Namibia – Wilderness Safaris Lodges

17 March 2010

Editors. They suck. Without fail they want you to make corrections to an article the very night before you fly at dawn. It has to be last minute, despite the fact they have been sitting on your copy for more than a week, and know full well that you are about to fly into a place blissfully free of internet and cellphone connections.

So last night once again saw me doing my pre-trip stressing: final photo submissions, last-minute article corrections, working in a precious hour or two of quality time with the kids, checking cameras, packing clothes and gear. Photographic kit encompasses at least 80% of my weight limit, with clothing and toiletries haphazardly added to the mix in afterthought mode.

This time around the weight limit is low, around 12 kgs as I’m off to shoot the Wilderness Safaris Lodges and tented camps, with all the transfers done by light aircraft. Just my cameras blow that out of the proverbial water, but hopefully I can argue that my 74 kg body weight will balance out the excess.

Karyn takes me to the airport at 05h30, all sleepy and smiley, and then it is all go as I board the Air Namibia flight to Windhoek, and onward by Sefofane Light Aircraft Charter to a tiny airstrip near Sassusvlei. From here, it is a hop, skip and shudder to Wilderness Safaris gorgeous Little Kulala Lodge.

Set upon the brittle grass rucking up towards the burnt orange dunes of the oldest desert on Planet Earth, this sandscape is the poster child of Namibian tourism, capturing the absolute essence of the Namib Desert. Kulala itself is reminiscent of the architecture of north Africa, with thatched, canvas ‘kulalas’ built on wooden platforms to elevate them into the kiss of the cooling breezes. Attached flat-topped towers lend a distinct Moroccan air and access via wooden ladders allow guests to sleep on bedrolls under the desert skies.

But it is beyond the luxury safari sheen that the true substance of Namibia kicks in and I join up with my guide, Petrus, and another guest on a sortie into this land of red, shifting sand. From Kulala it is a painlessly pretty drive of approximately 45 minutes, with access into the Namib-Naukluft National Park via a private gate. The dunes rise up on either side of the road, transcribing cursive lines from the bleached plains towards the unblemished blue of the sky.

We stop at Dune 45 (they are all denoted by numbers) and I climb up the windswept crest to gain a high vantage point. There is something undeniably ancient about this place and space with weather-battered tree trunks standing like sentinels at the feet of timeless dunes. Ubiquitous umbrella-shaped acacias dot the depressions amidst the dunes, punctuating the ochre hues in stark silhouette.

We follow the sandy jeep-track to where it peters out at Sassusvlei, a typical desert marsh which only traps water once or twice a decade during exceptional rainy seasons. It was filled to the brim in 2007, creating a surreal clear-water lake shimmering like a mirage within the parched desert landscape. Right now, however, there is not even a hint of moisture, and the sparse scrub and withered acacias eke out a tenuous existence beneath a fine dusting of desert sand.

I head further into the desert to Dead Vlei, an even more arid depression ringed by a vast dune field. As I am keen to photograph the intricate erosion patterns from above, I slog up the immense ‘Big Daddy’, at 350 odd metres, the second highest ‘super dune’ here at Sassusvlei. (Dune 7, at 380m-plus, takes top honours.) It is a hard slog through the red hot sands, but I peak out above Dead Vlei with 360 degree views of the desert in all its glory. The run down onto the cracked clay surface of the vlei literally takes minutes, with tiny desert skinks and tenebronid beetles scuttling for dear life to escape the cascading sands sweeping down ahead of me.

The sun is setting as I trek home through the ghost forest of Dead Vlei, with stark and strangulated and strange tree limbs reaching up to stir their gnarled stumps amidst the first stars glittering in the blue velvet sky on high.

18 March 2010

Ballooning above the desert – great concept, but at more than R3,500 for an hour, it rates as the most expensive form of air travel bar a flight to the moon. So on a photojournalist’s salary, this certainly means I pass up on this one. It does make for one helluva photo opportunity though, so I head out with Dick, the American, to capture his dawn take-off.

