Road Report #7
The campground in Aus is tucked into and amongst spectacular rock formations. People come here specifically to hike amongst them. It is also located at 5000 feet so once the evening mist moves in it is very cold. But the South Africans are all camped out in their tents. There are very few RVs on the road here. Looking out the window of my snug little home I see them huddled around fires with wool toques on their heads, ski jackets and blankets over their legs. Tough people. Us Canadians? Not so much.
We got an early start for Luderitz this morning, arriving before noon. It is a pretty little town and yes, it does look more European than the other towns we’ve seen to date. The architecture is historically German in style. But the town actually brings to mind Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia which is also built directly onto and into the rocky granite outcrop that is its foundation. Peggy’s Cove also features a famous lighthouse at the end of its most protruding granite outcrop. For Luderitz, Shark Island and its lighthouse is the forward point, connected to the city by a causeway that was created from reclaimed harbour front.
Shark Island is managed by the Namibian government tourism branch – Namibian Wildlife Resorts. They’ve made the whole peninsula into a campground, with sites carved into the granite outcrops at different heights. It is one of the most unique and unforgettable campgrounds I’ve ever seen. Every site offers a stunning view of the waterfront and open ocean. the photo above was taken from our campsite.
Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean the city of Luderitz is to our right, looking quaint and colourful by day, twinkling by night; to our left the open ocean. Sea lions bask on the rocks below us and dolphins frolic in the water before us. They tell us this is a very windy spot, more often miserable than not, but our exceptional run of blue sky weather continues.
In the morning we are up at 6 to get ready for a catamaran cruise of the area. Again, we are thrilled by sunny weather. Still, it’s a bit chilly on the front deck so they volunteer a warm blanket to tuck around my lap and legs. There are only four passengers onboard this morning so we get really personal treatment. Heiko was our captain, his son Stefan was the guide. When Stefan was a child the family spent 6 years sailing around the world so that plus his youth gives him an interesting perspective on virtually everything.
We saw a lot of dolphins - dozens and dozens playing with the boat, using the pontoons to scratch their backs. They were amazing, leaping and flying through the air and the sea. The dolphin in the photo at right was actually rubbing against the pontoons and we were moving fast.
We also saw thousands of penguins, little black and white ones. They mostly hang out on Halifax Island, which was once industriously mined for its guano.
Intriguing to think that commerical interests were first attracted to this pretty area by its prodigous supply of shit - penguin, sea lion and other birds. The guano, many metres thick, was mined and processed for its nitrites, used in the manufacture of explosives.
The buildings that were put in place during that era are now deserted by people but the penguins walk in and out of them like they own the place! Heiko told us that in one of the deserted houses there is an old wood stove, the oven of which is now used by some of the penguins as a nest for their eggs. The resident penguin mama was standing on the front stoop, wings on hips like an old German hausfrau, come out to see who was approaching her property.
There are a lot of boats in the harbour; tuna and crayfish. Stefan was telling us that when Namibia was a protectorate of South Africa no one was much interested in protecting its fisheries. The patrol boat was an old pleasure craft that could only do 8 knots. The slowest fishing boat did 11 knots …when they were pulling in their nets. So boats from Japan and Europe were exploiting the situation and drastically over fishing Namibia’s stocks.
When Namibia got its independence they took the illegal fishing seriously and committed some high-powered patrol craft to the project of bringing the poaching under control. They issued a warning and when this was ignored they swooped in with their new patrol boats, landed crews and impounded the fishing boats. The boats were sold at auction to Namibian fishermen. So today you can see these boats in the harbour, their new Namibian names and registrations painted over the still visible Japanese and Spanish names.
The other kind of boat we see in the bay is a diamond dredger. Namibia does not have the right soil conditions for diamonds itself but rivers originating in the Angolan mountains have washed its diamonds right down to the sea. These diamond dredgers scour the bottom, suck up the mud and sift it for diamonds. In recent years the market for diamonds has seriously declined but when it was hot, the boat we photographed in the harbour would take out something like 90 tons of gem quality diamonds a year – I think that is what he said although it sure sounds like a lot. These diamonds would be sealed into tins and helicoptered off the ship every week.
