Road Report #5
A few kms further we run into another local roadblock where we are asked to pay 30 Rand to support the local social services. We did. Another 20 km and there was another road block at another village but the money-takers were busy with others so we kept going because even though they tells us these fees are for community services and the money-collectors are very officious, complete with giant receipt books, these are basically local shakedowns.
It was a long 300 km to Katimo Mulillo today, following the Zambezi River to the Botswana/Namibian border. The road is mostly good but every so often we would come on stretches of potholes that were truly grim. We could lose a wheel in one of those if we flew into it too fast.
There was no wildlife today; lots of villages however, all built in the traditional style with of mud and straw. Whenever we are near a village the roads fill with masses of people, all going somewhere. People are mostly friendly, waving as we drive by. Walking is their primary mode of transportation. That and donkey carts. Gathering sticks and carrying water seem to be major preoccupations.
Arriving at the International Bridge over the Zambezi River, the town on the Zambian side is called Sesheke. We literally looked all over for the border post. Finally, we ask people. They pointed at the building behind them; a dusty, dirty looking structure with sun- faded lettering that if we looked hard enough at, indicated this was a government building though non-specific in nature.
Yes, this was the Zambian border. So we filled out some exit forms and handed our passports to the only person there with a uniform. She stamped them and said that we were done. But “No, no, no!” We could not turn around and walk out through the door we’d come in by. We had to pass through the back, past the cashier’s office. “Do we have to pay something?” I asked. “No.” But we still had to go out the back way, NOT the front door. So we passed through the back door into a courtyard of sorts where a bunch of men were loading a truck with pop. Then around the side of the building, past the goats and people sitting around doing nothing, to our bakkie parked beside the front door we’d walked in by.
That was it.
Where was the Namibian border? Drive back a hundred meters and take a dirt track through a gate and we’d find it. So we did and sure enough, there it was: a tidy-looking yellow building.
Before we could drive through the gate a fellow in a bright green uniform insisted that we exit our vehicle and go stand on a filthy wet mat. This was “Veterinary Control”. When we were permitted to drive through the gate he sprayed our tires.
The immigration process for Namibia was quick and easy. No fee for the VISA. But we have to pay $30 R for a road toll. But when we drive to the gate we have to leave the vehicle to go into the gatehouse and fill out the gate guard’s ledger. Over and over and over again we have filled out ledgers – name, address, nationality, car registration, VIN, chassis number, entry date, exit date, etc. Sometimes we have filled out such a ledger three times at the same border post. I don`t understand why there is so much unemployment in these countries when the government works so hard at giving every single person one thing to do.
But today it went quickly and we carried on to Katima Mulilo in Namibia. This town stands at the far east end of the Caprivi Strip and really is the end of the world in many ways. But there are ATM machines and two big grocery stores. Young men are riding around in the back of pick-up trucks making a racket because today is the international rugby finals – England versus the South African Springboks.
We went looking for the campground listed in LP. It is now a very swish resort that does not provide camping but they sent us a few km down the road to the Namwi Island Campground. For 180 N$ ($25 Cdn) we have a beautiful spot on the Zambezi River, complete with our very own “Beware of Hippo” and “Beware of Crocodiles” signs. It is like a big, well kept park with beautiful campsites, tables and chairs, braii pits. Incredible views.
Even though we have the latest version , we have found that much of the info in LP is really out of date. Invariably the campgrounds recommended no longer exist or perhaps they have been renamed. In any event, it has not been a problem. There are always several excellent campgrounds in the same vicinity, even if we cannot find the exact one listed.
I cannot quite figure out how this works because on the map, the Caprivi Strip is in Namibia, but when we are staying there, the locals say things like “When you get to Namibia the time will change.” As it did. We set our clocks back one hour. The Caprivi Strip is legally part of Namibia, but the locals clearly express some independence.
Heading west towards Poppa Falls today, the road was very good. There were absolutely no towns as such but dozens and dozens of little mud and straw hut villages. Gathering, processing and bundling the straw is quite a business here as is the growing of gourds. We saw lots of stands at the side of the highway, demonstrating the entrepreneurial spirit/necessity to sustain life.
The highway runs through the Bwabwata National Park and we were very excited because there were “Beware of Elephant” signs every few km again. Did we see any? Not a one.
But at regular intervals there was a vendor selling carved elephants. Eventually we gave in and stopped. Do we need a carved wooden elephant? No. But once you stop and actually see the hope in the eyes of the vendors it becomes impossible not to buy something. So, yes, we now have another elephant to add to all the others at home. This is a VERY nice one. We agreed on 250 N$, about $35.