It’s all hustle and bustle at the launch site, and the multi-coloured balloon lifts skywards just as the first rays of the morning sun strafe across the pale savanna plain. Petrus and I track them as they float towards the dunes, effortlessly drifting above the persimmon sands before eventually settling like a rather ungainly zeppelin upon the edge of the Sassusvlei itself.

My flight onwards to Damaraland Camp is a rather more raucous affair. This time I am seated in front with the pilot, while the tiny plane labours northwards against the buffeting thrust and surge of the air currents. We dragonfly our way over endlessly undulating dunes to where the Atlantic Ocean waves thrash up against the Skeleton coast, passing over the rusting structures of abandoned diamond mines and hulking shipwrecks. At one stage, a convoy of 4×4 vehicles on an overland trip crawl along like a column of ants thousands of feet below.

After refueling in Swakopmund, we negotiate the cumulonimbus sky as we shudder inland, our insignificant shadow skipping across immense alluvial plains gouged by the striated lines of glaciers from millions of years ago. The volcanic basalt layers have been eroded down to a multitude of craggy peaks and crumbling ‘etendekas’ or table-tops, with the slopes littered by shards of scree and scattered boulders due to erosion based on the immense temperature induced stresses imposed by the desert environment.

Just beyond the hulking bulk of Brandberg, at 2,800 metres, and Namibia’s highest mountain range, we once again buzz down onto a rock-strewn airstrip, and then transfer by Land Rover to Damaraland Camp. It is a sumptuous haven, with a cool and open-plan construction looking along a dramatic valley surrounded by rugged peaks and ridges. A sparkling plunge pool and whitewashed wooden decks enhance the desert flair, and lunch is a fresh and zesty alfresco affair.

The desert elephants rate right at the top of my must-do list here in Damaraland, and teamed up with my guide Johan, we set off on a mid-afternoon search for these desert-adapted pachyderms. It is a bumpy ride along a tortuous gravel road, bypassing Bergsig – the so-called capital of the Riemvasmaker people – along the way.

We stop off at one of the Damara villages along the way to enquire as to any ellie sightings, and a rheumy-eyed old shepherd explains that he had seen the herd earlier and that he suspects they are resting within the savanna woodland in a valley not very far away. As we cannot access this spot by vehicle, Johan and I set off on foot, hiking cautiously onto a basalt ridge overlooking the valley floor.

Our information is spot-on. A herd of 8 desert elephant are congregated in the shade below. Six cows languidly pull at the surrounding mopane trees, while two young calves playfully joust with each other on the periphery of the group. I doubt that the ellies have seen us and am keen to get closer, but Johan is mister Cautious himself, so we stay put for a while.

When we do eventually move closer, the elephants decide to get moving as well and slowly amble past below us, following a dried stream bed towards the main road. I get some great shots before we scurry back over the ridge to the 4×4 and grab some more images as the shadows creep in from the west.

19 March 2010

We’re up at 04h30 the next day, as this is the only way to tick the Damara black rhino off my list. Like the local elephants, these rhinoceros have adapted to the extreme environs of north-west Namibia, ranging far and wide within the rugged and arid Etendeka ranges. The only way of improving your chances of a sighting is to get to these prehistoric beasts as they lumber away from the fountains along the course of the Springbokrivier after their early morning drink. I am joined on the vehicle by a delightful and truly internationalized couple, William and Karen de Segundo. They have lived around the world and prove to be both stimulating and entertaining.

We had scarcely finished our morning coffee and are still enveloped within the warm glow of a celestially beautiful sunrise when I spot a phantom shape drifting along a distant rise, it is our first black rhino, but he is keen to put some distance between us and him and is soon swallowed up amidst the euphorbia damarana clumps and stunted boscia trees.

But we don’t have to wait very long. Just beyond the next permanent fountain, we all but bump into the prehistoric butts of a cow and her calf sauntering along the gravel jeep-track. We get some great shots as they climb along a torra-stone ridge before being swallowed up by that incalculable vastness that characterizes Namibia.

