faster as it would be getting dark soon. It did get dark, which slowed us down a bit ad we finally arrived at the campsite around 9. Unexpectedly, there was someone at reception and we said hello and can we camp for the night and he said we were the only one’s there. Tent up, quick pasta with garlic and chilli and off to bed. We had one slight shock when we glimpsed a large pale animal out of the corner of our eyes. It turned out to be one of the local dogs but for a moment gave us minor palpitations about lions…

After checking the car, as we do before every start, we noticed one of the rear tyres had some trauma to the side wall. We found out later that we were running all the tyres a bit soft and this coupled with the rocks and boulders pinching the tyre walls was enough to do the damage.

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Tyre bulges

After breakfast we headed to reception to pay only to find out that the last visitor had been before Christmas. Decision time, again: to do Van Zyl’s Pass or not on our own. We’d come this far… The car was running well and we are used to ‘spotting’ for each other so weren’t worried about having someone else do it for us. We’ve also met people who have done it solo. So that decision was made – and we can always turn back… and we’d read about some brave souls who’d taken off road trailers and others that had taken an off road caravan down it, so it must be fairly doable Smile

Despite this, we’d be lying if we said we weren’t a little nervous as we set off. The first half or so was pretty straight forward, with only a few stops to look at the lines we’d want to take and fill a couple of big holes with rocks to level the dips out a bit. Then on the map it said ‘Very Bad Road’, but I think they need to calibrate the collective comments on the map as it wasn’t that bad. There were a couple of places where people had obviously wild camped and signs near them saying to use the community camp as it gives something back to them, which is a good thing. We passed the shell of an off road trailer that someone had tried unsuccessfully to bring over the pass – that’s expensive to leave behind…

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Expensive decision to try and bring this trailer over the pass

Then it got interesting. Towards the end of the pass the signs on the GPS said ‘Dangerous Road’. OK. We go and look. We can always turn around if it’s too bad… So now we’d got to the crux of Van Zyl’s – a descent of approximately 500m and it was a doozie. We got out to have a look and to ‘spot’ the best lines to take. From the ground it was better than it looked from up in the car and we could see a safe line down, although we had to do quite a bit of road building to make it as easy as possible on the car (and us!). Ang was doing the spotting while Gareth drove it. The first 10m or so was ok with a minor touch of the tree sliders (steel bars on the sides to protect the sills – there to do a job!). Then it got much steeper and a bit slippery. So deep breath and point it down… It slipped a bit (all 2.7 tonnes of her – Ang has never moved so fast to get out of the way…), but nothing other than the wheels touched the ground and we came to a halt for a photo opportunity. The rest of the descent was easier and with a big smile we popped out at the bottom.

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Pictures never do steep angles any justice, but here are some anyway.

There’s a mound at the end of the pass where people have written on stones to say they’d been there, but we didn’t indulge. There was a sign about firewood for sale and a man approached us with a machete in his hand – I’m sure to cut firewood – but we made our exit into the Marienfluss. It’s a spectacular place that is a relatively flat valley floor hemmed in by mountains that squeeze it in as it heads north to the Angolan border. We drove about a third of the way up and turned round to continue our loop.

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Marienfluss – a spectacular valley in north west Namibia

We passed a memorial to Jan Joubert, a leading conservationist and the guy who created most of the 4×4 routes in Namibia and headed towards our campsite for the night – the Marble Campsite which was, as the name suggests, next to an old marble quarry. The stark white of the cut rock faces and abandoned blocks of stone was such a contrast to the rest of the rocks in the region.

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Marble garage – everyone should have one

We celebrated our trip down Van Zyl’s pass in the appropriate manner and had a relaxed evening near a dry river bed.

The morning brought the bottom half of the loop and quickly turned into a very sandy affair. First we had to cross a sandy valley floor.

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Not a drop of water for miles

During the loop we saw some stone artworks called the Lone Men of Kaokoland. No one knows who the artist is and how many there are, but we saw two in our travels. They are made from the rich brown stone of the area held together in a welded mesh. They stand about a metre tall.

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A Lone Man of Kaokoland striding across the landscape

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Here’s one (number 3) with a title “Looking forward to meeting number 27”

We continued through some very fine sand/dust that had the consistency of talcum powder and Ang did a great job of steering us through it. We joined the Hoarusib River 4×4 trail and crossed the river that was lined with palm trees – a fairly surreal sight.

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One Landy looking for a bridge!

Then it was back to Opuwo to refuel and restock, then back to the Himba living museum camp before we set off for the Epupa Falls on the Angolan border.

Himba living museum

About 40Km north of Opuwo was an oasis of calm after the madness of the town. Omungundu camp site was run by a local man who had been a local guide, including taking tourists to Himba villages. Over time he had become more and more empathetic with these people and their simple, traditional way of life that he worked with some of the younger ones to set up a living museum of their culture – a Himba village next to the camp where young Himbas, keen to keep their culture alive, could share it with others. We had so far avoided doing the oft-offered Himba village tours as we felt they would be a bit voyeuristic. But this was different. Local people welcoming visitors in to learn about their disappearing culture. The tour was led by another local girl who spoke good English as well as Himba and we spent the afternoon in her care. She told us about the history of the Namibia people.

We were told that the true Namibians are the San people, or Bushmen. They are the small-of-stature but big-in-courage race that will hunt an animal on foot for hours or even days and will walk up to lions at a kill and take a piece of the feast for themselves. They have a lived in the area for thousands of years and have produced the huge wealth of ancient rock engravings and paintings that Namibia is renowned for.

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The San engravings

They have been largely displaced to the remote eastern fringes of the country by other peoples. These include the Himba – a tribe that is descended from people moving south to escape harsh conditions in Angola. Apparently Himba means “give me” and they had a reputation as beggars. They are a nomadic people and their way of life revolves around the cattle (and to a lesser extent sheep and goats) that they herd, moving as the availability of grazing dictates.

Their tiny villages have a set layout. A wooden / brash fence forms the circular boundary, with a entrance at the 4 cardinal points, one for visitors, one for livestock, one for ceremonial purposes and one for the boys when they go out on the raz! Seriously! Inside the fence is a ring of huts, including stores, sleeping quarters and the head man’s hut where all the important business takes place. The huts are made from mopane branches covered by muck and clay – African wattle and daub. The huts have a particular layout, which is the same in all villages. Enclosed by the circle of huts is a small kraal in the middle of the main circle to house the animals at night. In between the head man’s hut and the animal enclosure is the holy fire that is kept lit.

We met the Himba and learnt so much about them. Their technique for grinding their maize with stones to make melie flour (their staple diet), how they greet each other (the man always saying hello first), their clothing (all skin) their songs and dancing (a big part of their culture).

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It’s easier to buy it in the shop

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The Ochre ladies

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Everyone say ahh

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The boys are back in town…

We also had a great question and answer session with them where we would as about things like the ochre colouring they cover themselves in (mixed with butter) and they asked us about our lives, including who is looking after our goats whilst we are on holiday Smile It was a really interesting, genuine feeling, experience. One thing that really surprised us was when one of the kids started grumbling, a German tourist with us gave him a bottle of water. They all looked at it and handed it back as they didn’t know how to open it. Despite shopping in town, they never buy water and therefore don’t know how a screw top works.

Next, we head out into the wilds of Kaokoland to test our mettle (metal)