By early afternoon we arrive at Poppa Falls and settle on Nunda Lodge for the night.
The lodge itself and the grounds are absolutely gorgeous, set right on the river. For 220 N$ we have a beautiful campsite right on the river. The hippos are making lots of noise right beside us, grunting and groaning, munching and wading through the swampy edges of the river beside us. We have grown to love the sound of them. But since we are right on the banks the hippos or local crocs can easily come right into our campsite. We’ll have to look around before we venture outside and stay in at night.
The lodge is on the road to Mahango Reserve. This is part of Bwabwata National Park which was established in 1999. However, it was not until after the Angolan ceasefire in 2002 that the government put some resources into the park, making it a place where the indigenous wildlife could re-establish it after the rampant poaching that was part of the conflict.
Bwabwata NP is very large, the Mahango Reserve being just one zone. It is situated on a floodplain of the Okavango River. In fact, if you keep going to the end of the park you come to the Mohembo Border Station for crossing into Botswana.
As I learned when we were in the Delta, the Okavango enters Botswana, right here at Mohembo, cresting in March/April. By now, when the waters have travelled south to fill the swamps of the Delta, the water is already low here at Mahango.
For a modest 90 $N ($12 Cdn) we drove into the Reserve and spent the evening photographing the landscape and enjoying the animals. We saw large swampy areas with adjoining grasslands; lots and lots of antelope – impala and kudu and tsessebe. Many of Steve`s favourite, the warthogs, a big croc, one elephant and some nice looking baobob trees.
The 2 WD route through the park is 15 km so we went to the end then returned again. As the sun was setting we stopped, turned off the engine and just sat there, moved by the profound quiet.
Today we drove west from Poppa Falls to Rundu. Rundu is a real frontier town on the border with Angola. It is an interesting mix of old dusty strip mall type retail and fancy edifices – complete with grand columns and filigreed cement works. We had lunch at the Hungry Lion today – chicken again. It was very good and they had coleslaw! The bakery at the local grocery store was to die for – crusty buns and all kinds of sweets. We settled on apple strudels and bought two meat pies for dinner.
One thing that kind of preturbed me was the advertising. We were in a town that had very few white faces. In the Hungry Lion we were the only white people. It would seem that the market for these products in Namibia is black people. And yet, the advertising only shows white faces. I've noticed the same thing in the grocery stores. Virtually every magazine cover or product package or advertisement features white models or personalities. I don't get it. Seems like lousy marketing.
The open market was largely empty of both vendors and buyers. We did see lots of used clothes for sale, shipped over from the missionary societies I guess. And there were used tires and vendors selling the bolts of cloth that women tie around themselves. We also saw massive heaps of old TV sets. A fellow was reconditioning and selling them. Two women were sitting and sewing dresses and baby backpacks. By that I mean the sling device you can use to tie a baby onto your back or front.
As we carried on down the road we noticed a change in the style of house construction. From mud and straw we saw a transition to all straw with people selling big bundles of it at the side of the road. Then the houses changed to wood frame with rocks filling the walls. As the trees grew taller on the landscape, the housing used more wood. Further on, brick became more common. But always, the roofs are thatched.
By late afternoon we arrive at Roy’s Rest Camp in central Namibia. This is an interesting place – rustic by design. There are so many hanging things, from skulls to old tools to interesting bits of wood and chrome bumpers. The fellow who built this camp is obviously a tad eccentric.
First stop this morning is Grootfontein about 43 km down the road. Grootfontein is supposed to be a very German town and it is quite different than most of the dusty towns we’ve seen on the Caprivi Strip. What we see here are small, solid bungalows, the plaster finish painted yellow. It seems to be the standard house colour in this part of the world. They are all neat and clean but they do not, in any way, remind me of Germany.
What is very different is that the pavement or cement extends from the streets right out and up to the sidewalks in front of shops so there is not the dust endemic to most of small town Africa. The names on the businesses are also very German.
We carry on to the next town, Tsumeb. This town is a little bigger. We are hoping to check out the Cultural Center and the Craft Museum and Shop. We find the Cultural Center right away on the edge of town. It features a collection of “villages” constructed according to the customs of some of the more dominant local peoples. It is quite interesting although there was only some very basic signage to explain what we were seeing. Nevertheless, it was all quite self evident.
We carried on to the Craft Museum. This is a very attractive complex of small shops around a courtyard with a central shop. These small shops were all empty. The central shop had some interesting things in it but they were very expensive.
Since we had already agreed to pay a young man for protection for the vehicle we went for a walk down the Main Street. I thought there would be more white faces in this “German” town but we saw almost none.