The remainder of our morning session is a delightful lesson in hands-on biodiversity. We breakfast upon a gravel plain blanketed in thousands of ancient welwitschia mirabilis, learning about the symbiotic relationship between the plants and the hundreds of beetles responsible for propagating it. (In return, they subsist on the sap from the leaves and flowers.) A Benguela long-billed lark struts past for a ‘lifer’ moment; Hartmann zebras stampede along a ridge in monochromatic chaos; spiral horned kudu browse nonchalantly on euphorbia despite the fact that the plant is poisonous to most other species; while a host of other mammals, birds, reptiles and insects do their thing all around.

By now I’ve had my fill of vehicles and decide to hike into the surrounding mountains, and here is the only negative thing I can say about Wilderness Safaris as an organization. For reasons I can understand, especially when you take their target market into consideration, it is impossible to head off into the wilds on a solo excursion. This is a pity as I love to trek or bike off on my own, allowing oneself to settle into that zone where your headspace and the surrounding landscapes mesh into a perfect equilibrium.

But so be it. Fortunately, my fellow trekker is a fit, if very talkative, Riemvasmaker by the name of Willem. He has a hundred stories and I heard most of them as we tramped up the rugged hiking trail, and it turned out to be both entertaining and informative. Saying that he’s had a chequered history would be the understatement of the century; he grew up as a herd boy, lived with his flock off the veldt for 3 years, then joined the military and fought in Angola as a parabat, and now runs the maintenance operation at D-Camp. On our hike he pointed out the medicinal hoodia plant and explained how to harvest and prepare it, showed me how to find water in the desert and pointed out a horned adder I was just about to step on. Good old Willem, is all I can say.

So we ended up sitting under an African chestnut tree on some high cliff as the sun dipped down beyond Mikberg and the Milky Way slowly appeared until it felt as if you could roil your hand around amidst the multitude of stars. And then we hiked back down in the light of a darkling quarter moon to where the paperbag lights of a waiting boma dinner glittered like a landing strip for a host of Damaraland fairies.

20 March 2010

And so it goes. Time to pack and say goodbye to temporary friends, who, despite your best intentions, you will probably never again see in your life. But there is one more item on the agenda before I get to Doro Nawas, my next destination. Together with the formidable Lena Florry, a Riemvasmaker community leader of both substantial character and physique, Johan has arranged a bit of a tête a tête with the three grannies of Vrede.

Of all the Riemvasmaak villages in the area, Vrede seems by far the neatest and most industrious. The dirt yards are meticulously swept, fruit trees and vegetable gardens are well kept and even the village dogs seem to be in relatively good health.

The collective Oumas, Mietjie, Kaatjie and Shiela are duly collected in all their wrinkly splendour, all seated on an old bed in the shade of a vine pergola. I am an outsider, but the fact that Johan and Lena endorse my good intentions does mean that I escape most of their geriatric mistrust, and I am soon swept along by a tumult of reminiscing that goes back nearly a century.

The Riemvasmaak story stretches back nearly a century to before the second World War, when the Damara and Nama communities lived a pastoral, if nomadic, existence here in this part of what was then German West Africa. With the outbreak of the war, civilians affected by the fighting flew before the advancing armies with a specific group (largely made up of Nama and Damara people) crossing the orange River into what was then the Cape Colony in South Africa. Here they settled in a village known locally as Riemvasmaak and over the years integrated with the local people from the area. The three Oumas were all born there. “We were never really accepted by the locals,” said Ouma Kaatjie, “but the raisins and pears and apricots we ate when we worked o the Eiland Farms were darem maar nxa!” The other two old ones smack their lips I appreciation and stare wistfully off into the distance while leaning on their walking canes.

In 1973, the SA apartheid government decided to deport the Namibians despite the fact that the contemporary Riemvasmakers had for most part been assimilated into life here along the Orange River. “Ons moes alles pak” sê Ouma Mietjie, “tot elke geroeste stukkie draad, en hulle’t gesê hulle sal leeus op ons sit as ons nie saamwerk nie.” Grandparents, pregnant women, children – no-one was exempted – had to board first trains and then trucks, which transported them more than a thousand km to Damaraland.

