Between the Sunsets - in Namibia, Part III
As mentioned in Part I of my travels in Namibia, one of the important pieces of advice my driver shared with me for driving across country alone, was to be sure that if I passed a gas station I stopped to fill up as you never know when you might find the next one and if it will have gas. The last place I had been able to stop was back in Terence Bay, before the drive into Shipwreck Lodge and on to Hoanib Valley so my tank was looking pretty low as I set off but I had been re-assured that there was a filling station in Palmwag and that I should be good. The drive towards Etosha was another interesting one, with scenery that reminded me of the National Parks in the Western US, with more red rocky landscape and long straight roads, of course it had the addition of cattle crossings, goat herds and other random wildlife to avoid on the “road”.
I made it to Palmwag and the Veterinary Gate in approximately 2½ hours by which time my car was telling me I had another 25 km remaining in the tank, so I was definitely cutting it close. Pulling up to the gas station I was feeling quite relieved, until…….. the attendant told me that they were out of gas and that I would need to get gas in Kamanjab which was another 110 km. I explained that according to my car I didn’t have enough gas to get there, so he agreed to just see if there was anything left in their tanks that might just be enough to keep me going. Thankfully, he squeezed out a couple of liters which increased my range to 120 km and so barring any incidents I should make it. Feeling somewhat reassured I drove the short distance to the Veterinary Gate.
Through the entire length of Namibia there is a fence, known as the Veterinary Fence, which was installed by the European Union to ensure that Foot and Mouth disease is kept away from Namibia’s cattle herds which is a huge export market for the country into Europe and the USA. To travel from the West to the East you have to cross this fence, which entails the Ministry staff to search your vehicle to ensure that there are no animal or dairy products being taken across its border. I duly pulled up to the gate and waited for the Guard to approach the vehicle to find out what I needed to do.
The guard walked over to my drivers side window and asked me to get out of the vehicle so that they could search it, and after a very short, perfunctory look, he indicated that it was fine to get back into the car and he then asked to see my passport, which I had anticipated (I had been briefed that all this would happen by my on-site partner in Namibia, so no surprises so far – but – then he went on to mention that I had a large car with plenty of room and asked where I was heading next. Having told him that I was driving to Etosha, he then asked me if I would give a young Himba woman and her child a ride to the ‘maternity clinic’ as they had already been walking for several hours and there were no other vehicles expected who could give her a ride. At this point I didn’t know whether there was anyone else with the woman and child or if they were truly alone. I was also a little nervous as I have never picked up a stranger in my car before (as a single female traveler its not usually considered a safe choice to make, particularly in Africa), so I told the guard that I was really very unsure as I was alone and a visitor to Namibia, but he then ushered this young Himba woman from out behind the guards hut and when I saw how young she was and her little boy, who was probably only three or four years old (and had been walking with her all morning), I really couldn’t say no. Having had a conversation with the guard to be reassured that it was just the two of them, I said that I would take them, but the next challenge was how would I know where to stop and let them out as the Himba woman did not speak any English. The guard explained to the woman how to tell me to stop and then said that is what she would tell me to do when we got to the village with the maternity clinic.
The woman was probably five or six months pregnant (total guess by how much she was “showing” as we certainly couldn’t converse about it) and therefore the guard explained that she wouldn’t wear a seatbelt, and the little boy just sat beside her – and in just a matter of minutes I suddenly felt a huge responsibility for getting them safely to the clinic. Having spent the past two weeks driving somewhat recklessly off-roading, but with only myself to worry about, I suddenly had to slow down and consider the bumps in the road, and certainly no more going into skids in the sand, etc., for the next hour I was responsible for two more lives.
The drive went slowly (I had to be careful!) and I did stop for a few pictures of animals and road signs, which I am sure she thought was quite strange, but eventually she spoke her one word she had been told ‘STOP’, so I quickly came to a stop, although was really unsure if this was the right place as there wasn’t any sign of a village or a clinic, but through sign language we worked out that this was the place to STOP and let them out which I did. A small detail that I feel I need to mention is that as the Himba live in the desert, water is exceedingly precious to them so they really don’t use it to wash with, and so one of the things they do to make themselves smell more appealing to men is rub themselves with a really rather stinky greasy substance, which is quite overpowering, so between that and a long walk that morning, the odor remaining in the car was quite overpowering!
But, I was so glad I drove through the Veterinary Gate that day and was able to help them get to the clinic, and I felt sure at that point I would make it to the next filling station, just a little further ahead at that point.
After an uneventful remainder of the morning, I arrived at the Gate to Etosha National Park, where I had to stop and purchase by permit to drive through the Park, and then headed out towards the Salt Flats, which can be seen from the moon they are so large (~1,900 square miles). The next couple of hours was spent driving through the Park having my own personal safari as I went, stopping as I wanted to but also not wasting too much time as I wanted to arrive at my next lodge, Safarihoek, in time to enjoy my time there as it was only a quick stay.
Having arrived by early afternoon, I was able to take my iPad to the photographic hide by the water hole and just enjoy the cool breeze as I sat working, while also enjoying the casual game that stopped by briefly for a drink in the afternoon heat. I could only imagine how wonderful if would be to have this as my daily workplace!! It was just so peaceful and the only sounds came from the birds and the periodic animal calls.