There were lots of women walking around with babies on their backs. In fact, it seems a given that if a black woman is of child bearing age she has a baby on her back. These are securely and warmly wrapped into place with a big blanket, their tiny faces peaking out from under little knit wool toques. The babies are always carried this way and they never cry - never heard any. The only baby I heard cry was sitting in a stroller in a grocery store.
We were also hoping for a coffee in a bakery type setting but could not find that either. So we carried on for a drive around the town and found a lovely central park surrounded by hotels and guesthouses. We parked there and made our own lunch.
Etosha National Park
Etosha National Park is huge, stretching more than 350 kms from east to west and covering 22,270 sq km. There are three main camps, separated by 70 km from each other: Namutoni in the east, Halali in the middle and Okaujeuo in the west. We had booked one night in each with two nights in Okaujeuo. Camping costs $200 N per night per person (nearly $60 Cdn for the two of us) plus it costs about $80 N each per day to be in the park (about $22 Cdn for the two of us).
Considering what a lot of grief I went through making reservations to camp with Namibian Wildlife Resorts, I am chagrined to observe that the camps are 75% empty. Perhaps they fill up at school holidays, but other than that, no one should worry about reservations. What I did notice, is that the people camping are primarily seniors like ourselves, so perhaps this is the quiet time between school holidays.
The campgrounds are very pleasant with wide open areas and lots of shade trees. Each site has electrical power and a braii (barbeque) pit. The ablution block is nice and clean and has lots of hot water. There is also a wide variety of fixed-roof accommodations, a pool, restaurant, curio shop. This is the normal set up for each of the camps.
Most of Etosha NP is inaccessible to the public, but that which is, has been set up with a main road through and many side roads and “detours” for self driving. The roads are all gravel; good quality but extremely dusty. Generally they are well signed but the signs on some of the older roads could use some renewal.
The sign "block" on the photo here caused us both to get out of the truck and walk around it several times, go back for our glasses and then argue about the right direction for a good 15 minutes. We agreed that it was 26 km to "somewhere" but that was all we could agree on. That said, you cannot really get lost out here.
The safari trucks can be out late but self drivers like ourselves must be back in camp by nightfall; 5:30 pm. The commercial game drives are expensive: about $100 Cdn each per person. We decide to try it by ourselves for a few days and see what we can see before spending that kind of money.
What did we see? On the drive into the park we were greeted by giraffes, warthogs, zebra and impala. While driving around that first afternoon we saw a lot more giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, kudu, Kori Bustards, spotted hyaena, Black-back jackals and our favourite antelope, oryx. These had three little calves with them.
What we discovered about Etosha is that it is as much about the small birds and mammals as it is about the “big” experiences and animals.
Each of the camps has a lighted waterhole with comfortable seating in the dark for observers. We went to the waterholes at the proscribed time for best viewing: 8 to 10 pm. At Namutoni we saw nothing. At Halali we watched two rhinos interacting. They were gently pushing and shoving at each other, interlocking horns and grunting a lot. It looked for all the world like two young lovers on a first date trying to feel each other out; literally. But what do I know. Either they were prospective lovers cuddling or two young males gently testing each other out. Believe me, there is way too much overhanging tissue on a full-grown rhino to suss out the sex of the players.
The waterhole at Okaujeuo was a wash out in the evening but we happened to walk by it in the afternoon and got very lucky. The water in this waterhole is actually pumped in to keep levels high enough to attract animals. Many are very fussy about the water being clean enough to drink; none more so than elephants.
When we happened by, there were two young bull elephants standing over the output pipe, slurping up the fresh, clean water as it ran down towards the waterhole itself. That was pretty cool in itself since we had not before seen elephants at Etosha. Their thirst sated, these bulls moved off across the grasslands towards the forest in the distance.
Now four new elephants came running towards the waterhole, kicking up dust in their eagerness to get to water. Jostling and bumping each other as they ran, they roared and shrieked their annoyance and impatience with each other. The biggest clearly pushed around the others. The smallest was persistent in trying to win affection from the others. The big one was annoyed at first, but once his thirst was satisfied he was quite tolerant and affectionate with the young one, rubbing trunks with him and letting him rub up against him.
While these four were still drinking we could see, in the distance, a big bull come rumbling across the grassland, ears flapping in the wind as he ran. The others saw him too and lined up around the water pipe to defend it. When the big bull was very close they charged him. There was lots of jostling and ear flapping and rumbling and roaring at each other. The big bull just marched past them, planted his feet firmly into the reservoir around the clean water pipe. The others backed off.