Although the South African officials assisted with housing and food, it was heartbreakingly tough for the returning Riemvasmakers, who had to re-establish their villages, often in areas where marauding lions raided their stock on a nightly basis. In 1994, after negotiations between the newly independent government of Namibia and the RSA, the Riemvasmakers received permission to reclaim their land in the northern Cape, and a group of them returned to the promised land beyond the Orange River. “Maar dit was te laat vir my,” prewel Ouma Mietjie, “hier lê my man begrawe, en die Liewe Heer sal my ook maar hier in Damaraland moet kom haal.”

I say goodbye to the good ladies of Vrede and drive with Johan along a juddering journey via shard-shocked canyons dotted with African chestnut and fantastically contorted moringa trees. In the distance, Doro! Nawas (pronounced with a gunshot click) rises up from the plains; a formidable black-and-brown Alcatraz belligerently atop a low hill. Once inside the fortress-like wooden doors, a cool and airy haven is revealed, with 360° views across the surrounding sunswept plains. Basalt ranges ruck up on the horizon, with red sandstone hills seemingly shattered at their feet, and this is where we head for our afternoon excursion.

First stop is the Twyfelfontein Rock Engravings, which date back between 2,000 – 6,000 years and Ignatius and I wander along the
Lion Man Route. Most of the artwork is thought to be the work of San Bushmen shamans, and probably served both educational and spiritual purposes. It is the type of place where one needs to sit on a full moon night, but unfortunately the gate closes at 17h30 and we have a few more stops before we return to Doro! Nawas.

Light is fading fast, but I grab shots at Burned Mountain (a very recently extinct volcano) and the Organ Pipes (a brilliant example of lava flow cooling down to form concentric pipes known as, erm … how the fuck should I know, but I suppose I can Google it. I get Ignatius to stop the Land Rover on a vast plain dotted by fairy circles, a phenomena caused potentially by termite activity or the chemicals from dead euphorbia damarana bushes leaching into the ground. Despite several studies no conclusive proof has been found as of yet, but I know for a fact that Beth, my 8 year old daughter, will stick with the fairy theory.

21 March 2010

An early start again, as I want to get to the petrified Forest on the Khorixas road by sunrise. My attempt at good light is however foiled, partly by cloud cover in the east, and partly be a somnambulant gate guard who conspires to get to his post half an hour late. This is not the end of the world though, as the petrified logs (calling it a ‘forest’ is a bit rich) has been lying here for at least 130 million? Years. The trunks, some up to 30m in length, date back to the Pleistocene? Era, a time before the Ice Age when giant dinosaurs still roamed the then thickly vegetated plains of what is now the Namib Desert.

I am again picked up by Christine in her Cessna 210 and we dodge gigantic thunderstorms as the tiny propeller ratchets us northwards to Ongava Tented Camp. Compared to Damaraland in the south, the Ongava Reserve, situated here upon the southern border of Ethosha National Park, is a lush and fecund paradise. Recent rains have left the roads splashed with muddy puddles, and verdant grasslands lap and sway amidst a profusion of mopane trees.

Christine is booked into OTC (or Ongava Tented Camp) as well, and we’re picked up at the airstrip by the beaming and jovial Barrier, my guide for the duration of the trip. We had barely gone a couple of kilometers when he brakes sharply and then reverses and points to the side of the road. And there she is, in all her feline glory, sprawled in the shade as only a lioness can. She has a year-old cub with her, and her unflinching yellow eyes drill right through the lens to where they tweak the most primal parts of my subconscious.

Ongava is gorgeous, with just a knee high pole fence separating the deck from the waterhole. Paul carries a 12-bore shotgun loaded with battery sized slugs, and it is patently obvious that the guests at Ongava could quite easily feature somewhere midway up the food chain for the 100-plus large predators stalking the reserve. Barrier is in drop-n-go mode and 15 minutes later we’re off on a game drive along the plains unfurling at the foot of a series of low dolomite hills.