Leaving the hide later in the afternoon with my guide Ramon, we came across two “teenage” bull elephants at a water hole, where the slightly older of the two was picking a fight with the other. What started as a friendly ‘I can push you around’ turned into quite the battle. The younger one was not going to take be pushed around at all and what followed was a good deal of head butting and pushing each other back and forth through the brush to demonstrate their strength. Approximately 30 minutes into this, a third much older and larger elephant stopped by the water hole to get a drink and after a few drinks, decided he would intervene. It was fascinating as the elder elephant first appeared to try to break up the two younger bulls by “pushing” the younger of the two out of the brawl that was ongoing, and then turned to the other one, to do the same, but the other bull was not going to back down. What resulted was a relentless battle of strength between the two bulls for another 30-40 minutes, with each of them using their strength to push each other into submission. Numerous broken trees later, the younger bull finally realized his play for dominance was going to be unsuccessful, at least for that day and so surrendered to the larger and older male. Watching this behavior between the bulls was really fascinating and something I will remember for a long time!
The next morning I woke early and decided to get an early start with the sunrise to my next stop, Onguma, The Fort. As I was leaving Safarihoek, I had my closest encounter with wildlife on the road, when a giraffe suddenly appeared on my right and ran straight in front of the car. For a split second I thought I was going to hit the giraffe, but thankfully the brakes worked well and I managed to avoid it. I couldn’t help but think how awful I would have felt had I been responsible for injuring, or potentially worse, killing a giraffe as they truly are one of my favorite animals.
I arrived at The Fort by lunchtime and was immediately struck by the very different architecture of the property. Walking in through the main entrance, was rather like walking into a Riad in Morocco and quite unexpected in Namibia. The Fort was a stunning property, with almost all rooms being located in single buildings, in the same style as the main part of the property. The public areas, including a nice pool were all located along the width of the main building overlooking a large water hole, with the Etosha Salt Pans visible in the distance making for some incredible wildlife viewing. My time here was so relaxing, especially after over two weeks of driving across some very harsh landscapes and pushing myself with long drives on many of the days in between lodges. Here, I enjoyed my accommodations and outside area which also overlooked the water hole, to enjoy some time out of the vehicle. Early the next morning I enjoyed a lovely guided walk in the park and enjoyed the slower pace and learning more about the insect life in Namibia, which was quite fascinating! Especially, learning about the ant hills and how they are such an intricate formation of tunnels, that you would think would collapse regularly but apparently not!
After two nights enjoying some relaxation at The Fort, it was time for me to journey back towards Windhoek with one more stop to come at Okonjima, which was one of the best experiences of the entire trip. And, home to the Africat Foundation which was one of my primary reasons for wanting to visit. The Africat Foundation does so much excellent work within Namibia to support the preservation of the big cats and other endangered species. Very sadly they have been so badly impacted by the lack of visitors, and associated funding due to COVID that they are truly struggling to continue their incredible work. If you are open to learning more about their work please check out this link, and I would encourage you to donate if at all possible.
I had the most incredible stay at Okonjima for a few reasons, the first was that it was a rustic lodge, but still extremely comfortable, but each individual accommodation had a separate seating area where guests can sit outside in the shade and security of their boma, but at the same time watch wildlife traverse just a few meters in front of your lodging. My first afternoon there, I sat almost glued to my chair without moving, watching a family of warthogs, various antelope, kudu, birds, etc., coming right up to the very small water hole that is conveniently place in the front of each accommodation. I felt like was watching a David Attenborough documentary unfold in front of me. Such a glorious way to end this trip. But, it didn’t quite end there as later that evening I had arranged to go pangolin tracking in the hope that I might be lucky enough to see my first pangolin. At around 9 pm after dinner, my guide, came to get me sharing that the team had spotted a pangolin out feeding and that we should leave to see if we could find it.
I cannot adequately describe the feeling standing in the pitch dark, with an incredible view of the Milky Way above me, listening in complete silence other than the rustle of the pangolin coming closer. I was told not to worry if it walked over my feet, but rather to stay completely still and quiet and that I should have the opportunity to see a pangolin, which I did!!! Although somewhat difficult to see, with the use of infrared lights I was lucky enough to experience my first pangolin sighting. Listening to it shuffle through the undergrowth looking for food(bugs) was so incredible and I couldn’t have hoped for a better ending to my visit to Namibia, with the ‘icing on the cake’ being a great sighting of a honey badger on the way back to the lodge at Okonjima!
The next morning I said my goodbye’s to the team at Okonjima and headed back to Windhoek to get my COVID test before my flight home the next day.
Namibia – Epilogue
Traveling to Africa should not be considered only a ‘bucket list’ experience as the continent has so much to offer all travelers. Whether you are traveling solo, for a honeymoon, special anniversary, or as a family with small children or with adult children, there is a “perfect destination” for everyone. There are a few people who I know who have been to the continent once and checked it off their list, but a far greater majority of those who have visited this incredible part of earth, return multiple times as time and funds allow. The diversity between the plains of the Masa Mara in Kenya, the wine lands in South Africa, the history in Egypt and Ethiopia, the Mountain Gorillas in Uganda and Rwanda, the variety of experiences is truly unlimited. I encourage you to reach out to me to learn about the wide range of possibilities and let’s start planning your trip to this amazing continent, whether it is your first, or a return to a different country with new experiences. You surely won’t be disappointed!
For me personally, I feel an incredible peace when visiting any country within Africa. It is where I can fully appreciate the diversity of landscapes, the people, and the wildlife. It is also a very humbling experience, as I realize just how blessed I am in life. When I think about so many surviving with so little and yet always welcoming myself and my clients with open arms, I just can’t wait until my next African adventure or for one of my clients to experience this outstanding destination.
As for Namibia, the seemingly endless horizon reminded me of my time traveling in Mongolia and Patagonia, with no signs of human intervention, I was truly enjoying God’s creation and after the past year of uncertainty and challenges of the pandemic, the stress just melted away.