After the cruise we drove a few kilometers out to Agate Bay for a walk on the beach. We found lots of beautiful agates just lying on the beach there. We also drove to Grosse Bucht. This is a huge swath of sandy beach bordering the forbidden diamond areas called the Sperregebeit. There are signs everywhere telling us not to venture off the road to the left – this is the forbidden land of diamonds. In the past, the stories go; diamonds could be picked up right off the sandy beaches in the Sperregebeit. Locals say this is a little farfetched; it actually takes a little more work than that. But it did happen a few times so the legend persists.
Kulmannsport and Quiver
This morning begins with a stop at Kulmannsport, the ghost town about 8 km east of Luderitz. This town was the residential base supporting the big diamond mine until the 1950s. It was a huge operation with mine officials and staff – about 300 plus 800 mine workers. There was a recreational hall, school, hospital, ice making operation, butcher, baker, bowling alley and hospital with 2 doctors and 2 nurses that could handle 250 patients.
For 65 $N each we could walk around and check out the abandoned buildings, read about the area in the museum, visit the curio shop, have coffee and cake (extra cost) and even buy raw diamonds. There was also a tour with a knowledgeable guide leading us about for nearly an hour.
There were tons of people there …I mean more than a hundred. I have no idea where they all came from. At first it was only private vehicles like ours but when it came time for the tour, two huge busloads of tourists turned up out of nowhere. It was puzzling because I never noticed all these tourists in Luderitz.
We carry on to Keetmanshoop – another 340 km from Luderitz. The terrain was spectacular – huge rock formations swelled out of the earth, their tops sliced right off – like mesas. There were obvious volcanic funnels. We gained altitude from sea level to 5000 feet, not gradually but in some really big climbs that took us on top of mesas. We saw a large herd of wild horses, something the area is famous for.
OUr campsite for two nights was at the Quiver Tree Forest Rest Camp. It is quite expensive - $290 per night but we also enjoyed some extra experiences for our money. The campground is set right at the edge of the Quiver Tree Forest which is uniquely beautiful. These trees are only found in the very hot and dry part of Namibia and the northwestern part of the Cape Province in South Africa. It is not actually a tree, but an aloe plant known as Aloe Dichotoma. The dichotoma refers to the forked branches.
The quiver tree can grow up to 9 m high with a smooth trunk which can be 1 metre in diameter at ground level. They have their first flowers at 20 to 30 years and flower in June and July with bright yellow blooms – we are seeing them now. The Quiver Tree Forest was declared a national monument in 1955. The big trees here are between 200 and 300 years old.
The campground is very nice – wide open spaces on a sandy soil. We went for a sunset walk through the Quiver Tree forest and Steve discovered a medium sized (like a cat) rodent in the rocks – called a dassie. They sit on top of the rocks, watching over the landscape. For the next couple weeks, whenever we were in rocky terrain we came to expect the dassies.
The quiver trees are also home to beautiful sunbirds that are tiny flitting birds a lot like humming birds with hooked beaks. They never seem to settle for longer than a second. I was having such a hard time getting a good photo that I parked myself on a rock beneath a popular quiver tree and just watched them for a while. I finally figure out that they have their favourite spots. If I train the camera on just that spot eventually one alights there and I click – got it!
The next day we explore the Giant’s Playground, a
large property that is covered in very big rocks that look like a giant
child has been piling them one on top of each other. There are trails
throughout, not all that clearly marked. After we’d been walking
for about an hour I started to wonder if we’d find our way out as
the “trails” were quite vague. We climbed up a bit and were
able to spot a water tower that we’d seen in the parking lot so
after that we just kept heading for the water tower in the distance.