Desert antelope-like oryx and springbok seem at a loss with so much to eat at Ongava, and the plains teem with Burchell’s and Hartmann’s zebra, giraffe, eland, waterbuck and red hartebeest. Birds and butterflies are in profuse attendance, and everything (including the gigantic mopane worms) seem to be literally bursting at the seams. As do we, after a sumptuous meal on the deck, with the National Geographic channel on in high-definition and realtime, less than 10m away from us.

22 March 2010

My final full day with wilderness Safaris and I set of on an early game drive with Barrier just after dawn. An early summer shower has washed the air clean and I can but marvel at the natural beauty unfolding around every corner as we chug westwards to the furthest corner of Ongava. It is a fruitful drive; we once again sight the lions, this time a different pride consisting of 3 females and 5 cubs, and spend nearly an hour on our own just watching and snapping photographs.

It proves a lot more difficult to get photos of crimson-breasted shrikes. They lead me a merry dance amidst the thorny sicklebush, and I eventually bow out disgracefully with a selection of really great pix of leaves and branches. And then it is once again back to OTC to once again feast on gorgeous food and to spend the midday hours in the pool, or staring rather smugly at the hundreds of animals jostling and jousting at the waterhole. I know the time to head back to the Cape and my kids and Karyn is close, but somehow I can’t help thinking about getting a job as lifeguard at the Ongava swimming pool.

The afternoon unfolds languidly one could say, with me catching up on my journal and downloading images. Barrier and I go on a guided nature walk, toting a gun big enough to stop a T-Rex in its tracks, but it is way too short and leisurely. Would be great if Wilderness Safaris could develop this side of their activities more, but we do at least get into the dolomite hills. The calcitrate formations are uncannily similar to the ‘tsingy’ pinnacle desert in Madagascar’s Ankaranana National Park, and I suspect that it may be a similar rain erosion process shaping the amazing landscape here.

At sunset we ensconce ourselves in the waterhole hide at the nearby Ongava Lodge, and wait for the night time show to begin. The first arrivals are hordes of Namaqua sandgrouse who flutter in like giant confused moths, and then sit about for all the world as if they’re wondering where the hell they are. They fidget about like Swiss tourists on a train running late, peck at the water and then piss off again.

Two BBJs (or Black-backed Jackal) sneak up next, and it is obvious from their deferential behaviour that they are pretty far down the pecking order here at Ongava. They duly scuttle off when branches start breaking on the edge of the clearing, and I would have done so too, had I been in their position, as the next arrival is a young and very boisterous black rhino bull. He had scarcely started drinking when a huge huff and snort announced the arrival of two more black rhinos – a cow and her calf. The cow is in a foul mood and charges the drinking bull without warning, pinning him against a bush before sauntering off to claim the pond as her own.

I’ve always thought of black rhinos as solitary beasts, but three more arrive in quick succession until we have six of these prehistoric looking creatures crowding about less than 15m from us. After an hour and a half I’m all rhinoed out though, so Barrier and I head back through a night-time Ogava brimming with spotted eagle owls, sleepy red hartebeest, looming white rhinos, dazed thick-knees (still think dikkop is a better name) and a veritable profusion of nocturnal life.

23 March 2010

“Everything must end, my friend, but I will see you again in this embryonic life” Barrier speaks in riddles, as usual, but I’m sort of used to it by now. Together with Petrus at Little Kulala, Johan at Damaraland Camp and Ignatius at Doro! Nawas, they have guided me along a short but unforgettable journey through the wilderness landscape that shapes not only Namibia, but the whole of the southern African subcontinent.

It is a surreal feeling to leave after a week with wilderness Safaris, especially as there is a pride of lions near the edge of the airstrip, all tawny hides and king-of-the-beast attitude, to see me off. So I say goodbye once again, trying to pull off that African fingersnap handshake and once again managing to cock it up. But it is all good, as I know with absolute certainty that I will be back.