While these five pushed and prodded each other another newcomer arrived quietly, keeping to the far side of the waterhole, away from the preferred, clean water outlet. They boys all ignored him/her completely. This new elephant looked like a he in terms of having “something” between his legs. But it might just have been loose skin. He never exposed a penis as the others did. And he had no tusks.
For the longest while everyone acted like the newcomer was invisible. It took quite a while for them to resolve their issues with the macho bull but eventually they all seemed happy, like a bunch of guys at the pub catching up on gossip.
At this point, two of the original elephants walked around the waterhole to where the newcomer stood quietly and extended their trunks out to him or her. They spent a long time rubbing trunks together then got even closer, virtually embracing the newcomer with their bodies. Then the three of them walked back around the waterhole to the clean water outlet and room was made for the newcomer to drink.
We were spellbound, watching these elephants conversing and rubbing their trunks against each other, clearly socializing and enjoying each other`s company.
Our second memorable experience was of quite a different nature.
A guide coming back from an early morning game drive told us where to look for two different prides of lions. At the first location we could not find them but in the second location we found five of the reported six lions stretched out on the salt pan, obviously full and sleepy. When you are out on these game drives people stop and share information; other visitors had told us that these lions had killed a zebra earlier that morning.
We watched them sleep/laze around for a while then decided that even lions can be boring when they are sleeping. We`d go look for the other pride again and come back in an hour or two to see if these had moved.
When we returned they were still stretched out asleep. Having heard they`d already hunted that morning we did not expect much but we did not want to leave too quickly. I decided to climb into the back of the camper (over the benchseat and through a small opening – no mean feat) to make us some lunch so we could sit and wait for them to wake up. Suddenly a head snapped up. The lioness was intently watching something. We looked behind us and discovered several light-footed springbok prancing towards the lions, leading a herd of zebra directly into an ambush. The lions may have been full from their morning kill but they were obviously not going to let this freebie walk on by.
As they got closer, the zebra seemed to demur. They stopped, sniffed the air and appeared to be saying, ``Maybe not a good idea.`` But the springbok, twitching their pretty little bottoms urged them on.
On the zebra came. The body language of the lead lioness changed instantly. From languid and lazy she silently slid her haunches into lunge position. Like a sprinter at the gate, she and her sisters made ready. the springbok were now passing the lions but the lions were not settling for appys today. They waited. The zebras trudged ever closer, now level with the concealed pride.
The lions exploded. Catapulting out of their cover they tore up the dirt, cutting off and isolating their chosen victim. One leaped onto his back, biting the back of his neck. Another lunged from beneath, wrapping her paws around the zebras neck, sinking her teeth into the underside of thezebra’s neck. Stll others lunged at his legs, severing his tendons.
It sounds awful but strangely, it was not. It was explosive and exciting, a profoundly powerful and emotional dramatization of nature at its most raw.
Magnificent in his struggle, the zebra regained his feet again and again. I`d no idea he was so powerful. If there had been just 2 or 3 lions he could have shook them off but six against one was too much. It was an honourable death.
On the same day we observed the lions hunting we happened on a family of ground squirrels. We stopped to watch as they stood on their hind legs, much like meerkats. They nibbled the seeds of the stalks of hay, they chased each other and flirted with us, seeming almost to pose for photos as times.
Another discovery was the Sociable Weaver bird. We had been seeing these massive nests in the trees at Etosha and were speculating on how huge the bird must be that constructed these monstrous structures. Turns out it is a very small little bird, but there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them in each nest.
Each bird family adds to the nest, a piece of straw at a time, creating these massive condo projects. Fascinated, we watched them coming and going, building with one straw at a time.
Etosha National Park is an African icon. People travel here on “once in a lifetime” trips. In our opinion the games was not nearly as plentiful here as in other places we’ve visited, both on this trip and on a previous visit to Kenya and Tanzania. However, it was marked by the exceptional experiences, both big and little that I’ve recounted. A few final favourite photos of some of our "little" interactions that will never be forgotten.
This little hawk was not afraid of us. He just stood his ground while he photographed him.
This is a Kori Bustard. They march across the Etosha Plains with great authority, hunting down happless rodents.
The Secretary Bird is another larger bird that stalks the savannah and is a pleasure to watch.
These tiny Dik Diks are so cute I'd like to bring a couple home to roam the back yard. I'm not surprised that one of the rules you have to sign on entering Etosha is that you will not "take any of the wildlife out of the park." These little guys have the biggest, most beautiful eyes.
Next up: We leave tomorrow for Walvis Bay and a few days later, Sossusvlei home of the massive red dunes that Namibia is famous for. For years, these dunes have been the screen saver on my home computer; now I will climb them.