As we returned to camp the owner saw us and mentioned that she’d be feeding the cheetahs at 4:30 pm.
Yes, they rehabilitate injured cheetahs and once we really looked around the camp we realized that in the opposite direction to where the quiver trees were, there was a fence that enclosed a huge habitat that contained four cheetahs. Behind the main buildings at the gate were other enclosures and more cheetahs.
“Come on in, if you like.”
Nope she was not kidding so Steve walked into the enclosure with her and the cheetahs. Once she threw a bloody joint at them, and by joint I mean the leg of a kudu or some kind of antelope, they ran off and settled down to eat it. She wandered around the enclosure and told us all about the cheetahs. Steve got some great photos. They are far from house pets, but she does not see them as overtly dangerous either. These cheetahs have been with her since they were rescued as pups. They are familiar with people and they are very well fed and fat. They have no need to attack anyone. In the wild they would not attack anything as large as an adult human anyway. The say.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
In the morning we are off to the Kgalagadii Transfrontier
Park. This takes us back through the border and into South Africa. Easy
crossing. The only drama was that I was not supposed to bring any fresh
fruit or vegetables into South Africa from Namibia. I had not known this
and had actually stocked up at the big supermarket in Keetmanshoop.
“And this?” crying mock tears as I
showed the border guard my bag of tomatoes.
“Put it back in the fridge,” he said. “We want the Family Usher to have a wonderful holiday in South Africa.”
We had heard conflicting reports about the road up to the Twee Rivieren campground at the gates to the Kgalagadii Park. Even our Lonely Planet guide said the roads were dreadful and would eat up tires. But we had heard from travelers in Botswana had been here recently that the road was paved. So our plan was to stay at the Trails Kalahari Rest Camp about 60 km from Twee Rivieren and find out.
Trails Kalahari is kind of funky and rustic and all Africa. For example, there was no electricity when we arrived. When we asked we were told it was because the electrical service company was working on it and it would be back on by 6:30. This is about the 3rd or 4th time we’ve heard this kind of reason for electricity being “off”. The hot water was too. But all was back on by 4 pm so had a hot shower.
Ann, the woman who manages the property is a retired mongoose researcher who rehabs meerkats. The two she has now, a brother and sister, are the sweetest things. They were kicked out of the colony and left to die because they each had some health issues. Under her care they’ve grown fat and healthy. That is Casper on the left.
She just lets them have the run of the place. They have never been restrained. They sleep in her bed with her at night but lately they’ve taken a great interest in an old mongoose burrow in the yard and started sleeping in their at night. But last night it went down to 4 deg so they were scratching at the door to come back in.
With Ann’s assurance that the road has been paved all the way to the park we proceed the final 60 km to Twee Rivieren. And yes, it is a lovely asphalted road, since 2009.
If you don’t want to shake your vehicle apart, the best way to see this park is via the park safari trucks. They are reasonably priced and they will truck you out to see the wildlife, what there is of it. The guides should know, but all we saw was oryx, ostriches, springbok, Koris bustard, dik dik, Blue wildebeest, Red hartebeest. That’s it. We ask the guide about the park’s reputation for big black-maned lions. This is, after all, what we’ve come to see.
“Yes, that is what the park is known for but we don’t see them often.”
The one thing we did see that was cool were two bull oryx (also known as gemsbok) facing off in a fight for domination. That was interesting. The horns of the oryx face straight back, poorly positioned for doing damage to an enemy. But he managed to blood his opponent and that was that.
We also saw a springbok bull with a very large herd of females exercising his responsibility to procreate. Over and over again he tried to get this female to stand still and appear interested. She was oblivious to his efforts. But he patiently went after her again and again and again until we were too frustrated on his behalf to keep watching. But there are so many millions of springboks in Africa we are certain that most of these interactions must be successful.
So between the horrible roads that we cannot drive on and
the lack of really interesting wildlife we would put this park very far
down our list of favourite parks.